Sunday, March 8, 2015

Nietzsche and the Drive for Artistic Perfection: Whiplash Movie Review

Movie poster of young drummer posted by maxresdefault
No matter how acclaimed or technically crafted a film may be, one cannot escape the fact that films are an intensely personal experience, which more often than not will elicit a subjective response. I generally liked the heavyweight movies of this year, the likes of Boyhood (2014) and Birdman (2014) and those heaps of awards are definitely deserved for their respective merits.

But the film that I thought was perhaps the best of the year was the overlooked and underrated A Most Wanted Man (2014) with another great and brilliant performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film that most moved and inspired me so far (I have not gone through the whole list of best picture nominees as of yet but have been thoroughly impressed by the outstanding Foxcatcher (2014) which, for some odd reason, was not even nominated as best picture) is the little film Whiplash (2014) that has big ideas on its mind.

This movie struck a nerve within me in a way that Birdman's ego crisis of a failing artist failed to do. Somehow the characters in the latter seemed too distant and bizarre for me to take to heart, whereas both Andrew and his sadistic teacher Fletcher hit closer to home. This may be partly because I am in the teaching profession (though I assure you alongside numerous character references and student evaluations that I am not even half or five percent as mean as that guy!) or it may be because I used to have one such teacher in high school myself, or more likely because I can relate to the quest for artistic perfection and integrity in a world that is satisfied with half measures and restrained passion.

Let us recap quickly and try not to spoil the movie for those who have not seen it. Although it is rather difficult to give much away here as not much happens, which might be actually a spoiler for those who believe that much will happen. On the surface this looks like a host of other movies that tackled the subject: a young aspiring musician (artist, writer, athlete) meets a teacher who changes his life (for the better).

However, what makes this movie different and unique from others is the characterization of the mean teacher Fletcher and the questionable impact he has on his protégé. Now Fletcher is a real “bad ass,” the likes of which we have rarely seen on the screen and not even Louise Fletcher (!) as Nurse Ratched is as remotely evil as this guy. To give an example, he seems an affable and caring person when he asks the young student Andrew about his parents (his mother left him when he was a child; his father is a second-rate writer and high school teacher), but only moments later he uses that same information in front of the other musicians to belittle and ridicule the mortified student.

All this is apart from the verbal abuse that would put a satisfied grin on Full Metal Jacket's drill sergeant and the physical abuse (he throws a chair onto Andrew who barely ducks in time). What makes this guy even more despicable is that he does not change his tactics. Fletcher does not become a good person in the end; in fact, once the credits roll, we can see him continue in the same vein without any remorse whatsoever.

And yet, he is not evil personified. Deep inside, he means to do good, or so he thinks. We see him not as a teacher but also as a musician playing jazz in a small bar. And he plays with so much feeling and depth that we are surprised to see that there are any feelings behind his thick skin. (Another instance for those who have seen the film would be when he is teary-eyed and talks about a former student of his who had died young, but most of this pain may have been because he must have realized that he was more than partially responsible for the young man's death.)

It is in that bar scene that he finally reveals himself to the young drummer Andrew. He tells him that all that he wants is to push for artistic greatness in his students. He is not interested in creating interchangeable, uninspired and insipid “Starbucks jazz;” he wants his students to excel and become one of the greats. Hence, he pushes his students by crossing lines and limits so that they not only work as hard as they can (until their fingers bleed and their minds reel), but that they manage to give their all (and more) to achieve their fullest potential.

His concept of the vanquishing artist with no holds barred reminded me of Nietzsche's drive for greatness. The master artist has fulfilled himself and as a rule stands beyond and above the multitude and the mass. He has not only found and realized himself, but he is the artist par excellence. He is the Mozart of classical music, the Charlie Parker of jazz, or the Jimi Hendrix of rock 'n' roll.

These musicians may have been geniuses, but even they must unlock their potential through single-minded and unwavering practice. With great art comes great sacrifice. Incidentally, they all died young because they burnt themselves up like a shooting star. As Andrew himself put it earlier at a dinner table in which football seemed to outweigh music, he would rather die young without friends as one of the greats than live a long and pointless second-rate life (a direct stab at his middling father).

Andrew believes he has the necessary talent to be great, and as a result, he decides to fully focus on his practice. He plays until his hands are sore and literally bleed. He shakes off a serious car accident to play the drums for an important competition, and he “sacrifices” his would-be girlfriend by prematurely ending their budding relationship because his sole focus and occupation, not to say obsession, is his music and his music only.

His desire is almost mystical in its scope and no wonder that he follows his master to the very end. In such a view, Andrew is the monk who shuns earthly life and turns his whole being looking upwards towards the divine and the heavenly realm. Fletcher then becomes the Zen master who is ready to cut his pupils' limbs if that can help them achieve the much sought and highly valued state of satori. The student ready to sacrifice his psychological health and well-being to achieve this state follows blindly the voice of his admired and, in the student's eyes, successful master not unlike the disciples who followed Jesus (though the latter did occasionally succumb to moments of doubt and wavering).

But how far should the master go? Does he not realize that he is causing psychological harm to his students? Does he not have any boundaries of decency and compassion? Does he lack humanity? No, Fletcher responds. If you are a true artist, you will not break under the pressure but rather come out reborn with renewed strength and vigor. The real artists' passion and resourcefulness is never-ending. They will not break, and if they do, that means they were no artists in the first place.

This would be a case of survival of the best and fittest. Only those who got what is worth will survive. These are the Navy SEALs of jazz, and only the very best, the elite can survive. And if they do, it means they have what it takes to be a veritable artist. He is only separating the wheat from the chaff and preparing those who make it for everlasting greatness, which is much more important than a single person's life.

The force and drive that knows no limits and achieves what only few can achieve in the world reminded me of some of Nietzsche's ideas regarding the Übermensch. It is also not unlike the observation of Jesus that only few will walk that straight narrow road. Jesus himself had this single-minded focus and passion. To all of these great people, it is their cause and their persistent and unwavering aim bound with their serious commitment that makes them great.

If we look at those who excel today, it comes at a great price. They have to work and practice hard. No one wakes up a brilliant musician or writer. We may have a knack for it; it may come easier to us than to others, but we need to constantly work on it and if we want true greatness, we must sacrifice anything that is not related to it, anything that distracts us from the path.

Yet also, a part of greatness is not following others. In that sense, the timid and reserved Andrew takes a decisive stand at the end of the film: He willingly defies his master. In fact, all this time, he was worried about proving himself and his worth to his teacher, and now he just does what he knows to be best.

That is the great independence of a true artist. He does not follow the dictates of others, but in fact, he creates the rules which others ought to follow. They set standards. They surpass their masters and teachers. They create something, whether a work of art or a musical composition that will stand the test of time and will live on forever.

Fletcher is indeed a flawed individual, but he is the kind of person that someone like Andrew needs. And he does not need him in the traditional sense of learning, but rather as a necessary obstruction to overcome. What Fletcher has in the end taught him was to overcome his own limits and to unlock and liberate the musical genius that was lying dormant deep within him.

When that moment comes, the never satisfied and always critical Fletcher shows a brief moment of satisfaction, and Andrew has managed to kill the Buddha, to outshine the master on his own path toward salvation, his own and fully merited conviction that he has reached artistic greatness or perfection. Well, at least one such moment that he could from now on continuously build on through steady practice and output.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Suing Brahms and Schubert for lofty unrealistic Romanticism

Heart drawn from sand on the beach
Romanticism was introduced to my desperate mind at the worst possible time of life: adolescence. It came partly in the form of film, that visual medium that traces and captures vivid and unforgettable images as moving tableaus, but cinema was not quite as outrageous and ubiquitous compared to classical music. In fact, some of the first composers I stumbled upon: Johannes Brahms, and then Franz Schubert.

The music of Brahms is so drenched in melancholy and pain associated with unrequited love that even his Hungarian dances will make you weep. Most of it I believe came from his own impossible love for Clara Schumann, the wife of his fellow composer and friend Robert Schumann. For most of the time, Clara was “taken”; even after Schumann's madness and death when she was technically “available,” Brahms did not “take” this widow and make her his. Instead he remained a bachelor for life, lamented his own love and yearning in compositional form and twisted and confused the hearts of sensitive adolescents like me.

