I have always been one to say, “Find what you love, and do it on the weekend”. This comes from a combination of being a realist and knowing the sacrifice required to really make it as a performer. I recently watched Whiplash (2014) and Black Swan (2010) for the first time, and paused to reflect on my own experiences with learning a musical instrument and going to dance class. I was that person that pushed myself to a point, and tried my best, and realistically I knew I’d always be just mediocre, and that was okay.
On the theme of young people actually trying to be perfect at their art form, both Whiplash and Black Swan do well to convey the respective struggles and triumphs. The protagonists in these movies aren’t even trying to be famous (for now), they just want to be perfect at what they do.
Andrew Neiman, an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, is willing to play drums all night if it means perfecting the tempo for his bad-tempered tutor, Terence Fletcher. No amount of screaming or face-slaps from Fletcher will stop Andrew from practising non-stop, even if it means injuring his hands or jeopardizing his relationship with his new girlfriend. While Andrew and Fletcher have their screaming matches and moments of betrayal, they end with a moment of trust. On stage at a jazz festival, Fletcher allows Andrew to finish his impromptu drum solo, guiding him along the way and smiling at Andrew’s newly perfected tempo.
As this final scene in Whiplash played, I felt intrigued and frustrated that Fletcher finishes on a redeeming note. After all the screaming and bloodied hands, Andrew regains trust in his tutor and Fletcher looks proud of his student. At that point it’s no longer about all the classes from before, or Andrew’s Dad or his ex-girlfriend, or even the audience. It’s about Andrew playing drums perfectly to prove that he can, and Fletcher being satisfied that he was able to teach that. The fact the scene is cut before a potential applause from the audience is haunting. It reminds me of the age-old question, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a musician plays on stage and there is no applause, how do we know if it was perfect?
Nina Sayers, the newest lead ballerina at the New York City Ballet Company, is caught up in trying to be the perfect lead Swan while being told to ‘let go’ by her promiscuous director, Thomas. An overprotective mother, Erica, doesn’t help Nina’s cause for being independent and experiencing her sexuality and friendships freely. Nina is paranoid that another dancer, Lily, is going to take her spot as lead. While Nina is technically a close-to-perfect dancer, Lily expresses greater passion and maturity when she takes to the stage. Thomas mentions to Nina that Lily would be great as the black swan, however both white and black swans need to be portrayed by the same dancer. That dancer is Nina.
Nina’s drive to be the perfect ballerina, as both the black and white swans, has her hallucinating and becoming increasingly erratic. Towards the end of the movie, she imagines herself stabbing Lily backstage during the show. Turns out she stabbed herself and Lily is alive and well. The final scene is triumphant for Nina as she gives a perfect performance and symbolically becomes the independent woman she wanted to be. As she lands on the mattress beneath, we know she’s made it, even with a piece of mirror stabbed into her body through her tutu. As the final credits rolled, I actually stood up and said to my friend, “See, there’s proof you should just dance in the ensemble and enjoy yourself.”
The presence of blood, a worried parent, a passionate yet divisive teacher, and emotional downfalls appear in both Whiplash and Black Swan. Both Andrew and Nina are young, impressionable, coming of age and determined. I felt strongly for both of them. They were clearly good at their art and had every potential to be great. I wanted them to be good at what they did, and I also wanted them to remember their families, maintain their relationships, get enough sleep and eat their vegetables. Pursuing one’s passion can be fulfilling and it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from keeping your loved ones close.
Both movies made me weigh up the turmoil of practising for hours on end and the joy that perfect art can bring audiences. While an individual may lose themselves, the masses will eventually gain. As Terence Fletcher says to Andrew about his role at Shaffer, “I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker.”
We’ll never know how great we can be at something unless we try. That’s the inspirational stuff we get told. Whiplash and Black Swan told me yes you can try, and try, and you might not be perfect, and you’ll get yelled at until you are, and in the end even if you are perfect, you’ll probably leave behind a small part of your sanity.