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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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Coppola & The Dracula Mythos

By 1992 Francis Ford Coppola had become a director for hire, restricted by the financial debt incurred with the Zoetrope productions of One From The Heart (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and Wim Wender’s Hammett (1982).  With Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart re-imagined the Gothic horror tale as the story of an anti-hero driven by true love and redemption.  The idea was to transpose the exploitation stigma associated with Dracula in favor of the commercially viable mainstream character driven dramas that defined Coppola’s work in the seventies (The Godfather and The Conversation).  Returning to his roots, Coppola filled out the cast of his horror blockbuster with a stable of stars ranging from the veteran (Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) to the up and coming (Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as John Harker, Richard E. Grant as Dr. Seward, Cary Elwes as Holmwood, and Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra).  However, it would be Coppola’s determination to reclaim his status as an auteur and as a blockbuster success that would be the debilitating factor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From the beginning of the film it is clear that Coppola’s objective is to create Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the expressionist form that defined F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922).  Every component in the film is arranged to signify various elements of the character’s psychology as they navigate the narrative of the film.  Most of these signifiers are referential of other Dracula films, most overtly Nosteratu (Coppola’s use of shadows and shadow puppets) as if to capsulate Dracula’s cinematic lore.  Other elements signify more obscure or less well-known films.  For instance, the design of Dracula’s castle recalls the set pieces of the Hammer films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies (specifically Freddie Francis’ underrated Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, 1968), the make up design for the younger Dracula recreates Christopher Lee’s make up in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), while the vampire orgy scenes with Keanu Reeves seem indebted to both The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971).

Drawing on film history, Coppola invents a vernacular specific to his narrative.  The downside of this achievement is that it complicates the reading of what would normally be a straightforward retread of a familiar story.  What makes this an apparent problem is the introduction of characters from the novel that rarely gets portrayed on the big screen.  When two components to a film run parallel throughout but in opposition of one another it becomes difficult to tell what is invention for invention’s sake and what is innovation out of necessity.

Coppola’s interest in presenting Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a kind of “compressed history of cinema” is further reflected at the cinema show in the film itself.  Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dracula (Gary Oldman) attend a screening of some of the Lumiere Brother’s actuality films.  This not only reinforces a sense of time and space within the narrative, but also within the context of the cinema.  Surrounding the scenes at the cinema, Coppola employs digital effects to recreate the look and texture of the Lumiere Brother’s films.  By doing this, Coppola reintroduces the audience to the importance of these earlier films as well as establishes the technological advance of the cinema.  The motivations of this display do not seem tied to the film’s narrative, they have more in common with the motives behind the film’s expressionistic tendencies, to put Coppola back on top as an auteur again.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t a bad film; it is simply convoluted in its cinematic langue, burdened by the heavy amounts of visual references and historical contexts.  Where it exceeds is in the realm of its cinematography by Michael Ballhaus.  Always concerned with new innovations and striking camera movements (the 360 degree pan in R.W. Fassbinder’s Martha, 1974), Ballhaus is able to breath into the film a level of elegance that the genre had been lacking since Roger Corman’s The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) photographed by Nicolas Roeg.  It’s to Coppola’s credit as a director that Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents a number of opportunities for Ballhaus to bring his unique visual lyricism to the screen (specifically the scene in which Ryder and Oldman waltz by candle light).  Ballhaus’ cinematography combined with the analogous effects intended to conjure expressionist forms make Bram Stoker’s Dracula one of the most fully realized visual extravaganzas of the early nineties.

Another key component to Coppola’s film was observed above, and marks a return to his earliest approach to filmmaking.  Casting relative newcomers alongside veteran actor Anthony Hopkins gives the film the fresh atmosphere that revitalized the gangster film with The Godfather.  The cast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula proves to be less outstanding than the ensemble of The Godfather, but manages to provide at least one remarkable performance with Gary Oldman in the character of Dracula.  Since the Hammer films it had become almost a tradition to cast a British actor as the Count, and an elder counter part as Van Helsing (Hopkins takes over the role Peter Cushing defined in Horror of Dracula).  Oldman’s work takes him from old age to youth, mutant bat creature to wolf man with a fluidity that is at once believable and fantastic.  Oldman’s prowess as a character actor, though only recently acknowledged, makes him equipped to transform himself into any role, so that he as well as the character are manifest simultaneously.  Unfortunately, Reeves and Ryder turn in unremarkable performances that, in contrast to what I consider Hopkins’ Missouri Breaks, seem timid and dull.  Perhaps the problem stems from the ensemble approach Coppola took during the film’s rehearsal stage.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though cluttered with supporting roles, is only ever really about Dracula and Mina.

