I loathed the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you here.
An embittered genius jazz band conductor for an elite New York school emotionally and physically abuses and gaslights the mostly young men in his band, constantly.
Who knows what happened in his own history for him to be this way but it was probably brutal. He plays the boys off of each other in a dominance hierarchy in which everyone pays tribute upwards. The administration knows it, the faculty knows it. Nobody stops him. The school believes he gets results, rather than that they are a selection facility for talent and privilege, and that results can be and are arrived at in many different ways.
The narrative centres around one boy, a drummer, who we watch manage the trauma of this relationship. He does everything he can to please the abuser, including rehearsing maniacally until his hands bleed. The euphoria of music, plus the flow states of his toxic effort, afford him and viewer a kind of spiritual bypassing relief.
But of course the abusive teacher cannot be pleased by any of the drummer’s efforts. Why? Because then he would lose his power.
Accurate depiction of abuse? Yes. Good movie? No, because the writer-director chickens out at the end through a cascade of rationalizations that pretend to show that the abuse was all worth it. He avoids the more obvious, less Oscar-worthy answer, which is that some children survive horrible things with remarkable resilience, while others don’t.
After the abuser wields every trick of power in the book and betrays the drummer in the most epic way, the director then has the boy finally surrender to the abuser and the “process” in a moment of communion through the ecstasy of music. It’s a very Christian apologetic, really, with glory and pain not only contingent upon each other, but that contingency throbbing with an (homo)erotic charge.
Who is caught in the crossfire? The woman, of course. The drummer’s partner appeals to his emotional core, and so she must be discarded. Such an old story: somato-psychodramas between men feed the roots of the misogyny tree. Demeaning women comes to be accepted by patriarchy as an insignificant form of collateral damage.
The pseudo-resolution of the film orbits around the faulty premise that abusive teaching can produce empowered learning. Is there any data for this, or is it merely the best story we think we can tell?
Is it such a prominent story because it’s untrue? Do we have to keep repeating it to convince ourselves it’s meaningful?
I don’t buy it. Abusive teaching can be correlated with certain performed results, but only through a battery of other factors coming together.
We have to name the process: saying the band leader got the drummer boy to show his “essence” – which is what the entire denouement of the movie tells us – is a trauma response designed to relieve cognitive dissonance.
This culture conflates communion with survivorship, which is why brothers-at-arms war movies are a staple. We didn’t actually need to go to war to find out who we really are. Rather, we were sent to war and we found out how we each improvise survivorship according to our privileges and wounds. Except for those of us who didn’t survive, and who therefore didn’t get movies made about them.
Although – the dead were in those movies, really. They were the bit characters who had their heads shot off in order to show everyone else what dangers the survivors survived. That’s the thing about triumph-through-adversity narratives. They require sacrificial victims. In Whiplash, the director throws another kid under the bus to illuminate the resurrection of the hero via contrast. That the sacrificial victim is black adds another disturbing layer.
This is all on my mind because of yoga, of course. In response to a description of teacherly abuse on the Yoga and Movement Research board, someone commented to the effect that the teacher involved was difficult, full of contradictions, but that, like fire, being around him could be “incredibly transformative.”
Sorry, but “transformative” is not the appropriate word. If dude were able to pull himself up short in the middle of his intrusions and say “Wow, there’s my anger management problem pouring out again, full force. I think it has something to do with intergenerational violence and my need to offload my repressed humiliation onto younger men. I’m really sorry” – that would be transformative. Anything less is just a cycle of abuse with chaotic results narrativized by (partial) winners who need to make sense of winning.
I believe the comment also betrays something unintended. It puts the old-school yoga teacher in the category of artist. It suggests: “He’s a genius, but he can burn you.” This has been used as a framing device for guru-types forever.
Of all of the problems with this model, this is perhaps the most pernicious. Maybe it hangs around precisely because of vestigial Christianity, and we can’t stop making sense of things that way.
I’ve never met any, but I believe that spiritual geniuses — unlike artists, who I know a bunch of — would be those who figure out how to not burn others with the coals of their past.