We’ve all had teachers.
And I don’t mean in the sexual sense.
Good, bad, boring, angry and spaced out, teachers tend to stick in the mind. I remember one guy in junior school who routinely flew off the handle, leaving me scared to attend class. He once reduced me to tears by shouting in my face because I didn’t understand percentages. You’d have thought the fact I missed the relevant lessons due to a dental emergency might have cut me some slack, but no. Right there and then at the tender age of nine, I grasped some teachers are simply Whiplash-like bastards.
At high school, however, I didn’t do too badly. I had the usual motley crew of educators with their bad breath, mock-worthy clothes and weird mannerisms. Still, most appeared sincere and were at least competent. Well, apart from Mr. Macintosh. I was quite into French until that droning idiot killed my interest stone dead. The only time I laughed in two years of his tutelage was when we went on a school trip to France and just about every Frog he spoke to couldn’t understand him. The dreary fucker might as well have been yammering away in Chinese.
Then there was my physics teacher, Benny Lewis, who liked to drop his pen so he could crouch and look up the girls’ skirts. Terribly unsubtle, especially as he’d do it four or five times a lesson, which was at least twice as often as yours truly. After university I didn’t bother much with education or training, although I can recall a podgy scuba instructor attempting to kill me on the seafloor. Well, that’s what I thought he was doing when I tried to shoot to the surface only to find myself in an immediate bear hug. The fact he was saving me from the imminent onset of an agonizing condition known as the bends still strikes me as a technicality.
Anyhow, looking back, I probably did a lot better than some of those poor student schmucks in the movies.
The incompetent: John Kimble in Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Hopeless teachers have long been a source of comedy, dating back to Will Hay telling his students about the Latins conquering the Greeks in 1935’s Boys Will Be Boys. Arnie took up the mantle in Kindergarten Cop. Now I love Arnie as much as the next guy, but it’s fair to say his slightly less than robust acting skills are laid bare in this tonally uneven effort. Let’s face it: his strength lies in dispassionately slaughtering opponents rather than interacting with rug rats or, God forbid, attempting a bit of romance. As a colleague says at one point: “If you were any stiffer, we could take you surfing.”
Not that it mattered with the movie-going public. Cop racked up a $200million gross. Arnie’s an undercover, ferret-carrying cop in a pic that frequently turns ghastly or just slows to a crawl. In its favor he starts off anti-kid, as demonstrated when dealing with a pint-sized irritant thumping into the back of his plane seat. Showing the kid a pencil, he says: “If you don’t stop screwing around back there, this is what I’m gonna do with you.”
And then he snaps the pencil in half.
Unfortunately, that’s the artistic highpoint. Half an hour or so later we’re knee-deep in cute kids and their mischievous, but oh-so-funny ways (“Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.”) Arnie, of course, gets flattened by a prepubescent tidal wave, having to run outside the school to scream before falling exhausted face down on the bed after a traumatic first day. “They’re horrible,” he moans.
Well, why not shoot a few?
Sadly, he instead chooses to blow away the ponytailed bad guy during an ill-judged finale in which women are slugged, run over and beaten with a baseball bat. No much-needed child deaths, though.
Oscar-winning hardarse bastards: Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terence Fletcher in Whiplash (2014)
When it comes to hardarse drill instructors, no one tops the volcanic malevolence of Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. In full flow that guy could reach delirious poetic heights: “You are pukes! You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized pieces of amphibian shit!” Sgt Foley, on the other hand, isn’t in the same class of demented bully. I mean, listen to the sort of limp-wristed insults he spits out at his raw recruits: slimy worms, sweet pea, dick brain, sugar britches and, worst of all, poopy asses.
Nevertheless, Foley is still wonderfully unsympathetic to distress. He does not do encouragement. No hugs are given. From the moment he’s introduced with the close-ups of his polished shoes, sharply creased trousers, gleaming tie clip, and insignia on his pressed shirt, there’s no doubt he’s a disciplined, no-nonsense motherfucker. You cannot put one over on him coz he knows all the tricks. He is most definitely not a female sheep and he will kick you in the nuts. And don’t ever eyeball him.
Foley, you see, wants you gone. To Drop On Request. No, he’s got a hard on for DORing and he wants you to DOR now. “I will use every means necessary, fair and unfair,” he tells his ragtag bunch of officer hopefuls, “to trip you up, to expose your weaknesses as a potential aviator and as a human being.”
In short, just like Hartman, he possesses that ardent desire to take people apart and reassemble them to the required military standard. Everyone gets treated the same whether they’re black, white, educated, female, a steer or a queer. He’s an expert at exposing physical limitations and probing psychological weak spots, as demonstrated by his demolition of the teary Casey Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher) on the PT course: “You another one of those girls that didn’t get enough of your daddy’s attention coz he really wanted a son?” Two minutes later this intimidating bald bastard is half-throttling a ginger to death. Christ, who doesn’t enjoy Louis Gossett Jr.’s performance in this well-cast, accomplished film?
Now Foley is a hardarse, but at least he’s operating on some plane of reason. His methods can be understood and are necessary. Whiplash’s New York-based Fletcher, however, has no interest in teaching, instilling character or improving human beings. Instead, he insists his jazz students endlessly jump through hoops to satisfy some perverted psychological need. He wants to use their love of music to break them. A control freak par excellence, this bald fucker runs practice sessions like military drills. He’s the sort of God-like prick that will tell you to turn up at a rehearsal three hours earlier than necessary. Everyone’s in awe of him, immediately sitting up straight whenever he enters the room. And there’s nothing he loves more than confrontation, public humiliation and scaring the bejesus out of his students. “Barker!” he snaps at one trumpeter whose timing is allegedly out. “That is not your boyfriend’s dick. Do not come early.”
Perhaps the key to his divide and conquer approach is the way he selects submissive, easily manipulated students for his band. He’s also capable of balancing belligerence with a dash of private encouragement. Here he might smile or give an insight into his aggressive ways as he does with the dedicated but sensitive teen drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller). “Charlie Parker became Bird because Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head,” Fletcher tells him during a gentle chat in a corridor. “See what I’m saying? The key is just to relax.”
It’s ruses like this that make a student feel special, lulling them into a false sense of security before the rug is spectacularly pulled out from under their feet. Two minutes later in class he’s throwing a chair at Neiman and bawling: “If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig!” It’s a horrible hot-cold approach that keeps everyone cowed and on the back foot. Ultimately, though, the students’ frantic efforts to impress Fletcher are all in vain. The man can’t be pleased because he’s not looking to be pleased. He might claim to be trying to drag musical genius kicking and screaming into the light, but this is bullshit. Genius can’t be taught. It will always find a way. Do you think there was someone throwing chairs behind the scenes at Jimi Hendrix? The truth’s far, far simpler: Fletcher just wants to inflict and feed off distress.
Unfortunately, J.K. Simmons’ depiction of functional insanity slips into parody around the forty-minute mark of this deeply unbelievable film. How come none of his students even grumble about such monstrous methods? Whiplash is a contrived attempt to shift a demented drill instructor-type into a different field. It’s beyond absurd that a modern-day teacher at a prestigious conservatory in a progressive city like New York could get away with assaults, gay jibes, fat shaming, relentless bullying and all-round nastiness for so long.