At The Movies: “Whiplash”

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“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”

Welcome to a brand-new feature here at Riverside Green — At The Movies — and to the movie that prompted me to add said feature. “Whiplash” doesn’t need my recommendation; it has received awards from all quarters. When the African-American Film Critics Association gives a white guy a Best Supporting Actor award, you can pretty much guess that there isn’t much, strictly speaking, to “criticize” about the film in question.

My purpose, therefore, isn’t to discuss “Whiplash” as much as it is to discuss the movie’s core principles and how they relate to my personal opinions regarding creativity and talent. For that reason, what follows shouldn’t be much more of a spoiler than the commonly-available preview.


A few years ago, I suggested to the readers of this site that Dave Grohl is not a rock star. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking long and hard about the idea that extraordinarily talented people are also broken people. This is not a unique or even particularly rare insight. Indeed, it’s at the very heart of “Whiplash”, which is fundamentally a film about the difference between merely good musicians and the truly great. To be truly great, you have to start with something that almost nobody else has — then you have to forge that blank, so to speak. We all intrinsically understand that there’s an equation for greatness and it goes something like this:

Acceptable talent (multiplied by) acceptable work ethic = nothing

Peerless talent x iffy work ethic = Axl Rose, Latrell Sprewell, Paul Chambers, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Acceptable talent x peerless work ethic = Dave Grohl, Larry Bird, Charlie Haden, John Le Carre

Peerless talent x peerless work ethic = Jimmy Page, Michael Jordan, John Coltrane*, Samuel Johnson

* I really want to put “Pat Metheny” there, but this is also Bark’s blog, you know.

There’s a third element to the equation that I’m leaving out, and that’s adversity. With a few notable exceptions — Miles Davis, for one — brilliant artists rarely have a happy childhood or a life free from adversity. The question is: how necessary, exactly, is adversity? It’s that question that “Whiplash” wants to answer, and the brilliance of the film is it nimbly flits between both potential answers before settling with a thud (or perhaps a snare hit) on its final reply.

At this point I could give you, the reader, a lot of boilerplate stuff right now. Adversity builds character, which builds excellence. If you struggle your entire life, you won’t give up when it’s time to struggle for your art. A miserable childhood produces restlessness and discontent, which taken together are the pilot light without which talent doesn’t burn brightly enough to be noticed. You’ve heard all of that. It might even be true.

I don’t know. I particularly don’t know when it comes to areas in which I have no talent to speak of. I’ve been a competitive cyclist and I won a few races but I don’t have a real talent for it. I’ve played music in front of a lot of people, often without disaster, but I know that I’m simply a mediocre, untrained singer who can indifferently hold a very expensive guitar while I’m singing. If I have any talent in this world it falls into two categories: writing and complex problem resolution in technical fields.

In the case of the latter, adversity is absolutely necessary because without it you’ll never develop the skills to think on your feet. If you always have unlimited time to fix problems, you’ll never be forced into experiencing the satori of high-speed, high-stress problem resolution. As some of you may know, I was responsible for a lot of Honda’s infrastructure from 2010-2012. We were told that when the lines went down it could cost the company as much as a million dollars a minute. Believe me when I tell you that in a situation like that, discerning and fixing a root cause in five minutes instead of five hours was considered to be a very valuable skill. It was frankly thrilling at times.

With regards to writing, I’d like to believe that you could experience a pleasant, cheerful childhood followed by a genuinely satisfying educational experience and a smooth transition into a professorial or journalistic career before becoming a brilliant author. Indeed, I know a few very good writers who have enjoyed precisely that. My favorite novelist, John Updike, had a pretty easy row to hoe throughout his life: obtaining acclaim while still a teenager, securing a great job at The New Yorker while he was in his mid-twenties, and subsequently writing a million-dollar book every year or so.

