Lost in the Movies: La La Land (The Unseen 2016)

La La Land (The Unseen 2016)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). La La Land was #1 for 2016.

The Story: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) "meet (kinda) cute" three times, on each occasion following a musical performance and laced with bitterness. First, they flip each other off in Los Angeles' seething morning traffic after a spectacular dance number (the drivers all leap atop their cars to sing about making it in the city of dreams). Then, Sebastian is fired as a restaurant pianist for playing a personal composition rather than an innocuous holiday song (Mia, wandering downtown after bad auditions and a towed car, is drawn to the restaurant by his music but brushed off when she tries to compliment him). Finally, the arrogant jazzman is stuck playing keyboard in an eighties cover band at a pool party Mia is attending, where she makes humiliating requests and stares him down mockingly. From this point on, however, music's ability to bring them together will supersede its ability to tear them apart: they tap on a park bench at magic hour, overlooking the purple-hued valleys below; they literally float into the cosmos inside the Griffith Park Observatory; and they fall in love amidst a musical montage as they riding the Angel's Flight funicular railway, cross the Colorado Street Bridge, and gaze at the Watts Tower.

As a modern-day musical, La La Land juggles a grounded if affectionate view of the creative type's struggle to survive the film and music industries with a gleefully romanticized depiction of this lifestyle's charms (in this universe, not only can people spontaneously break into song and dance, but the old backlot style of movie magic is still alive and well, with Hollywood the global phenomenon still rooted in Hollywood the physical location). Sebastian and Mia both consider giving up their dreams for one another, and giving up one another for their dreams. Is it possible to hold onto both? The movie's most memorable sequence unfolds as a coda, when their paths cross after some time apart; drawing particularly from An American in Paris, La La Land crafts a wordless musical fantasy, spooling an alternate timeline that stylizes touchstones of life's passage through motifs like stage performance, home movie, and big-screen rapture. Where the film chooses to demarcate fantasy from reality, within an already fantastical environment, is fascinating to note; La La Land is ultimately less interested (or at least, not much more interested) in being a picaresque travelogue than in depicting the tricky battle between ambitious dreams and pragmatic compromises.

The Context:
La La Land was hyped as Damien Chazelle's ambitious passion project following his more conventional breakthrough Whiplash (since then his scope has only grown, with an epic Neil Armstrong biopic as his next film). Unlike previous hot-shot directors' Icarus-like forays into an outmoded genre, La La Land soared right into the sun and kept on going, scoring a whopping $450 million worldwide on a shoestring budget. Critics celebrated the young filmmaker, a rarity at a time when new careers were mostly being redirected into the constraints of the tentpole franchise factory, for his old-fashioned affections and strong personal voice. However, La La Land - instantly destined for Oscar buzz - also experienced the requisite backlash: the leads weren't very plausible hoofers or belters, the elephantine high concept of the film steamrolled any possibility of lighter charms, and (especially) the racial politics of the film were problematic, especially since John Legend was cast as the sell-out foil to Gosling's white jazz savior.

Was La La Land a bold auteurist adventure in the midst of a barren blockbuster landscape, or just another example (think The Artist) of a cute but hollow concept, a Faberge frivolity divorced from the zeitgeist, Oscarbaiting its way to awards season victory only to be forgotten in the long run? Having swept the Golden Globes (winning every category it was nominated for, including Best Musical/Comedy, and collecting more trophies than any film in history), La La Land entered the Academy Awards race with a record number of nominations, and won big with awards for Stone and Chazelle at the ceremony. But this familiar tale ended with an unforgettable twist: now recast as the Goliath-like mainstream Hollywood juggernaut, the low-budget, idiosyncratic La La Land was announced by the aging Bonnie and Clyde themselves as Best Picture of 2016...only to have the awards literally snatched from their hand onstage when the envelope was checked a second time. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had misspoken: the actual winner was Moonlight, the quiet little character study with an all-black cast and black writer/director.

