La La Land

La La Land ★★★★

"He loved Alfred Hitchcock and the French New Wave, and was dabbling in the American avant-garde. He had watched musicals growing up but found it revelatory to see Astaire and Rogers cheek to cheek in “Top Hat” while watching Jean-Luc Godard and Maya Deren. “Suddenly, I started thinking of them as experimental movies in mainstream garb,” Mr. Chazelle said recently when we met in Los Angeles. “That was the initial thing where I woke up and went, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been sleeping on a gold mine.’” - from Manhola Dargis's profile on Damien Chazelle

I went into this film with crossed arms - I did not like Whiplash at all! But I think there's more than meets the eye here in regards to both those who praise the film and it's detractors. To my eyes Chazelle is establishing the fantasy atmosphere of a 'classic' musical following it with the introduction of dramatic ontology as genre subversion - and then returning to the initial fantasy but now re-contextualized with the the added darkness. This is actually a very simple move - and actually I am uncertain still of how successful Chazelle is at this attempt of a Brechtian close. It is easy perhaps to deride the simplicity of Chazelle's structure as cheap manipulation (particularly because the film does follow a classic, 'struggling-artist' dynamic as well) but because of the breathe of what ultimately is covered, I do not find this so straight-forward. Far from a pleasant experience, I found this film perversely cynical - which is precisely why I found it fascinating.

With the exception of the opening sequence, how Chazelle integrates his musical sequences into the film are as total respites from life - visions of things which are not there. But even so, there are quite literally only two people in this film, and I find this unwillingness to leave such subjective expanse suitable for a film about illusions, romantic and otherwise. And in terms of this 'film about illusions' specifically, I can totally realize why Rosenbaum would love this - he mentions in his long-form piece that this film is about the death of a relationship, the death of jazz, and the death of cinema. Of course the theatre which plays Rebel Without A Cause is closing down, of course both Gosling and Legend are wrong about their ideas on jazz, of course this relationship between artists who keep their creativity in their head rather than expose it to the world will fail. I also find this quite interesting: a rejection of a total sensory experience, or rather critique of it - the intoxication of feeling can blind one to everything around them.

This last bit is one of the reasons I find this film so very heartbreaking, because emotions are real and tangible and it is to be inhuman to be without them. As the more 'classic' musical sequences dispense, Gosling and Stone find themselves having to be apart more and more often, forcing them to address the reality they refused to while together. Gosling's shallowness and selfish nature take precedence: it's not that he's a sell-out, it's that he is a total careerist, who is so completely vapid that he never once questions anything he's told. Stone's route isn't one of analysis but of reaction: endless scenes of auditions and rejections which once might have appeared humorous are now re-contextualized as an near-unavoidable course toward achievement, with the only determining factor seeming to be how soon it breaks you. That even the most talented of people must be dismissed on such a repeating basis, that you are forced to question your self-worth, and question if it is necessary that one gives up on all their ambitions to spare themselves more disappointment. After Stone does a one-woman performance to an near-empty crowd we and she overhear the lines of a disgruntled audience member: "Hah. I hope she keeps her day-job." It's almost a deus-ex machina that Stone gets a call for an audition and succeeds. But this works to my eyes in perfect thematic context: the final audition performance (and I think the best scene in the film) is the first time she is willing and able to address reality, and not hide from it.

My colleague Ethan Vestby mentioned that he felt the film should have been set in Vancouver, not Los Angeles. This is an interesting point! Up until around 2013/14, Vancouver was a prime locations for Hollywood productions because of the cities tax credits. As a result, a great number of young actors looking for bit parts often ended up in Vancouver. Throughout the early 2010's I got to know quite a few of these people, often in the same situation as the characters in this film, working minimum wage jobs as baristas or in the customer service sections of tech-shops - many of whom ended up facing serious emotional breakdowns because of the extent of disappointment they faced, several highly capable and intelligent people I know deciding to give up acting entirely because of the scale of emotional distress they consistently found themselves ending up in. Though I still think the film is strong, I wonder if this played a part in my reaction towards the film.

One of the critiques I've most noticed over the internet is a supposed racism in regards to John Legend's character and band. Now, this is not meant to be a mass-subtweet - I've just never been told by so many non-people of colour what racism is. You can trust me - I know what racism is. In any case, two things: firstly I think this is from a misreading of the film, after all Gosling's character is a subject of critique. The question proposed by Legend is "How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you're such a traditionalist?" It's a vital question, and to be fair I'm uncertain if the film answers it. But the issue here is that Legend also believes himself to be a revolutionary (remember - "perverse cynicism") - there is no reason why both can end up being wrong. If I may, (heh) I think of Straub-Huillet - they always speak of Ford, Mizoguchi, Griffith - they are in fact very traditional. However, those aesthetics & structural fundamentals removed from the free market take on the form of something closer to avant-garde. It's key that Gosling is taking this job because of the need for a big paycheque - not a question of black or white. Of course he & they sell out.

Secondly, the critique of supposed racism I find particularly troubling because they are on shaky fundamentals. Again, as Gosling is already a subject of critique it should be obvious that the film is not siding with him - the position that he's a white man saving Jazz isn't the case at all. Perhaps this stems from a clearly autobiographical work such as Whiplash - which asked us to identify with its protagonist. In any case, I find this troubling because of it's anti-utopianism. To believe that only one of a specific race can be the only saviour of a medium is a anti-intersectional and segregationist viewpoint. Perhaps it would have been better if Gosling was Filipino, or Japanese. But then perhaps the film would muddle the criticism of Gosling's character itself. Still, it's like saying this: Should I, a person of colour, cease making films and/or expounding on my views of cinema because the medium was invented by white men?

On this initial viewing, I found that everything following the title card "5 Years Later" did not work. Based on the extent of the films exegesis, I felt
that what seemed an obvious nod to Scorsese's New York, New York was out of place and furthermore did not feel as though it was part of the same film. The sentimentality did not just feel out of place, but dishonest and unearned as the film seemed to be dismantling this mode beforehand. And Gosling playing their song on the piano just felt cheap and cliche. However, another colleague pointed out to me that this extended musical sequence is in essence another vision, not just a 'what could have been' but a fixing of the entire relationship - instead of Gosling bumping & charging straight past Stone he waltzes right into her arms - this 'fixing' also confirms for me that it's a selfish, illusory relationship. And it's important that the cynicism remains: it's key that in the 'fixing' of Stones one-person show, its not just that Gosling attends and claps furiously, the show also sells out. And things worked out for her anyways! Jesus! However I still would have to make a second viewing to really comment, as much as I respect my esteemed collegues vibe. On the other hand: if anyone of you are looking for a musical with a true Brechtian finish, I implore you all to see Jacques Rivette's Up, Down, Fragile!

Still, in this sense the film also works as a sort of repudiation of the empty affirmation of a 'popitimsm' which so often rears its dangerous head today. And I don't mean that as a rejection of pop music. I love pop. But I think this method of critique is always valuable - the cynicism of the film does not seem mean to me, but very very sad. Do I think the film is perfect? Not at the moment, but it's always possible I might upon revisiting. I don't see many praising films like these today (at least on the terms which I wrote about), but I think it's important to be able to realize how deadly populism can be, how empty escapism can be, and how often escapism only hurts oneself.

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