Yet Updike had a sort of formative disaster in the form of his relationship with his overbearing, domineering, and inappropriately intimate mother. When you read his early fiction, the footprints of his unpleasant mommy are all over the pages. She frequently and shamelessly committed the greatest harm a mother can inflict upon her sons: she made him a confidante, an associate, a sexless lover forced to watch her put on her stockings and lipstick, a defenseless child who was assaulted by his mother’s scent and her physical presence and her public hair. Years later, in a rare bit of authorial anger, he would describe single mothers as women who “piss and shit and change tampons in front of” their sons.

No surprise, then, that dysfunctional relationships with women are Updike’s surest ground. When he departs from the gynocentric, he without fail stumbles. He’s like Le Carre in reverse, who is never as skillful as when he is describing a conflict between two upper-class Englishmen but whose characterization of the feminine is ninety-nine percent what they call “beta bitch” in the modern manosphere and one hundred percent cardboard. So that’s Updike’s adversity. It’s not as respectable as working on Parchman Farm or shipping out on a three-year-whaling billet or finding one’s cracker-ass self inadvertently deposited in a fifty-six-man prison pod with forty-nine black inmates, but as a pilot light, it sufficed.

In my past few years in the autojourno game, I’ve met any number of talented young men who are searching for that pilot-light adversity. Either they’ve never had any, or they’ve let what adversity they did have twist them into a sort of permanent victimhood. It doesn’t help that the PR circus offers its most devoted participants the endless thin gruel of experience without significance. What good it is to have fifty stamps in your passport if your hand was held the whole time you were overseas? If you can’t fight or fuck or even deviate from the route on a press trip, does that trip really exist?

Insofar as I’m not the complete grinning idiot I often appear to be, I’m not entirely unaware that much of the conversation I have with these writers consists of them poking through my entrails looking for the moment at which I became Jack Baruth. I wasn’t always Jack Baruth, you know. I was a happy little kid who liked using his ViewMaster 3-D and playing with Legos. The person that you’d meet in me today is much like a bonsai tree. Every time there’s growth or happiness, it’s carefully and painfully trimmed back. What you get from that is a stunted representation of a much larger tree, a synecdoche of full-frame reality, thoughtfully presented to you in a digestible size. Some of the trimming was done by fate, some by malice. And some I did myself.

What I want to tell them sometimes is this: Yes, you could be a better writer if you just went out right now and fractured your skull. Or spent a month in prison. Or stole a man’s wife and watched him as he considered suicide as a result. Go do that shit, man. Then you’ll be able to write about something besides the all-new** Porsche SUV or the caviar on the Lufthansa flight. Other times, I want to tell them: I finished, and understood, five thousand good novels during the same period in my life that you spent fucking around and enjoying yourself. Come to my house, you idiot, and see that I have more books than your local library and that I’ve read them all. Why shouldn’t I be a better writer than you are? I write ten times as quickly as you do and I’ve read a hundred times as much and, incidentally, I was also the product of a literary-critical tradition that puts just two people between me and Northrop Fucking Frye. But to say either of those things would be sheer ego, and it would be absolutely untrue.

** not all new

We all know what talents we truly possess. We don’t need to be told. If you know you have that talent, whatever it is, then serve it. Serve it faithfully. Do the work, experience the adversity if it comes naturally, and don’t give up. If you can do that, then you’ll have the success you deserve. And before you start thinking that I’m lecturing you from a position of being the Most Authentic Car Writer In History, I’ll set you straight. I’m lecturing you as The Guy Who Should Have Ten Novels Out The Door By Now. Don’t fuck up the way that I did. Don’t bury your single talent in the ground, whatever it might be. Go back out there on stage and finish the job.

I’m in your corner.

But I’m not going to tell you “good job”, okay?

60 Replies to “At The Movies: “Whiplash””

          • Tomko

            The last time you guys tried a hostile take over of Canada it took two years before your victory was achieved by having the White House set ablaze and the borders moved not one inch.

            But you’re welcome to visit anytime. Although you’ll find it almost impossible to get back into your own country without a passport.

  1. galactagog

    I haven’t seen the movie: the skeptic in me assumed it was just another flavor-of-the-moment trendy thing like CATS, or Phantom of the Opera

    I also suspected it glorifies being a Dick in order to motivate people.

