Tag Archives: fantasy

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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Holding Out For A Hero

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When Bonnie Tyler recorded Holding Out For A Hero for the film Footloose in 1984 it’s certain that she had no idea that her song would epitomize the sentiments of the American people as we prepare to elect Obama’s successor to the presidency.  A “hero” is just what the U.S. needs.  However, none of the candidates in the running quite fit the romanticized description of the song.  Luckily we are fortunate that an answer to Bonnie Tyler’s song and our needs as a nation does exist in the cinema in the form of Harrison Ford.

Air Force One (1997) trades on the image of Harrison Ford in our culture as no other movie has.  His character, President James Marshall, exists in name only; his character is simply the accumulation of Ford’s career in the movies up to that point.  President James Marshall is capable of the charm of Jack Trainer, David Holloran and Linus Larrabee, the resourcefulness of Indiana Jones and Allie Fox, the traditional family values of Jack Ryan, Henry Turner and Dr. Richard Walker, the determination of Dr. Richard Kimble, Rick Deckard and Det. John Book, and the sarcasm of Han Solo.  President James Marshall is the idealized white heterosexual male of three generations of film goers primed to defend the American dream to the last breath.

And who better to helm a fantasy film of American politics and nail-biting action than Wolfgang Petersen?  Air Force One could easily be described as In The Line Of Fire (1993) reset within the world of The NeverEnding Story (1984).  A German, Petersen’s view of America and it’s fetishization of actors and Hollywood symbols is akin to that of Sirk and Fassbinder in that this plastic brand of the American Dream is as preposterous as it is frightening.  In many ways Petersen’s Air Force One revels ironically (consider the choice of music cues for one) in its own ability to offer Americans a unique wish fulfilled in seeing Harrison Ford as our Commander and Chief; a president who perfectly represents an amalgamation of JFK for the post-Vietnam America.  It was never anyone’s wish to see Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen or John Travolta as our president anyway.

The passage of time has also helped to further fetishize Harrison Ford as the U.S. President.  Not only are Americans nostalgic for the wealth and power we enjoyed as a nation in the 1990s, but our feelings toward terrorism have also drastically changed.  In 1997 the World Trade Center still stood.  Today, however, Ford’s policy of literally going toe to toe against terrorists would seem too good to be true for most Americans.  Obama certainly hasn’t thrown any “bad guys” off of Air Force One lately (and I’m afraid Donald Trump might throw the whole country from a plane).

air-force-one

Air Force One is so heavy-handed in its own self-awareness and desire to fulfill its audience that it escapes reality altogether.  If I were to compare it to Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story I would have to say that Air Force One is more representative of fantasy.  Yet I do not mean this negatively.  Air Force One is a tremendous fantasy that engaged a nation in 1997, representing desires en masse.  This is the power of the cinema and the ultimate goal of any Hollywood feature.  Yet, if one should ever find themselves too immersed in the fantastic escape of Air Force One, remember Harrison Ford’s words to Donald Trump, “Donald, it was a movie.”

-Robert Curry

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The Singing Ringing Tree

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Cinema Homosexualis by Thomas Lampion.  Part Hollywood Babylon, part Movie Journal, Lampion’s anthology of well researched essays offer a unique glimpse at some of the cinema’s most obscure and misunderstood films.  What unifies these essays as well as these films is their adherence to fantasy; the fantastic.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) is one of the most important fairy tale films, second only to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the crown jewels of Europe’s legacy to Fairy Tale Cinema. It is a film that rivals, or perhaps matches the psychological pathos of even The Wizard of Oz. What makes The Singing Ringing Tree so original in comparison to its more famous cousins are its very conflicted but intriguing roots. The Singing Ringing Tree is from the world of the Brothers Grimm, the decadent, technicolor product of a rigid Communist Film Industry, the ghosts of German Expressionism and the most primitive but enchanting theatricality.

The Singing Ringing Tree

Walt Disney’s contribution to the genre of fantasy was all prevalent after the silent era had closed, practically inventing the world of fairy tales in a cinematic environment that was inevitably leaning to the guiles of technological advancement in color and sound. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, a question was aroused, could a fantasy be fully evoked and depicted in live action, incorporating color and sound to the fullest possible extent? Could it be just as endearing and engaging as Disney’s cartoons which seemed to have been made from the most potent of magic? Whatever attempt to gage Fairyland were done in response or retaliation to the set norms that Disney had invented and perfected. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is certainly the first challenge to rise to the occasion, but outside of the Hollywood Studio System, the question still pertained, particularly in the East.

