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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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Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes has tried his hand at a variety of styles and narrative approaches.  From Poison (1991) to I’m Not There (2007) his cinematic style has proven to be as versatile and as challenging as any filmmaker working in America today.  Last year he tackled the melodrama head-on in a six-hour miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce.  Borrowing heavily from the cinema of Douglas Sirk, as he did with Far From Heaven (2002), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Haynes invigorates the genre by implementing the old and tried conventions within the context of a sprawling, character driven narrative.

First, I would like to point out how far HBO has allowed the television miniseries to come since its conception.  HBO encourages established and decidedly cinematic filmmakers to create what are essentially epic films that need not be inhibited by running time.  The funny thing is, such an approach has been the standard in Europe since the early seventies.  Why it took so long to catch on in the U.S. I do not know.

Working with this medium of epic story telling, Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond have crafted a script that remains much more faithful to James M. Cain’s novel than Michael Curtiz’s film.  Utilizing the scope of the miniseries, they have crafted a film that progresses at a slow pace, allowing performance to exist at the forefront of the film. Here, at the center of the film is Kate Winslet in the title role.  She doesn’t play Mildred for sympathy, preferring instead an organically objective approach that show cases both the good and the bad in her character with a visceral sense of the everyday, the mundane.  Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Veda, a spoiled and sociopathic upstart who serves as the catalyst for nearly every evil that befalls Mildred.  Guy Pearce plays Mildred’s second husband Monty, a charming opportunist and rake.  In the narrative, it is Veda and Monty who present the obstacles and betrayals which prevent Mildred from enjoying that which she has achieved (when her first husband leaves her, she starts a chain of restaurants).

Cain’s novel has all the trappings of classic Hollywood melodrama, and Haynes doesn’t shy away from incorporating old Hollywood styles into the film to reflect that.   Haynes doesn’t cut his shots to maximize narrative exposition.  The shots in Mildred Pierce linger, inviting the spectator into the world of the film, impressing upon us the smallest details of the lives of the characters.

Like Douglas Sirk, Haynes often frames his characters reflected in mirrors or seen through a window or some sort of glass.  As Sirk once did, Haynes carefully picks his shots in which he wishes to distort the audience’s view of the character.  Haynes also permits his actors to play their parts a little too “big” at times, pushing for a Wagnerian effect right out of the “weepies” of the 1930s and 1940s as much as for Brechtian impact.  The mood of these “big” moments, given their duration and the exaggerated posturing of the actors, at times feels less like Sirk and more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s interpretation of Sirk.  Perhaps that is because, unlike Sirk, Fassbinder’s work made allowances for depictions of womanhood that were not predicated on the tastes of a Hollywood studio.

But Haynes does more than just imitate style and convention.  Mildred Pierce is a decidedly Todd Haynes film.  His obsession with sexual subversion is ever present and factors heavily into the lives of the film’s characters.  Even before Mildred discovers Eva’s affair with Monty, sex is used to manipulate and undermine different characters.  Monty is essentially Mildred’s gigolo after all.  The complex that exists in Mildred Pierce, in terms of sex and power, is derived from Fassbinder’s dramas post-The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1971). In combining Fassbinder’s strategies for “power-plays” within a narrative with Cain’s original novel Haynes is able to reincorporate the aesthetic of the classic melodrama into the contemporary character study as well as into the stylistic vernacular of the episodic television drama.

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Consider now the level of grief and shame Haynes gets from Winslet when she confronts Veda about faking her pregnancy to black mail a film director’s son is disturbing.  Winslet’s face twists and bursts with tears.  In the hands of another director, moments such as these would not be played quite so over the top for quite so long. In a scene where Mildred catches Veda in bed with Monty, there is a long 18 second shot of Veda naked, combing her hair after sex.  Haynes then cuts back to Mildred as her face slowly reveals her emotional pain.  The audience doesn’t need to see the sex act.  The perverse nature of the sex is clear enough in this juxtaposition of these shots that it would have been less effective to show it.

It’s rare to find a balance of convention and innovation in any film let alone a film that runs over three hundred and sixty minutes long.  But that’s what makes this Todd Haynes’ most provocative film.

-Robert Curry

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