Tag Archives: Audrey Hepburn

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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Resurgent Trends

Emília Vášáryová in Vojtech Jasny's THAT CAT (1963)

Emília Vášáryová in Vojtech Jasny’s THAT CAT (1963)

The Czech “new wave” of the sixties is, without a doubt, a cinematic movement unified by intent and not by style.  There is hardly anything uniform between the cinematic styles of Schorm and Passer other than an expression of one’s nationality, either in a political or subjectively personal arena.  Czech filmmakers of the sixties, much like those in West Germany who comprised the New German Cinema, had the nearly insurmountable task of asserting themselves as a unit that was expressive of a society oppressed in the years following the second world war.  Where the West German filmmakers found economic and sociological resistance to their expressions, Czech film artists were faced with censorship, political intervention, and Western ignorance; a far more severe set of obstacles that seems to have only relaxed briefly between 1965 and August 1968.  However, the rebellious nature of the Czech “new wave” has managed to produce some of the most iconoclast and desirable images of individuality in all of film history.

Daises

These “desirable images” are particularly popular in America amongst the now twenty-something art school graduate and hipster.  This demographic, though extremely specific, obsessively seeks ways with which to flaunt non-conformity and make associations with identifiers beyond the mainstream.  For instance, the popular images of Audrey Hepburn that adorn the merchandise sold to the femme identified of this demographic is indicative of a re-appropriation of sixties chic.  In juxtaposition to the image of Hepburn, some have chosen Chytilová’s Daises (1966) in her place.  And it isn’t their identification with Chytilová’s themes of sexual non-conformity or her satire of government mandates that appeals to theme, but, in the strictest sense, the visual aesthetic of Daises.  If it were the film’s thematic content that interested this demographic, surely Chytilová’s Another Way Of Life (1963) would be equally popular.  Since this is not the case, one is left to assume that it is only the superficial pleasures of the images offered in Daises that tantalize today’s devotees to sixties chic.

Similarly Jireš’s Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970) has been appropriated by persons of the same age group who are typically Queer identified or simply relate to the dark themes of this particular fairytale film.  Jireš’s film presents motifs familiar to most Western film audiences such as sexual ambiguity and fluidity, vampirism, incest, wicked grandmothers, innocence lost, and a strong pre-teen heroine in the lead.  Jireš’s commentary on the relationship of church and state in Czechoslovakia aren’t nearly as essential, or even obvious, to the film’s latest set of fans as are the film’s witty “perversions” of the fairytale genre.  In fact the film has become such a staple of the “hipster” culture that it was the biggest draw at CIP’s Eastern European program that I helped curate two years ago.  Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders has also been cited as a favorite film for both Kevin Barnes and Phil Elverum.

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders

What both films have in common is a unique visual aesthetic, and this is what defines the relationship between the audience and these film’s today.  Jasny’s That Cat (1963) is another Czech film that operates under a unique set of visual signifiers and special effects that has not found a new audience amongst today’s twenty-somethings primarily because the film lacks the sexuality one who was raised in America associates with the silver sixties.  In identifying what is desirable in the images presented by these two Czech “new wave” films one need only determine why Audrey Hepburn continues to enthrall legions of young women today.  Because it cannot be stressed enough that this new found audience for Daises and Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders does not associate themselves with a passion for the Czech “new wave”, but strictly for these two films specifically, and the nostalgia for the sixties that they inadvertently present.

-Robert Curry

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Burt Lancaster: His Image & Sexuality

This new video is the beginning of a new trend here at Zimbo.  Work has begun on a few different video pieces, some like this one, some that are more autobiographical.  Regardless of aesthetic differences, these works will all be making their premieres online, on this site.  So I hope you check back in to see what’s up.  Enjoy.

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Racists On The Frontier

I feel compelled to qualify the piece which follows.  I like both films very much, and I do not intend to analyze them aesthetically but rather politically.  In all honesty, as a dramatic work, The Searchers is the superior film.

Ethan Edwards and Ben Zachary are not as akin as one may first perceive, they are as point counter point as the superstars who depict them, John Wayne as Edwards in The Searchers and Burt Lancaster as Zachary in The Unforgiven.  And each man working with a director with whom they had had past experience (John Huston re-wrote Lancaster’s debut The Killers on set).

In An Open Book, The Unforgiven’s legendary director John Huston confesses that The Unforgiven is the least favorite of his films.  It seems no wonder since United Artists restricted his artistic control (it is said Hecht-Hill-Lancaster needed another swashbuckler hit like The Crimson Pirate to survive) and liberalism when dealing with Native Americans (according to Lancaster biographer Gary Fishgall).  In addition, the film’s female lead Audrey Hepburn fell from her horse during production.  But beyond those behind the scenes tall tales, there is an inherent muckiness to The Unforgiven.  It really has no clear feeling about any of the socio-political parties the film presents, instead it is indecisive, and focuses primarily on the sheer entertainment value it has been afforded with all the big name talent and money.

The Unforgiven is clearly a film about racists on the frontier who have committed horrible crimes against the Native people who now seek retribution.  This plot point gives the film it’s initial action, providing an odd underdeveloped subplot in turn concerning Kelsey, who reveals Hepburn is really an adopted Indian.  What occurs next is the most compelling and subversive part of Huston’s doomed western, Lancaster and Hepburn fall in love, embracing suppressed sexual anxieties for one another once restrained by the title of siblings. That point cannot be avoided since it is the one clear and believable motivation the Zachary family has to defend Hepburn from an onslaught of Indian attacks.

John Ford’s The Searchers embraces the same wild-eyed racism as The Unforgiven, but through no fault of studio executives like Richard Krim, but rather with intentional bravado.  This becomes something like treacherous ground since such political perspectives that conservative in regard to Native Americans were only widely accepted and popular before the sixties.  So Ford’s film neglects the redeeming quality that a potential, though controversial, interracial couple emerges as in The Unforgiven, in favor for expressing his own, I’d assume, political views.  That in mind, John Wayne’s character Ethan has more in common with the ghostly Indian hunter Kelsey in The Unforgiven than he does with Lancaster’s character.  Ethan and Kelsey are obsessive, and controlled by their hatred of a race.  They are also the only two white characters in the films that have initiated violence against the Native Americans.

Huston chose ambiguity for his film’s hero where Ford’s hero was much more defined, though with the sadistic flavor of George Wallace.  This paradox does seem inevitable, since both directors exhibit the qualities of their heroes in life.  Huston was a liberal and worldly man while Ford was a conservative and stern man, and their films reflect this.  Neither however, seems to have fully grasped the situation within either narrative for the Native Americans.  For the most part they are relegated to the cliché role of savages, the likes you see in any film before the “New Hollywood”.

It becomes something of a tragedy that neither man could explain the narrative situation without the character device of obsession; Wayne is obsessed with retrieving Natalie Wood, and the Indians with saving Audrey Hepburn from the white man in The Unforgiven.  Both films are similarly flawed and equally naïve.

-Robert Curry

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