How the communists loathed Walt Disney, with his decadence, his instilling of American Morals in the most European of Folklore. The cinematic factories of the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany could only retaliate by controlling film distribution, only the most advanced in the cogs of Soviet Russia could win a chance at seeing Disney’s films, the Soviets had their own factories rival Disney’s output. With a bevy of their own intrinsic folklore, they were able to churn out hundreds of both animated and live action fairy tale films that seeped into the communist sub-conscious. Some imitated Disney’s inclinations, but the films that survived and endured evolved from a nationalist identity and a left field originality. East Germans perhaps had an easier time travelling beyond the wall to see Disney, but the problems were still the same. The East Germans had inherited the land of the Brothers Grimm, a world filled with its own morals and symbolism, ones that even the most left leaning could hardly gage or agree with, making The Singing Ringing Tree’s existence even more astonishing.

The Singing Ringing Tree steps beyond being merely a product of its time, like so many German films of the 1950’s. According to Quinna Shen’s fantastic book The Politics of Magic, The Singing Ringing Tree was a deeply troubled production. The East German Film Industry had since its invention after the war, relied considerably on West German artists input, however, this notion became hotly contested among the powers that be at DEFA Studios once Francesco Stefani had been hired as a guest director. While the West Germans aesthetic tendencies meant appeal beyond the walls and into the international scene, by 1957, a real concern over the West German input’s lack of political ideology and what they perceived to be capitalist influence was beginning to bristle hairs. The production crew refused to accept any credit or responsibility for the finished product by the time it was released. Many on the film board were less than thrilled with the concept of a Princess as a protagonist, its old fashioned morals of kindness and inner beauty not meeting the changing standards of the studio’s political system.

Many East German Fairy Tale films were done in a droll, literal style, especially if closely supervised by the higher political powers. One aspect that likely crossed hairs was the films very real camp aesthetic, not from the influence of cartoons, but of two centuries of traditional children’s book illustration. While many Fairy tale films of the era evoked a pragmatic naturalism, The Singing Ringing Tree insists on a fantastic world contained in sets, matte paintings and miniatures. This world makes no apologies or concessions’, it is implemented with its own symbolism, setting the stage for emotions of love, jealousy, anger and deception, amplifying it to delirious heights, rivaling even the most American of fantasies. Visually, the film takes almost no real nods to Disney, but in fact, seems to invent its own alarming visual language. No Fairies or mushrooms, no wicked witches or evil step-parents. Maybe what is so alarming about The Singing Ringing Tree is how structurally unorthodox its characters are in comparison to other fairy tale films. One is often taught to believe that to keep a fairy tale film on the right path one must have relatable, endearing characters to engage an audience. This film does the very opposite. Nearly every character until the end is remarkably unlikeable, even despicable. The plot centers round the behavior of a wicked, selfish Princess and an initially fool-hardy Prince Charming. The Princess refuses to marry him, only under the condition that he brings back the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree not surprisingly, is in custody of a wicked dwarf, who turns the Prince into a bear, and the Princess into a hideous hag. We are endeared to these characters over-time, not by song and dance or by cuddly cartoon creatures, but by the very real, and often negative emotions we all feel as children and adults.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The film was a success on both sides of the wall and even around the world. Perhaps the film’s most notorious reputation was in Great Britain. Tired of American Programming involving Bugs Bunny and Westerns, the BBC’s Children’s Programming Division decided to buy the rights to a handful of East German Fairy Tale films as a sort of antidote in the late 50’s and 60’s. The films were so cheaply presented, that they were in fact not even dubbed or subtitled, but merely laid with a voice-over track, narrating the original audio, as if wicked dwarves and paper mache goldfish weren’t quite creepy enough, its well feared, and loved by a generation of British Baby-boomers much in the way The Wizard of Oz was in America.

-Thomas Lampion

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Fellini’s The Clowns

“The clown was always the caricature of a well-established, ordered, peaceful society. But today all is temporary, disordered, and grotesque. Who can still laugh at clowns? Hippies, politicians, the man in the street, all the world plays the clown, now.”

