Whiplash – The Three Paths

Thoughts On: Whiplash

The 2014 music drama about Andrew who wants to become an elite jazz drummer – one of the greats.


Life, we’re all walking our paths. But, where to? Ultimately, death, yes. But we’re going to keep things short term for this. For this talk, we’re going to jump right to the end of the film, Andrew has got into the core group, fell out, come back and… whew!… yeah… that solo… I need say no more. Actually, before we start… drums, the foundation of almost all music. Drummers, the foundation of almost all musical jokes. People talk down on them, but, why? Yes, they have the ‘simple’ job of keeping time, but drums done well is impossibly impressive. True, anyone who’s good at there job is fascinating to watch, I could watch a professional painter decorate a room and then watch the paint dry in awe. But, YouTube the best of any musical instrument and drums, especially for me, is bar none the most impressive–this film kinda demonstrates that. I mean, what other films anchor their ends to a musical performance? Sure, there’s Crossroads, School Of Rock and tell me more in the comments, but none to this level. Music is emotion translated through sound, kinetic energy, vibrations, moving through the air, implying feeling, conveying movement, tone, sensation. Humanity, communication, through particulate motion. The drums control the conversation, they command tone, speed, rhythm, feeling. Notes flavour, they detail, they emphasise. Voice, guitar, trumpets, violins rely on this idea of ‘when’, timing (even without drums present). Beat is primary in music. Drums are primary to music. They have the say, they have ultimate control because… uh… if it’s not quite your tempo… well…

Back to movies, I have to say this one of the best looking films I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It reminds me a little of Taxi Driver with its gritty texture, warm colours, reliance on the yellows and greys, smeared, glowering lights, yet clean cut illumination when in focus. I’ve also got to say, the close ups on Nicole, Andrew’s kinda girlfriend, are… astounding to say the least–though not just because of the cinematography–obviously. Excuse my infatuation. Down to it, this film is about opportunity, more specifically, what you do with idea of choice along your path in life. Sticking to the smash cut to black, Andrew ends the film with 3 paths to chose from, to take in his life. People love to talk about Andrew vs. Fletcher and who wins in the end. The truth is, mmm… don’t matter. The end of the film and its consequences centre around the choices Andrew has burrowed out for himself. Over the film he gains and loses 3 things that centre around his 3 core relationships in life. There’s the familial one with his father, the professional one with Fletcher and the romantic one with Nicole. He both makes (not entirely with his father, but) then brakes these three relationships through the course of the film. By the end he’s fought for the opportunity for redemption along 1 of these paths of his choosing. Before I define them, the film demonstrates that one needs to devote all of their time to one idea, to dedicate themself to one goal to become truly successful. That in mind, with Nicole he may pursue love, the normal life of suburban marriage and general insignificance. This is pathway is symbolic of independence (and I’ll get to why in a moment). The second pathway is for Andrew to stand, take a bow and never return to the stage, to hug his dad and walk home to a bowl of popcorn in front of the T.V. This path means dependence on one’s family, on what you have in life without pursuing more. The last path is of course to return to Fletcher. Here we have an unstable path (yeah, to say the least). Andrew is both independent, in that he more or less controls his success, but is extremely dependant on a system around him – on Fletcher, JVC, and audience, the music business in general.

So, we have the three paths: mundane independence (average insignificance), dependence (painful insignificance) and a horrible, yet enthralling, cocktail of dependence and independence that could lead you to being ‘a great’. Of course it’s easy to argue that Andrew could take two of the paths such as Fletcher and Nicole, but, Andrew doesn’t agree with you there. In fact the only joint pathways he could get away with is with his father and Nicole – family life. But, the film is very set in its opinion of definite paths – having it, or not. Every argument made toward Fletcher being wrong and ‘greats’ not being of a certain breed of human is quickly shot down. ‘Maybe you can go too far?’. ‘Charlie Parker wouldn’t have been discouraged’. Paths can be trodden, but if you want to get anywhere far your going to have to dig your heels in and give it all you got, you’re going to have to run like nothing can stop you. And remember we’re talking in metaphorical terms here. You want to be the greatest zero? You’re going to have to work at it. You want to be the greatest husband, wife, parent? Damn, you better get working. The greatest professional? Artist? Banker? Doctor? Teacher? Whew, lot of work there. We can be one of three things, bottom of the heap, part of the bulk or atop it all. In a capitalist, hierarchical world we live in (hierarchy being inevitable between animals–people) your path in life leads you to your place in society. This is what the film is about, choosing where you stand.

