“At a young age, said the judge, [children] should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian is the archetypal unfilmable novel. We might just be able to use sufficient visual effects to capture the horror of McCarthy’s blood-drenched text, but it is a book ‘made out of other books’ as the author himself would describe it; it is rooted in paper and vellum, full of self-conscious allusions to Melville, Milton, Homer, and the authors of the Old Testament. The cadence and register of the novel appears to be so prophetic and literary, at least where it does not use utter specificity in the lexis of craftsmen and artisans, that to adapt it to film would miss that textual history entirely.
Then again, there is a back door available, the one taken by Damien Chazelle; to distill the novel’s characters and themes into a new setting, one in which the skeleton is visible but a new skin is sewn onto the outside. Whiplash does just this.
JK Simmons’ veins quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and they are an important part of his overall resemblance to the Judge. The Judge is ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’, both old and young, seemingly immortal, not subject to linear time, leading the narrator to speculate that he may not have been born but instead hatched from an ‘atavistic egg’. The film begins with Terence Fletcher looming at the door to Andrew Neiman’s practice room, dressed in his favourite wardrobe of head-to-toe black, and his superhuman powers of perception appear to be confirmed when Neiman tries to sneak a look into his practice room, only to find Fletcher staring right back at him. Both Holden and Fletcher cross the boundaries of human nature into forces of nature. Damien Chazelle mentioned in an interview that he specifically directed JK Simmons to go beyond the boundaries of how a human being would act. That jazz and the Western should share a mutual friend with romantic American mythologisation is a handy coincidence, so the (super)men take on board the history of a concentric cultural idioms, built upon layer-by-layer into a superficially pleasing narrative. Holden and Fletcher tease out our inclination to create these historical-cultural narratives without delving into the uncomfortable details, whether they are genocide or institutional abuse. Fletcher’s penchant for black clothing, tied with his supernatural aura, supports the interpretation of he and Holden as embodiments of evil in dualism/Gnosticism, the kind which has to be defeated through conscious will before it overwhelms you. Neiman is dressed all in white when he first encounters Fletcher and his clothing gets darker as the film progresses, with a brief reversion to pale when he encounters Fletcher at the latter’s seeming nadir. The lighting of the film reinforces this, as the rehearsal and performance spaces juxtapose bright foreground tones with a deeper darkness.
Whiplash’s director went to Harvard ‘expecting to concentrate on English’ and his appetite for reading seems evident in some allusions to Blood Meridian which appear too specific to be coincidencidental – both Neiman and the Kid lose their mothers at an early age (‘The mother dead these fourteen years’), and have fathers who are linked with failed writing – Neiman’s father practices it, while the Kid’s father is a ‘schoolmaster’ who ‘quotes from poets whose names are now lost’. In one of Fletcher’s characteristic drill sergeant style rants he humiliates Neiman by saying his mother ran off when she found out his father wasn’t ‘fucking Eugene O’Neill’. That outburst follows a moment where he and Neiman appear to have something of a heart to heart, with Fletcher drawing his charge closer into his confidence. It all proves to be a ruse though, and such emotional instability is practised by Holden, who, during the Glanton Gang’s sallies, picks up little children and puppies only to brutally murder them when his interest wanes.
The settings of the two works are vastly different – the West in its Wildest incarnation versus a smart New York music conservatory – but there is a structural overlap. The Kid and the Judge have their final meeting in a saloon bar years after the rest of the narrative; the Kid now more of a man. Fletcher and Neiman discuss the turns their lives have taken at a drinking den where Fletcher is performing with a house band. The Judge ends up as a performer at the bar following his literally unspeakable murder of the Kid (the narrator, for once, refuses to divulge the extent of the violence that takes place), as he strikes up a dance and joins in with the fiddle music. The chilling ending of Blood Meridian which describes the Judge as a ‘great favourite’ who is always ‘dancing, dancing’ puts the Judge in the position of artist, raising the question of whether art has a moral obligation – the Judge’s charisma and knowledge are undeniable, but are directed into horrific ends. There’s a similar dialogue at work in Whiplash. Neiman’s dream is to become the greatest jazz drummer of all time, but does that title mean anything if it rests at the top of a pyramid of abuse? Fletcher mentions offhandedly that Neiman’s former challenger for the drum seat, Tanner, has quit the conservatory to start a premed course. An offhand comment which strikes a powerful chord: which is more beneficial to the rest of humanity? Fletcher even comments towards the end of the film that ‘we are depriving the world’ by not allowing his teaching methods to facilitate the next creative genius. Here there is an overlap with another fine film from the last year, Birdman, the debate in which I discussed in another blog entry. Is there a line in the sand that can be drawn where art’s ability to inspire people becomes less important than the damage it causes to the people who produce it and those who know and love them? It’s a theme that Hollywood keeps revisiting and the deeper lying reasons for this are worth considering in more detail, should someone wish to take up the mantle.
The bond forged between Fletcher and Neiman at the end of the film is made plain by the conductor stepping in to fix Neiman’s drum kit when it begins to topple over during his furious solo. This is a detail which has been neglected in most analyses of this now iconic final scene. Not only does it show Neiman’s dependence on Fletcher, but it highlights how he has internalised the attitude Fletcher presses onto him, the climax of bloody practice sessions where he has to dunk his hands in ice water – his drum kit is an outlet for a deeper sense of violence. Violence, is of course, the hallmark of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian; Harold Bloom considers it one of the greatest American novels, but even as experienced a reader as he found the novel’s level of gratuitous bloodspilling unpalatable at first. It’s not just blood that’s spilled in Blood Meridian though; piss and spit and shit flow through the pages. What lifts Damien Chazelle’s film above its immediate peers is its recognition of the bodily trauma that goes into the practice which forges great musicians; there’s a wonderful sequence of quick cuts before Neiman’s first rehearsal with the elite band, where he sees the brass players launch a quick gozz onto the floor. The washes of yellows and oranges provided by the lights in that rehearsal space are almost Rembrandtesque, a nod to the institution of art as a whole and perhaps that artist’s turbulent personal life (which was, nevertheless, the provocation for some of his most breathtaking work, making him a fit companion for Fletcher and Riggan Thomson in Birdman).
I don’t believe in issuing a one-size-fits-all interpretation for anything, but anyone who thinks that the final scene represents a victory for Neiman, I urge you to watch again: observe how Neiman finally finds Fletcher’s ‘tempo’ as the conductor reduces him to one-two drum patterns like a wind-up toy soldier. When building him up to the appropriate speed, his hand trembles with shamanistic power, dancing in the ‘light and shadow’ of the stage as the Judge does, every inch the primordial spirit the film has hinted that he may be, just as Holden’s immortality is elaborated by the narrator in Blood Meridian’s pulsating conclusion.