    However, after reading this, I just may go see the movie.

    Who knows, maybe you do need to be a Dick to motivate people? another example:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4PE2hSqVnk

    that was a great article, though. thanks!

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Buy the Blu-Ray. If you don’t like it, I’ll refund your money next time I see you.

      • galactagog

        well allrighty then. will do

        I’ve gone through my own share of personal misery. Not sure if it’s helped me creatively or not.

        At least we have the luxury of contemplating questions like this, without having to *really* worry about survival & being eaten by a zillion other predators. Or needing to forage in the wilderness for food every day.

        As a species, we have it pretty good.

        That got me through some rough times, when I thought I had it bad.

  2. DrZombie

    Jack, this is a complete threadjack – I apologize.

    When you bought the Accord coupe, did you comparison shop against the WRX STi? Here is Canada at least, they lease for nearly the exact same price (previously I had asked you about Accord Coupe vs. Challenger – I’ve talked myself out of the Challenger, now thinking about the STi as a potential option).

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      They say you’re always best prepared to fight your previous war, so I bought the Accord Coupe based on crash testing, an area in which it’s dramatically superior to the STi. It’s also pretty much as fast, with none of the reliability quirks I’d expect from a turbo Subaru. Last but not least, the Accord attracts less attention from cops and thieves.

      • Widgetsltd

        The crash test comparison might have been true of the 2014 and prior STI, but the redesigned 2015 STI has exactly the same IIHS crash test ratings as the ’15 Accord Coupe. I’ve never driven an Accord Coupe so I couldn’t say much about it either way. I’ve spent some time in 2015 and 2016 STIs though. Full disclosure: I work for Subaru so I might be a bit biased…

        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          I think the power-to-weight ratio is about the same; the Accord’s a bit underrated from the factory.

  3. jz78817

    I like stand-up comedy, and I’ve learned over the years that there’s truth when someone says “the comedian is rarely the happiest person in the room.” but learning more about the comedians I’ve listened to and seen, so many of them have been dealing with mental illness their entire lives. Depression, bipolar disorder, OCD (real obsessive-compulsive disorder, not fake “lol I’m so OCD!” bullshit.) having had to deal with some of those myself, I can’t bring myself to feel that it’s a “good” thing that people have to suffer for my entertainment. Adversity may sometimes breed creativity, but it just as often leads to self-harm or the harming of others.

    and I really, really hate it when people act like “well, I suffered, so you should have to suffer too.”

  4. MrFixit1599

    “In the case of the latter, adversity is absolutely necessary because without it you’ll never develop the skills to think on your feet. If you always have unlimited time to fix problems, you’ll never be forced into experiencing the satori of high-speed, high-stress problem resolution.”

    We have gone through so many technicians that do not have the ability to think on their feet it is astounding. The resume looks good, but not being able to think outside of the box is a deal killer in industrial machinery repair. I don’t have the time to answer my phone every 10 minutes to tell you what to do or try next. Figure it out or get a different job. I understand every now and then a phone call needs to be made.

    I too get the thrill of getting a machine back up and running for a customer. Granted it’s not in the millions of dollars, but it is often in the hundred grand or so area, and customers are very grateful for an efficient quality fix to get them back in production.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      My older brother fixes industrial machinery for a living. I used to do IT support. I was talking with Jeff and I said to him, “Eventually it gets personal, you have to solve the problem. The money becomes secondary.” He agreed with me.

      • MrFixit1599

        Been doing it for close to 20 years. I have seldom worried about the money involved on either end. Maybe that is wrong or right, but I have always focused on getting whatever I am working on working. That is the machines job, and it should be doing it’s job. That mindset has pissed off both the customer and my bosses many times over the years, but in the end, the machine works and does what it is supposed to do, money be damned.

        Now if only I made more money doing said job, that would be a bonus.

        • Dirty Dingus McGee

          I’ve been in the machinery repair business for a bit longer than you, about 40 years now. Best piece of advice I was ever given; “The machine is an inanimate object. Don’t let it out smart you”.

