© 2017 by James Clark
The young but extremely formidable filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, merits, I believe, special attention for his bringing to the fore in virtuoso style the question of art production in contemporary life. He does so, not from the perspective of pedantic ideology, but from the carnal immediacy of figures pursuing objectives intuitively shallow and vile. The weight of history, appearing to condone and promote such virulent heroics, comes to bear in such a way that it is our protagonists’ injuries which hold us in thrall and, as such, link to an extensive cinematic endeavor (now central to these studies) of a lone wolf in mortal combat with a large pack.
Impressively enriching this imbroglio of tradition, in our film today, is the factor that both jazz-drum student, Andrew Neiman, and jazz-band teacher, Terrence Fletcher, have, variously, assimilated in their sensuous careers—formal and informal—that the world needs shaking up and jazz music is the air force to do the job. This is no over-done, Bach-first avowal like the one cemented to an antiquated French idiom, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles; but nevertheless, that air force experiences acute engine trouble.
Let’s begin to approach this turbulence by getting a bead on the startling Marine boot-camp Fletcher has been allowed, for many years, to maintain within a prestigious New York City music school (the Shaffer Conservatory). In the course of the expert’s discharging his role of Department Head of the Jazz Faculty, he recruits the precocious freshman, Andrew, to the Senior Big Band. His mentoring includes an instance of expressing reproof toward the youngest hopeful, in this way: “Is that the fastest you can play? You worthless Hymie fuck! No wonder Mommy ran out on [writer/ schoolteacher] Daddy when she figured out he wasn’t Eugene O’Neil…If you deliberately sabotage my band I will fuck you like a pig! You are a worthless faggot little piece of shit!” The Department Head, in this and many other indiscretions, sends us reeling from his sense of entitlement to, on one hand, demolish in youngsters their candid musical endeavor and its mystery. In addition, during many instances of rehearsing that elite squad designed to shock and awe the best which other such ensembles can field, his leadership amounts to honing, for the sake of metronomic, sonic bullets, diamond-sharp tempo and tone. In that methodology, we soon discover the overarching priority upon exposing and punishing his galley slaves as lacking the fibre to be one of those musical icons abandoned and thereby imperilled while at the same time a presumed killing rejoinder to a dominant world history he has come to loathe. The actor, J.K. Simmons, depicting the Head, resembles a grim, ascetic priest channelling a principal of the Spanish Inquisition. There is an episode in one of the nocturnal, management-absent rehearsals when Fletcher’s claw-like hand-gesture demands a halt and he claims to hear that someone is off-key. He decrees that the culprit confess within 10 seconds. No one comes forward. The hunter confronts several players in a solo passage and nothing seems amiss. He derides the assembly with the axiom that not realising one is off-key is even worse than simply slipping. Then he makes his way into the face of a trombone-player he refers to as “Elmer Fudd.” The whip claims to know that Fudd is the travesty. The shy and terrified boy looks down to his feet during this confrontation and says nothing. That earns him being noisily and insultingly thrown out of the band in not maintaining he was faultless—after his departure, the leader telling the slaves (as if an increase in his supposed fascinating unpredictableness) he knew the ex was not to blame (pinpointing a far more handsome kid as in error and going unpunished because the lack of a killer instinct was the crime he chose to punish that day). (more…)