Whiplash is an open question to you. If you were sat on Andrew’s drum stool, smash cut imminent, who are you going to run to for celebrations? Are you going to stand and shake Fletcher’s hand? You going to run and hug your dad? Or are you going to bustle through a crowd or jump off that stage and take Nicole’s hand (for Nicole? I would)? I joke (not really). But, who, what path sounds most appealing to you? Then ask yourself this: what path could, not would, you take?

Choice, the closest thing to control we can experience. Opportunities are born of both luck and work. Opportunities lead us places, but our feet take us there. As a person who doesn’t believe in control in a general sense of the word, I do think choice, that in the every day, people have a degree of influence on the ideas around them. Humans and their outputs are malleable, and so success can exist. People drew a line in the sand, pointed to one side, saying, ‘good’, ‘success’, and the other saying, ‘bad’, ‘failure’. In reality, these things don’t exists. But, in our worlds of course they do. From the proposal the film gives I’d like to springboard into an idea of success–of self-worth. All this path talk is the result of us attributing ‘attainment’ to positivity, to a chemical rush. We do what we do because we’re run by a programme that’s always writing itself. Now, I know you’ve answered the questions the film, through me, has asked you. I also know I could have finished this talk a paragraph back, but I want to push things today. Why be nothing? Why be a great? Why be like everybody else? Who you want to be is an easy question, ‘why?’, I’ve already given you my main reasoning: chemical, biological and physical… science basically. But, why on Earth if we understand the choices we make and know they are invariably nothing, do the systems of hierarchy exist? Peace is not a hard thing to achieve, just like not taking that extra cupcake isn’t… BUT IT IS!! I feel you. But it isn’t, we know that. Here’s the kicker, humans are self-aware, we understand so much about life and existence inherently (no, I’m not considering the unimaginable grand scheme). We know so much and are capable of introspection and understanding, but lack an ability to act. No one likes to be fat (most probably). Yet there’s fat people galore. No one likes to be poor. But the rich are a staggering minority. Maybe you could argue here that the universe, that life, has its systems of establishing hierarchy, but, no. Look at the laws of thermodynamics, look at the idea of diffusion, osmosis, equilibrium. The universe wants a grey, luke-warm, mellow, to rule, but people don’t.

This is one of the most befuddling aspects of human nature to me: its obvious contradictions. Why does want and need exist? And you can’t say equal and opposites here. I turn back to you now and ask, what is choice? It’s there, kind of, but we don’t utilise it. Maybe this comes down to the path of least resistance. Humans are short-term goal orientated, but long-term cognitive. By that, I mean, our minds are built for speculation, for the future, but our bodies for the now. That kind of reduces consciousness to a blunder, a mismatch, no? Humans seem to be built from contradiction – automation, self-destruction in a self-preservative system. Where are we in the grand scheme? I think the best answer we can give concerns a question of, what are we? We are a cog amongst infinite others, a cog that fits, but wants to pull out and look at everyone else, to find a mirror and look at itself. That is what we are, and now comes what could quite possibly break me: why?… Yeah, it hurts. I haven’t got an answer on that one. All I can suggest is maybe we need to ponder a little when our smash cuts are imminent. Maybe life’s bliss is not standing at the end of a path – having succeeded or failed. As a short-term body with a long-term mind in face of goals, like us all, I suggest looking down a path is what you hold on to. That inertia, inaction, the dream beyond reality, be appreciated to its to full before making a decision – because we all know it can’t last.

The takeaway? Forget motivation for a moment, forget success and remember where you stand before you start walking as this is the only place us twisted, dissenting cogs may relax before entering the storm.



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Donnie Darko – Conscientiousness Beyond Love And Fear

Thoughts On: Donnie Darko (2001)

The psychological sci-fi mind-bender about Donnie Darko’s exploration of time and fate.

