La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle and the actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have manufactured this bitter, unassuaging product about the manic, the excessive, the hysteric and desperate attempts to conjure up the Past. Whether it's the past of a failed relationship, the past of movie musicals, or the past of an unrequited love, La La Land says that wallowing in the past is both delightful for the heart and dangerous for the body-brain-head. "Jazz is the future," says John Legend, but La La Land—the exact opposite of jazzy, and this is the point—remains locked into a slick, frozen image of a hallucinogenically imagined mental universe of crumbling nostalgia, irrational hope, and wayward dreaming. (If only life were like a CinemaScope melodrama or an MGM musical! Ah, but if it were...)

It is very uncommitted and disinteresting criticism to say that "Demy did it better"; what Demy and Chazelle are doing is responding to the climate of their film cultures at the instant they made films, and nailing the country's mood through the hip contemporaneousness of their unique products. In that sense, it is equally useless (and reckless [and dishonest]) to deny the sheer pleasurable spectacle of La La Land traffic-jam numbers with their aggressive sunniness, quiet morning-after waltzes with black couples along the Manhattan Beach Pier, irritating jazz combos from guys who misunderstand rhythm, improv, recklessness while still approaching life with heart. In that sense, the hash that Demy, Minnelli, and Donen constantly smoked to create their organic visions of cinema has been succeeded by a new drug: the Cine-Pill-lia of Chazelle, (less damaging than Tarantino's snarky brand), whose dried-out piece of Angelino cinema emphasizes right-angled and perfect stiffness, schizoid optimism, skillful mimicking which soars irregularly into abstraction. No wonder Chazelle cites Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms in the posters hanging at the Rialto (a once-famous South Pasadena landmark, now sadly shut down). Borzage's eccentric, unfashionable romanticism in the Hollywood studio age has been inherited by Chazelle, a plucky go-get-em millennial who collapses time to make a point about its squashiness, how we must constantly move forward with time, always reinventing ourselves by our conception of the past, no matter the costs, or else sink. It also helps that Justin Hurwitz's song score (palpable melancholy in the Stone breaking voice, brooding angst in the Brando-ish Gosling drone) and Linus Sandgren's popping pastel cinematography (evidently, Chazelle tapped into Sandgren's collapse of fantasy and reality that he employed as cinematographer of David O Russell's Joy) bolster La La Land above the pack of your typical postmodern musical bonanzas, ranking it on the level of something like Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress and never the hip, uncommitted antix of a Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rogue, The Grating Gatsby). I only hope this gets people more interested in the work of Jacques Demy, Chazelle's cinematic grandfather, and an ancestor to us all.

More words soon, as soon as I rewatch this fascinating film. No genuine funk here, but something sadder is at work that capitalizes on our cultural moment.

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