My own habit or tendency of idealizing the female species by elevating them so high up on the pedestal that they disappear beyond the clouds and achieve goddess-hood I blame not so much on poetry (though it did have a definite hand in it) but more on music. In fact, never before was music so romantically meshed and integrated with poetic words than in the case of Franz Schubert and his wonderful collection of Lieder (songs). Although there are a few quite “happy” songs, most of them make one want to jump off high buildings or bridges or both.

Such dramatic obsession, the quest for impossible romance, fueled most of my adolescence right into young adulthood. It blurred my vision to such a degree that I saw gold where there was not even an inkling of glitter. Idealism is always dangerous, but when it comes to love it reaches its utmost distorting and damaging effects, just ask poor Madame Bovary.

Sure, we can claim that Brahms and Schubert were the main inspiration for my turning to writing since all this nascent and unrealistic love could not possibly find release and expression except in and through poems and stories, and we can also say that my graduate thesis (on the aforementioned Madame) was inspired by their palpable influence. However, the psychological and emotional damage has been beyond repair, and as a result, I am asking for a class action suit against these two composers in particular (the full list would be in fact much more extensive).

I am suing them for ruining human relationships for me, especially in my younger years. Instead of “banging chicks,” which would have been the normal staple of teenagers, I was musing about the gaze of the mistress or of finding ways to get her beloved attention. A simple touch of the hand or a pat on my back felt like heaven to me while I always ended up not getting the girl due to my shyness or the sense of paralyzing fear.

Love is (and perhaps must be) out of reach. Once it is attained, it feels suffocated and imprisoned and slowly wrinkles and dies in its cage, metaphorically speaking. This might have been a subconscious impulse of mine to make sure that I never reached my goal. It may sound negative, but it seems that romantic and passionate love are fueled by the quest; once the target of one's affections is captured in the spotlight, it freezes and becomes immobile. Romeo never attained love; nor did Johannes Brahms or, to put it in more popular blockbuster terms, neither did Jack and Rose from Titanic.

In a way, I can say my youth had been wasted on those romantic notions. No worries, I am fine now, happily married with the blessing of a child. So this is all speculative and idle musings of a man who is about to enter his first series of serious midlife crises. It seems that in one's hair-thinning days one recalls most vividly the past where hair was not an issue. As Bob Dylan (a post-adolescence influence on me albeit also not too wholesome either regarding romantic notions) puts it, I was older then, but I am much younger now, that is in spirit, of course.

If I had a magic wand and could go back in time and erase Brahms and Schubert from my past and relive my adolescence again, would I do it? That is a difficult question to answer. Part of me definitely feels cheated. It is like living day by day under the spell of a romantic lie. It can be interpreted as both religious and mystical where Woman, the right and chosen one would come as a Savior and release me from a dull existence and turn it into never-ending bliss. But that person never comes year after year.

I used to watch the Wonder Years, and felt that part of my own maturing process was captured there. Kevin was in love with Winnie and throughout the years searched for her like one would for the Holy Grail. Except that in his later years (and I believe final season) he realized that it was all futile. Winnie was just another woman, a human being with flaws like all the rest of us since even females were not exempt from it.

Yet part of me still cherishes those romantic notions. There are moments when I watch movies or read books where I fully identify with someone I used to be in the past. Deep inside I yelp out yes to the suffering and heartsick character on the screen or the page. I can understand and pity them, the same way I pity the old version of myself. Or perhaps I feel envy.

Perhaps it is not happiness that we seek, but something else. After all, it is suffering that gives shape to lasting art, and Brahms and Schubert have suffered the pangs of love for us, for you and me. And their works will always stand the test of time, and I will drop my lawsuit and go back to listen to their heartfelt music after this post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ode to the Comfort and Stability of Routine

A man with black top hat escaping the waters

Routine is often maligned and assigned with a number of negative epithets and labels, such as boring, repetitive, or it may be simply seen and designated as a waste of time and energy. Many people shun the admittedly duller aspects of routine and try to escape their quotidian life by going on vacation, by changing jobs and schedules, or by outright moving abroad for a couple of months or even years.

But I believe many overlook the intrinsic value of routine. In fact, to begin with most of us have various routine expectations for the day. We usually expect to get to work and see the front door or gate open and to meet and greet our coworkers or clients at our respective workplace.

When we arrive and there is no one there, that usually will make us feel anxious and may fill our heads with wild speculations, such as perhaps having missed the latest daylight saving time adjustment, or getting our holidays mixed up, or worse, finding out that the company, unbeknownst to us, has gone bankrupt overnight.

