Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Art Abuse: Whiplash

Just watched it, Whiplash.

You know, I did not want to see it because I heard that J.K. Simmons plays an abusive instructor and I did not want to revisit this sort of thing. I had one of those guys in my life for two years at The Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC and it was very demoralizing. And I was one of the liked and lucky students. It was very unmooring and simply painful and embarrassing. Let's call the teacher who behaved horrendously, Ed Windsor.

Ed attacked, withheld support, used students as negative examples, yelled, shamed and basically told us that we were all a bunch of spoiled pussies. His behavior was erratic. At times he was kind. But that was usually only after he made you cry. He was a classic bully and took great pleasure in his power.

Ed was an abuser. But he also loved acting and wanted those of us who could get there to get there.

Strangely, Whiplash seems to land on the side of the abuser's philosophy. It's all worth it in the end if you can weed out the losers so the truly committed will rise up.  A sort of Darwinian puzzle that has its final Galapagos moments in Carnegie Hall.

Blech, really. Too simple.

However, it is shot so well.  It is acted very well. The music is great. The relationships very clear. The screenplay very surprising. The theme of Whiplash/reversal is very present.

There is a lot of blood spilled on drum kits.

I don't know what is to be gained from any of this. The experience of watching the movie was very much like the experience of being attacked and ridiculed in conservatory in the name of art, in the name of idol worship and some arbitrary idea of perfection. So if you want to feel the terror of really wanting something while having the person who has that key to wanting be a mood-disordered, unexamined bully, have at it.  J.K. Simmons does an amazing job.

The old man who was still presiding at my school at the time, Sanford Meisner, the founder, the boss of Ed Windsor, was someone I also had the strange experience of studying under occasionally. He, clearly, was full of rage. There are so many stories of how great Sandy was. Maybe. In his youth. But as an old man, smoking cigarettes while speaking through the hole in his cancer-carved trachea, and shaming and ridiculing students for not living up to his expectations, he was anything but someone to look up to. We were all examples to be pinned to a board, to show everyone how not to do it.  He had an agenda and that agenda was to scare the hell out of us, to make sure we knew that we were miles away from any kind of greatness. He, like Ed, enjoyed ridiculing his students. It was simply a game. Perhaps something taught to him by his furrier father during the Great Depression.

There was this knocking exercise where you would knock and enter and your scene partner would say, "That was a _________ knock," and the improv would begin.  I decided to try a timid knock, figuring it was sort of an original idea. Like, "Who could this timid person be, knocking?"

The exercise did not last long. And Sanford Meisner turned to the class and said about me, "If you make love the way you knock on doors, all the girls in this room would become lesbians."

The class roiled with laughter. Especially the ones who were trying to get Sanford to approve of them. It was disgusting. I loathe public humiliation. I probably should have walked out that day. But of course, like in any abusive situation that dangles a carrot, you continue--hoping to win approval. I, like the other students, was under the spell, the promise of future greatness if I could endure the hazing. Like in any cult, there were specific terms defined and used by the cult. There was a charismatic leader. There were promises of this case, a career in acting. We were so young and cowed and wanting. I think of the students in my class and I shudder, remembering the ones who were terrified and the Vichy-types who collaborated.

Dylan McDermott was a year ahead of me. He stood up to the power, to this mad-man Ed. He was not afraid. His name was Mark then. He paved the way for a coup. He was a hero. He set the tone for someone quieter to really take care of this mess.

The second year, after Dylan graduated and went to Broadway and the rest of us remained to finish out our second years, a talented actress, who eventually became a Unitarian minister, took it into her hands to get Ed Windsor removed from the staff. No small feat. He was a fixture and the most senior teacher. But clearly, it was time. Sanford Meisner approved of this removal. One of the things Mr. Meisner said was, "Some teachers, they think they are imitating me, but they get it all wrong."

Somehow, Sanford Meisner was insulted by Ed Windsor's poor imitation.  I am certain there were other things going on. But the rumors we heard were not substantiated so I will not put them into words.

After I graduated from the school, my boyfriend and I, who also went there, lived in our walkup, with the bath tub in the kitchen, and we sort of figured out how to live, though stunned and weakened by it all. We got acting jobs. We continued. I don't know that we were any better or any worse than other actors who went to less charismatic-cult-like schools. I do think Sanford Meisner's technique is very useful and it does pretty much insist that you be honest. Which is great. But perhaps not worth the price of admission. Our most famous graduate from our class was Illeana Douglas. She was very good at dodging the nastiness. But she knew how to act before she even got there.

I stayed in touch, strangely enough, with Ed Windsor. I ultimately felt terrible that we got him fired. Stockholm syndrome? The future minister who helmed his being fired got most of the students at the school to sign a petition for his expulsion. It truly worked. She was righteous, smart, a Vassar girl, and she put her talents to good use. I haven't seen her in years. I was blown away by her strength, something quiet and knowing. She was one of my best friends back then. I hope she is ministering well. But the whole showdown was traumatic for everyone. I really wished and wanted Ed to simply "recover" or something...

Ed, maybe, I thought, like one does of all abusers, "Well, if we could have just talked to him. If we just could have all had a sit-down..."   This, of course, was not much different from my reaction to George W. Bush during all his wars. I had a dream that I was the only liberal let into his circle and I was actually able to tame the bully.

Ed Windsor was very talented when he was young but not Hollywood pretty, so his career did not take off like his best buddy's did--John Voigt. Ed was an also-ran. This caused interminable pain to his ego. He was also, it seems, someone who must have endured much abuse from his own father. Ed did soften after his termination. And I did stay in touch with him. I wanted him to know that I succeeded. I wanted him to know that he did help me. I wanted him to know, though, that his behavior was not cool.  Ed actually did teach me many things.  He did toughen me up. He did force me to please him, to learn how to do this thing, this parlor trick, called "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances." And that is what is so odd about artist abuse. You can be destroyed and lifted up all at the same time.

However, I do not recommend it. At all.

Watch the movie, if you want to.  But you can miss it, too.


marianf said...

What a great piece of writing and aptly captured a time in our lives when we give our power too easily over to someone who does not appreciate who we are.
I'm glad you escaped with your wisdom and obvious talent intact.

Kathy Vance said...

I stumbled on to your review while searching for the NY Times' review, so I read yours first. It is the first one i've read of this movie which I saw only just last night. Wonderfully acting, underwhelming, predictable plot. Not to mention -- boy, do I hate that kind of jazz. Then, not so coincidently, I got a long earful of this very same tale on the way home. The more interesting story is what drives this type of teacher, and a study of their psychological maladies would make better entertainment - though probably sell fewer tix. But as you point out in this piece, it's a number of fairly obvious things which we all already know about, anyway. This movie was disappointing cliche dressed as a revelation. I can hear the conversation in the editing room now; "yeah, but it needs more blood." "right? pour on some more."

John B said...

Oh, man. What she said. And what you said. It really took me back to the Playhouse, and then it also took me forward to the jobs where I worked for bullies, and that's not something I needed to revisit.

But I did think that the actors surpassed the material, and that made it worth seeing.

Great review. You also reminded me that there are those we know who were able to dismantle our bad habits and inspire us, and they were able to do this without belittling. That's a talent that's far more rare, and much more admirable.

* said...

Glad you both found it.