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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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Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

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