The Visuals of Music: The Effect of Close-Up Interaction and Lighting in Whiplash

A cymbal crashes in a room full of people. Everyone immediately turns and stares in interest. The incident starts and ends in a heartbeat, but the sound attracts an incredible amount of attention – one that can rarely be overtaken by anything else. Amazingly, in Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, the drums fade out and personal interaction crescendos in. Portraying a jazz student, Miles Teller’s character is physically and emotionally hurt by his professor, played by JK Simmons. In the film’s initial rehearsal with the top ensemble, Chazelle uses close up/extreme close up shots and lighting effects to intensify the interaction between Teller and Simmons, paving the way for the core theme of hate and suffering as seen throughout the film.

One of the most obvious themes seen in Whiplash is the consistent union between hate and suffering. Professor Fletcher’s constant hate is opposed by the suffering that Nieman has to endure. This theme is seen during most rehearsals and interactions between the two characters. The first rehearsal scene sets the tone for the theme used for the rest of the movie. One of Nieman’s main conflicts in the movie is his struggle to survive as a drummer – his ideal career path. In order to advance his career, however, Nieman has to overcome (and suffer through) Fletcher’s use of hate. As a whole, Whiplash is not a happy movie. There are far more instances of struggle/pain than triumph/success. The first rehearsal scene in the movie uses the close-up and extreme close-up zooms to develop the theme of the union of constant hate and suffering seen throughout the film’s entirety.

Throughout the duration of Whiplash, a basic formula of zooming can be seen. At the start of most scenes, there is an extreme wide, establishing shot which allows the viewer to see the whole situation in context. As the scene progresses, the shots deepen; a shot of the whole room becomes one character; a shot of one character becomes one face; a shot of one face becomes one set of eyes. In the aforementioned rehearsal scene, this formula applies. The shot of the entire ensemble shifts to the rhythm section and eventually solely to Nieman (Teller) and Fletcher (Simmons). The brute evil exhibited by Prof. Fletcher is most vividly portrayed through the extreme close up view. While Fletcher is still incredibly present and fearsome in a body shot, the anger seen in his eyes is second to none. On the other hand, the extreme close up shot of Nieman works equally well. After Prof. Fletcher throws the chair at Nieman, the shot cuts to an extreme close up of Nieman’s face. No lines are spoken. No lines are needed. The shocked and petrified Nieman is seen through a still face, wide open eyes, and a blank stare. Although the shot is the complete opposite look seen previously with Fletcher, Chazelle gets the same result. He doesn’t use dialogue here because he doesn’t have to; when Chazelle does include dialogue (i.e. with Fletcher’s yelling) it is even more impactful. Overall, Chazelle’s usage of zooming led to a greater conveyance of the film’s overarching theme of the unity between hate and suffering and are one of several pieces (including lighting effects) that emphasize the theme.

While Whiplash is mostly a very realistic film, one thing that looks incredibly different and staged is the lighting. Seen in the first rehearsal scene, the lighting is unusually dark for a music rehearsal facility. Of course, there is solid reasoning behind this decision. Even before the plot starts to intensify, the dark lighting adds a bit of suspense and fear to the situation. Later, the dark lighting matches Fletcher’s dark personality. Another large reason for the dark background is that there are no external distractions. Viewers are forced to look directly at the character’s faces. Even though this addition by Chazelle is small and subtle in the grand scheme of things, it helps establish the bondage of hate and suffering seen throughout the whole film.

One of the best ways to find out how someone is feeling is to look right at their face. Chazelle’s use of lighting makes the viewer look straight at the characters’ faces. When Chazelle zooms in at the faces of Nieman and Fletcher, the key emotions of hate and suffering come out; this helps develop the theme of the union of constant hate and suffering. The emotions conveyed by Nieman and Fletcher, while done in an outstanding manner, are emotions conveyed every day in common situations, but the people who convey these emotions are often ignored. Why? Often times, it can be too uncomfortable to talk to someone who is suffering. Even more difficult is condemning and ceasing a person who is splurging hate. Standing up to situations like these are ways that every person can help fight hate and suffering in the world. Sadly enough, people like Professor Fletcher do exist in the real world. As American writer Dale Anderson said, “[i]naction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage”. The world needs more confidence and courage.

The ethics of Terence Fletcher’s abusive teaching style in the film Whiplash

Whiplash is a 2014 American film directed by Damien Chazelle (2014). There are two main characters in the film. The first is a young drummer called Andrew Neiman, who is a music student at Shaffer Conservatory. The other character is Terence Fletcher, Neiman’s abusive teacher. Fletcher believes the best way to motivate students is to push them to their limits. To this end, he insults them, shouts at them, slaps them and even throws chairs at them. Neiman quickly becomes Fletcher’s favorite target for abuse, eventually causing Neiman to have a nervous breakdown. Despite this, Fletcher still believes his abusive teaching style is justified because he thinks it pushes students to be the best they can be. This essay examines the ethical consideration of whether Fletcher’s teaching style is an ethical way to motivate his students. It finds that Fletcher’s teachings style was unethical, and uses three ethical theories – utilitarianism, Kantian ethics and the ethics of care – to support its claim. First, this essay uses utilitarianism to show that the consequences of Fletcher’s behavior outweigh its benefits. Then, it uses Kantian ethics and the ethics of care to further support the argument that Fletcher’s teaching style is unethical.

We can show that Fletcher’s teaching style is unethical by using utilitarianism. According to this ethical theory, moral actions maximize utility, such as happiness or pleasure (Mill 1859). In other words, the most moral actions maximize happiness. To determine if Fletcher’s bullying and abuse teaching style was ethical according to utilitarianism, we have to weigh the happiness against the suffering Fletcher caused. What happiness does Fletcher cause? Fletcher believes his abuse is justified because it motivates his students and helps them to become great musicians. A good example is Neiman, because at the end of the film, Neiman indeed becomes a great musician thanks to Fletcher. Neiman will presumably go on to create music that millions of people will enjoy, which means Neiman has helped to make millions of people happy. But despite these benefits of Fletcher’s bullying teaching style, there are also many consequences. For example, his abuses causes his students emotional harm as well as physical harm. In the film, we learn that one of Fletcher’s students killed himself because of Fletcher’s abuse. Another of his students gets into a car crash because he was rushing to a music competition. Furthermore, several of his other students may have damaged psyches for the rest of their lives.

So on the one hand, Fletcher motivates his students to greatness, but on the other hand he also harms his students. Does one hand outweigh the other? Yes, because the negative consequences of Fletcher’s abusive teaching methods outweigh the benefits. This is because Fletcher caused strong unhappiness in his students for very little payoff. Out of all Fletcher’s students, the film implies that none of them become very successful except for Neiman. There was also a strong chance that Neiman could have died or given up on music because of Fletcher. Fletcher almost destroyed Neiman, emotionally, physically and musically. Also, we do know for certain if Neiman will keep on making music for people to enjoy. Therefore, the harmful consequences of Fletcher’s bullying outweighed the benefits of Fletcher’s teaching style. This means that Fletcher’s behavior was unethical according to utilitarianism.

We can also show that Fletcher’s abuse of his students was immoral by using Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant created his categorical imperative as a way to determine if actions are ethical. His categorical imperative has three formulations, and an action has to pass all three of these formulations for it to be ethical (Kant 1875). This makes it a suitable test to determine if Fletcher’s actions were ethical. The first formulation of the categorical imperative is the principle of universal law. This principle states that moral actions can be consistently universalized. Can we consistently universalize Fletcher’s actions? To answer this question, we can phrase Fletcher’s actions as a maxim and then try to universalize it. We could use the maxim: “all teachers can abuse their pupils”. To universalize this maxim, we must imagine a world where all teachers are allowed to abuse their pupils in the same way Fletcher did. So in this world, teachers can slap pupils, throw chairs at them, and abuse them psychologically. This world could not exist because parents would not allow the abuse to happen. Parents would see the damage to their children and take them out of school. Therefore, we cannot consistently universal Fletcher’s behavior. And since we cannot consistently universal it, it means it is immoral.

We can also verify the immorality of Fletcher’s behavior with the second formulation of the categorical imperative: the principle of ends. According to this formulation, an immoral person uses other people as a means to an end. In other words, an immoral person manipulates people to obtain things that he wants. Is Fletcher an immoral person according to his formulation? Yes, because a key part of Fletcher’s teaching style is manipulating and lying to his students. Furthermore, this manipulation was for Fletcher’s own selfish goal of turning them into great musicians. This is shown when Fletcher manipulates Neiman to make him practice harder. It is also clear that Fletcher did not treat with Neiman with respect, because he ruthlessly harmed Neiman’s physical and mental health. Therefore, Fletcher’s actions also fail the second formulation of the categorical imperative. This adds to the weight of evidence proving that Fletcher’s actions were immoral.

Another way we can see that Fletcher’s abuse in Whiplash was unethical is by using ethics of care. Ethics of care is an ethical theory developed in the late twentieth century by feminists (Gilligan 1982). These feminists argued that empathy and sensitivity was more important than the cold, masculine logic of rule-based ethical theories, According to ethics of care, moral people show sympathy and care towards other people. Moral people also have trusting, caring and respectful relationships with other people. Was Fletcher’s behavior in Whiplash therefore unethical according to ethics of care? Yes, because Fletcher was not respectful or sympathetic with his students. Instead, he was exploitative and hostile. He threw chairs at people and made Neiman drum until his hands bled. A sympathetic teacher would not have abused his students like this. Perhaps the greatest example of Fletcher’s failure to care is when Neiman crashes his car and arrives at a concert covered in blood. Instead of being sympathetic and concerned like a normal person, Fletcher instead dismisses Neiman for ruining the performance. Fletcher did not seem concerned at all that Neiman had been in a car crash – instead, he was angry at Neiman for ruining the performance. This behavior demonstrates that Fletcher’s actions were immoral according to ethics of care. In Whiplash, Fletcher’s abusive teaching style – throwing chairs at pupils, slapping them, and making them play until their hands bled – was unethical. However, Fletcher believed he was doing the right thing because he thought his teaching style was the best way to motivate students. He may have been right, because by the end of the film, Neiman indeed became a great musician. However, Fletcher’s harsh teaching style also caused one student to commit suicide, and Niemen himself also suffered from a nervous breakdown. Therefore, the consequences of Fletcher’s abusive teaching style outweigh its benefits. Furthermore, Kantian ethics shows that Fletcher’s behaviour was immoral because he was manipulating his students to get them to practice harder. Moreover, we cannot universalize the maxim “all teachers can abuse their pupils” which also implies Fletcher’s behaviour was immoral. Ethics of care also shows the immorality of Fletcher’s teaching style. Given all this evidence, it seems clear that Fletcher was wrong to abuse his students in the way he did. Even though Fletcher justified his abuse as a cost of great art, in the end, his abuse was simply immoral.

Works CitedChazelle, D. (2014). Whiplash, Sony Pictures Classics: 106 minutes.Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice, Harvard University Press.Kant, I. (1875). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Yale University Press.Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. UK, Penguin.