My Response: As we slide a little further into the past, perhaps I should begin dwelling on where I was when these "Unseen" selections came out and I didn't watch them. In the fall of 2016, I had moved back to New Hampshire, near where I'd grown up, after several years in California. Friends and family who saw La La Land in late 2016 or early 2017 reported back that it was impressive but didn't quite satisfy, confirming my suspicions based on the nature of its buzz and potential preciousness of its concept. I was intrigued, and knew that its scope called for the big screen, but I was hardly seeing any new movies at the time (or since) so I skipped out on catching it in a cinema. My free time was mostly absorbed in following politics (La La Land was released in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's shocking election) and creating work for my site and for Fandor Keyframe, where I was still submitting video essays. In fact, in late November I watched Damien Chazelle's debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) and created a montage video called Ode to Boston. This was no coincidence; Fandor was stressing the importance of tying video essays to current releases and I was struck by the difference between how Chazelle apparently used L.A. in his newest film (from the title to the setpieces, the city itself was front and center) and the more subtle, low-key way he used Boston in his debut, shot shortly after he graduated from Harvard.

I also have a strong connection to both cities, as I observed in my write-up for Ode to Boston; indeed, I even have strong connections to the cities during those particular periods when each film was shot, and I'm the same age as Chazelle (he was born about a year and a half later). Guy and Madeline was filmed around the time I moved to Malden, working in bookstores in Cambridge and downtown Boston. Its chilly, monochrome, almost mumblecore-musical vibe fits my memory of living and working in the city at that time. La La Land was produced while I was technically still living in Pasadena (although I spent the weeks of its production out of the state, earning a living elsewhere) and premiered a few months after I had permanently moved away. This too suits the mood: La La Land is as much about the Los Angeles of imagination (or memory) as the Los Angeles of reality, and the fact that I was drifting away from the city added a pleasingly bittersweet sensation to the familiar but glamorized locations in its trailer. These include the Colorado Street Bridge not far from where I lived, as well as the Santa Monica pier and Angel's Flight rail car that play significant roles in my own, ahem, slightly more modest 2013 production Class of 2002.

So when I finally viewed La La Land for this series, it was the L.A. element that held more potency for me than the musical aspects. Maybe it's unfair to say so after a single viewing, but I couldn't hum any of these songs from memory - they're more competent than catchy, and that's okay. The sense I get from La La Land as well as Guy and Madeline is that, and I mean this only as a relative proposition, they're more in love with the idea of being a musical than with the process of being one. Perhaps paradoxically, however, the musical component is more decorative than essential - at heart, La La Land is more about the appeal of dreams, coded through a mixture of life experiences and historical cultural phenomena, with genre trappings as just one among several devices to convey this sensibility. Although far grander and less grungy than Guy and Madeline, La La Land's strength is a similarly structured tension between longing and letdown. In this sense, the critics who take Chazelle to task for indulging nostalgia are being unfair; the film is unabashedly nostalgic and romantic but there's a significant ambivalence embedded in the material. Chazelle appears to perversely savor disappointment, recognizing in it an emotional anchor that flights of pure fantasy may lack. There's a certain bracing warmth to the bonfire of dreams, or at least to the lingering embers once the harsh conflagration has died down.

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of La La Land is its uncertainty about its own idealized ambitions. For all the criticism of its depiction of Sebastian as a jazz savior and Keith as a jazz sell-out, the film itself is skeptical about that dynamic, or at least encourages the viewer's own skepticism. Several critics observed this ambivalence, and Legend himself argues that his character has a point (and that Chazelle wanted to make this case). Rather than characterizing their tension as the noble purist vs. the cynical hack, Legend presents Sebastian in a sympathetic but somewhat dismissive light: "You're just not gonna go down as one of the greats. You're gonna go down as a guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience for people. If you're not doing anything innovative, you're not gonna go down as one of the greats." Anyway, Sebastian frequently comes off as a dick; his character is far more tolerable once he lets that self-righteous chip slide off his shoulder and accepts his more modest role as part of Keith's pop ensemble. (I find this is often the case in stories that depict the slow, sad decline of youthful dreamers - for all their wistful tributes to the lost fire of youth, these characters appear more human and complex once they've left that callow arrogance behind.)

The film's ending offers a compelling half-empty/full-glass reflection of its dual trajectory. There's a sense - probably the most obvious way to read the movie - in which the character's withered relationship could be held up as a noble sacrifice, a poignant tribute to the costs of achieving greatness. One could also wonder, pace Legend, if in fact their narrowly circumscribed regressive dreams simply represent ephemeral, unimaginative self-indulgence. Is Mia the type of capital-M, capital-S Movie Star goddess that exists only in gauzy, empty visions of a glamorous but cardboard-facade Hollywood past? Is Sebastian, well, precisely that "guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience"? Perhaps the most compelling take on the film comes from Kareem Abdul-Jabber, who (after wading into the jazz/racial controversies) questions the entire thrust of the "Great Artist" cultural narrative. "The artist as Christ-like figure sacrificing herself to give her art to the people is a childish notion that is just bedazzling one's self-promotion. As Mr. Antolini says in The Catcher in the Rye: 'The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.' Had Mia and Sebastian chosen to live humbly, they might have had their success — or not — and been happy together."

