Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I Saw Whiplash and The Wind Rises in the Same Weekend

Comparing these two movies is like walking towards a funhouse mirror. From far away, putting them together makes absolutely no sense. The Wind Rises is a Japanese animated film based somewhat loosely on a notable Japanese aeronautical engineer working primarily in the years leading up to World War II. Whiplash is about a college student majoring in drums under the tutelage of a particularly stern and, to be quite honest, fucking terrifying, professor. Not only is their content completely different, but the tone and styles of each movie are drastically different. I mean, one was made by the guy who made this film, for christ's sake: 
And the other is about a professor losing his shit and throwing a chair at a college student. Take a look at both of these films;
Exhibit A

Exhibit B

And you can see, these two films could clearly not be further apart.

But to stick with my admittedly weak metaphor, if you walk a bit closer to that funhouse mirror, the image of your own face becomes clearer. These are actually about the same themes.

The Wind Rises follows the story of Jiro, who grows up wanting to build airplanes. He works hard, he travels the world, and spoiler alert for people who don't know what Japan is: he is very successful at designing airplanes. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew, who bloodies his own hand practicing the drums and then dunks his hand in ice water so that he can keep on practicing. As mentioned, he also has a hellish professor constantly picking on him, and the burden of this combined with his own drive to be, in his own words, "one of the greats" nearly breaks him. I would argue that the endings to both of these movies are ambiguous as to whether the protagonists are heroes or villains, and whether or not "win" at the end, but I want you to see both of them, so I won't say any more about that.

There's a lot of...not distractions, but let's say "flair" accompanying the main themes of both these movies, so it's easy to think that they have nothing in common. As previously mentioned, the style is completely different, but we should never mistake form for function, so let's ignore that. If you asked most movie-going audiences what Whiplash is "about", they would probably say something about a cruel professor, but that would be wrong. A lot of people who saw The Wind Rises might focus on the love story between Jiro and Nahoko, and they might be forgiven for this, since an image of them together is the poster for the movie.

But both of these assumptions are wrong. Both of these movies are about men so driven by their passion that they forego everything else. Andrew is already focused on becoming one of the greatest drummers alive before he even meets his crazy professor, and nobody is forcing him to bleed all over his own drums just to practice. Jiro practically has a fetish for airplanes. He dreams about them all the time, and is never seen doing anything other than designing or thinking about them, except for the occasional moments with Nahoko. Looking a bit more deeply at each of these films reveals that they're really about following one's passions.

[Imma throw a spoiler tag up at this point, because again, if you haven't seen both these films than I encourage you to do so instead of reading my shitty blog.]

Going back to my awful metaphor however, an even deeper look into the funhouse mirror distorts the connection between these two films even further. In The Wind Rises, Jiro is portrayed as being something of a genius. There are a few scenes where he's working, and a few scenes where he's tired, and maybe one scene where he's studying, but for the most part, he just sits down in front of a drawing board and ejaculates brilliance. Andrew on the other hand, is slowing murdering himself with his obsession over the drums. I hate to keep harping on the bloody hands thing, but have you guys ever held a stick for so long your palms bled? I haven't, but I assume it must take a long fucking time. Andrew is brilliant just like Jiro is brilliant, but Andrew has to work himself insane just to be the best drummer, not in the world, not in the country, not even in the state, but in his college. These characters are both equally driven, but the hurdles they have to jump over are set at completely different heights.

Nahoko is nearly the perfect kind of wife. Despite being sick with TB, she still completely understands that Jiro has to work late, and can't spend any time with her, even though she's about to fucking die. She even leaves him to let him continue on his work, so that her corpse won't inconvenience him in any way. The movie plays this off as a success however. Nahoko seems happy with this arrangement, and encourages him even after her death. Andrew also has a love interest, for like, one whole date. His obsession with the drums takes the more, I would argue, realistic path for a relationship to go under these circumstances, which is that he predicts he will never have enough time for the girl because of his music practice and decides to break up with her. We don't see her or another romantic interest for Andrew for the rest of the film.

And here's where the huge difference in the statements these two films are making begins to become clear. Jiro wants to build planes because they are beautiful, and for no other reason. The Japanese military and government don't care how pretty they are, just whether they can kill people. Of course, these planes go on to kill many people, both inside and outside of them, and most of them end up destroyed by the end of the war. C'est la vie, says Jiro. At least the planes were beautiful. His genius is a thing that is misused and misunderstood by the people around him, but the film ensures us that this is ok: the beauty of the planes transcends murder.

Andrew's ending stands in complete contrast to this. His beauty actually is understood by the people around him, and used exactly how it is intended. However, since we got to see "how the sausages were made" so to speak, we see how much his quest for this beauty has destroyed him and his personal life. While he is performing the drum solo of a lifetime, his father looks on backstage, horrified at the monster his child has become. Meanwhile, the crazy professor gleefully cheers him on, knowing that Andrew is now set upon the path of greatness. I've heard this ending described as ambiguous, and I have to say, that is a gross misunderstanding of the film. The ending is both triumphant and tragic. The talent that Andrew has learned has come at a price, and a steep one at that, but he is, like Jiro's planes, transcendent.

How you feel about passion and sacrifice will largely determine which of these two films you prefer. Do you believe that your own work is a gift you can give to the world, whether or not the world is ready to understand it? Will things work out as long as you believe they will? Or is your gift a terrible burden that must be fed with your own blood? Is your life worse less than your passion? I hope you see both these films and think about it.
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