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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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Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

spotlight

from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

o-SERENA-facebook

Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

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