Tag Archives: Rebel Without A Cause

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Jubilee

Jubilee (1978) was Derek Jarman’s much anticipated follow-up to Sebastiane (1976), and like Sebastiane, Jubilee was shot on a low-grade color film stock with shots composed to evoke the classic paintings of the Renaissance and the portraits of the Dutch Masters.  But Jubilee, a natural progression in visual style, is a much more explicitly political film than Sebastiane, not only satirizing post modern interpretations of the necessity of art, but also political institutions such as the London Police Force, media moguls, and Fascism.  With the “punk” movement in full swing across Britain, Jarman sets about scrutinizing contemporary London from the vantage point of Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), the representative of all the traditional English values and morals.

The plot, episodic in nature, begins with Queen Elizabeth I summoning the angel Ariel, with the aid of her occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien), to see into Britain’s future.   In the future, the film follows the exploits and interactions of Bod (Jenny Runacre), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Wilcox), Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Angel (Ian Charleson), Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and Kid (Adam Ant).  This cast of characters epitomizes Britain’s “punk” generation, from their need for destructive rebellion to their Warhol-like ambitions for super stardom.  The character who exercises the most power in this nightmare is media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett), whose very name is a “punkish” pun.

Presumably, the “future” action of Jubilee is a comic prediction on how things will turn out unabated; the end of “merry” England.  The “future” action seems to take place only a few years in the future from the start of the film’s production in 1977.  In this hostile environment of murderous policemen and punk rockers, Jarman manages to photograph London to look like Hiroshima after the bomb, a decaying landscape of urban development and decay.  Aesthetically, Jarman is setting the stage for his greatest cinematic achievement, The Last Of England (1986), that will consist exclusively of such visuals, employed again to juxtapose the contemporary Britain of Thatcher with the “England Of Old”.

The conflict of the past versus the present is one of the mainstays of British counterculture as well as the “punk” movement.  Jubilee epitomizes “punk” in film, and became the blueprint for a dozen like-minded films such as Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s pseudo-documentary on The Clash, Rude Boy (1980), and Ulli Lommel’s films with Andy Warhol Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and The Blank Generation (1980).  Episodic narratives about media corruption and rebellion were the mainstays of Jarman’s imitators, of which the only film that seems to be moving in a new direction is The Blank Generation, which exhibits Lommel and R.W. Fassbinder’s affections for melodrama and Hollywood classicism.  Rather quickly this approach to youth targeted underground filmmaking was commercialized by MTV, and would manifest itself later in a distilled version as Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1987).

In its moment, Jubilee was shocking and controversial, not just for Jarman’s visual comparisons of British authorities with Nazis, but also for the frank depictions of homosexual intercourse and police violence.  Of all the “punk” films that followed, Jubilee is the only film with a clear political perspective and filmic style that can claim to form one cohesive aesthetic whole.  Jubilee’s suppression at the time of its release is not surprising given the political turmoil in England at the time. But such blatant censorship only strengthened the resolve of the counter-culture, propelling Derek Jarman into a sort of messiah position in Britain’s underground and queer cultures.

In order to better understand the context and significance of Jubilee, one must take into account a number of influential figures upon both Derek Jarman and the British underground in general.  Figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Nicholas Ray all figure into the cinema of Derek Jarman rather heavily.  Consider William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy (The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express and The Soft Machine), whose primary focus is the corruption of man by a vast influx of new information and technology, that gives way to a grim future akin to an orgiastic homosexual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984.  These texts are indispensable to Jarman, who will employ Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique on the soundtrack of The Last Of England.  Through all three of Burroughs’ novels, the television set is an object of menace, just as it is a means for Borgia Ginz to control the youth population in Jubilee.

David Bowie’s influence on the “punk” movement is immeasurable, but to Jubilee more exclusively, Bowie’s influence can be pinpointed to the years 1972 and 1973 of his career when he assumed the persona of Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie’s invented character embodies campy high fashion and a fame seeking self-destruction.  These two character traits outline the trajectory and concerns of the characters Kid, Crabs, and Mad in Jubilee, just as they coincide with every struggling musician’s ambitions to some degree.  The difference here is the “camp” that Jarman pushes to excess in his performers, so that each becomes a terribly funny and self-aware parody of themselves.

The “campy” quality of the performances is indicative also of the circumstances surrounding the performers themselves.  Like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman (also a painter) surrounded himself with a group of outlandish individuals who would hang around his studio space.  From this collection of individuals, Jarman cast many of his short films, and a number of roles in Jubilee.  The influence of Warhol in this fashion is typical; underground filmmakers, without many professional connections, are reliant upon Warhol’s tactics of casting his friends and hangers-on in his films.

The final major influence on Jubilee is the least expected, Nicholas Ray.  Jarman infuses his film with the devices in Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to evoke the “youth in trouble” sub-genre.  Slow panning shots that build tension are a mainstay in each film, as is the adoption of a family unit by a group of friends.  Bod and her gang of girlfriends are an appropriate “punk” perversion of the James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo family unit in Rebel Without A Cause.  Jarman repeatedly calls the audience’s attention to the parallel with his use of the color “red” in interior shots, recalling the deep Technicolor red of Dean’s jacket in Ray’s film.

Color and form themselves are exciting components that are essential to Jarman’s visual style.  A painter first and foremost, Jarman’s obsession with the human form in the work of Caravaggio is infamous.  Beyond Jarman’s biopic on the painter, Caravaggio (1986), Jarman implements Caravaggio’s compositional style into many of the shots in his films.  Most often, Jarman will employ Caravaggio’s strategy of highlighting the human form by lighting them against a black backdrop.  The effect not only directs the viewer’s focus, but also conveys a sensuous longing and desire.  The tactic described above is used numerous times in Jubilee; most notably during the first interior at the castle of Queen Elizabeth I.

All these stylistic influences from the counterculture and Jarman’s passion for the Baroque represent individual signifiers that run throughout Jubilee to form a post-modernist cinematographic complex.  This allows not just for a diverse sensory experience, but also an intellectual one.  The prowess with which Jarman addresses each component is often overlooked by audiences and critics alike; the “camp” and violence overshadow the heavier themes at work in the film.  Yet, this appears to be the precise mode that Derek Jarman wishes Jubilee to function in.  Consider Dick Hebdige’s observation in his book Subcultue: The Meaning Of Style: “the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstar”.  Hebdige has described glam rock as “extreme foppishness, incipient elitism”, the exact connotations Jarman tries so hard to avoid in his filmmaking style.  The “camp” and violence in Jubilee is simply a means to reach the British “every man”.  The loftier issues Jarman addresses are meant to linger in the background, working subliminally on the film’s audience so as not to isolate or condescend.  I would therefore argue that such a device is not a detractor from the film, but a necessity.

The kind of manipulation and cultural understanding to execute a seemingly simple yet infinitely complex film like Jubilee speaks to a maturity critics were not willing to recognize in Jarman when Jubilee was first released.  Perhaps the campy violence made it a film that was easy to dismiss, or perhaps it was Jarman’s open homosexuality that prevented serious critical evaluation..

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films