Signs of the Times: Onscreen, La La Land mixes its nostalgia for bygone eras with touchstones of the present: Mia auditions for gritty cop and inner-city teacher roles and then returns to her apartment with its gigantic Ingrid Bergman mural; she works in a very au courant Starbucks-esque coffee shop in the midst of a never never land Hollywood studio lot; the nascent couple wander hillside streets with an electronic keychain to find their missing vehicles but then break out into a throwback musical number to express their dawning romance. The young stars of La La Land have their feet in the 2010s but their heads in the 1950s - not entirely divorced from the experiences of the millennial generation, the film nonetheless positions them in relation to a broad vision of midcentury pop culture mythology. The longing itself might be generalized, but the position from which the longing springs is localized. Perhaps surprisingly, given how underrepresented my generation has been behind the camera compared to earlier eras, this is at least the second, arguably the third film in my "Unseen" series to be helmed by a distinctive thirtysomething millennial filmmaker (Get Out's Jordan Peele, born in 1979, is the possible exception - depending which demographer you ask, he could be a late Gen-Xer or a very early millennial). As we move backward, it's doubtful there will be any more auteurs from this age group.

More to the point, as far as many were concerned, is the cast's status as "citizens of the present," in A.O. Scott's words. "They are better at acting than the other stuff," the New York Times critic observes, "able to express emotion in nonmusical scenes with candor and conviction, but a little stiff-limbed and wobbly-voiced when the moment arrives for hoofing and chirping. In this, they’re pretty much the opposite of those earlier performers, who were vaudevillian troupers before they were thespians." Indeed, the critical discussion around La La Land very much hinged on the film's place in history, both past (its distance from the era when musicals were a mainstream staple) and present (the depictions of race and nostalgic desire to make something old - jazz, the Hollywood musical, earnest romance - "great again"). In the same newspaper as Scott, Manohla Dargis raved, "Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero clich├ęs or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the dos and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat."

On the other hand, Geoff Andrew in Paste magazine demurred from the glowing reverie, even citing Dargis' interview: "'La La Land' Makes Musicals Matter Again' beat[s] the reader about the head with Trump-ish sloganeering." Titling his own piece "The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land", he wrote, "White fantasies of the past are not innocuous, it turns out; they link to discrete economic and political policy. Even in the platitudinous past tense of 'Make America Great Again,' Trump’s red hats told a truth of a kind: Their way forward was back. [Zadie] Smith rejects the image of white, regressive time-space with the succinct, 'But neither do I believe in time travel.' How could a person of color long for a past bleaker than the already admittedly bleak present? Many white viewers of La La Land may well consider nostalgic escapism as a horizontal unifier—something with which everyone identifies—but longing for the past is itself a political act."

Other Films: Domestically as well as globally, La La Land was a big hit - but of course it was still kept out of the top ten, and nearly the top twenty, by megabudget sequels, prequels, and franchise entries, all fantasies (mostly superhero tales and/or family films). The top five grossing films in the U.S. were Rogue One, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets, and The Jungle Book. Other notable blockbusters included Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad. That said, there were plenty of unique, acclaimed films beyond the reach of the tentpoles; perhaps most memorably, Denis Villeneuve's subtly timebending Arrival, about a depressed scientist learning to communicate with amorphous extraterrestrials. That sci-fi art film, as well as - obviously - Moonlight and La Land Land, was nominated for Best Picture, alongside Lion, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, and Fences.

Meanwhile, Moana was Disney's big hit of the year, not approaching Frozen's numbers but surpassing Tangled. Also released in 2016 were Sully, Clint Eastwood's film about the alcoholic airline captain who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson River, the all-female Ghostbusters which caused a social media meltdown on the alt-right (and got Milo Yiannopolous banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones), and 13 Hours, Michael Bay's sensationalist adaptation of the Benghazi crisis, whose most significant legacy may be the birth of the wildly successful left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House (the soon-to-be hosts first came together on a Street Fight episode dedicated to savaging the movie, and they hit it off so well they decided to launch their own show).

Next month: Inside Out (2015) Last month: Get Out (2017)

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