The approach to the material Hart and Coppola employed was in many ways another step back for Coppola.  Not since The Conversation (1973) had one of his films charted the story of a lone anti-hero, which, upon examining the prologue of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula apparently is.  In many ways this is counter intuitive.  Most of Bram Stoker’s novel is more concerned with Dracula’s victims than analyzing Dracula’s motives.  Likewise, half of the film’s characters and scenes are concerned with killing the monster, while the other half approaches the legend as if he were a contemporary stand in for Travis Bickle.  Again parallel themes and devices run through out the film but contradict one another.  This prevents the audience from investing their sympathies with either side, a strange conundrum given the usual approach to the Dracula mythos.

It should now be taken into account that although Bram Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t work very well as a film (even with an end credit song by Annie Lennox), it represents some of the more remarkable ideas related to the horror movie genre to evolve in the nineties.  To classic horror fans it’s a cinematic almanac of previously made Dracula films, and to filmmakers it represents the potential of reviving the cinematic langue in a genre that is done to death.

-Robert Curry

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Leos Carax & New Forms Of Romanticism

Leos Carax’s film Les Amants du Port-Neuf (1991) is a lyrical coming of age story for his generation.  Unlike most coming of age dramas, Carax doesn’t emphasize any life lessons or a journey to adult responsibility or understanding.  Instead, Les Amants du Port-Neuf deals exclusively with the lessons of romance, and the journey towards a mature relationship.  Les Amants du Port-Neuf is pure Romanticism, as naïve as it is visually stunning, often suspending all believability and reality in favor of sequences that are representative of the main character’s affair.  Carax avoids sentimentality by employing scenes of stark realism; strategically juxtaposing more Romantic sequences, and thus allowing those sequences to more fluidly inhabit the same world.  Les Amants du Port-Neuf is unique in that there is no pretense that the world of the film is the same as our own reality.  Carax’s world is a fictitious invention that reflects enough of our own reality so that we may invest more easily in the fanciful Romanticism that manifests itself in his film.  The heavy stylization at work in Les Amants du Port-Neuf make it, along with Carax’s other films, unique to the French cinema of the early nineties.  Filmmakers such as Andre Techine had been advocating a return to dramatic realism throughout the eighties, a notion that appears to have been oppressive to the conventions of Leos Carax’s film.  This makes Les Amants du Port-Neuf not just a coming of age story for a generalized public, but for a new generation of filmmakers.

Les Amants du Port-Neuf opens with Alex (Denis Lavant) being run over by a car then quickly picked up to be returned to a homeless shelter.  Unknown to Alex, a passerby named Michelle (Juliette Binoche) witnesses the accident.  From there, Carax takes us to the homeless shelter where Alex is treated for a broken foot.  The sequences here take on a documentary quality in direct opposition to the heavily saturated colors that dominated the scene of the accident.  With a series of fast cuts, Carax quickly contextualizes the lives of the homeless, the illness, despair, violence, and frustration.  Doctors hurry about treating the dying while officers break up fights.  It’s notable that this scene’s duration is twice as long as the scene of the accident.  This allows Carax to reinforce the juxtaposition he made before in the film’s visual palette.  The dominant sensation of the audience is now more closely in tune with the shelter sequence than the accident, so whatever may follow will be accepted as having the same realist merits as the shelter sequence.

Next, Alex has been released, and returns to Port-Neuf where he lives (Port-Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris and is in a state of disrepair for much of the film).  Alex is surprised to find Michelle is also living on the abandoned bridge, and decides to look after her once he learns that she is sick.  It is immediately clear that Alex’s intentions are romantic, but Michelle rejects him, she is still seeking closure from her previous relationship.  Alex’s feelings are not unrequited for long, however, because Michelle locates her former lover and shoots him dead.

After killing her former lover, Michelle and Alex get drunk, steal a boat and go water skiing while fireworks erupt in the sky.  This sequence returns the characters to the fantastic world of rich colors and symbolic coincidences (the fireworks).  After this night, their love affair is in full swing.  Together they begin ripping off café goers by drugging their drinks, dancing at nightclubs in montage to David Bowie’s Time Will Crawl (1986), and racing on the beach.

