“Whiplash” - The Little Drummer Boy

November 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum

If you’ve seen “Whiplash,” you’ll get the irony. If not, watch the trailer.

Like most trailers, it pretty much tells you the whole story, though it inflates the boy-girl theme, which in the actual movie is an afterthought, a bit of romantic relief in lieu of comic relief (the movie has zero laughs). After all, we can’t have 105 minutes of non-stop sadism, intimidation, and humiliation. And blood. There’s a lot of blood. Much more than you’d expect in a movie about jazz drumming. But then, this movie is not really about jazz.

Getting back to the Christmas carol, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons – the music teacher as drill sergeant) is no Baby Jesus, but he is a charismatic figure albeit a negative one.  He leads the band via charismatic authority. Andrew (Miles Teller) and the other students are in his thrall. They want only to please him and avoid his cruelty.  It is for him that they practice, it is for him that they play (“Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?”).

“Whiplash” is shot mostly in dim music rooms, and the lighting gives the movie a film noir feel.  But the constellation of conflicts and characters too reaches back to film noir. . .

. . . a night-time dream world . . . where the hero is involved in a conflict of crime and punishment with the older man, his boss, often the lord of the underworld

That’s from a book published in 1950, Movies, a Psychological Study, by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites.  They sort out the dominant themes in American, Brtish, and French films of the late 1940s. Watching “Whiplash” you get the sense that little has changed. In the “night-time world . . .  the hero grapples with a dangerous older man and wards off entanglement with a desirable and yearning woman.” Even from the trailer, you can see that this is a good description of the place of romance in “Whiplash.” The character of Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is also foretold by Wolfenstein and Leites.  “The hero’s father is usually a sympathetic character, and almost always ineffectual.”

As in film noir, the conflicts are largely external. The hero need not admit the possibility of his own dark impulses.  That goes for the audience as well. These are all projected onto the bad guy.

It is the hero’s boss who attacks him and who commits numerous crimes for which he frequently tries to inculpate the hero. The violent impulses [of the hero],* acknowledged in much [other] Western tragedy, find a reverse expression here. The [hero] is in the clear because the older man attacks him first. Everything he does is in self-defense. Any bad actions of which the heroes of other dramas may accuse themselves appear as a frame-up against which the hero must fight. He would be amply justified in killing the unfairly attacking older man.

Andrew’s motives are pure mostly.  He starts off nearly as innocent as the little drummer boy, though with more ambition. He wants to work hard and become a good drummer, maybe the best. But then Fletcher insinuates himself into the boy’s dreams to distort those motives into a self-destructive obsession. It feels like a case of demonic possession, and Fletcher is the demon.

Because the conflicts are externalized, because the film dumps all negative impulses into the character of Fletcher, there can be only one resolution. The trailer doesn’t give away the ending, but you can guess. There’s going to be a showdown between Andrew and Fletcher.  Why? Because, as I’ve remarked several times in this blog (here  for example), American films often hinge on the assumption that all problems can be solved by a climactic confrontation. The problems might be external – politics, crime, etc., – and the good guy and bad guy slug it out to see whose vision of the society will prevail.  But even when the conflicts are internal - the hero’s moral and psychological state – they are solved by a contest, often athletic. “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” find their true inner virtue in the ring. But the arena might just as easily be a chess tournament, a pool hall, a dance floor. Or a band performance.

In reality, transposing the film noir set-up to a jazz band is a bit of a stretch. In these movies, the question is who’s going to run this show – the good guy or the bad guy (as in “On the Waterfront,”  “High Noon,” and surely many others).  But jazz students in band class aren’t learning to stand out as leaders.  Just the opposite – they’re learning to play as part of a band. Horn players learn to blend with their section. Rhythm section players have more latitude; where horn parts are carefully written note for note, the score for piano, bass, guitar, and drums will have sections that are less specific – chord symbols or general rhythmic indications. But rhythm players too, including drummers, must learn to meld with the ensemble.**

Unfortunately, a hero learning to be an integral part of a whole would not make for much of a movie, at least not an American movie. But to repeat, this movie is not about jazz, learning it or playing it. It’s about the conflict between the young hero and the lord of the underworld.


* Wolfenstein and Leities, writing in 1950 and much influenced by Freud, put this in Oedipal terms: “the violent impulses of sons toward their fathers.”

** There are one or two exemplary musical moments in “Whiplash” where you hear a well-rehearsed band doing some great ensemble playing.  That said, there are real-life drummers who do lead the band, loudly, and let the audience make no mistake as to who is the star of the show.  Most notably there was Buddy Rich, who seems to be an inspiration for the characters in “Whiplash” and perhaps for the filmmaker as well. Buddy had more than a touch of Fletcher, as you can hear in some of his rants on the bus, tearing into his young musicians, rants that were surreptitiously taped by the band’s pianist Lee Musiker. Listen here.

Old Folks At Home . . . And Abroad

November 22, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed yesterday (here). The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”

So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey in eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the US are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.*

Over half the the US seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs. (All the other countries were below 50%.)

And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses.

In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb.

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? US seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the US lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.

There was one bright spot for US seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.

Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo. Throughout his years in the White House, George Bush insisted that “America has the best health care system in the world.” Their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But you’d think that they might take a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support.

* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Sexting and Gender

November 18, 2014.
Posted by Jay Livingston


Much of Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article “Why Kids Sext” plays on the generational divide. Parents get understandably upset about something that kids see as just another part of social life. Cops and prosecutors have an even more difficult time since a high schooler’s sexy cellphone selfie is a felony in most states.

The media too aren’t sure how to play it. “Massive teen sexting ring,” gasped the headline in a local paper  in Louisa County, Virginia. A couple of high school kids had created an Instagram page with about 100 photos of girls from the local high school and middle school. They hadn’t taken the pictures; they had merely consolidated the photos that were already circulating on kids’ phones. When Rosin asked kids in the local high school how many people they knew who had sexted, the “ring” turned out to be “everyone.”  (The kids overestimated. I think that surveys find that  about a third of kids have sexted.)

Rosin’s article reveals differences not just of age but of gender, for despite the newest iPhone and Instagram technology, the ideas and attitudes, especially those of the boys, seem like something out of the 1950s.  The “maddening, ancient, crude double standard” is, unfortunately, alive and well. So is the idea of sex as conquest. Boys describe how they would sweetly cajole girls to sext. When the photo arrived, the boys felt a kind of egotistical pride (“I’m the man”) –  not much different from high school boys of sixty or seventy years ago bragging about “getting to second base” or farther.  (I guess a sext is somewhere between second and third – a sort of jpeg shortstop.)  On college campuses, as Lisa Wade has said,  the order of the bases has changed. Maybe that’s true in high school too, but the game mentality – with all its attendant attitudes and assumptions – remains the same.

If a girl refused, the boys dismissed her as “stuck up” or a “prude.” And if she did send the photo . . .

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.
    “Super thots.” [THOT - “that ho over there”]
    “You can't love those thots!”
    “That's right, you can't love those hos.”

Whichever the girl does, the boys find a reason to be contemptuous.

For the boys, the  pictures were not about sex or stimulation; they were purely for narcissistic satisfaction and social status.

They gloat inwardly or brag to friends; they store them in special apps or count them. . . . “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told me, referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

The boys saw the sexts as a universalistic and utilitarian currency – something they could trade and use for other goals. That’s why the boys’ promises not to show the picture to anyone else can evaporate so quickly.  The picture has use value only if others see it.  Ithas meaning as an object; that meaning is not connected with the particular person in the picture.  She could just as easily be Charmander or Snorlax.

The girls, by contrast, were more particularistic. A picture was important for what it said about the relationship between her and the boy.  Girls have the relationship in mind also in those rarer instances when they ask a boy for a picture

It is kind of a marker that you have reached a certain point in a relationship or you are about to reach a certain point in a relationship. So it can be foreplay. It can be a kind of intimacy.[Rosin in a Fresh Air interview here.]

That “marker” comment suggests that the girls too had a “base” system in mind, but if so, the bases were the stages in the relationship, the level of intimacy with another person. They did not share the boys’ view of the sext as a bit of capital added to their individual holdings and separate from the person in the photo.


Sex – universal commodity or special relationship?  Many years ago, long before cell phones and sexts, I thought I might demonstrate this difference by asking students to imagine a dream date. I was a genii, I said, and I will grant your wish. You can have a date with any person you choose. You can spend an evening doing whatever you want, and if you like, the evening can extend till morning.
But you must choose one of two conditions.
    A.  You actually have the date, but nobody will ever know about.
    B.  You don’t have the date, but everybody thinks you did.

I had them mark their ballots anonymously but asked them to indicate their gender.  Then, as an afterthought – mostly because I wanted to keep up with popular culture – I also asked them to write down who they were thinking of.

I thought that more boys would choose B – the date as utilitarian currency.  I was wrong. Everybody wanted the actual date. But gender did make difference on the second question. Most of the boys chose women from the media (as I recall, Heather Locklear got several votes – I told you this was a long time ago).  The girls’ choices were more along the lines of “this guy I knew in high school” or “this guy I went out with last year but we broke up.”

The boys did not want the date as a tradeable commodity. Instead it was an abstracted ideal, a fantasy. They had no idea what it would actually be like to spend a few hours with Heather Locklear.  What the girls wanted was a real relationship with a real person.

Hope and Bugs, Of Course

November 15, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since I read Andrew Gelman’s list of words to avoid, I’ve been more conscious of the simple “of course.”  I still use it, but more sparingly and cautiously.  (Gelman’s list, here, includes obviously, clearly, interestingly, note that, and their variants like “it is interesting to note that.”)

But then there’s the ironic “of course,” the one that points to some gem that is far from obvious. Done correctly, the casually tossed in “of course” makes us admire the author for spotting this sparkling insight. Maybe it makes us feel a bit inadequate for not seeing it ourselves, especially since the author is saying, “Aw shucks, anybody would have seen that.”

Adam Gopnik’s essay on Bob Hope in a recent New Yorker  shows you how it’s done:

The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny.

Of course. 

Even if you’re old enough to remember the “Road” movies with Bing Crosby and the Oscars, the USO tours and  the decades of TV appearances, you would not have come up with the Bugs-Bob parallel. Gopnik goes on to explain.

Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing [Crosby], though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.

Once Gopnik clears away the rough, we see the previously unnoticed diamond.  Hope, Bugs – of course. 

But I wanna tell ya’, the entire essay is worth reading, both for Gopnik’s aperçus and Hope’s funnier lines.