1. the lash of a whip.
2. an abrupt snapping motion or change of direction resembling the lash of a whip.
3. a neck injury caused by a sudden jerking backward, forward, or both, of the head: Whiplash resulted when their car was struck from behind.
“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle and edited by Tom Cross, was a hit at Sundance and most recently made a splash at the 87th Academy Awards with 5 nominations and 3 wins — one of those wins going to Tom Cross for editing the film. Filmmaking is an organic process: the film is a beast you’re trying to domesticate by taking it out of the page and placing it onto the screen. The idea dies many deaths: first when it is committed to paper; then when it is filmed; then once again when it is edited. I believe it was Bresson who used this metaphor. Each step is, in itself, a rewrite. The editing process, in many ways, is the final rewrite of the film. And it could make or break it before the light of the projector brings the idea back to life again.
If these are the three core parts of filmmaking, writing (pre-production), directing (production) and editing (post-production), one might argue that the role of the editor is equally important as the role of the writer and the role of the director. Editing isn’t just snipping the footage and glueing one shot together with the next; however, if done right, it should seem like the film wasn’t edited at all. The editing should seem invisible on the surface, but underneath each and every edit should affect our subconscious experience of the film. It should manipulate our emotions and deliver the theme of the movie into our brains without us knowing it — at least upon first viewing.
The “theme” is the universal idea that threads its way through a movie. It’s often the lesson we learn at the end of the story. It is critical for the filmmaker to identify the theme before making the film; it’s perhaps the most important thing a filmmaker can do in pre-production. The theme of the film is not the plot (which is usually summarized in the logline), but rather the idea that drives the plot.
What is the theme of “Whiplash?” Let’s let the editing tell us.
The film opens with the sound of snare drum hits under a black screen. It’s a building “march” reminiscent of antiquated military drum corps keeping soldiers in time, except this beat gets faster, faster and faster. As the beat concludes, the first shot is revealed to us. It’s a long shot that dollies through a hallway toward our main character, Andrew Neimann, played by Miles Teller.
He’s playing alone; he’s on his time, no one else’s.
Until, we are introduced to Dr. Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-Winning performance. In a movie that’s filled with precise, and often rapid-fire, editing, the first shot is notable for its wholeness. It only cuts when Fletcher enters the room, and enters Andrew’s life — as far as we can tell, Andrew’s life on screen did not necessitate a single edit…until he met Fletcher. In the first half of the film, Fletcher is in control of Andrew; how do the filmmakers underscore this? Fletcher is also in control of the edit itself.
In the scene in the movie theater, where we are first introduced to Andrew’s passive-to-a-fault father, we listen to their following dialogue:
Father: When you get to be my age, you have perspective.
Son: I don’t want perspective.
Often, in a well-written script, a supporting character will either state, or hint at, the theme of the movie in the first 5 minutes of the film. In this scene, his father does just that. What does Andrew want? One who does not want perspective, wants to live — and see the world — in the moment, in the time he is in now, neither faster or slower, but in time that is his.
The insert (or “detail shot”) of sheet music being opened and placed onto the music stand is faster than the actions Andrew performs in his medium close-up profile shot. By a hair. The action from one shot to the next doesn’t quite match –- the “music” is ahead of him. In the following scene, he places a picture of Buddy Rich on the wall in front of the drums, ahead of him –- he aspires to be as good as his idol, but is behind.
After Dr. Fletcher decides to give Andrew a shot, he wakes up at 6:03 on the day of the band’s rehearsal, 3 minutes after he was told to be there. He is behind; in fact, he is even filmed behind-the-time:
However, after rushing to get to the studio, he realizes that he is early — by 3 hours. He was manipulated, leading him, and us, to question: should he trust Fletcher’s version of “time?”
Fletcher walks in at 9:00 am precisely as the second hand hits the number 12. His footsteps are noticeable, the clacks against the floor evenly timed. After Fletcher boosts Andrew’s morale, telling him that he’s “here for a reason,” Andrew re-enters the rehearsal space in slow-motion. He gets behind the drums, also shot in slow-motion, until Fletcher re-enters the room, which resets the film into normal motion. Fletcher has intentionally relaxed Andrew, setting his mind and body into slow-motion, before entering the room himself and bringing the student up to his speed…quickly.
“Not my tempo,” Fletcher repeats.
In the scene that won J.K. Simmons his Oscar, Dr. Fletcher tests Andrew’s sense of timing. Is he rushing? Or is he dragging? Rushing, or dragging, or rushing, or dragging? Andrew jumps the cue, rushing it. What is he rushing or dragging?
Andrew promises to be on Fletcher’s time. Fletcher calls him a “rusher.” He is a rusher — his ambition seeks to rush him to greatness — however, his drumming ability is dragging.