  5. Ronnie Schreiber

    I’m not convinced of the tortured artist narrative. J.S. Bach was pretty normal (for a genius). I am convinced of the 10,000 hour rule. If you spend enough time at something you’ll get pretty good at it.

    My fellow readers, don’t believe what JB says about him being a mediocre guitar player. He’s mentioned taking lessons at his age – not many middle aged amateur musicians will do that to improve technique. If he spent as much time practicing his chops on guitar as he does writing, he could be a professional musician. Of course that would mean we’d be deprived of his talents as a writer. 10,000 hours is 3 hours a day for 10 years.

    As for those ten unwritten novels, do people still read novels? There are plenty of published novelists that don’t have a fraction of the readers Jack has at R&T and TTAC.

    • jz78817

      as far as music goes, it would take me 10,000 to become barely competent. at which point it just becomes “work.”

    • Bark M

      The 10,000 hour rule is just patently false. I could practice basketball for 10k hours and never be taller than 5’9″, so I can’t play in the NBA. Somebody else could practice saxophone for 10K hours but never have the twitch muscle speed that I have, so they could never play John Coltrane’s Giant Steps solo note for note like I can.

      Talent and genetics are far more important than practice ever will be. To tell kids that they can be great if they only “try hard and practice” is doing them a disservice.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        Are you saying that talent and genetics are more important than technique and practice? If so, why bother learning technique or why bother practicing? Either you have it or you don’t, right?

        Not every expert is identical and physical realities are physical realities. Hound Dog Taylor had six fingers. Paganini wrote stuff that only he could play.

        I’m not saying you could dunk or play above the rim, but you’d probably develop a decent jump shot and layup.

        Likewise, someone who put in 10K hours into playing the saxophone might never be able to play Giant Steps note for note but I’d bet they’d still be better than competent general players and maybe even be able to create some original music.

        • Bark M

          Yes, I am saying that. Talent is a prerequisite for greatness. You can’t make yourself great. You can make yourself competent.

        • jz78817

          I’m saying “if you don’t have the talent, all the practice in the world won’t make you good.” Artistic ability is something you either have or don’t have, it can’t be taught. If you have it, instruction and practice can shape it into something great. If you don’t have it, you’re just going to frustrate yourself. Like when I was in high school, I wanted to play guitar (you know, the standard script for a guy in high school.) I gave it up when it became clear I would have to waste a shitload of time on it just so I could simply not suck. At that point it ceases to become enjoyable.

          You can’t expect someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they don’t have any fucking boots at all.

  6. -Nate-Nate

    Damn Jack ;

    I crawl out from under and old car and get to read this after my shower .

    Nice .

    -Nate

    • jz78817

      I take the view that it can be a strong incentive, but is neither necessary nor sufficient. Like Bill Hicks’s old bit where he said “if you’re against drug use, take all of your albums and throw them out.” Um, fuck you dude, I don’t know who told you you were boss. Correlation does not imply causation.

  7. Will

    You forgot introversion. Introverts tend to be the most successful too, you’d have to want to work on it and ignore others. Extroverts can never achieve greatness.

    • Rob

      “Extroverts can never achieve greatness”.

      Interesting take. I can think of as many successful entertainers who are clearly extroverts as I can tech-oriented introverts.

      Jack, would you agree that Axl Rose’s history of botched comebacks and aborted albums has romanticized his capabilities as an artist somewhat? I have this argument with friends all the time; they believe that somehow, eventually, a Chinese Democracy or equivalent will emerge that will solidify Axl’s place in Rock God history. But how dare Eddie Vedder write more than one compelling album and enjoy a career spanning decades…”he’s a sellout”.

      • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

        If all Axl ever delivers is Appetite and parts of Illusion — and let’s face it, there’s almost no chance he’ll deliver anything else — then that’s enough to put him among the greats.

        I have a personal antipathy towards Pearl Jam so I want to be careful with what I say here but… ah fuck it, they’re the Seals&Crofts version of Nirvana or Soundgarden. Bunch of guys who put in the time and do the work but never deliver anything top tier.