Donnie Darko

We’ve all seen it a dozen times and researched the crazy philosophical science fiction behind it. I need not go into all that here. If you want, check this out…

But, what I’m going to talk about here is what the science fiction elements mean, why they are so complex, the point of them. This film is in short about suicide. It starts with the introduction to Donnie’s not so functional personal and family life as well as the fact that he’s in therapy. And as we all know the jet engine then falls through his house and into his bedroom. Donnie isn’t killed though thanks to one of his sleep walking episodes. Here’s the first thing we have to unpack. Yes, this is the start of the end and the catalyst to Donnie realising his powers, but it symbolises the night of his own suicide. On this night Donnie decides to take his life for reasons pertaining to, or even indifferent to, depression or other clinical disorders. This is where I say we should consider the film to have stopped. What we get to experience from here on out is Donnie’s imaginings of a life beyond this night where he doesn’t commit suicide. In short, the film is the hypothetical of a suicidal person, a question of ‘why?’. Why should Donnie kill himself? Why shouldn’t he? The ‘tangent universe’ is his materialised questioning. The ‘manipulated’ are Donnie’s reasoning for questioning.

To understand the questions Donnie is asking you have to put yourself in his shoes, see him as he sees himself. Donnie thinks he’s worthless, a problem child, overtly aggressive. These are the terms people use to describe him and is expressed through the manipulated. With the manipulated being controlled by Donnie, not the tangent universe and fate in our metaphorical look at the film, him meeting Gretchen allows him to explore these ideas he has of himself. Through Gretchen, Donnie can juxtapose his aggressive side with his need for affection. This is his core conflict: fear vs. love. Donnie both fears what he’s capable of and his capacity to be feared, whilst wanting to be loved. But, as Donnie makes clear, life can’t be reduced to love and fear, there’s a whole spectra of human emotion to consider. The film is then a suicide note in which Donnie contemplates his capacity to set his own path – to find love without destroying it. With outright fear of life or a love for it, suicide becomes a simple question easily answered. This, however, doesn’t frame Donnie’s perspective, or anyone’s for that matter. We’re just not that simple. Exploring the degree to which Donnie’s aggressive tenancies and more affectionate ones balance with the hypothetical reality (inside the tangent universe), we’re allowed to see how he ultimately justifies his choice of suicide.

Donnie’s aggression is made most clear with Gretchen’s back story, why she entered Donnie’s mad world. Her father abused her mother, stabbed her, leaving her no choice but to flee. What’s the most poignant image of the film? Yep, Donnie stabbing at his own reflection with the knife. The connection between the father and Donnie through this image cites his key fear with Gretchen. He doesn’t want to hurt her, because like her father (a back story we can consider him to have made up as it come from the tangent universe) he has emotional problems. When Donnie says this to Gretchen he’s excited, as if he found something to connect with her over, but such is irony. And such is Donnie’s questioning perfectly demonstrated. He likens himself to a key figure in a woman’s life and then reduces him to heartless, violent figure only to be escaped. But, alas, the whole scene with the Smurf philosophising. In a town with largely conservative beliefs (ironically Middlesex) Donnie sees ‘no reason to live without a dick’. The town around him are Smurfs, blue and boring. They reduce everything to love and fear (well, most of them – his family and friends largely excerpt from this). They are obsessed with this idea of an ego reflection. Ego is a Freudian term and is, in short, the rationalising factor of the mind, used to judge self-worth. It balances socially encompassed ideas and self-centred ones – the human and animalistic parts of us, again, Donnie’s need for love and his leanings toward aggression. But, as with Donnie we shouldn’t see things so simply…

Love is a concept we revere in society, it is the end all and be all of so many people’s lives. Our love is often a reflection of  our maturity, our humanity. But love has its foundations in our base obligations. We love so we can mate and sustain family bonds. Likewise, aggression isn’t just base and animalistic as the film presents. It’s core to social interactions. Without diving too deep, human interaction is measurable through our passivity and aggression – the ideas we accept, those we reject and those we try to push onto others. It’s the simple idea of opposites forming a whole. Without aggression, without what is defined as fear – lashing out at what scares you – there can be no love, no passivity. Donnie takes this idea of a confusing multi-faceted sliding bar to describe what is wrong with simplicity, seeing fear and love as of such significance, being able to make the ‘simple’ decision of choosing to take one’s life or not. Throughout the film Donnie questions how he affects the world and if he needs to be apart of it. He asks if he makes his family any happier, the town any better, his own life with the introduction of a significant other. His final answer is of course, no. The film is a tragedy because Donnie sees the world as a better place without him. The gut reaction, the reflexive response to such an idea is to immediately say, ‘no, everyone is of worth. No one should commit suicide’. The only comment I would make on such a proposal is to say, it’s not our decision in the end, we don’t endure the suffering of those wanting to commit suicide. Yes, we should help them if they want it, but to assume suicide must be stopped is to look at the mad world we live in with a child’s eyes. The film however takes no immediate stance on the ethics of suicide, it merely explains why people may chose to take their own lives.