Then, while Alex and Michelle are walking through the subway, Alex sees a poster of Michelle instructing anyone who has seen her to report the sighting to her parents so that she may receive eye surgery that will save her sight (thus also explaining why Michelle wears an eye patch).  Suddenly aware that if Michelle goes she will never return to him, Alex takes her back to the bridge.  He then returns to the subway and burns all the posters of Michelle adorning the walls (this is one of the most memorable visuals of the film).  Alex then sets out to prevent any more posters from being hung by burning a van full of the posters that accidently kills a man.  Distraught by these events, Alex returns to Michelle on the bridge.  As Alex approaches Michelle, there is a broadcast on her portable radio about the eye surgery.  This prompts Michelle to drug Alex and return to her parents.

It’s worth noting that all of Alex’s efforts are in vain.  Carax condemns Alex for his violent manifestations of his selfishness, for in the next scene the police are beating Alex, interrogating him about the murder.  In a montage, it is conveyed that Alex will serve three years in prison, and that Michelle visits once six months before his release and arranges to meet him at the now restored Port-Neuf at midnight on the day of his release.  This sequence, with all its moral retribution, returns the film to an approximation of our reality in preparation for the film’s final scenes.

The film ends with Alex and Michelle meeting on the bridge.  After three hours together, Michelle says she is going home, at which point Alex grabs her and leaps into the river below.  Once underwater, the film resumes it’s fanciful flare.  The couple sinks, face one another, and linger as if they were about to kiss.  At this point all ties to reality are forsaken as the two emerge to be rescued by a passing barge.

The synopsis above may give the impression that Les Amants du Port-Neuf ebb and flows with stylistic convulsions, but that is not the case.  Transitions from the fantastic to the realistic are carefully plotted by Leos Carax so as not to disassociate the audience.  Music cues, and color signifiers are the mainstays in the communicating of these transitions.  For instance, the realist sequences are notably warmer, the whites and yellows of cement convey the heat of Paris in August, as well as capture the characters in a more familiar, tangible environment.  Sequences with a bit of fantasy are full of cool, deeply saturated colors, often emitting from neon signs, fire, and fireworks (recalling both Fassbinder’s film Querelle and Coppola’s One From The Heart).  The fact that all of Carax’s lighting is naturally motivated is the key to its cohesive alignment to believability.

Alex and Michelle themselves are not the naturalist romantic leads of a film by Eric Rohmer, but come closer to the frenzied youths of Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Band Of Outsiders (1964), more concerned with capturing the emotional moment of youth as opposed to the environment and behavior of youth.  The speed at which Alex and Michelle race through their relationship, the severity of their romantic conversation and the naïveté of their world view is not indicative of people as they actually are, but rather of the abstract sensations one experiences during first love.  To enable an audience to associate with these characters and explore these abstract sensations, Carax wisely employs the tactics of realism, though only briefly, so that it is the audience’s own willful choice that they make the journey with Michelle and Alex.

All of the stylistic components described above point to a distinctly expressionist tendency in Carax’s film.  All the visual elements of the film (location, color, framing, motion, etc) are correlated to express the emotions of Alex and Michelle.  For Leos Carax, this is a monumental undertaking, especially when one considers that Les Amants du Point-Neuf is his third feature.  Like Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise (1926), Carax built a replica of Point-Neuf on which to shoot, best capturing the expressionistic Romanticism of his piece. It is worthy to note that two films I mention above, Coppola’s One From The Heart (1981) and R. W. Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), also attempt the level of expressionism Carax achieves here (both One From The Heart and Querelle were shot on giant set pieces replicating real locales).  Though both Coppola and Fassbinder were successful to varying degrees, neither was able to translate Murnau’s approach into a contemporary vernacular as well as Carax.  Neither Coppola nor Fassbinder come close to approximating any tangible reality, both are trapped in fictitious worlds whose plasticity remains inescapable and dated by the technology used to manufacture those worlds.  Les Amants du Point-Neuf’s close relationship to both our reality and our shared cinematic fiction allows us, as the audience, to engage the film on levels denied One From The Heart and Querelle.

-Robert Curry

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