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La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

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Love & Mercy

In the last decade there have been a number of quality biographical films.  Always a popular genre with audiences, the biographical genre has always been a bankable contender for Academy Award nominations, for instance Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005).  That there has been room for innovation within this formulaic genre in the American mainstream is indicative of the influence of European film.  Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) bears the obvious influence of Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Karl May (1974).  Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra (2013) represents the less avant-garde approach to the genre, though it’s innovations are no less incredible due to the fact that it represents its homosexual subject in a vein that is as explicit as it is humanistic.  What Soderbergh and Haynes both employ, thus marking a new clear trend in the genre, is an abandonment of graphically portrayed lapses in time, such as a title card reading something like May 8th, 1914.  Until recently this has been a hallmark of the genre, exemplified by Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), the antithesis to the aesthetic proposed by Haynes and Soderbergh.

Love & Mercy

When Love & Mercy (2015) was announced and Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son, Married Life) was credited as writer, one immediately anticipated the non-linear format of the film.  Bill Pohlad’s name likewise signified an expectation for innovation given his previous credits as producer of Steve McQueen’s controversial 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011).  These expectations were fulfilled insofar as Love & Mercy works along a non-linear narrative structure.  The film jockeys back and forth from the mid-sixties to the late eighties in the life of Brian Wilson.  However, as these scenes play out it becomes painfully obvious that there is no syncopation between the sixties continuity and the eighties continuity and that each scene works as a simple, single revelation of Brian Wilson’s tortured psyche.  The film had every opportunity to nurture a naturalism in its dialogue and its performers whilst still conforming to its non-linear structure ala Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1981) but went in the more traditional, condescending route instead.

In this way the script of Love & Mercy is not particularly concerned with Brian Wilson the man nor Brian Wilson the public figure.  On the contrary, Love & Mercy‘s script restricts itself to the vernacular of ready-made character types familiar to this genre.  Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of Doctor Eugene Landy fits the familiar profile popularized by Faye Dunaway in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) without any of the charm of having done it first.

Love & Mercy runs in to trouble again when it sacrafices its chance to be an instructive visual text on Brian Wilson’s recording methods while working on his masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006) represents the possibilities for finding and exploring its subject in the studio space.  For Kijak, Walker’s employment of unusual sounds and techniques becomes a means through which we the audience can experience Walker’s perspective in which everyday objects are simply potential instruments.  Pohlad utilizes the scenes of the Brian Wilson character in the studio as just another means to show his audience what a “nut” Wilson was.  Pohlad also conforms these sequences to the aesthetic popularized by Daniel Richter’s footage of John Lennon in his Tittenhurst Park studio during the recording of his Imagine album in 1972.  Richter’s visual style and unconventional sense of framing can be seen in every biographical film about a major recording artist since the release of the Lennon film.


What carries Love & Mercy through all of this is John Cusack.  Unlike Paul Dano who plays Brian Wilson circa 1966, Cusack never projects emotions into a scene, nor does he overplay moments of emotional confrontation.  Cusack may not look as much like Brian Wilson as one may hope, but he does ground the character in himself.  It’s a case of an actor being a character of the real person as opposed to playing that person.  When an actor “plays” the person they are cast as it is often easy to parody, as is the case with Meryl Streep in Iron Lady (2012).  The opposite of this is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neil in Reds (1981).  In this respect Cusack is able to create some scenes of genuine tenderness between himself and Elizabeth Banks, who is scripted into being more of a plot device than a character.

What is the most disappointing aspect of Love & Mercy is that it failed to live up to its potential.  In raw form, all of the elements were there for it to be a film of the caliber of Behind The Candelabra.  Yet it seems that the filmmakers were unsure of what they wanted to say and as how to communicate it.

-Robert Curry

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