Inside of his dorm room, the sound of drumming underscores the scene. As Andrew lets his father’s call go to voicemail, the playing of drums in the future seeps into his present, bringing us into the next scene of him copying the sheet music to “Whiplash” and practicing the drums. The editing says he’s trying to catch-up to himself, to his aspirations.
However, the drumming he performs himself is not in time with the drumming (the double-time swing of the ride cymbal) that plays under the scenes. There’s a perfect tempo in his head that he’s trying to attain; and he’ll shed blood to attain it. It’s interesting to note that while his drumming is off, the editor chooses to place cuts of Andrew placing band-aids on his hand that are in perfect rhythm with the timing of the ride cymbal –-
Andrew’s desire to succeed is in the right time, along with his willingness to sacrifice his physical health, but his talent is not.
The Overbrook Competition: The Midpoint of the film (in screenwriting terms, the point-of-no-return for the main character):
Andrew loses the core drummer’s sheet music (either by accident, or intentionally — the reality of how he lost it is ambiguous) and is forced to take over, since he has the song memorized. He helps his band win the competition and, as a result, becomes their core drummer.
After this moment of triumph for Andrew, this validation of his talent, he endures an awkward dinner with his extended family. Andrew’s announcement that he’s the new core drummer gets upstaged by his cousins, as their mother boasts of their achievements. No one seems to grasp the importance of Andrew’s achievement (at least, the achievement as he sees it in his own mind). As the conversation moves on, Andrew doesn’t: the camera remains on him, just as his mind remains on his accomplishment, an accomplishment no one seems to understand.
He interrupts his family’s conversation: “It’s Division 3,” belittling his cousin’s accomplishment. He finally gets everyone’s attention with his blunt and impolite manners. Once he does, every single line and physical reaction that Andrew delivers is cut to immediately before he delivers it. The timing is perfect — it’s his timing — and everyone else is following his tempo. The supporting characters deliver their lines back at him as though they’re hitting tennis balls back at him.
Andrew is controlling the conversation, and the editing emphasizes that.
After the Midpoint of the film, Fletcher is well aware of his student’s point-of-no-return, his commitment to this band, and he exploits it. He begins pushing him to the limit by bringing in a new player. With regard to the blocking, the scene starts with Fletcher sitting and Andrew standing — higher than Fletcher — and ends with Andrew sitting behind the drums — lower than Fletcher — which is emphasized in a high angle shot over Fletcher’s shoulder.
Dr. Fletcher has reasserted his control over Andrew.
Following this scene, is the second (and “last”) date with his girlfriend (it is important to note that this is the first time we’ve seen them together since their first date).
Andrew is breaking up with her, before it feels to us he’s even really gone out with her. He describes their future; how he must dedicate himself to his drumming, and he articulates how he’ll eventually come to resent her for wanting to spend more and more time with him. Therefore, his conclusion is that they should preemptively break it off before any of this terrible, and inevitable, stuff happens. He delivers his lines extremely quickly — he’s rushing it — warning her that they’ll end up hating each other when she eventually asks him to quit the drums.
The entire B-Story (often the love story) of the film has been relegated to two scenes: the beginning of their relationship, and the end of their relationship. Both Andrew, and the filmmakers, have skipped over their entire courtship. Sometimes the moments left off the screen are just as, if not more important, than the scenes shown on the screen.
The couple’s time together is not in the same timeline as Andrew’s pursuit of drumming, his quest to become one of the greats.
Mirroring the montage sequence at the beginning of the film, music prelaps this scene between him and his girlfriend, leading us into the next scene of Andrew practicing. However, unlike before, the music consists only of bass and strings, no drums. Andrew is providing the only sounds of drumming —
He is starting to define his own rhythm.
During the brutal rotation of drummers, Andrew finally gets his tempo, he finally nails it. Fletcher keeps yelling at him: “Faster, faster, faster…” as he destroys the drums and equipment around him, while Andrew destroys his hands. “Keep playing, keep playing…Don’t stop!”
Andrew earns the part; and after being wound up faster, faster, faster, he walks away from rehearsal in slow-motion.
The Dunellen Competition: The bus that Andrew is riding on breaks down. While rushing to find an alternative form of transportation, he rents a car and inadvertently leaves his drumsticks behind. In an attempt to retrieve the sticks and get back in time for the competition, he recklessly speeds through an intersection and gets into a horrific accident. Why? Well, because he’s rushing. In this sequence, the cuts quicken — in rapid-fire succession — arriving at the images before Andrew does (they’re one step ahead of him).
HE IS LATE; he knows it, and we know it.
He is trying to catch-up with Fletcher’s time, with the time of potential greatness. When the accident occurs, time is literally turned upside-down — as conveyed by the clock being upside-down in the frame:
The effect, of course, is that it looks as though time is counting backwards.
Andrew’s progress has gone backwards, in one moment of hubris and thoughtless behavior.
