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

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.