Tuesday Movie Roundup (2/21/17)


Whiplash (2014)

Director:  Damien Chazelle

All of us growing up had to endure overbearing school teachers, coaches, or instructors.  Some of them are to be ignored, and some respected.  But what happens when the student really wants to excel in the chosen field, but has an instructor who is a sadistic, abusive, lunatic?  This is the question explored by one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen in a while, Whiplash. (The title comes from the name of a jazz piece.)

Miles Teller (Andrew) is an aspiring jazz drummer at the elite Shaffer Conservatory of Music.  He is noticed by the harsh disciplinarian director of the school’s jazz ensemble, J.K. Simmons (whose character’s name is Fletcher).  Andrew is willing to do nearly anything to become a great drummer.  Fletcher knows this and torments him in every way possible.  Why?  Because he’s a sadistic, abusive prick.  And you really need to see it to believe it:  he throws things at students, berates them, abuses them, and hits them.  The behavior is so over the top that it nearly destroys the credibility of the plot.

But Andrew’s response is to internalize the abuse and practice that much harder.  He’s ready to sacrifice his family, girlfriend, and even his bodily health to reach his “goal.”  It’s a sick dynamic, and reminds one of an abusive relationship (which it is).  Like all abusers, Fletcher rationalizes his actions by saying it’s for the “students’ own good” and similar excuses.  The reality is that he–with his shaved head and skin-tight black shirt–enjoys acting like one of Mussolini’s squadristi purely for its own sake.  For Fletcher, it’s all about power, control, and the joy of inflicting pain on others.

At what point does “motivation” become pure abuse?  This is a perceptive study of the interpersonal dynamic between abuser and abused, and of the price of a man’s obsession.  At what point does a goal become simply not worth the trouble?  At what point does a man just say, enough is enough?  Andrew knows the entire setup is wrong, but can’t seem to break away from his tormentor.  Something keeps pulling him back, and this is what unnerves the viewer so much.  At the end of the day, he wants the approval of the abuser, even when he knows the guy is a scumbag.  There are scenes in this film that make for difficult viewing; but the sad thing is that we all know people like this (in one form or another).  A fine film and one very much worth watching.

Happy People:  A Year In The Taiga (2010)

Director:  Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog these days pretty much makes only documentaries.  In the early days of his career, he took on huge and ambitious projects, but probably feels like he doesn’t have to do that so much any more.  And he’s right.  He has managed to achieve a richness and philosophical depth with his documentaries that are matched by no one else.  Grizzly Man, Under The Volcano, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are all wonderful examples of how he has blended real-life stories with the most profound reflections on the human condition.

In this film, he journeys to the remotest parts of Siberia to see how the hunters and trappers of the region life.  These guys live off the land.  And when I say “life off the land,” I mean it in every sense of the word:  they are totally self-sufficient, and depend on no one but themselves.  No taxes, phones, internet, calls, or any other modern intrusion.  Is this a life for everyone?  No.  Is it a “freer” life than ours?  Well, that depends on how you look at things.   Herzog never presumes to answer this question for us, but lets you draw your own conclusions.  Do we have it easier than these guys?  Do they have it easier than us?  Is extended isolation a good or a bad thing for a man?  Every viewer will have to decide for himself.

What does emerge, however, is the stark beauty of the Siberian wilderness.  Old ways are beginning to die out there too, but a few hardy old souls continue the traditions of their ancestors.  The most interesting parts of the film center around the monologues of the two central characters (solitary trappers and hunters).  Nicolai and Gennady have been surviving in the wilderness for years, and seem perfectly contented with the life.  Their philosophical reflections on animal behavior, human society, and the world in general are the kinds of things you can only find in Russia.  And I mean that in a good way.  Well worth a watch.