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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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Face to Faces With Faces

By 1968, John Cassavetes had completed his fourth film Faces after three years of production.  It was then, and is now one of the seminal works of American filmmaking.  It is not an independent film in the sense a film is independent today, those films are usually “pick-up” films.  Films that are financed by small production companies in New York or California that become bankable because they’ve found distribution from a subsidiary distributor at a major Hollywood studio, Coming Home for example.  What Cassavetes did was self-finance and self distribute, a major act of rebellion that remains so even today, though it has become virtually impossible to do so.

Cassavetes’ prior film to Faces had been the star studded A Child Is Waiting [with Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Gena Rowlands respectively].  A Child Is Waiting [1962] was intended by it’s producer Stanley Kramer to be his humanistic follow-up to Judgment at Nuremburg, and whose appointing of Cassavetes as director had only been the result of Burt Lancaster’s insistence [Lancaster had wanted to work with Cassavetes since he had seen Cassavetes debut film Shadows in 1958, and had even considered contracting him for his own production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster].  The film A Child Is Waiting as it exists today is the Kramer cut, the Cassavetes cut has been destroyed, because of this Kramer got his nose broken and Cassavetes swore off directing for a major studio [A Child Is Waiting was an MGM and United Artists co-production, as had been Cassavetes’ film prior Too Late Blues].  This falling out set the stage for a new direction in John Cassavetes’ career, and put into motion the film we now know as Faces.

            Faces is different from many other Cassavetes’ films as well as the Hollywood mainstream.  The crew was self-taught out of necessity, the cast was little known, and the film was shot in six months on the basis of actor availability, which wasn’t even common in Cassavetes’ future productions.  But because the crew and actors were friends before shooting, the process of making the film became, as Cassavetes puts it “a way of life”.

It was a labor of love.  When Cassavetes’ ran out of sufficient funds, having already mortgaged his own home [where most of the shooting took place], he took roles in other more major films like Don Siegel’s The Killers and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen to finance his film.   This was a rebellion to the Hollywood system, and he knew that.  He believed, after his experience working for Stanley Kramer, that to make a film that he thought depicted and addressed the problems of American people he would have to do it alone, outside the glitz and glamour of MGM or Warner Bros.  In retrospect, he seems to have been correct.

Faces is not a marketable film.  It’s the story of a middle aged upper middle class couple on the eve of their divorce who happen upon affairs with younger people.  Faces avoids the turbulent revolutions of the sixties, negating politics and pop-culture to focus upon the emotional truth of the human condition among middle aged Americans.  Faces is raw in its material and in its execution.  There was no make-up on the players, which gave them a credible believability especially since the film is made up of mostly close-ups.  The editing and cinematography are throwbacks to the calculated cinema verte’ of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive.  Even the soundtrack is strictly diagetic.  All these components suspend the film in a plastic reality whose placidity is so transparent and foreign that the film rings uncomfortably accurate, and undeniably truthful.  John Cassavetes, as writer and director, has so astutely represented his subject that even today the film is difficult, not because it is dated but plays on the audiences emotions so subtly with a brutality one does not expect from a film but only the real life conflicts when lived that are depicted in Faces.

            John Cassavetes knew the film was difficult, and in 1968 the critics agreed with him.  The critics would, however, hail it as a masterpiece.  Faces went on to enjoy acclaim and festival awards upon it’s limited release in film festivals and Cassavetes’ own take on block booking.  Subsequently, Cassavetes never again would make a film with the artifice of his Kramer production, remaining essentially independent and controversial for his brutally honest portrayals of the American every-family.

The type of filmmaking that defined Faces brought about a new wave of American filmmakers and a new corner to American cinema.  Though this influence would not become mainstream and therefore obvious till the late nineties in films such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and David Gordon Green’s George Washington, a decade after Cassavetes’ death.  While Still in Cassavetes own life time, his influence could be seen in films such as Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Barbara Loden’s Wanda [though through her marriage to Elia Kazan procured a distribution deal], and Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep.  It was an American Cinema of outsiders even to the likes of the BBS production company and to Columbia Pictures at the turn of the decade [through 1969-1971, Columbia produced several films for new auteur directors with a million dollar budget and carte blanche for creative control, among these filmmakers were Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby].

No one person took up the precedent Cassavetes had set with Faces quite like Cassavetes’ own very good friend Elaine May.  In 1976, May wrote and directed her third feature which not only barrowed heavily from Cassavetes’ revolutionary technique, but starred the director as Nicky in Mikey & Nicky [1976].  Elaine May had been the sole author of the material for Nichols & May, and worked as a script doctor for Warren Beatty and Robert Towne.  Her admiration for John Cassavetes astute writing for realist characters led to their friendship and to the subsequent production of the film Mikey & Nicky.  Today, May’s film is considered a masterpiece of American Cinema as well as a film of considerably artistic credibility just as most of Cassavetes’ own films have.  At the time of it’s initial release, Mikey & Nicky was reprimanded for it’s long shooting schedule and inability to find an audience.  Her film went the way of Cassavetes’ Husbands and Opening Night.

It’s clear from the vantage point of a critic in 2010 that John Cassavetes tread water with Faces, and that as a filmmaker he has had an immeasurable influence.  Though in his day, he would always struggle to make his films and garner some recognition in the United States; he was either dismissed or neglected or even worse, rejected by critics.  At a time when the world had gone mad he had held a mirror to the most private lives of Americans, the domestic life.  Though his hopeful message is clear today, in the sixties and seventies he was seen as an exploitative mad man of the Art Houses.  John Cassavetes’ revolution of the cinema was a silent, covert revolution.  But it may just have been the most crucial career to the development of the artistic in American Cinema.

-Robert Curry

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