I have been cramming my spring break week about as full as can be. I've had three breakfasts with friends (including one three hours long!), three friend-lunches, two friend-dinners, untold walks with our little dog, Tank, plus hours galore cuddling my sweet grandbaby. I've also seen four movies: The Imitation Game, The Red Balloon, Into the Woods, and Whiplash. Well, the first half of Whiplash. I hated it so much I had to turn it off after an hour or so. I was stunned to find that many friends of mine loved it. Here is why I didn't.
The film depicts the relationship between an ambitious young jazz drummer at a prestigious music conservatory and one of his teachers, who hurls endless bigoted, homophobic, cruel abuse at his students (as well as slapping them repeatedly in the face) to get them to achieve musical greatness.
I turned it off in part because I have only another forty or fifty years to live and I don't want to spend precious minutes of what time I have left in the company of anyone, real or fictitious, who treats another human being the way the J. K. Simmons character treats his students in the film.
But I also turned it off because it is deeply false to suggest that artistic greatness is achieved in this way, that students who live in constant, abject terror of a teacher's physical, mental, and emotional abuse grow into their best creative selves.
Any writer knows that the way to write the best stories is NOT to write with a constant critical voice harping in your head, but to silence that voice and listen instead to the voices of your characters, voices you can't hear if you are already imagining the savage response you'll get from editors or reviewers.
Any actor knows that the way to produce an immortal performance is NOT to act with half of your brain focused on the tyranny of the director, but to become your character as fully as possible, to be that person, not the person of an actor who is cowering in fear of a director's disapproval.
Any musician aims at becoming one with the music, inhabiting the work so completely that you leave behind any thought of what anybody else thinks, past, present, or future.
The student musicians in Whiplash look stiff and terrified as they play. They follow every single commandment of their conductor with slavish obedience. They radiate no joy in the music. They never make the music their own. It is, always and forever, his. But, folks, this is jazz we're talking about. Jazz! An art form where improvisation is absolutely central. An art form that values collaboration between musicians who will jam together for hours in the sheer delight of making music with their friends. An art form that values play.
I'm the mother of a jazz musician who is right now playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. I have attended so many jazz performances in my life. And I am here to report that it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. A swing that has some joy in it.
The jazz community has repudiated the film, to my great relief, according to articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Downbeat Magazine, claiming that it misrepresents jazz music, jazz pedagogy, and jazz history (including the famous incident when a fellow musician threw a cymbal at emerging jazz great Charlie Parker).
I'm here to claim that it also misrepresents everything I know about how great art is made. I'll stick with the poet John Masefield, who wrote, "Great art does not proceed from great criticism, but from great encouragement." I'll add, and from great joy.