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

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon