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The Struggling, Suffering, Sacrificing Artist: An Analysis of the movies Whiplash and Black Swan

BSWL

Whiplash and Black Swan are both movies about the struggling artist who seeks greatness through sacrifice. In Whiplash it is a drummer named Andrew Neiman, and in Black Swan it is the ballerina Nina Sayers. Andrew is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, and Nina is a part of the New York City Ballet Company.

Desires & Fears

Both artists desire to become great and well-known, but that is actually too broad and nebulous. What they really want is what is before them. The NYC Ballet just announced they are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This means new principle dancers. Nina wants to be cast in the lead as the White Swan. But the one cast as the White Swan is traditionally the Black Swan, also, the foil to the White Swan character. Andrew, a drummer, wants to be a part of the Studio Band, the most advanced band on campus.

When we say that Nina desires the role of White Swan and Andrew desires to drum in the Studio Band, we mean much more than a simple want, but a craving and an obsession. The only thing as strong as their desires are their fears. Their fears stem from three places, their parents, their mentors, and the threat of replacement. Nina’s mother, Erica, is a failed dancer and Andrew’s father, Jim, is a failed writer. Both have seen into the world of artistic greatness but for whatever reasons they both fell short. It’s easy to imagine how hard this was for them because they try to protect their children from the same fate. They presume their child will fail like them and try to hold them back in their own ways.

The mentors are just the opposite form the parents. The artistic director for the NYC Ballet is Thomas Leroy and the musical director of the Studio Band is Terence Fletcher. Each of them push their protégés farther than they have even been pushed. This is saying something because each of these young artists push themselves farther than their peers. But by pushing so hard, they may discover what skills they truly possess. Thus, their tutelage is savage and cruel. The challenge for Nina and Andrew is to endure the severity of their mentors and possess the grit to climb on. But each has a rival that makes the threat of being replaced a real danger. For Andrew, it’s the drummer from a lower band he passed up to come to Studio, Ryan, and for Nina it’s the free-spirited dancer, Lily.

Challenges of Body & Mind

There is one terrible fact both artists grasp: they are not ready. In their compulsion to achieve greatness, they realize they need to go beyond their former selves. This takes form as acts of self-destruction. They begin to act uncharacteristically, or even act where some of their more less than desirable attribute move to the fore. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend because she lacks focus and alienates his family because he would rather be dead and famous, even with a short life and a bad death, than wealthy but someone no one ever talks about. Nina disobeys her mother and goes out to clubs and turns to drinking and drugs and even promiscuity. If the old self is not good enough, then the old self must be destroyed.

This only make sense to the maniac. As you may guess, part of their transformation is a journey into madness. Nina has hallucinations, first of herself and later of Lily. When she sees Lily, it takes the form of fantasy because deep down she knows she needs to be more like Lily. While Nina has the formal precision to dance the White Swan, she lacks the frenetic emotionalism and wild abandon to dance the Black Swan, which is exactly how Lily dances. Nina fantasizes about Lily in order to become like Lily or overcome Lily. These fantastic hallucinations move from erotic to a murder scene that takes place only in her head.

Andrew’s insanity is more subtle. His madness takes the place of falling in line with Fletcher’s abuse. He does fight back against a few of his decisions, but never against his methodology or his cruelness, nor for that matter does anyone else in Studio Band. They have all drunk they Kool-Aide. But his mania is such that while running late for an important gig, he is t-boned by a large truck (does Andrew have whiplash?). He should be in the hospital, but insists on playing. As you can imagine, he is not fit to play and performs horrendously. Fletcher tells him that he is done and Andrew attacks him on the stage. He is kicked out of school and stops playing.

Failure & Success

There is much more that can be said about their slide into insanity, but all of this heads towards the final performances for each, so let’s go there. Still, both are not ready, but just a step away – but what a step it is. Here both fail, the dancer and the drummer.

Nina is cast as the White Swan and is prepared to dance both roles. As the White Swan, Nina is being held up by the Prince. She twitches and he drops her. Backstage at the ballet, Nina has a fight with the former ingénue and stabs her. In truth, she mortally wounded herself, but she doesn’t know this yet. She becomes the Black Swan, complete with feathers and wings, and dances like she had never danced before. After this, she realizes she is wounded and takes the stage one last time as the White Swan for the finale, in which the swan dies. Indeed, the White Swan dies and Nina does as well.

After Andrew attacked Fletcher and got expelled, he reported on Fletcher’s cruelty to the school and Fletcher is fired. Andrew runs across Fletcher in a jazz club and they talk, and in the end, Fletcher invites Andrew to play for a band he has put together. Just as Fletcher’s band takes the stage, he tells Andrew that he knew he had him fired. Fletcher then has the band perform a song for which there was no music for the drum. The band not only had the music, but also had it prepared. It was a tremendous failure of a performance.

Andrew leaves the stage and embraces his father, which in his mid means he is embracing failure. He turns back and sits at the drum kit. Fletcher does not see because he is addressing the audience. Andrew starts playing an aggressive Latin double time swing that introduces one of their songs, Caravan. Fletcher storms over and curses at Andrew, who smashes a cymbal that knocks Fletcher in the chin. He retreats.

The band plays Caravan, which ends with another drum solo. Fletcher nods and even smiles. When a cymbal stand starts to fall over, he sets it back aright. Andrew is playing without fear of failure, but mostly without fear of Fletcher, and Fletcher knows it. During the solo, Fletcher seems satisfies as if all of his effort has paid off and he has finally pushed a student farther than they would have gone on their own and into greatness.

In the end, Andrew kills and Nina dies. But both reached that perfection they stove for all along. And the remaining question is Was it worth it? I’m sure if you asked Andrew, he’d say yes, and even a dying Nina seems to think it was worth it, but remember that this all began with two people who had a desire than ran into the realms of obsession and compulsion. Most people do not reside there. Many of you reading this may like to make it as a novelist. Are you going to succeed without this need and craving? Do you have the grit these two seemed to have? And if you knew beforehand that success would only come through such mean mistreatment and a forfeiture of your sanity, would you still pursue it? These are great questions for any struggling, suffering, sacrificing artist. If you haven’t seen these films, you may want to take a look at them. If nothing else, they are entertaining. It doesn’t even bother you if both go deep. In fact, any movie about a drummer you know it will be cymbalic.

 

 

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The Hardest Thing To Learn In Creative Writing

voice

To be an author, and I mean a good one, takes a lot of hard work and training. The true Creative Writers needs to learn how to develop great characters and wonderful story lines, and how to blend them into a magnificent plot. An author needs to know how to make his people come alive, not only with a genuine and unique personality, but by an individualized speech pattern and vocabulary. And finally, we know how to blend the plot and people in the story with an appealing interaction and effective dialogue. And after all of this, there is still one more thing, and it may be the most difficult thing to get down – the narrative voice.

Voice Is Everywhere

This is how you tell the story, or more to the point, how it sounds. All artists have this distinctiveness about them. That’s why if you’ve studied art, and you should, you can not only distinguish schools, but also artists. In painting, we know what it means to be an Impressionist or a Surrealist, and we know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Renoir and a Monet, or a Picasso or a Brach or Duchamp. In classical music, we know what makes one piece Baroque and another Romantic, and what Bach sounds like as apposed to Vivaldi, or what distinguishes Brahms from Wagner.

It’s the same with great authors. Let’s face it, writers are well read. There is no way around that. And when I say well read, I do not mean in poplit, like Rowling or Brown. I mean the classics, the universally agreed upon greats. The well-read writer will know how Dickens sounds differently from Austen. The great author will recognize the sad music made by the French and the Russians, and how Hugo resonates differently from Tolstoy, Dumas from Chekhov, and Stendhal from Dostoyevsky. The one trained in both reading and writing will fall in love with the Midwestern Minimalism of Hemingway, the New England melancholy of Fitzgerald, and the Southern gothic dread in Faulkner. It’s all there, just like the music lover can distinguish Beethoven from Bartok and the aesthete knows his Rembrandt from his Raphael.

Voice Is Everything

Your voice as an author is what makes your writing sound like your writing and no one else’s. That is the consistent plague of poplit, it has so little individualistic voice to it that it all blends together into one car wreck and train derailment of words and utterances. And now it’s about time I got to the secret for developing a devastating voice as an author. If you’re a Creative Writer, then you are accustomed to disappointments by now. I cannot say this or that makes a voice that is all your own. Was Mozart’s voice determined by using a B-flat in a given piece and not a C-sharp, or a half note here and not a whole note? The long answer is “yes, if” and the short answer is “no, but.”

Everything goes into creating a given author’s voice. It’s our vocabulary and use of vernacular, our word length and sentence length, what punctuation we use or don’t use, and so much more. Our voice is shaped by the times and places where we set our pieces, the themes and subject matter we address, and the overall kind of story we are trying to tell. That is one of the many things that make it so difficult the define voice in so many words, and all the more difficult to teach how to accomplish it. Maybe the best I can do is advise that we as writers be mindful of how everything contributes to voice, either distinctive or bland. With that, be mindful of every choice you make and think of not only how it affects that particular work, but how it contributes to your voice. You may have to edit with just voice in mind like you should for character’s dialogue. I think I have a fair idea of my Creative Writing voice, how I’ve shaped it and where it’s going, but truth be told – voice is something you work on every day you write until that day you write no longer.

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Why I Listen To Music While I Write

music

I used to go around saying, “I write to Be-Bop Jazz, but do all my editing listening to Baroque.” I guess the sentiment was that the free-flowing jazz was intended to inspire my originality, while the rules and formulas of Baroque music should help me edit properly. To tell you the truth, I listen to Jazz plus a whole lot of other things when I write. And for the most part, I don’t listen to any kind of music while I’m editing. You can do what you want, just as long as it suits you. But I would recommend that all Creative Writers listen to music while they write.

Creative Juices

Listening to music is fun. It helps us relax. just this alone helps Creative Writing. But the brain goes through the same creative process as the composer when listening to music. That means we who are authors put our creative brains on steroids when we listen to music. And science has further found that this takes place latently, which means if you listen to music but don’t concentrate on the piece, you brain still is effected with more creative capacity.

Sorry, No Lyrics

This is a preference, and not a rule. And I’ll admit, I break it sometimes. But it’s best to listen to music that has no lyrics. To be honest, I greatly enjoy music with lyrics. But it is not preferable when writing. Now for the reasons music works so well in embellish our creativity is because it blocks out our logical side of the brain just as it enhances the creative side of our brain. Add lyrics and it creates confusion in the brain. I don’t want the lyrics to interfere with the words I’m trying to put down on the page. The last thing I want is to build to a great climax and look back and see that I typed, I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. The only words I want in my brain are the ones in my story.

Block The Block

Writer’s Block often occurs when the logical side of the brain interferes and chokes out the creative side. Music works the creative side and shuts off the rational side, so there is no bossy side of the brain cutting of our magnificent story telling. Let’s face it, we all know that Writer’s Block comes from thinking too much. And quite often it comes from striving for perfection. Music allows us to let our stories flow and we can worry about perfection when he get to editing.

I love music and I love good stories. How lucky am I that both can work together? And in addition to everything already mentioned, if we are writing in a public place and people see the ear buds going to our ear, they’ll leave us alone. That help our writing as much as anything else.

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