In this post, we take a look at the dark side of power through the lens of art and cinema. Power is a part of relationships that all fathers must genuinely reflect upon. For often kids get lost in the cultural current of “that’s the way we do it here…”
In a time when art is often on the chopping block in schools, it is worth reminding us all that the medium can provide a dialogue for worthy matters, for things that are confusing and hard to talk about in real life. In 2014, the movie, Whiplash, stunned me not just for the cinematic experience, but for its presentation on authority. This conversation on power and leading has been at the forefront in recent times, whether it is politics or abuse in the sports world, and hopefully will stay there as we continually question what it means to lead.
A Father’s Path is full with opportunities to lead and to teach. It is a path that begs one to continually ask, what is power and what does it mean to influence? In two scenes from the movie, we examine a situation that many fathers will have to reckon with for their sons and daughters— at some point on the path.
Terrance Fletcher, an instructor at a music conservatory, is known for his demanding and questionable methods with students. Andrew Niemen, an aspiring jazz drummer, is the center of Fletcher’s wrath aka unorthodox teaching methods. In the first scene of interest, the power differential is blatant as Fletcher intimidates Andrew who “seems” to be off tempo on his drum kit. Fletcher humiliates him, breaks him in front of the rest of the band, raging and taunting him, “Were you rushing or were you dragging?” Fletcher goes so far as to slap Andrew’s face to “help” him sense the difference between the two tempos. Fletcher achieves his goal, reducing Andrew to the point of self-doubt— but he’s not done. As tears roll down Andrew’s cheek, Fletcher amps up the abuse in his unwavering attempt to reduce his student to a weeping child. He succeeds.
An interesting thing happens when we witness such methods of instruction—and we do in some form from little league to College ball (does anyone remember the viral video of the Rutgers Men’s basketball coach?) Many will comment uneasily about style and “old school.” But the intention is never questioned. Why is it OK to belittle or humiliate another human being in the name of instruction? And what motivates someone in authority to use power in this way? The answers to this are deep and wide and for another day. But in nearly every such case a twisted sense of loyalty, dependence, and a supposed benefit is the only way to reckon “staying with it” and putting up with the nonsense. Some even will say “it was hard but it made me a better person.” But, the conflict remains, and worse, it may show up in another form down the road.
In one of the final scenes of Whiplash, Fletcher reveals his intention to Andrew, the method to his madness. He explains that it is his job to push students beyond their expectations, and further that “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” Interestingly, Fletcher supports his logic with the path of Jazz great, Charlie Parker. He purports that there would be no “Bird” if he hadn’t been humiliated by his teacher, because it lead Parker to practice harder. Andrew asks if there is a line, “Maybe you go too far and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker.”
Fletcher confidently refutes this, “Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.”
Fletcher goes on to admit he never had a Charlie Parker although he tried hard to create one, and here we find the tragic flaw in his intention and motivation. The source of the abuse in power, and the billboard sign along a Father’s Path: Beware.
In my 34 years of coaching, I have found that you don’t ever make a Charlie Parker. It doesn’t matter if it’s sports, music, or gymnastics (another scandal for another day). In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl offers a clear explanation: “A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.”
Fletcher’s own needs blinded his ability to see the talents of others, and worse, kept him from seeing and using his own gifts in a way that truly influenced in a reciprocal manner. Once again, Frankl speaks clearly on the only means of influence: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
One of the last things Fletcher says to Andrew is that he will never apologize for how hard he tried to create the next great jazz musician. In this self-pact, he seals the deal and will never untie the knot of trying to produce something he has no power to create—for it amounts to playing God. In such hubris, many wings are clipped, and while these souls may not be the next “Bird”, they may have soared in their own fashion.