[We are about to get into some major spoiler territory, so I caution reading forward if you haven’t seen the film.]
After fighting Fletcher, both physically and legally, which ultimately leads to his teacher’s dismissal from Shaffer Conservatory, Andrew attempts to live a normal life — which is a life without drumming. He works a job, he watches movies with his Dad again; however, when we see him walking in the street eating a slice of pizza, he still hears the siren call of the drums. He can’t escape it. The sounds of a street musician beating on buckets catches his, and our, attention, and operates as an act of The Fates — it leads him around the corner to the very nightclub where Terence Fletcher is playing.
It’s as though Andrew’s life lacks music, lacks its “fix,” without Fletcher, the “pusher.”
In the club, the two men share a conversation: Fletcher explains that he was teaching at Shaffer to “push people beyond what’s expected of them.” It’s an absolute necessity; otherwise, he’d be depriving the world of the next great musician. The two decide to leave the past to the past, which results in Andrew deciding to play in his band once again.
At the climactic JVC Jazz Concert, the show starts with a new tune: “Upswinging.”
However, and this is the biggest “however” of the movie, Andrew soon realizes he’s been tricked by Fletcher: he doesn’t know the song, nor has he been provided with the sheet music for it. As the song kicks in, and the other musicians play their parts, he has to keep up…or not…and start his own beat.
Andrew crumples at the challenge, unable to play anything; in fact, he plays his worst drumming in the entire film at this climactic moment — a moment that Fletcher cautions the musicians earlier can either make or break a career.
After Andrew is humiliated, bringing the rendition to a resounding halt and retreating from the stage, he decides to do a 180 and walk right back out there. He gets behind the drums, undermines Fletcher’s authority as conductor and begins his own rhythm. He establishes his own tempo, which the editor, Tom Cross, punctuates by jump-cutting 3 successive times, getting closer and closer to Andrew, closer and closer to the rhythm he has created for Fletcher, for the musicians, and for everyone watching and listening (in the concert hall and in the movie theater).
Andrew is now in complete command of the camera and editing — just as he’s controlling Fletcher and every other musician on that stage, his performance is controlling the filmmakers.
In a movie crafted with such precise thought and motivation, this is the perfect ending:
All of Chazelle’s and Cross’s filmmaking tools have been usurped by Andrew behind the drums. We are all in his time, and the viewer must watch and listen according to his time from this point forward. The film does not cut before or after moments; it cuts ON THE TIME. ON ANDREW’S TIME. When the camera whips back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher, the movie fulfills the promise of its premise: Andrew and Fletcher become in sync; they find the same tempo; the camera moves suggest equilibrium and equality between these two characters. It’s notable, to say the least, that in a movie called “Whiplash,” Chazelle and Cross reserve use of the “whip pan” until the very end of the film.
When the song “Caravan” is finally over, Andrew keeps playing — he does not relinquish control of the stage back over to Fletcher. When Fletcher leans over Andrew and asks “What are you doing, man?” Andrew says, “I’ll cue you.”
Andrew is running the show; he has caught greatness; greatness is control of him and it’s best that both of them step out of the way and let it play out –-
The music drops out, time slows down…or does it speed up?
Cross presents us with a mixture of slow-motion and fast-motion shots, mostly extreme close-ups of bits and pieces of movements, limbs, drum equipment — i.e. not the whole picture, pieces of the picture. Time and space do not matter anymore because Andrew is finally, and fully, existing in the moment. He has achieved what he has been chasing after this entire time, what Fletcher has been pushing him to become: he has become a vehicle for greatness and is letting what is destined to be play out in real time in front of the audience.
At the end of his solo, Andrew looks up at his teacher, and for the first time, when it cuts to Fletcher’s eyes, he is shot in slow-motion as he watches his student, nodding in approval of his apprentice’s performance. When it cuts back to Andrew, he is shot at a normal frame rate (or a rate that is not noticeably as slow), but when we cut back to Fletcher, his coverage is still in slow-motion —
Andrew has now defined Fletcher’s tempo.
The world of the film, which was once Fletcher’s tempo, now exists within Andrew’s tempo.
Andrew has finally caught up to himself — he’s found his time, he’s found his rhythm in this world, and it is entirely unique, entirely his own, and not determined by anyone else. In a sense, he’s back to the beginning, in that first shot before Fletcher stepped into his life: he’s playing alone; he’s on his time, no one else’s. But, now he is great. And to become great, he ultimately had to reach inside himself and find that greatness.
We all must aspire to find our own time, our own rhythm, inside of ourselves: that is the theme of “Whiplash.”
The effect that Fletcher (and the Fletchers in our own lives, should we be either cursed or blessed to have one in our lives) had on Andrew accomplishing his goal (and have on us accomplishing ours) is a question for the cinematic ages.
For more on the importance of “theme” in filmmaking, take a look at my book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter):