Tuesday, October 14, 2014


seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York NY

I was thirteen years old when I entered high school and took the freshman drawing class. I majored in art, you see, and it was my specialized course of study throughout high school. The teacher I had, to quote the Eagles, had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude. He was this middle-aged sourpuss of an instructor whom everyone dreaded. He was acerbic, bitterly sarcastic and merciless. In his class, everything had to be done his way if you expected any chance of passing. I hated the guy with a passion.

But he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

One of his assignments was a still life; fruits and vegetables in front of drapery, and I worked big - probably 18" x 24". I worked super hard on it. It was my first few months in this prestigious high school that lots of kids aspired to get into, and I was anxious about doing well and seeing how good an artist I could be. The finished product was one of the most sophisticated works of art I had done in my brief life, and I was certain the teacher would like it.

He hated it. I don't remember his exact words in describing it, and I don't remember the level of sarcasm he threw my way in critiquing it, but I do recall feeling irritated and deflated and embarrassed - until he explained why my still life was no good.

I had rendered the entire still life, all eighteen by twenty-four inches of it, in these short little vertical hatch marks, perhaps an inch to an inch and a half in length, all in one direction. They were in shades of gray, of course. One could distinguish light from dark in it (barely) and one could identify the shapes in the picture, but for whatever reason, I rendered the whole picture this way. It was kinda bizarre, in an impressionistic fashion.

My teacher pointed this out to me, and made me realize that I did not render this still life this way by choice. I did it because I didn't know any other way of shading. He was his usual short-tempered way about it, but as soon as I took a good long look at my piece, I knew he was absolutely right. I didn't know any other way to shade... and that lack of knowledge was holding me back as an artist. I took a quantum leap forward in my education that day, thanks to this teacher I hated... and I'll always be grateful to him for it.

Speaking as someone with some limited experience in teaching, to both children and adults, I believe those who pass their knowledge on to others have to go about it responsibly, and that means honesty. I believe it does a student no good to praise his successes and ignore or whitewash his flaws. Lately, though, at least in America, there's been a tendency to mollycoddle students, to praise and reward them for effort alone.

Parents are part of the problem. They're unable to look at their children objectively, so sometimes you get a parent who will insist that their child is smarter than the teachers think, and will go to any lengths to protect them from the tyranny of "unfair" grades. Often, though, the schools are complicit in bending over backwards to keep their graduation rates up.

There are signs that this trend is reversing in some schools, however. Recent research has shown that the impulse to provide empty praise to students - "A for effort" and all that - can actually be counter-productive and inimical to true intellectual growth. Thus, the emphasis is switched to a student's capacity to learn and problem-solve on their own.

If no one had been honest with me about my drawing ability back in my freshman year of high school - if I had just gotten a pat on the head for my ability to draw some gourds, squash, and carrots on a piece of drapery and automatically given an A for it - I never would've learned anything. All of my subsequent work would've been flat and lifeless and would've looked the same over and over again, and I would've never achieved a wider range of shading techniques, the kinds that make a three-dimensional object truly look three-dimensional despite being on a two-dimensional paper. So teachers owe it to their students to be more than just a cheerleader.

All of that said, there are limits to what kind of critiquing is considered acceptable, and that brings us to Whiplash. It's a simple story: aspiring musician, a drummer in this case, encounters the teacher from hell who pushes him to his absolute limits and beyond in order to be great, and this includes a hell of a lot of physical and psychological abuse. At first I thought this was gonna be one more entry in the "boss from hell" sub-genre (Swimming With Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada, Horrible Bosses, Office Space, etc.), but it goes in a very different direction.

In the ancient tale of The Iliad, Achilles is presented with a choice of destinies: a long life, spent in obscurity, or a brief one with a spectacular death that will be remembered forever. Andrew, the protagonist of Whiplash, seems to be the brief-but-spectacular type. He makes no bones about wanting to be an exceptional jazz drummer, and Fletcher, the teacher, is equally unambiguous in believing that his hardass approach to his students will make them the best, although to this pair of eyes it seemed like he was more concerned about maintaining his sterling reputation more than anything else. Fletcher believes Andrew is that one-in-a-million talent that every teacher dreams of, and he does some unforgivable things to attempt to bring that talent out.

I've always been torn between my art and my writing, and I've never been able to settle on one or the other, at least not for very long. If I had, maybe I would've put in more discipline than I had growing up. I don't know for sure. I've never felt the urge to be The Best at either. I've wanted to take my talent as far as I can, and I still do. That's why I've done things in recent years like NaNoWriMo, or my City Mouse cartoons, or this very blog, now in its fifth year. I pride myself on attempting projects that seem intimidating, or different from what I've done before. That, to me, represents progress, represents growth. Maybe I don't put in as much effort as others do, but not everybody can be The Best. Only a tiny minority can ever achieve that plateau in a single lifetime. Does not achieving that goal automatically make one a loser? Hell no! But some people can't be told that.

On the grand, cosmic scale of the universe, all of us live brief lives. And obscurity is relative. I think that it doesn't really matter how big a mark you leave on this world, because time will still wipe it away in the end, whether in a generation or in a millennium. So why worry about being The Best? Just enjoy what you do and try to get the most out of life while you can. Let others decide where you rank, talent-wise.

I saw Whiplash with Vija. It had been quite awhile since I had seen her, and I was really glad she wanted to see this one. It was just the two of us this time. Afterwards, we swapped stories about teachers from hell, and I told her the story I just told you at the top. It was a nice day on Sunday, so I thought I'd walk from Lexington Avenue to the theater, but somebody put a parade in my way along Fifth Avenue. Had to wait about fifteen minutes before I could cross the street, but at least I showed up ahead of time.

Oh, and one more thing. The Supporting Actor Oscar race is over. JK Simmons will win this one in a walk.


  1. I will definitely catch this one. Between your post and Joan from Two Jews on Film raving about it as her favorite film of the year, I'm sold. :)

  2. I saw one description of it on Twitter as 'Mr. Holland's Opus' meets 'Full Metal Jacket.' I think that's fitting.


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