Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / What brings out the best in artists? In vivid terms, two recent movies, Bird People and Whiplash, respectively illustrate that calm immersion in the ordinary world can do so in some cases, balefully solipsistic detachment from that world in other situations.
In Bird People, a hip Silicon Valley executive, deftly played by Josh Charles, decides to abandon his grinding business and bad marriage in the middle of a business trip while staying at an airport hotel near Paris. In the hotel, a winsome chambermaid grapples with the ennui of servicing people in motion who look right through her, while a slick concierge finds himself homeless. They are all disaffected with the relentless transiency of twenty-first century life, and an antidote emerges in a surprising but well-aimed flight of magical realism involving a peripatetic sparrow who provides a less frenzied, more pastoral point of view.
The bird eventually alights in the room of a jet-lagged Japanese pen-and-ink artist. If the movie has a human hero, it is the artist. The bird charms him, and he foregoes much-needed sleep to patiently follow its movements until he has reconstituted its form and spirit in a beautiful drawing (image at top). This unusual film’s overarching plea is that we observe the ordinary world around us more carefully and place a higher value on the connections made in ordinary interaction. Especially from the artist’s perspective, this means putting aside worldly tasks and comforts, slowing life down, and embracing the beauty of the simpler things that we tend to ignore.
Whiplash, a riveting and provocative film, is Van Gogh to Bird People’s Monet in suggesting that self-generated mania rather than natural serenity is key to art. The basic story is familiar: Terence Fletcher (an unforgettable J.K. Simmons) is a sadistic jazz band instructor at an elite music school who singles out Andrew Nieman (the ineffably charismatic Miles Teller), an ambitious student drummer, for distinction. Andrew pushes himself beyond all reason and coldly spurns all distractions to satisfy Fletcher and end his withering, perfectionistic abuse. The film doesn’t settle for triumph, reconciliation, and healthy adjustment to the artist’s life. Instead, it suggests that artistic greatness is often lonely and ugly and offers release and happiness only in the moment of performance. The final scene is a literally breathtaking display of the awesome power of transcendent artistic endeavor, but the vibe is that Andrew’s elation will be fleeting.
Whiplash also raises the broader question of how genius should be nurtured and liberated. Fletcher’s loathing for the palliative mantra of “good job” is understandable in this age of inflated praise for children (and others). But his relentless pressure and nearly inhuman challenge, and his apprehension of the creative domain as an essentially Darwinian mechanism for weeding out the unworthy in which far more souls are crushed than anointed, go too far. Indeed, in unguarded moments, Fletcher himself betrays ambivalence about his approach. Van Gogh was born, not made. Ultimately, Fletcher’s outsize harshness and the seductiveness of Andrew’s concluding triumph make Whiplash a strong cinematic argument simply for traditional tough love. It’s conceivable that even a preternaturally gentle painter of birds might have learned his craft from an old-school disciplinarian.
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