Donnie, because of his depression or in a moment of clarity takes his life because, I’ve said this before, but, control, the fantasy; control the fantasy. This film is about fate, the idea of God and a human’s position under such ideas. Donnie, through fantasy finds he has no control and so decides to take control of his fantasy the only way he knows how – escape it. By closing his loop, destroying the tangent universe, ending questioning, Donnie dies, but manages to affect the real world the only way he thought he could, the only positive way he thought he could ever manage. All in all, the best explanation for the film is the idea of a Mad World. Donnie can’t comprehend the world fully, what he understand is he doesn’t belong. And so, all I can leave you with is those ideas and the song that best explains the film. While you listen ask yourself the question the film leaves, like I will, you with: was Donnie right to commit suicide…

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Hook – What Is Grown Up?

Thoughts On: Hook (1991)

The kind of sequel to the 1953 Peter Pan where Peter has grown up and left Neverland.


Ok, before we start, I absolutely love this film. I know there are some who don’t, but whatever. I love this film because I watched it as a kid. No, it’s not flawless, but neither is Star Wars. I never saw Star Wars until I was a teen and, yeah… meh. So I know why I love this film so much. But, I’ve rewatched it throughout the years and whilst it’s lost some of its magic and I see its flaws, I’ve also grown to see its more philosophical side. Before anyone gripes, shut up. All films have a philosophical side. Art comes from ideas – an artist’s philosophies. With Hook comes something inherent to all Spielberg films – his tone and philosophies. And, yes, all films have the philosophical side, no, you don’t have to care about them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there–getting kind of philosophical already, Schrodinger’s cat and all–is the philosophical there, not there, or everywhere at the same time? Anyway, preface over. This film is about a lie we all grow up to realise: adults don’t exist. I’m sure you’ve heard that a millions times, but clichés are often clichés because they hold and irrevocable truth – too bad the packaging is sometimes annoying. As a kid we all look up to the giants around us and see them as invincible and all knowing. We grow up, we look down and we think: ‘Oh, God, what am I going to do…’. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had was volunteering for a work placement in a class of 6/7 year olds when I was 16. At that point I was still in school and to go from one day being taught to the next assisting in teaching was… anxiety inducing to say the least. The responsibility teachers hold had never clicked with me until I stood before 30 odd near babies completely dependant on me (well, kind of–I don’t know how real teachers do it). In this recently enlightened state I could have watched Hook, watched the part where Peter first announces he’s here to save his kids on Hook’s ship. He demands them back, threatens with the law, tries to bribe, to buy his way out of trouble, but is just laughed at. He’s made to climb, scale the ship’s mast to get his children from a suspended net, dozens of feet off the ground, a horde of taunting pirates jeering below–all whilst he’s scared of heights. Impossible. ‘Come on, daddy, just reach out and touch our fingers and we can all go home. Ok?’… I could bawl just… streams of tears now, but back in my recently enlightened state?… yeah, no amount of chocolate, pillows or  a comfortable bed could rescue me.

This sad little picture I’ve just painted for you holds something so human and so honest I dare you to rewatch the film and not get it. Life is  big and scary. People are small and often afraid. But, at the same time we’ve got these little people about us, sure, utterly convinced, we are the big, scary ones. That’s a truth I’m embarrassed to admit. You don’t need kids to understand this. You just need to have been one and ask yourself how much you’ve changed. Here’s a depressing game I like to play. It’s called, what if you were alone? You stumble onto a bear in a forest. You have all your food taken away. All your money stolen. Your home burns to the ground. You fall into a river with a strong current. You’re abandoned in a desert. You’re given a baby. What do you do? Remember, there’s absolutely no one around to help in any way shape or form. That means no friends, family, government, shops, Google. What do you do? Now, the question is rhetorical, mostly because everyone is a smartass and thinks they have all the answers because they’ve seen this documentary, this movie and that T.V show. Real life? You’re screwed. Humbling, no? I hope it is. This is the primary purpose of the film and is exactly why it is called Hook.

