“Here’s to the one’s who dream, foolish as they may seem.”
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La La Land (2017): Turning Anachronism on its Head: A Post-Postmodern Revelation.
Imagine the scene: bumper to bumper traffic on the M25, it’s hot, there’s no sign of movement, and people are getting frustrated. Then, everyone gets out of their cars and starts singing on the bonnet. Bear with me. This is the opening to the latest Hollywood “must-see” La La Land. Starring Emma Stone (Birdman (2014), The Amazing Spiderman (2012)) and Ryan Gosling (Drive (2011), The Big Short (2015)), director Damien Chapelle takes his latest Oscar nominated film in a direction that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Singin’ in the Rain (1953) and the golden age of Hollywood musicals.
Now to get to the interesting part (well, I think so). This film has been slated in certain circles as misogynistic: Seb (Gosling) a “jazz snob” and struggling musician meets an underappreciated waitress/actress living through the hardships of the so called “American Dream. Not so! To claim that this film reflects an anti-feminist stance is to write off the key elements of this film that have (as far as I know) not been explored. To me, this film is a demonstration of the possibilities of a post-postmodern future for cinema, in which postmodern tropes can be used and exploited to evoke a sincerity that has been absent of late.
There are so many examples in which Chapelle parodies the clichéd tropes of the cinematic past in order to realise, not only a new era of cinema, but also, a new style of femininity on the silver screen. Take her first audition as an example: the audience can see immediately that Mia is a good actress (and that avoids the meta issue here); nevertheless, the “film people” that watch the audition are distracted and Mia is interrupted: cue her walking out through a corridor filled with red-haired young women in white shirts. I know what you’re all screaming: the waitress/actress cliché is so apparent here. Yes! You’re right! And that’s the point. This film is not a pity party about the lack of opportunities for up and coming young actresses trying to make it big in Hollywood, whilst working their asses off for $2 tips every night. Think beyond the character for a minute: Chapelle plays on the audiences’ expectations in order to build up a tension that he will savagely tear down at the end (but more of that later).
Then we have the nod to Singin’ in the Rain in which Mia and Seb enact a traditional musical number as the sun sets over L.A and the street lamps begin to glow. What could be more romantic right? Wrong. Their rendition of ‘A Lovely Night’ is the antithesis of romance and has them reeling off all the reasons they couldn’t possibly find each other attractive. What could possibly create more sexual tension than to watch Stone and Gosling dance and sing, whilst declaring their revulsion of each other? I ask you. Then her phone rings… this temporal disruption jars here as the ring tone crashes the nostalgic vibe by reminding the audience that despite the aesthetics, this is not the 1950’s and technology, globalisation and women’s rights are a thing now. What’s the opposite of an anachronism? Because that’s what this is.
Oh, and although this is not in chronological order, how could I possibly continue without mentioning the scene that created the most controversy amongst feminist critics. In an early scene, Mia witnesses Seb playing the haunting melody ‘City of Stars’ for the first time and is mesmerised by his skill. Whilst admiring his ability, Seb is being fired for going off piste with his set list (honky-tonk renditions of Christmas classics). As Mia approaches Seb to declare her astonishment at his talent, he barges passed, knocking her aside as he exits. Now to many women, this is a few steps back in terms of equal representation. However, as a woman, I can honestly say it doesn’t even come close to that. I think Chapelle is riffing on his postmodern critique of the romantic comedy genre – yet again messing with the audiences’ expectations for the development of the plot. The beautiful music and the way their eyes meet across a crowded room….Oh come on! This is 2017. Things are not that simple anymore. Surely we are all desensitized to that kind of romantic drivel now!
There is so much to be said about each scene of this film but I won’t elaborate on the minutiae, as much as I would like to. The point here is that this film looks to expose the clichéd tropes of earlier romantic dramas and the lack of depth in the “romantic drama” of the last decade. Do not underestimate this film, yes it’s tragic and heart-breaking, but Blue Valentine (2010) this is not, and this is how Chapelle avoids the fatalistic trap of the postmodern romantic drama.
Following the expected format of love – issue – solution, after a brief honeymoon period the cracks begin to show as Mia and Seb’s careers develop. Mia becomes a playwright with her own looming one-woman-show, whilst Seb, weary of not being able to provide for the love of his life, takes on a role in his school friend’s band – abandoning his purist notions of Jazz to earn $1000 a week in what I can only describe as a “New age Jazz” band. I am not, and have never claimed to be a jazz expert and I apologise to those of you that take your Jazz as seriously as Seb does in the film, I am sure my terminology will cause great offence. Nevertheless, the point here is that whilst Mia never lets go of her dream, Seb is willing to sacrifice his in order to allow Mia to become the actress he knows she can be, and therein lies the tragedy at the heart of this film.
As the final curtains loom, Mia is depicted five years later as a successful actress with a family and Seb is nowhere to be seen. In a bittersweet cyclical nod to the beginning, Mia and her new husband, about to leave town for their hotel, hear a jazz bar and descend the staircase to… you guessed it…Seb’s. Across the room Mia and Seb’s eyes meet and he sits to play ‘City of Stars’ for one last time and all sense of spatial and temporal constraints are re-evaluated. The intensity of their gaze allows Seb to form a ‘rememory’ of his past, sweeping aside the years that the audience were not allowed to see and reimagining his potential relationship with Mia, had life not got in the way. As they dance across the stage with painted film sets clearly drawing attention to the artificiality of Seb’s fantasy, the audience are allowed a taster of what life could have been like for Mia and Seb if the American dream was truly accessible. The film is, after all, called La La Land, and thus we must assume that the depiction of love and life has ‘its head in the clouds’ so to speak. Dancing amongst the stars (now a black screen with lights behind) acts as a heavy contrast with the romantic scene in the observatory in which real constellations and galaxy could be seen as they defied gravity. This, my friends, is the tragedy that lies at the heart of this film: most of the time love and ambition are not compatible or, to quote the Rolling Stones: “you don’t always get what you want.”
So, arguably Seb’s final reverie is proof of a new era of post-postmodern affect in which sincerity becomes the overriding theme, because, in this case, there is no chance of a reconciliation, but at the same time that’s okay. The feelings remain and are forever encased in the smile and the silence of the end of the film.
Like I said, a masterpiece and a truly revolutionary piece of cinema. If La La Land doesn’t sweep the Oscars this year, then something is definitely wrong in this world (as if you didn’t suspect that already).