Tuesday, January 10, 2017

La La Land

La La Land has a lot going for it: catchy songs, winning performances, intricate staging and framing, and complex, nuanced storytelling about the compromise that comes with striving for your dreams. It’s also one of the few films I’ve seen that’s moved me to tears.

At root, La La Land is a film about dreams: those long-terms plans and goals we set for ourselves, and the paths we hope to walk in our lives. However, what makes it special is that it doesn’t address this subject with some trite or pat message about persevering until you succeed, or about how sacrifice will eventually yield dividends. No, instead its approach to dreams is more sophisticated and multifaceted (and often explicit, given how often dreams comes up in the dialogue and songs). In La La Land, dreams can inspire, but they can also disappoint; dreams can make life worth living, but they can also drive people apart; dreams can fill your life with hope and meaning, and they can also break your heart and destroy you.

The film explores this subject through its two main characters, Mia and Sebastian, both talented artists with multiple dreams that are variously encouraged and discouraged, built up and abandoned, realized and compromised. Mia dreams of a successful acting career; Sebastian dreams of opening a jazz club. After they meet cute, together they dream of a romantic life together, and mutually inspire one another to take practical steps toward achieving their respective professional goals.

The film’s sophistication comes partly from the mixture of humiliation, discouragement, and qualified success they each encounter along the way, and also partly from their realization that pursuing their dreams has made them compromise either their ideals, or their faith in themselves. Sebastian joins a band that makes music he isn’t terribly passionate about; it’s a means to an end (his club), but the work warps his view of what he wants out of life, and touring forces him to spend long stretches of time away from Mia. Mia goes on endless unsuccessful auditions, and eventually puts herself out there by writing and starring in a one-woman show. However, the turnout is poor, and she overhears cruel remarks afterwards. These experiences are scarring: Sebastian becomes bitter about how touring and recording has altered his dreams, and also resentful of Mia for being inspired by her to join the band as a means of achieving them, while Mia is so rattled by what she perceives as the poor reception of her show that she questions her decision to pursue acting and retreats to her childhood home.

Of course, this is still – emphatically, exuberantly – a Hollywood film, so eventually they each achieve their professional dreams: a casting agent is in Mia’s audience and loves her performance, eventually leading to an audition that will launch her career (but only after Sebastian harries her into going to it), while Sebastian is (evidently) able to translate his success in the band into opening his well-attended jazz club. However, achieving these professional dreams has come at the cost of their dream of a life together, a dream which we see literalized as a fantasy in the film’s poignant and bittersweet musical climax.

After a five year ellipsis, we discover Mia and Sebastian are living separate lives: Mia has a husband and daughter, Sebastian has his club. When chance leads Mia and her husband into Sebastian’s nightclub, she and Sebastian lock eyes, and he begins a piano rendition of one of the musical motifs heavily associated with their romance (the aptly named “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”). As he plays, we see a fantastical reimagining of the entire film we just watched as a breathless, whirlwind musical number where there are no setbacks, no growing apart, and no compromises. These fantasy versions of the characters each live their professional and personal dreams together in perfect harmony and mutual love and support. It’s a lovely picture, one made bittersweet since it is all in Mia and Sebastian’s heads.

However, it becomes sublime when dream-Sebastian and dream-Mia sit down to watch 16mm or 8mm home movies of the future they could have had. The bombast of the score subsides and is replaced by a simple piano rendition of one of the film’s standout musical numbers, “City of Stars” (the number most closely associated with dreams), and we see glimpses of their unlived life together: painting a room, getting pregnant, having a child, watching him grow, and so on. I found this sequence incredibly moving. It’s not that I was so invested in Mia and Sebastian’s romance that I was devastated that they don’t end up together, although I certainly found it sad. Rather, I found this sequence a powerful expression of the road not traveled, the irretrievability of the past, and the unattainable dream. These glimpses into their shared romantic dream are doubly lost to Sebastian and Mia: not only are they from the past, which is irretrievable under normal circumstances, but they are also obliterated as soon as they appear on screen, undone by the choices Mia and Sebastian actually made. This sequence provides a sharp contrast between the idealized dream and the messier reality. It’s bittersweet, regretful, nostalgic, and achingly poignant.

Rather than ending on such a somber note, the film gives Mia and Sebastian one final exchange of glances where they nod knowingly and smile, as if to indicate that the two are ultimately okay with how life turned out for them, even if it’s not the dream we just saw them share. Their coming to terms is also a part of the film’s sophistication. Dreams can uplift or disappoint, satisfy or destroy a person, but sometimes, letting go of a dream – sad as it may be – is a part of the process of growing up and moving on with your life.

Of course, there are a lot of other things to appreciate about this film aside from how it addresses dreams. For one, it has great music, something I’ve found sorely lacking in other contemporary Hollywood musicals. It also has dancing, which was less impressive, but what can you do? The days of Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, and Gingers Rogers are long gone, along with Hollywood’s interest in triple threats. This is about as close as a contemporary Hollywood film – with contemporary Hollywood stars – will come to a classical Hollywood studio musical. Other industries – namely, India’s popular cinema, “Bollywood” – have long since taken the mantle of producing stunning dance numbers.

