Perfect is a loaded word, in both artistic and religious circles. Can a song be perfect? Can we? Even if most people would answer no (John Wesley aside), many of us still strive toward some idea of perfection. And when we fail to achieve that, the result can be a dizzying case of existential dissonance.
The thrilling new movie Whiplash explores this tension in the context of competitive jazz. As it charts the relationship between a promising young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) and his abusive, obsessive instructor (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash considers the potential, value and cost of musical perfection.
The movie spends much of its time measuring the cost. Fletcher, the instructor, “motivates” his students via personal insults, callous demotions and even slaps to the face. While some students wilt under this treatment, Andrew endures, and even begins to thrive. His abilities grow, along with his ambition, to the point that he’s willing to cast even his family and his girlfriend aside.
It’s this sacrificing of relationship that is perhaps the most telling sign that Andrew’s Icarus-like rise won’t last. And sure enough, when the pressure becomes too great, he and Fletcher have a vicious and bloody falling out. It’s interesting that here and elsewhere, writer-director Damien Chazelle emphasizes physicality, from the close-ups of musicians moistening their reeds to Andrew’s calloused hands to the blood that spatters onto the drums during his most feverish performances. One of Fletcher’s searing insults even comes after a lone tear dribbles from Andrew’s eye. “Are you one of those single tear people?” he condescendingly demands.
Given all of these bodily details, there’s an incarnational aspect to Whiplash’s striving that recalls our striving for perfection in Christ. By taking on human form, Christ brought literality to Scripture’s call to “walk in the same way in which he walked.” Yet we know this is not something we can do in our current state. As the Canons of Dort observe:
Hence daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of saints, giving them continual cause to humble themselves before God, to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.
What, then, are we striving for, even amidst our daily sins? One answer can be found in Matthew 5:48, perhaps the most well-known Scriptural reference to perfection: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As TC contributor Shiao Chong noted in a 2010 article for The Banner, reading this verse in context reveals that it is referencing the manner in which we love others.
“Believers must love all people as God loves them,” Shiao writes. “If you love only those who love you, says Jesus, you are just like everybody else. But be perfect in love as God is perfect in love.”
It’s this sort of perfection – showing love for others – that Andrew and Fletcher achieve in Whiplash’s exhilarating climax. (Spoiler ahead.) Having tentatively rejoined Fletcher’s ensemble for a jazz showcase, Andrew engages in a power struggle with Fletcher on stage, eventually derailing the performance with an extended, unplanned drum solo. The move at first infuriates Fletcher, but as Andrew plays on with a furious brilliance, Fletcher’s anger melts into admiration. There is a tense pause when he’s done, and then the two of them come together to lead the ensemble in a climactic song, one which culminates in a moment that might just be perfection. And what does Chazelle, Whiplash's bodily minded director, use to capture this? Not a close-up of a bloody hand, but matching shots of Andrew’s eyes and Fletcher’s eyes, looking at each other, in loving recognition.
It’s the sacrificing of relationship that is perhaps the most telling sign that Andrew’s Icarus-like rise won’t last.