-Federico Fellini, L’Arc 1971

Fellini’s film The Clowns (1970) is part documentary part fantasy.  This hybrid of filmic styles evokes the very essence of the clown, the ability to bring fantasy and comedic wonder to the everyday, the mundane.

The Clowns opens with a long flashback to Fellini’s childhood visit to the circus (Fellini also narrates this segment).  This enables Fellini to share his experience with clowns with his audience, or at least a facsimile of his experience.  Inside the Big Top, the camera rarely moves from its fixed position, establishing a POV shot from the perspective of the “child” Fellini.  This limits the sensations of the spectator considerably, but succeeds in conveying the terror Fellini experienced as a boy.  Fixed in its position, the camera is also slightly turned upwards to capture the action of the clowns in the center ring.

The following segment serves as a blueprint for Fellini’s later film Amarcord (1973), in which a series of vignettes unravel accompanied by Fellini’s narration depicting the characters that frightened him as a boy living in provincial Italy.  The characters that inhabit this section of Fellini’s flashback are deliberately stylized in both appearance and performance to recall the circus clowns seen earlier.  These characters differ from the clowns for one fundamental reason; their antics are not for entertainment.  Though they may be harmless, to a boy, and therefore to the audience, their liberty to wander as they wish and behave in such a grotesque fashion imbues them with a real sense of macabre danger.  The second segment of the flashback also illuminates the first, putting the young Fellini’s fear of clowns into the context of his daily life.  One must consider that on the streets of his hometown Fellini could easily avoid the characters whom he found frightening, while at the circus, when they are all collected before him in the form of clowns he, as a spectator, is unable to move and escape them.

The second act of the film follows Fellini and a small film crew as they travel across Italy and France interviewing the circus stars of the early twentieth century.  The thesis of Fellini’s “documentary” is to determine why the world no longer needs clowns or a circus for that matter.  The opinions of his subjects differ tremendously, making it almost impossible to draw any meaningful consensus from the interviews.  If one considers the quote at the beginning of this piece one gets the impression that Fellini, for lack of a better explanation, has found a scapegoat in the youth movement.  However, the material he presents in this portion of the film indicates that it is a much more complicated question with a much more complicated answer that I will return to.

The “documentary” portion of The Clowns its self is endowed with flashbacks, reenactments of the memories and shows that Fellini’s subjects discuss.  The motives for this device are the same as before, to ground the audience in the perspective of the narrator so that they may share some form of that subject’s past experience.  Of course these scenes cannot be called flashbacks.  So little information is given to Fellini by his subjects that the obvious conclusion is that most of what one sees in these scenes is the manufactured fantasy of Fellini and not his subject at all.  So what passes for a flashback in the filmmaking vernacular is in reality further insight into the artist’s vision; Fellini’s visual interpretation of the information given him by his subjects.  The confusion here stems from the documentary approach Fellini takes toward his subject in this part of the film.

Yet, even Fellini’s documentary approach is a plastic invention designed to shield either the filmmaker or the audience.  Consider how often these “documentary” scenes unfold from the perspective of a camera that has no affiliation to the film crew Fellini introduced early on.  In fact, one often can see the camera that is supposedly shooting this documentary in frame, so who’s running the camera that shot that film?  Of course this is intentional.  Fellini is returning to the tactics he pioneered in 8 ½  (1963) to create a world of illusions within a world of illusions.  But now, instead of replicating the fictional world of film into a film whose narrative concerns the making of a film, Fellini has turned his attention to the world of the circus.  The ramifications of this device equate the illusory potential of filmmaking to that of the circus directly.

This returns us to the question regarding Fellini’s thesis “why doesn’t the world need clowns anymore?”  In his very approach from the beginning of The Clowns Fellini appears to have answered this question far better than he has in the quote at the top of this piece.  Equating the circus and the cinema as forms of necessary entertainment suggests that the cinema has replaced the circus.  Both experiences are group experiences that take place in the dark and require the willingness of the audience to suspend their belief in their own reality in exchange for an artificial one.  Unlike the theater, the circus and the cinema are catered toward anyone and remain devoid of the elitist stigma associated with the theater.

