The Master Baits: WHIPLASH, William S. Burroughs, Mastery, and Control

J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller in WHIPLASH

J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller in WHIPLASH

So what are we to make of Whiplash? Are we to be turned on by the erotics of the sadism fueling the conflict between Andrew, the precocious freshman drummer at prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, and the brutal instructor, conductor Terence Fletcher, played with daemonic intensity by J. K. Simmons, whose shaved head reveals the sutures of his skull, fault lines in the seismic ruins of his moral imagination? Are we to be seduced by its evil, as Slavoj Žižek tells us the recruits are by the equally foul performance of the drill sergeant, played with equally daemonic force by R. Lee Ermey, in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, if Anthony Swofford speaks truth, is porn for young men who, in turn, want to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, stroking their dicks to cadences of “this is my rifle, this is my gun …” all the way to the battlefield? In other words, are we to be fucked by evil and like it?

Or does that scene at the end of the movie—after Andrew is emotionally buggered by Fletcher one last time, slinking offstage before returning and dominating Fletcher, commandeering his set by not only calling the chart but soloing beyond the end of the song, a surge of ecstatic virtuosity that Fletcher helps him finish off—suggest that evil is bested? The pupil surpasses the teacher, the master mastered. So is evil fucked?

But can mastery be mastered? Or, if in doing so, is one mastered by mastery, the winner: power and control? Enter William S. Burroughs. In his excellent study of William S. Burroughs’ early books, critic Oliver Harris locates the fascination of William S. Burroughs in his ambivalent relationship with Control, resisting it, embracing it, and in embracing it, resisting it. Desiring Control, Burroughs’ narrators channel Control, uttering its desires excessively in an obscene act of ventriloquism, Control pulling the strings, moving the mouth, saying the words that are distorted, spoken sideways, projected from deep inside the throat. They come out wrong, revealed naked and abject.

Andrew loves his master, becomes his master. He is a Sith Lord. Whiplash director Damien Chazelle seems to know this, revealing it in the moment when Fletcher, upon realizing what Andrew has become, smiles malevolently in a tight close-up of his eyes. Control is not beat through control, the master mastered. Rather Control is beat in the horrible spectacle of failing to reproduce it in a wretched act of love. In other words, through queerness.

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2 Responses to The Master Baits: WHIPLASH, William S. Burroughs, Mastery, and Control

  1. M. says:

    I realize this post is two years old, but I keep coming back to it again and again…just as I keep coming back to Whiplash. This is one of the best discussions of the film I’ve found (and I’ve bookmarked plenty). I’d love to chat more about some of your points here (especially the Zizekian take and the theme of queerness/control). If you have the time and inclination to talk with a random grad student about a movie you watched two years ago, then could you share an email address where I can contact you? (I don’t have a wordpress account.)

    In any case…just wanted to let you know that I’m still thinking about this post two years later.

    • chaszak says:

      Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond. I don’t look at the site as often as I used to. Anyhow, I’m flattered by your comments, M. I would be happy to get in touch with you but am hesitant to post my email address here. Is there any way I can send you a personal message?

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