Routine can suddenly be broken in other negative ways. We may wake up with the flu unable to do much (except lying in bed and drinking hot tea) for the duration of the day. When we feel so terrible, we would much prefer to go to work and have routine return with a vengeance. Or we may get stuck, in an elevator, traffic, or public transport (have your pick).

Recently, I had a very unexpected turn against my own routine, one that bound my hands and feet and made it impossible for me to get anything done at work. As a teacher I have come to understand the value of my voice; as pretty much anything, we do not realize these things until we end up losing them.

So after my massive voice loss, I could not make myself heard. This came again as a surprise and shock and I am still trying to recover the voice I had (rest assured it is back for the most part at least). In the meantime, I see people speaking and laughing at full volume, which they take for granted of course, while I continue to feel envious of those who can speak loud and clear. I cannot wait for my routine to kick in again with my regular voice levels.

When the hands of routine are running the show, everything is as expected. People are where they are supposed to be and they are doing what they are supposed to be doing while the whole day is seen as a normal day. Sure, there will be occasional unexpected glitches, a locked door here or there to which we lack a key, a photocopier that jams or a computer that does not turn on or spouts unintelligible code. Those events break the routine, and more often than not, they increase our stress levels.

We can conclude that routine is the opposite of the unexpected, to have voice versus not having one or to wake up with a very hoarse voice. To me routine comes rather naturally; it is the normal state of things. My body, like the machine it is (no disrespect meant here) thrives on routine: I wake up at the same time in the morning (alas even on weekends!), have the same breakfast (I sometimes switch up my coffee brands), and I take the same bus in the morning, which means I more often than not run into familiar faces (bus driver, passengers, panhandlers, newspaper distributors, Jehovah's witnesses).

I do not talk to them (I used to but have lost interest in it especially in the mornings and it is not due to or related with my voice loss) but I welcome their presence and worry if I do not see them in their usual spot at the usual time (there is an elderly homeless person I have not seen for a while and this worries me). I like it that my work schedule has found its steady rhythm and that the curriculum is generally the same (occasional tweaks and adjustments aside).

When I arrive at my workplace (half an hour early), I know exactly what to do. I greet the secretary (when she is at her desk) and chat with my boss (when he is at my campus), make my photocopies for the day and head to the classroom.

The photocopier tends to jam in the mornings, but that has happened so often by now that I know the remedy and am very quick at fixing it (similar to a pit-stop I can generally handle the minor issues under thirty seconds!). My life, all in all, could follow a similar pace, at least in terms of routine, to Kant's who liked to follow a very tight schedule. But that's pretty much as far as the analogy goes.

I know that some hate routine because it bores them. Those people often may end up choosing jobs that defy routine, such as medical staff in the ER department, police officers or fire fighters. For those jobs, the unexpected is their call for action, whereas routine is equated with idleness. But even they expect their equipment to work, be it medical equipment at the hospital or the fire hose or gun to quell sudden bursts of emergencies.

So it is not routine itself, but our perception and reaction to it that is negative. Routine has many good and often not perceived qualities. The occasional challenge is welcome and fruitful, but if it becomes a constant then that can be rather stressful. Routine can be the comfort and stability that we crave sometimes. For example, we usually go to our favorite restaurant and order our favorite dishes because we do not want to be disappointed by taking risks.

In its more extreme form, those who travel abroad may avoid the local food and find solace in known and trusted, albeit unhealthy, fast food chains. It is not so much because of ignorance but simply because in a strange and unfamiliar place, it feels soothing and comforting to spot a known logo.

In fact, most of our lives comes down to routine tasks. We pay bills, check our emails, post on facebook, do our shopping and the laundry. The list of chores and daily actions and habits is endless. And after decades and decades of it, one day, it is our time to retire.

Many look forward to that day, but when it comes they become desperate. What is one supposed to do, especially if one has lived a long life of steady routine, of working to earn a living. How can one suddenly turn a switch and start enjoying a carefree and idle life?

And what would happen after a while, when the new lifestyle becomes just another case of a different type of routine? Best to treat routine as a friend (whom we occasionally and respectfully avoid so they do not become bothersome) or as a life-long companion and not as our sworn enemy or nemesis.