The relationship between the circus and the cinema continues, though more overtly, in the final portion of The Clowns.  Here, Fellini presents us with a fantastic clown funeral (not to belabor his point) that soon reveals itself to be as much about Fellini shooting the sequence as the clown funeral itself.  Fellini has imposed the tactics of the second act of the film onto the fantasy segments of the film, creating a reflexive piece of movie making.   Fellini goes so far as to contrast the clown gags with the problems a film crew faces and how they address them.  Again he recalls 8 1/2, whose final sequence equates a film production to the circus.  Perhaps now Fellini’s parallels and comparisons have become too overt and smack of condescension.  This would be inexcusable if the sequences at the conclusion of The Clowns weren’t so successful at conveying the wonder and spectacle of the circus heyday.

The self-referential tendencies at work in The Clowns become problematic.  They indicate a series of preoccupations that borderline on obsessive.  Fellini’s comparison of the circus to the cinema, no matter how justified, gets in the way of the question posed by the film.  Fellini’s perspective given earlier testifies to his own inability to consciously answer the question that eludes him.  Instead, The Clowns is content to posture on themes and conventions Fellini had explored almost a decade earlier.  What is truly the highlight of The Clowns is its relationship as a precursor to Amarcord.

-Robert Curry

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The Epic Language Of Dreams

There are as many variations upon narrative form as there are filmmakers.  Few have been able to construct films that sustain a narrative whose story arcs and plot points are dictated by dream logic and function to assess the validity of narrative formats.  The greatest of this particular kind of film is arguably Wojciech Has’ cult epic The Saragossa Manuscript (1965).

Has addresses the Homer-esque journey of van Worden            (Zbigniew Cybulski).  Along his journey, various encounters in surrealist locales unfold stories of their own.  Has arranges the tale of van Worden so that the character, through his encounters with various persons, accompanies the audience through various legends.  These legends told by the people whom van Worden encounters appear as vignettes framed by the connecting storyline of van Worden himself.  In the tradition of story telling, which is at the center of the film, each vignette tells a moral tale.  Has is therefore directing his audience to analyze The Saragossa Manuscript as an analysis of Polish folklore along with its social ramifications.

Until the advent of narrative filmmaking in the early twentieth century, stories that were told and retold generation to generation dominated the psyche of the Eastern European working classes.  What Has does, and he is correct in doing so, is assume that this method popular storytelling has been replaced by the cinema.  This point brings me to what I consider the second greatest film of this sort, David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006).

Unlike Has, Lynch is not confined to the more linear elements that run throughout The Saragossa Manuscript, but is only confined by how film can reflect a narrative insofar as that narrative is a dream.  In Lynch’s film Laura Dern plays three parts, an actress, a housewife and a hooker.  Their individual stories are linked in that Laura Dern represents the viewer in the context of the film.  Inland Empire becomes a dream Lynch is sharing with his audience.  Has’ audience related to van Worden, who guided them through his dreams and by doing so, shared them.  Lynch does away with such a character, allowing the film itself to fill that gap.

The main reason Lynch can allow his audience to pilot their own experience of the Inland Empire dream is that, unlike Has, Lynch is not interested in the art of story telling (at least in the same sense Has is).  Lynch is making his film forty years after Has, and by now film has cemented itself in the consciousness of audiences world wide, leaving little room for the tradition of oral story telling.  In this way Inland Empire becomes wholly reflexive.

There is no clear understanding to be gained from viewing Inland Empire in a narrative sense.  Its primary goal is to simply work the magic of a dramatic narrative implementing only the visual and auditory tricks of film as a medium.  In a sense, Inland Empire is raw cinema, meant to be experienced not understood.  Lynch is pushing the work Has began into the realm of “total cinema”.  Both films are vignette films; both have clear moral implications, yet Inland Empire is devoid of a linear plot while The Saragossa Manuscript is entirely dependent upon it.

This anomaly should come as now surprise to those familiar with Lynch’s work in the cinema.  His first feature Eraserhead flirted with the concepts Lynch allows to flourish in Inland Empire.  Not surprisingly either, Lynch is a great admirer of classic Polish and Czech films.  He even shot portions of Inland Empire in Poland.

What is most significant about what these films represent is a progression of the cinema into the popular psyche of audiences.  In 1965 a commercial director could never have attempted what Inland Empire does.  Still, Lynch has done it and he’s done it well.  But it would have been impossible without the intervening forty years.

-Robert Curry

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