Miles Teller and J K Simmons in the percussion-based psychological thriller Whiplash.
Show Hide image

Whiplash and Foxcatcher show there's more than one way to skin a fox

Despite strikingly similar prodigies and deranged mentors, Whiplash and Foxcatcher offer two very different takes on the mentor/pupil relationship.

Foxcatcher (15)
dir: Bennett Miller

Whiplash (15)
dir: Damien Chazelle

If Malcolm Tucker, the venomous spin doctor from The Thick of It, were to retrain as a music teacher, he would be something like Terence Fletcher, the intimidating tutor at the fictional New York Shaffer Academy in Whiplash. As played by J K Simmons, with more relish than a condiment factory, Fletcher fires off verbal Exocets that can obliterate all self-esteem within a five-mile radius. One agonising scene in which he unmasks an out-of-tune trumpet player makes the McCarthy witch-hunts look like a game of hide and seek. Fletcher seems especially inflamed by talent and ambition. When he spots those qualities in the 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), he’s like a hound that’s caught a whiff of fox.

A mentally deranged mentor also dom­inates Foxcatcher, which is based on real-life events. The Olympic gold-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is invited by the weedy billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to live on his 880-acre Pennsylvania estate and to form the core of the team that will compete for the US in Seoul in 1988. While Fletcher in Whiplash has training and is cruel in his genuine quest for excellence, du Pont is motivated only by patriotism and latent homosexuality.

In its prurient way, the film is terribly excited by this. A midnight wrestling session is shot to suggest that du Pont is passionate about taking Mark up the podium. The movie briefly turns into Behind the Candelabra when Mark snorts cocaine while sporting feathery highlights and too-short shorts. Then it’s back to self-important sobriety for a pep talk at the gym, staged for the benefit of the desiccated mother (Vanessa Redgrave) whose approval du Pont craves. There’s an excruciating moment when the team has to feign gratitude for his rudimentary pointers, like university dons being taught their ABCs. As du Pont instructs a wrestler to mount him, his mother gestures silently for her nurse to remove her from the scene. Anyone who tires of the director Bennett Miller’s lip-smacking glee at his characters’ misery will surely sympathise.

That the prodigies in each film share so many traits suggests a common psychological patterning in the mentor/pupil relationship, or the homogeneous nature of screenwriting courses. Both Andrew and Mark are motherless hunks with a desire to please Daddy and a passing resemblance to a slab of meat. The techniques that their tormentors adopt also have certain nuances in common. Like any torturer worth the salt he pours in your wounds, Fletcher and du Pont use personal information to annihilate their victims. Fletcher cosies up to Andrew in Whiplash and harvests details about his insecurities under cover of chumminess. We have already seen that Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is ineffectual – he apologises when a stranger knocks him on the head. And Andrew wants to please his father – but perhaps not this father. Love he has. Discipline he longs for.

Likewise, du Pont knows that Mark is living in the shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who was also on the Olympic team. Foxcatcher makes a feast of Mark’s humiliations. When he delivers a speech in a school hall, the film takes an unpleasant delight in cutting from Mark’s sad, monotonous voice to the blank faces of his young audience. As if the pittance he receives for his time weren’t insulting  enough, the cheque is mistakenly made out to his brother. The movie has destroyed him long before du Pont arrives on the scene. Even worse, it makes us feel he didn’t deserve any better.

The films’ differing attitudes towards their protagonists show that there is more than one way to skin a fox. Of course, Whiplash moves at a whipcrack pace that takes its rhythmic cues from drumming (some of the cuts are as fast as the beats in a Buddy Rich solo), whereas Foxcatcher could have been called Tortoisecatcher; it imitates deliberately the pace of wrestling where nothing happens for ages, bar imperceptible shuffling and nudging, until suddenly someone wins.

Yet it comes down to more than that. Both films begin with the same sober wide shot of an ambitious young man at work: Andrew is a cyclone of arms and sweat and hair at the centre of his drumkit, while Mark is grappling alone with a black leather wrestling dummy, as if embroiled in some esoteric sex game. From there, they div­erge. Foxcatcher exploits Mark’s suffering; Whiplash urges Andrew on because it understands his hunger to be great. The differences may come down to the filmmakers’ feelings about their chosen milieu. Whiplash savours the rampant rush of drumming, perhaps to excess. But when du Pont’s mother tells her son that wrestling is “a low sport”, it is easy to imagine those words in the director’s mouth.

Although Whiplash and Foxcatcher need their villains to provide jolts of electricity, neither film can be seen to endorse their behaviour. This is less of a problem in Whiplash, where the editing and cinematography are dynamic enough to supply their own current. The dependency that Foxcatcher places on the chilling Carell, his face anchored by a wheezing prosthetic nose that makes him slump even as he walks, seems like one more subtle betrayal of Mark Schultz.

Fletcher in Whiplash is a more humorous part, though this, too, benefits from funhouse physiognomy. Simmons’s smooth, bulbous head resembles the tip of a drumstick. His tight drum-skin face and baggy neck suggest one of those rubberised old-crone masks popular in joke shops. An unusual (and possibly unresolvable) flaw in the screenplay by the first-time director Damien Chazelle is that this sexist, sizeist and vehemently homophobic teacher offers no bespoke insults to the African-Americans in his class.

It may sound odd to bemoan a character’s lack of racism but it’s the only punch that Whiplash pulls. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Show Hide image

No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.