In this post I will be discussing Eric Shouse’s “Feeling, emotion, affect” and relate it to Whiplash (D. Chazelle. 2014) and comparing some scenes and themes to Black Swan (D. Aronofsky. 2010).
Shouse starts by differentiating what we mean by feeling, emotion, and affect. Briefly, feeling is recognising and understanding something because you have experienced that sensation before. Emotion is when an individual displays the labelled feeling, through facial expression or by using words. Lastly, affect is the physical reaction that comes naturally and unconsciously to one when confronted.
The narratives of Whiplash and Black Swan are similar to each other as they are both about achieving an end goal and letting nothing stop them. Both of the films deal with people in a high position, teachers, thriving to make their pupils, our protagonists, strive, and doing so by pushing many boundaries. Nina (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan wants to be the Swan Queen, the lead role, in her play and Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash, wants to be a core drummer in the best jazz band in the country. Nina and Andrew both go to extreme measures to reach their end goal. Nina starves, self-harms, and has to put up with her controlling mother and mentor, has illusions and ends up stabbing herself. Andrew does not go to this many extremes however; his display of pain does increase throughout the film, but not as visually and viscerally as Nina. This is partly because Black Swan is a psychological thriller and Whiplash was just a drama, and psychological thrillers are usually gorier.
In the last scenes in both the films, we get a rush of relief when our protagonists get what they worked for for the last 2 hours or so of our lives. Black Swan has a more tragic and closed ending because Nina stabs herself thinking it was her rival, but does not die until after her one and only perfect performance as the Swan Queen. In Whiplash, Andrew gets humiliated and storms off the stage but when he comes back, he nails his breath-taking performance that goes on for nine, short but so long at the same time, minutes. The film cuts to black after Andrew and his abusive teacher Fletcher exchange a questioning look, leaving the ending wide open for the audience to interpret.
Whiplash draws on pain to create particular affects by the use of cinematography as well as the script that you can rely on for new uses of swear words and other profanities thanks to J.K Simmons’ character, Terrence Fletcher. Visually, the film is very dark, with very little use of colour. Splashes of a dirty yellow are thrown around in the practice room consisting of the lighting and the instruments themselves, but that is as colourful as it gets. The use of close ups on the students and musicians playing their instruments as well as Andrew bleeding all over his drum kit are used to affect the viewers, to shock them of the intensity that goes in to playing instruments. Fletcher’s use of language is used to make the viewers fear him, as he is a very unpredictable character who can go from praising a student one minute to throwing a chair at their head the next.
The use of cinematography to depict Andrew’s unhealthy ongoing pain in order to win Fletcher’s approval and Nina’s ongoing struggle to win Thomas’ approval in order to bring out the Black Swan is done perfectly in both films.
In Whiplash we see close ups of Andrew’s hands covered in blisters from drumming, his hand going through a pitcher of ice and ultimately we see Andrew get into a car accident minutes before a big performance, which he brushes off and attends, covered in blood anyway. All of the incidents make the viewers physically cringe or gasp as you can almost feel the ice hitting you skin when Andrew does the same.
Black Swan mirrors this but to another level. As Black Swan is a psychological thriller, it is partially dependent on its ability to scare and have a physical impact on the viewer. Examples of this are when Nina peels the skin off her finger, an unforgettable scene that anybody who has ever seen Black Swan can name, purely for its grotesqueness and how we can somehow feel the skin coming off our fingers too. As the audience we feel what our protagonists feel because of how the scene is shot. Firstly we see the thing that makes us react, then we see our protagonist reacting to said action, and because we are placed with our protagonists for the whole film, we feel what they feel.
Shouse, E. (2005). ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect.’ M/C Journal
Whiplash (2014) Directed by D. Chazelle, USA: Sony Pictures Classics
Black Swan (2010) Directed by D. Aronofsky, USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures