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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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LILI

for my friend Thomas

Lili (lobby card)

Lili is one of those anomalous films that was ostensibly made for children or at least young adults, like The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T (1953), during the latter days of the Hollywood system that manages to be suitable neither for children nor adults exclusively.  The film deviates consistently from the whimsy of the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films to the darker themes of Powell & Pressburger’s spectacles of dance.  It is therefore likely to assume that on a younger audience member the effect of the film, as well as the overall experience in general, would resemble my personal relationship to it.  Seeing Lili as a boy was an uncomfortable experience.  The puppets, in their “human form” as costumes worn by dancers in the film’s closing dream sequence, frightened me, particularly the moments each dancer transformed into Mel Ferrer.  Apart from this moment, few other images of Lili remained in tact for me over the years until I revisited the film earlier this week.

Lili opens with the film’s title character, played by Leslie Caron, arriving in Paris to seek employment with a baker who had been a friend of her recently deceased father.  The Paris Lili arrives at in the film resembles remarkably the Paris of An American In Paris (1951).  Immediately the picturesque and the fantastic elements of Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed’s film are conjured up in one’s expectations.  And, as with any good fairytale, the possibilities for Lili’s adventures seem boundless.  However, Lili has very little to do with An American In Paris aside from Leslie Caron and a similar set design.  In fact, Lili immediately charts a much darker narrative course.  At age sixteen and an orphan, Lili, rather naively, allows herself to be taken in by a shopkeeper who has informed her that her father’s friend, the baker, has also died.  After luring Lili into the back of his shop with the promise of food, the shopkeeper attempts to rape Lili.  Keep in mind that the film has sold itself as a musical coming of age story framed around the relationship a young girl forms with the puppets at a carnival.  For the film to turn in the all too real direction of innocence and virtue exploited for sexual gratification is unfathomable.   Luckily for Lili the filmmakers cannot permit Lili’s virtue and innocence to escape her so early on in the film, so she is saved by a carnival magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who happens to have wandered into the shopkeeper’s business.  It is from here that the film launches its narrative.  Lili follows Marc and his friends to their carnival where she seeks employment so that she can remain close to Marc whom she has idolized since the moment of her rescue from the hands of the shopkeeper.

Before exploring the dynamics of the love triangle that will form the axis of Lili‘s narrative structure it seems prudent to better contextualize what sort of film Lili was in its moment of release.  An explanation of the film’s production and its values may help to pin-point the effect the film manages to resonate today, far beyond the times of the Hollywood studio era.

Lili's first day in Paris with Marc

Lili’s first day in Paris with Marc

In 1953 MGM produced its film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel Love Of Seven Dolls.  MGM contracted Helen Deutsch to write the screenplay after her success with adapting Golden Earrings (1947).  To head the production, the studio assigned the picture to producer Edwin H. Knopf, a capable producer trusted to churn out quick commercial pictures on budget.  MGM’s film of Love Of Seven Dolls was intended to be one of their smaller pictures designed to fill out the studio’s program as well as to meet the demand for musical fantasies.  More prestigious productions with greater star-power of this genre would have inevitably fallen to the Arthur Freed unit.  To ensure the efficiency of the film’s production, Knopf and MGM selected director Charles Walters, a veteran of the musical genre whose best-known credit as a director is for Easter Parade (1948).

The film of Love Of Seven Dolls was re-titled Lili, after the film’s protagonist, and was incorporated into the lyrics of Deutsch’s The Song Of Love.  Lili also made use of Walton & O’Rourke’s renowned puppeteering act, allegedly the only time these puppeteer’s talents were ever committed to film.  To round out the human players in the film were Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet (appearing as King Arthur that same year in Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Round Table), Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc, Zsa Zsa Gabor as Marc’s wife Rosalie, and Leslie Caron as Lili.  Lili was, in many respects, MGM testing the waters to determine if audiences would flock to see Caron in her own vehicle after the success of her previous film An American In Paris (1951).

As with most “test” films, MGM chose a narrative that had been proven time and again to please audiences; the love-triangle.  In the case of Lili that triangle is formed by Caron’s Lili, Aumont’s philandering magician Marc, and Ferrer’s lame dancer turned puppeteer Paul.  Going with convention it is no surprise that much of the conflicts in the film derive from the archetypes assigned each character comprising this love-triangle.  Lili, in all of her doe-eyed innocence loves Marc so intensely that it borders upon obsession and helps explain why she is so ignorant of his true character.  Paul represents the inverse of the Lili character.  After wounding his leg in WWII Paul had been forced to give up his promising dance career and pursue a living as a puppeteer, growing more bitter and distant with every passing day to the point where he can only express his affections for Lili through the puppets in his act.  This alignment primarily brings Paul into conflict with Marc, distancing Lili from Paul and drawing her closer to Marc; a case of the “right man” versus the “wrong man”.

The first truly memorable sequence that is born out of this ongoing conflict comes after Lili loses her job as a server in the carnival’s cafe.  Lili is so distraught that she cannot work or live around Marc anymore that she has resolved to kill herself by throwing herself off of a tall ladder.  It is in this moment that a shrill voice calls out to her, essentially talking her off the ledge, so to speak.  In this moment Lili begins to form her tight bond with Paul’s puppets, a mere extension of himself.  Lili, however, accepts each puppet as an individual, partly out of her own naive innocence but also partly due to her emotional desperation.  This scene climaxes with the song Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, as well as with Lili procuring a job in Paul’s act, which ensures Lili’s proximity to Marc.  The unbelievable camp of this sequence is balanced primarily due to Leslie Caron’s genuine performance, the authenticity with which she gives her heart to Paul’s puppets.  In so many similar films sequences of this sort have failed in the absence of a performer capable of sustaining a rapport with non-human characters (an issue in many of Jim Henson’s feature films).  The attributes of Caron’s performance in this scene colored much of her characters in her subsequent films at MGM, culminating with Gigi in 1958.

Lili (dream sequence)

The next major sequence in the film highlights the attributes of Caron as a performer within the context of her role in An American In Paris where most of her scenes are played out in a kind of ballet with Gene Kelly.  In Lili this sequence is the first of two ballet dream sequences that highlight Caron’s abilities as a dancer.  Unlike other dancing beauties employed by MGM, specifically Anne Miller, Caron’s style is less sexualized and leans more toward the expressionism of the European schools of dance.  With Lili, this first ballet is highly sexualized more by its choreography, the presence of Zsa Zsa Gabor as a sex symbol, as well as with the narrative trajectory of the scene.  The contrast of the context of Lili with Caron’s portrayal of the character makes the scene more and more intense as the two styles square off.  In the scene, Marc is alone onstage while Lili, in a revealing waitress costume, mimes serving drinks to patrons at the carnival cafe.  Marc is entranced by Lili, abandoning his stage to pursue her only for Gabor to appear between them.  With the art of dance as a weapon the two women compete for Marc’s sexual attention (signified by the postures as well as by Aumont’s gaze).  When Lili wins, Marc rips a piece of her costume off (repeating a gag from his actual stage show seen earlier with Gabor).  At that moment the camera moves into Lili’s face whose expression is pure pleasure.  The scene, in this way, very abruptly interjects sex as a component to the otherwise innocent character of Lili.  In following scenes Lili’s gradual maturity will be commented upon, eventually prompting Paul to confront his own sexual desires for Lili.

The first ballet sequence is troubling in its glorification of female submissiveness but also for the very violent nature of human sexuality that it suggests as the ideal.  It seems out-of-place for a character such as Lili to delight in the sadistic sexual attitudes of Marc.  That Lili also preserves her role as a woman to being subservient to men contradicts the independence she hinted at when she first appeared in Paris at the start of the film.  However, both of these threads will come to bear as a sort if subtext running throughout the rest of the film, showing themselves again in abrupt and explicit spurts, making up the most memorable and unsettling scenes in the film.

The next major scene comes at a turning point.  By now Paul has realized his love for Lili and that Marc is standing in his way just as much as his own sense of unfulfillment as a dancer.  Marc, on the other hand, has gotten a booking as a headlining act at a famous hotel.  This scene takes place immediately after Marc informs Lili that his days of traveling with the carnival are over.  Sobbing, Lili happens upon Paul, who inquires as to why it should be that she is crying.  Once Lili explains, Paul hits Lili across the face, prompting Lili to quit the carnival and the puppet act.  Paul’s masochistic behavior suddenly becomes sadistic, then reverts back to a now more intensified kind of psychological self-torture.  What’s most disturbing is that Lili eventually returns to Paul and the puppets after considering why it is that he hit her, concluding that it must be because he loves her.  The relation of this scene to what follows clearly suggests a cycle of abuse in a relationship destined to end badly, evoking, in my mind, Goffin and King’s He Hit Me & It Felt Like A Kiss.

Lili’s decision to return to Paul comes after the second ballet dream sequence.  But before getting into this particular sequence it will be important to note that between hitting Lili and her dream, Paul finds himself again and is released from his masochistic behavior with a prestigious booking and some high praise for his puppet show.  Again the film reinforces the notion that men are shallow, emotional opportunists with a barbaric approach to sexuality.  With that conveyed, Lili embarks on another dream ballet.

the puppets come to life

the puppets come to life

This scene was mentioned earlier as being the only one I could remember, and seeing it now the masks that the dancers wear to look like the puppets remind me of the masks of animals the townspeople wear in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).  I am also struck by the recurrence of transformation borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).  Just as in The Red Shoes, the transformations in this sequence of Lili are from fantasy to reality, giving a visual representation to the transition from Lili’s girlhood to womanhood, a love for Marc to a love for Paul.  The setting of this dream is also of interest given that it is the only scene in the film with a deep perspective.  This illusion of depth and space created on an MGM soundstage lends a ominence to the scene, as if the potential aimlessness of Lili were to be her undoing.  Again, the film strikes at female independence.  Just when all of the puppet dancers have transformed into Paul then vanished, Lili awakes, turns, and goes running to her true love, the man behind the curtain.

In the context of post-war America these kinds of fantasy films, for they are neither strictly musical nor drama, clearly have their function.  The illusions of these films, the fantasies they summon all offer a simultaneous hope and an escape from our reality.  Lili gets neither herself, but her story, and in a sense her martyrdom, grants the audience these two precious commodities of the cinema.

-Robert Curry

 

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