Power can be a frightening subject, but it can also be used to explain away the end of things. Partnerships, whether thrust upon or voluntary, are continuous, minor exchanges of power throughout. When a sovereign directs his subjects to do the bidding of the Crown, the King is exploiting his uninundated power upon ultimately powerless people. When democratic processes mask power, through funnymoney campaigns, who wins? Power can always be recast as a struggle among constituencies; always in motion, teetering atop a spinning point. At some point, every aspect breaks, in order, without notices. Nothing knows existence anymore.
Whiplash is about a power dynamic between two less-than-stellar characters; it is because the audience is watching two antiheros duke out unrepented angst for two hours across many movie months. Neither player has an emotional majority, and in seeps excess power. In blazing boorishness, JK Simmons, seething with disappointment in everything plays Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor of undetermined but presumably stellar qualifications. In crippling consternation, Miles Teller, slithering with ego and id, plays Andrew Neiman, a drummer of self-sabotage, bad luck, and unquestionable talent. The tale unfolds as typical power dynamic drama often do: one man sees the collective success of a team as his own creation and success. The other man is scratching the walls raw for approval from the gatekeeper to his success, at the behest of everything else. Audiences will inevitably attempt to piece together why this is the case through context clues (plenty) and clever story by outline omission (lots). Director Damien Chazelle masterfully shows and not tells his take on anxiety, adrenaline, and authority.
Power is not tradeable and there is no such thing as “equal power” because there is always a time dilation. The opening few scenes in Whiplash are blurry because no dynamics have yet been established, which serves this story and mood. Fletcher is a menacing presence, the audience can tell; he looms in the background, but then he tosses—no hurls—a chair at Andrew when he cannot immediately tell whether he is anchoring the piece a little fast or a little slow. Where the power play manifests is in the idea that it doesn’t matter if Andrew was playing fast or slow; it was that he was playing at all relied on the whim of a monolith determined on extracting genius FOR THE GREATER GOOD, whose good was neither great nor greater. At every step, to be particularly honest about dissecting the motivating factors for each player, we’d have to ask “for whom”? And we’d be wrong.
Later, Andrew turns the tables, and then the screw that holds the legs on when he is afforded an opportunity to. Kicked out, unceremoniously no less, from the band that seemingly determined whether Andrew could afford to feed himself, Andrew stops playing. Then Fletcher is forced from his position of power by a torturous outside force. The most striking takeaway from Whiplash is that no one wins this struggle. Our power players are deeply flawed and disliked characters so we root for neither to lose. But power is zero-sum; so who wins? The film ends without really clearing this up while presenting a wry showdown for its climax. The power derivative moves much quicker here and the final scene is a tremendous watch, partially because the music is so moving, but also the audience is unsure whether it should be rooting for this anti-protagonist to get a victory.
Power relationships work on film when the director trusts the audience to wade through murky humanity with him or her. These stories are immediately hacked up by one-dimensional characterizations that tell us who is bad and who is good, and then tells us that the bad person has no redeeming qualities. Directors that insist on manipulating audiences into simplification of the human experience have no business telling audiences the differences between right and wrong.
As far as ambiguity reaches, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance) muddles the mind well enough to earn a Best Picture award. This year’s nominees were particularly average, but only because the highs were particularly high and the lows particularly low: along with Whiplash, audiences were treated to Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and were forced to sit through The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything and stumble through Selma and American Sniper. Surprisingly, this years awards awarded the movie that best defined the weirdness of the 2010s, which have dragged us along its path to dystopia.