Exploring conflict through archetype in Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’
Many seek power over others. Others seek power over themselves. These values aren’t separate. They fuel and propagate each other. And in Damien Chazelle’s scintillating 2014 drama ‘Whiplash’, they collide.
‘Whiplash’ is a film about Andrew Neman- an aspiring jazz drummer, whose desire for greatness puts him on a head-first collision with his all-powerful music coach, Steven Fletcher: a man who believes that suffering and sacrifice are fundamental for success.
Through their battle between domination and overcoming Chazelle not only creates enduring conflict, but allows us to explore the basic building blocks of human psychology.
Warrior. King. Far from mythological musings, these archetypes are central to personal development. ‘Whiplash’ shows us what happens when they are taken to extremes, laying bare the darkness that lays within all of us, which, when left unchecked, can lead to destructive, extraordinary consequences…
What are the archetypes?
Originating from the groundbreaking work of psychologist Carl Jung (1875- 1961), an archetype is defined as part of the collective unconscious; an inherited pattern of thought that is universally present, laying dormant, or active, in individuals. Sounds ambiguous? Well, throw your mind back to the glory days of secondary school, each memory, I am sure, is jam-packed with a particular set of characters.
Each year group had the jester, teasing and tormenting the teacher to breaking point whilst the class circled like vultures, lapping up every last scrap of banter. Same goes for the sage, commonly found buried in bookish brilliance, scouring away the morsels of info lying deep in the library.
When people undertake activities such as poking fun, seeking knowledge, they access universal patterns of behavior that have been acted out over the ages. It is through understanding both the benefits and limitations of such patterns that we can learn to be not only more well rounded people, but strive for the highest good possible- a good that is achievable only within the unique remit of our personal development.
Neman the Warrior, Fletcher the King
‘Whiplash’ explores two central archetypes that typify the human experience. With mind honed on jazz-drumming glory, Andrew Neman represents the warrior archetype. His constant seeking to better himself in skill embodies this fighting ethos. We see the warrior archetype in the purpose-driven form of ancient fighters like the Spartans and Samurai to the trailblazing Martin Luther King and Suffragettes.
Neman’s teacher, Terrence Fletcher, embodies the King archetype. The King primarily exerts power over others. He lies at the centre of his universe, providing fertility and blessing. Fertility as tied to creation is seen in Fletcher’s constant striving to push his students to perform at the highest point of their ability. Only then will they receive his blessing and approval. Like the leaders of ancient Kingdoms and modern nation states, Fletcher’s Kingdom -the Shaffer Conservatory- is a clearly defined space, an area in which he has total control.
Creating the ultimate conflict
Whiplash’s central conflict starts in the first scene. The camera zooms in on Andrew Neman, furiously drumming, immersed in his dark studio. Fletcher enters. Even in that opening moment, Neman is pushed to extremes, forced to play faster and faster, until Fletcher leaves, deeply disappointed with the performance. Neman looks on; a broken warrior.
In Fletcher, Chazelle’s creates the ultimate antagonist for Neman. In his bestselling book ‘The Anatomy of Story’, John Truby teaches us that the keys to creating a great antagonist is by forming a character “who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.” Fletcher is extremely capable in this regard. Through his kingly power over Neman, taunting Neman for his (relative) inability, father’s mediocrity and social isolation, Fletcher is able to chip away at the one thing which haunts his warrior’s desires- the fact Neman isn’t great yet.
But more importantly, alongside the antagonist’s power, “It is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and the opponent are forced to come into direct conflict” (Truby). Like the great kings of old, Fletcher also strives for a legacy. In one of the films final scenes Fletcher bemoans how he never had his own great player, his own ‘Charlie Parker’ (a famous jazz saxophonist). Embedded in this comparison is the more important story told by Fletcher of how Charlie Parker became famous only after his teacher Jo Jones “threw a cymbal at his head.” This story encapsulates the moral vision that places both characters on a collision course throughout the film, and unites them in its conclusion: great success requires the destruction of one’s old self.
Combining conflict and archetype: what do we learn?
– We live lives only as interesting as the forces of antagonism we create
Humans thrive on challenges and goal setting. When our sense of challenge dissipates, our life-force goes with it. This explains a wide range of phenomena, from the depression great artists often endure after the completion of their work, to the post-exam lull that is often felt by students that have previously relied on a rigid, disciplined daily structure. What makes ‘Whiplash’ such a captivating film is Neman’s warrior-ability to endure antagonism. Just like ‘Whiplash’, without seeking goals that entail antagonistic forces our lives would have no intrigue, no story, no character.
– In order to be more grounded individuals, we need to access all our archetypes
Throughout ‘Whiplash’, Neman often strays into the shadow (negative) form of his archetype, the sadist. When a warrior becomes obsessed by their mission to the extent that they are blunted to any form of human connection, they access the sadist. But it is precisely this lack of human connection that holds Neman back from more power- in the form of understanding and in turn standing up against Fletcher’s domineering intentions.
Similarly, Fletcher’s shadow, the tyrant, often comes to the fore through his abuse and manipulation. This shadow makes us wonder if the final scene, where Neman comes good with a captivating drum solo, despite Fletcher’s trickery in giving Neman the wrong piece to play, is more to do with the success of Fletcher’s tyranny, or the success in spite of it. From this we can extract a wider conclusion- we should strive to balance our values, for if we place too much emphasis on a particular value- for instance, overcoming others or oneself, we risk carrying out the most negative implications of such mindsets.
– Success requires sacrifice
The end of Whiplash represents everything a great climax should be. It is scintillating, exhilarating and most clearly represents the central character’s great moral decision. Having performed terribly after Fletcher’s deception, Neman runs off into the comforting confines of his father’s arms. Neman pauses mid-hug, then turns back into Fletcher’s cauldron to dictate the flow of the performance, starting his prepared piece ‘Caravan’ himself, finally free of Fletcher. It is through this climactic decision that we see Neman leave his old self behind- one who is still connected to the joys and comforts of normal society.
The theme of sacrifice and striving is seen in ‘Whiplash’ through Neman’s warrior-like reneging of instantaneous pleasure for the right he is fighting for and Fletcher’s kingly forfeiture of comfort for the prospering of his students. Towards the film’s climax, Fletcher justifies his abuse to Neman: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” and through ‘Whiplash’s’ lens, the viewer can only be inclined to agree. ‘Whiplash’ is a film concerned with greatness, not goodness, and in the pursuit of the former, it alerts the viewer to the fact that parts of one’s life that previously provided happiness have to be cut off if one is to ever achieve their true potential.