        • Rob

          Had me until “Soundgarden”, but I take your point. I have a similar opinion of Muse. They manage to sell out arenas but everyone talks about the laser show instead of the music. Thom Yorke has bits of food in his teeth more musically talented than those guys, but he’s a Poser. Right.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            With that said, I respect the effort that Eddie and the guys put in and you (meaning I) have to admit that they truly connect with their fans.

          • One Leg at a Time

            I completely agree about Pearl Jam, but ‘Jeremy’ is a well-written, and immaculately produced song; and for the most part, ‘Ten’ was an excellent debut that spoke to the zeitgeist of the early 90’s. I think the real talent of Eddie and the boys was parlaying that one album into decades of stardom, despite the fact that the rest of their discography is pretty pedestrian.

          • Bark M

            I had some friends that had the misfortune of having their debut album on Epic Records released on the same day as “Ten.” It didn’t sell well.

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  9. Rob

    I highly recommend Yacht Rock on Youtube. Episode 11 is a good place to start, with “Tropics-Obsessed Lunatic” Jimmy Buffett and Jason Lee as Kevin Bacon.

  10. Shocktastic

    Thank you for talking up this movie. It is painful to watch & you can’t predict where it is going. I am blessed with a wife who always wants to go to the cinema and a local theater that charges only $5 a show for a fast changing lineup of independent film.

  11. Scott Seigmund

    Gladwell, in Outliers, never mentions adversity as a key determinate of success. It would be a rare defect for an individual to never experience some kind of adversity in life. We all have our demons to conquer or be conquered by them and the struggle is lifelong for most of us. It think there is credence in the “10,000 hour rule” and having the good fortune to learn in educationally rich environments whatever they may be. The most highly successful people also manage to start very early on a path and stay with it. The rest of us change direction is life too frequently to ever fully develop the talents we are born with.

    • One Leg at a Time

      I was thinking of ‘Outliers’ as I read this post, as well. I don’t think you really need to add adversity as a factor in the equation Talent x Work (ethic). I would say that adversity just acts as one possible driver for a person putting in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

      Whether that adversity comes from external forces, or is caused by poor life choices, it can drive an individual to put that kind of work in prior to their 30’s (which seems to be a ‘drop dead’ date for someone’s initial success in music, and a lot of other endeavors).

    • Steve Ulfelder

      You know, I could have happily gone the rest of my life without thinking once about Christopher Cross, England Dan OR John Ford Coley. This blog sucks.

        • Sobro

          Here’s an “it’s so Nashville” story: My wife decided to learn about taxes instead of shipping our records to an accountant so she joined H&R Block as a part timer. The man in the next cubicle was John Ford Coley. He had to take leave for a far east gig.

  12. galactagog

    ok I watched the movie. it was really well done: editing, sound, acting. very well put together film

    What I did have an issue with, was Fletcher’s lack of character development. Fletcher was just an asshole, through the whole film.

    His theory was flawed, but they never had him realize, or react, or grow…..EVERYONE can’t be Charlie Parker. Treating everyone like shit will not breed an army of Charlie Parkers. Charlie Parker was not angry enough to kill a man, every time he stepped onto the bandstand. He had joy, and fun in his life. Charlie Parker had a renowned sense of humour & practical jokes.

    Denegrating musicians until they quit, or become Charlie Parker, was not how Miles Davis inspired John Coltrane, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderly, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock etc

    Also, if Fletcher was truly was trying to breed genius, he would have embraced Andrew when he tackled him on stage ( no pun intended ), and tried to channel that into his drumming, rather than just kicking him out of the band.
    –>If Fletcher had the secret to becoming Charlie Parker, why was he stuck teaching music instead of becoming a genius himself?

    Fletcher was an idiot: he’d heard the tale of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Parker, and jumped to the conclusion that THAT was the spark that made him great.

    When Andrew meets him playing piano after he’s been ejected from the shoolboard, there was potential for some hubris ( and initially it appeared to be ) but all he does is set Andrew up to get revenge at the final gig.