Peter Pan was titled just so because it’s about remaining a child.  Hook is Hook because of its more sinister undertones. This film, when unpacked, is tragically sad. Yes, it’s about learning to be a kid again, but the juxtaposition between the real world and the fantasy is something imperative that if you don’t watch, you just might miss the most valuable thing the film has to offer. In the beginning, reality is reality, filling the first act with let downs and short comings – such being life. The movement toward act 2 however has an enlightening experience like the one I told you about, but flipped. Instead of the kid realising he’s never going to be an adult, the adult realises he’s still a kid. This is the moment where Peter is told he’s Peter Pan by Wendy. Now, that whole adult kid/kid adult bit might seem like the same thing, and you could argue the semantics, but to presume they are the same is to fall into the film’s trap. There is no true happy ending. The movement into fantasy is our second act and is where the idea of an adult realising he’s a kid is really set in. Peter Panning becomes Pan the Man… ERH-ER-ERH-ER-OOOOOOOOOOOHHHH!!! You have no idea of how stupid I look with this ridiculous smile on my face right now. Anyway, Pan, now the man (you see the contradictory irony?) fights Hook and… sorry… I hate! I hate!! I HATE PETER PAN!!!… I will forever love Dustin Hoffman for that. Forget I’M WALKING HERE! I’M WALKING HERE! Forget blame is for God, and small children. Forget the whole idea of Rain Man. I hate! I hate!! I HATE PETE PAN!!!… is where it’s at! Anyway, enough of the shouting, Pan, now the man, fights Hook to get his children back, the whole crocodile bit, PG 13 war (that is kinda great) and oh no, Rufio… but, hooray! The mum gets her kids back and I’m nearly crying, nearly (I don’t cry). Happy endings! But, wait. We jump back to reality at the end and there’s that weird bit with Smee as a hobo or something (some kind of trash collector – I know). The film is reminding us here that it is a film, that fantasy is fantasy, that Peter’s not really gone on a journey. To believe the delusional Peter that sweeps his kids up and leaves balcony windows unlocked is entirely all right and the message of the films is trust yourself as a kid and kids in general, well… no, don’t do that.

What the film makes clear is that fantasy is pleasant, that childishness is fun, but that reality is where we live. To be swept away by the feel-good ending is to believe you are still a kid. Now, it may seem like this is my tone, but, I only said adults don’t exist. To clarify, a child’s concept of adult doesn’t exist. People grow up, they do change, not much in the grand scheme, but they change nonetheless. If Peter remains so delusional as he is at the end of the film then someone’s going to lose their job, have more kids, start a day care centre,  have a kid fall out of a window and end up divorced–or stuck in the plot of Antichrist… yeah, I shuddered too. Robin Williams in place of Willem Dafoe? Yeah, that’d ruin a whole load of films for me. Anyhow, I said the film is about Hook and I haven’t mentioned him properly once, so, Hook is the central character of the film–more central than you can imagine. If Peter did end up divorced, consumed by fantasy, depressed, an adult aware of the truth that Neverland exists… uh-huh, he’s going back. Hook is Peter Pan! Well, metaphorically–ish. Consumed by this idea that all adults are no more than children, but faced with the obvious fact that they’re not really, well, you just might hate them. Maybe want to kill them, especially if your some psycho that’s lost all he has by destroying the man he once was to get it all. The cyclic nature of the plot is kind of mind blowing, so I’ll give you a moment, a break, a breath and a chance to mull things over…

Ultimately the film argues that kids can’t be the adults they thought they could grow up to be. It furthers this, making it obvious that we shouldn’t see ourselves as children, but embrace our naivety. After all, maybe the ending was a happy one. Maybe Peter only remained to ecstatic for a while before reverting to his old self, but with a better perspective, a softer, more playful idea of himself as a father. All in all, the film asks you how you would handle things, if you are a child in an adult’s body or simply grown up enough to accept that you’re merely human.



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