    He knows it was Andrew who ratted on him, plays all buddy-buddy, them calls tunes he’s completely unfamiliar with to embarrass him & run him off stage. And totally ruin any chance of him drumming professionally again. See his speech before the gig: “if you screw up here, you’ll never work in this business again”

    You *could* argue he fucked him over in front of the audience in order to inspire him. And it appears everyone who is a fan of the movie sees it that way(?)

    I elect that Andrew could have played as well, or better, if they’d just called the tune “Whiplash” instead of going through all that drama

    Musicians don’t necessarily play better when they are pissed off.

    Did Bark play any better after spending the night on a cheap motel carpet, surrounded by fluids of suspicious origin?

    So what happens after the movie? do they become friends, collaborators of genius? would Fletcher keep being a total asshole, in order to inspire greatness?

    It was a great movie. But I think it could have been better, if they’d developed Fletcher, and didn’t focus so narrowly on a flawed theory

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I think what the movie suggests is that Fletcher is, fundamentally, second-rate. The interlude where he’s talking to the little girl is meant to suggest that it’s all just an act on his part. That he’s not really that person. That he’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing, just imitating his betters.

      You see it in his gig, right? They’re just loafing through some quiet-storm standard — and notice that the camera focuses first on the drummer, who is just keeping basic time.

      It’s not until Fletcher stops being calculating about inspiring greatness and starts being genuinely petty and nasty that he actually manages to turn the greatness on in Andrew.

      The final scene is about them finding their true selves: Fletcher realizes that to truly inspire greatness he has to go farther than he’s gone, and DO IT HONESTLY, out of real emotion. And Andrew needs to be thrown to the sharks in front of a real audience, not merely harangued in the safe space of the studio band rehearsal room. They’ll both go on to be better at what they do, but Andrew is the talent and Fletcher is merely the assistant — note the way he resets Andrew’s cymbal.

  13. galactagog

    ah, interesting…I will have to watch it again

    one scene I can’t figure out is when he tearfully tells his class about the ex-student/sax player, who has died. It reveals a different side of him, and everyone seem a bit confused.

    Then he goes back into full asshole mode.

    probably a pun in there somewhere

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Well, remember that he’s responsible for that death, at least partially. I think what you’re seeing is self doubt.

  14. Domestic Hearse

    I played for task masters. And some guys who were personally monsters in their own right. But I never, ever, in playing college jazz, met – let alone played for – anyone who employed anywhere near that level of emotional abuse as a motivational tool on their students.

    Maybe Bark knows a few instructors like that at The Ohio State University — a music program orders of magnitude larger than the one where I attended college (though I did sit in with the University of Nebraska’s top jazz band several times and the director was a delight, nothing like Fletcher in the movie). And as I’ve mentioned, I roomed with and house sat for a professor of music. She was a student magnet, so smart and cool and open.

    For the most part, the high school, clinician camp, and college directors I played for exuded joy for the music — just couldn’t wait to share it, teach it, expose us to as much as possible.

    So maybe, just maybe, the teacher does not inspire greatness in a student by creating an environment of adversity, obstruction, and abuse, but joy and love and appreciation instead.

    And even more probably, the good teacher primarily uses positive reinforcement with a little negative reinforcement to correct more serious issues.

    Or, since the sports metaphor has already been used, I’ll go with more John Wooden, and less Bob Knight.

    Of course, I’m speculating as I myself am not a professional musician, though I’ve been told by many I could have been (including having been recruited by one of The President’s Own USMC Band members).

    For me, Whiplash was just okay. I just found too much of it to be, well, too much. Even at a prestigious music college, there’s no way that level of abuse would be tolerated. And I don’t think Fletcher’s behavior is representative of how any top instructor would create the next Max Roach or Charlie Parker.

    Though I could be wrong. Perhaps Bark and Mrs Bark could offer insights into their own college of music experiences.

  15. Domestic Hearse

    What’s Updike’s deal anyway. I saw my mom’s public hair all the time and I turned out…

    Oh.

    Ohhhhhhhh.

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