Speaking of Bollywood, another praise-worthy quality of La La Land are the fantasy elements of Mia and Sebastian’s romance, particularly their date at the Griffith Observatory. This sequence is very much like a Bollywood musical number, where intense and subjective character feelings are expressed through fantastical dance numbers that defy the laws of time and space. However, rather than dunking viewers into the deep end of the fantasy pool, this sequence slowly wades in, introducing somewhat subtle cues as to the fantastic and subjective nature of their date.

The couple arrives at the Observatory by driving onto the walkway, mimicking precisely a shot from Rebel Without a Cause, a reference viewers should be primed to understand as fantasy not only because of its inherent ridiculousness, but also because in the previous scene, La La Land shows that shot from Rebel while Mia and Sebastian see the film on a date. The fantasy components become more intense as the scene progresses: impossibly, Mia and Sebastian are the only people at the Observatory, wandering its halls and planetarium as if on a private tour. Their seclusion is a way of indicating our access to their subjectivity: they only have eyes for each other. Finally, when they activate the planetarium’s starscape, they literally begin to fly, and dance their way through the cosmos.*

* Nevertheless, even with the slow ramping of fantastic details, some patrons at the screening I attended had trouble processing it. I remember hearing an incredulous “What?” as Mia begins to levitate. 

As this obvious allusion to Rebel Without a Cause indicates, another of La La Land’s pleasures is its cine-literacy. This film is chock-full of references to other films. In addition to Rebel, I also spotted pretty obvious references to Singin’ in the Rain, Vertigo, The Red Balloon, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the ballroom dancing of Astaire and Rogers, and (perhaps) Nosferatu and a less obvious musical reference to The 400 Blows. Likewise, Mia’s room is filled with posters from classical Hollywood films, and one of the early montage sequences resembles those of the 1930s, when Hollywood editors experimented with frantic, multi-image transitions. There are doubtlessly other references.

The nice thing about these references is that they aren’t necessarily cloying winks to viewers who spot them, but are sometimes reconfigured and given new meaning by their narrative contexts. For instance, at one point, Sebastian swings around a light pole very reminiscent of the one Gene Kelly leaps onto in his famous rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and momentarily even strikes a similar pose. However, rather than an elated expression of new love, as in Singin’ in the Rain, in La La Land, Sebastian is being impish; he’s flirting with Mia while pretending not to, as they both sound out their potential romantic interest in one another. The film changes the meaning of the body language while preserving the staging.

Speaking of staging, La La Land also oozes craftsmanship in its stylization, not only in the song and dance numbers, but in ordinary conversation scenes as well. The film is resplendent with long takes, camera movement, and intricate staging that shifts as compositions evolve and characters move about the frame. It’s an aesthete’s delight. For instance, the first time we see the interior of Sebastian’s apartment, it’s presented in a distantly-framed long take. Both Sebastian and his sister Laura move about the environment, which is only gradually revealed to us: Laura talks about Sebastian living like a hermit before we can see all of the boxes of stuff strewn about the place, and he implores her not to sit on an object in his kitchen before we can clearly see what it is, instantly soliciting our curiosity about it. Could it be an amplifier? An instrument case? It turns out to be a stool once sat on by jazz musician Hoagy Carmichael.

Generally, the film’s style is nicely patterned. Early on the film establishes a motif where the lights dim when Mia sings to herself, thus when the lights also dim when she’s drawn into a bar by the sound of Sebastian’s piano playing, the style indicates that this encounter is going to mean something to her, even though the reverse shot of what she sees is withheld until after a flashback showing Sebastian’s day up to this point. And indeed, as Sebastian plays, the lights around him dim until he's lit in a spotlight, a subjective flourish that mirrors Mia's.

Other narrative parallels abound between the lovers prior to the beginning of their romance: both have scenes set in their homes where people close to them try to convince them to do something they don’t want to do, and when both go to work – Mia at a coffee shop, Sebastian at his piano – there are brief Requiem for a Dream-like montages of various work activities like brewing coffee. In many ways, then, the style and their actions link these two characters even before they form a meaningful relationship. It’s an effective way to make them seem like they were meant for each other.

Another stylistic patterning I appreciated was the film’s use of two shots and shot/reverse shot. When Mia and Sebastian are falling in love and in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, they are almost always shot together in two shots, rather than singles. However, when they are more distant, this changes to shot/reverse shot. It’s most noticeable when they are on the cusp of holding hands for the first time, and during their big fight three quarters of the way through the film. In both cases, it suits the narrative action. In the former, they are unsure of one another, each wondering how the other will react to holding hands. The latter sequence begins with muddy over-the-shoulder shots as the two celebrate each others’ successes, but when conflict starts to emerge, the framing gets tighter, isolating them in their own shots. It’s quite a contrast with how they’d been staged and framed previously, and one that serves the narrative (and which is used this way throughout the film – watch how the space is broken up when Keith arrives for his first scene versus how the space segmented – or not – beforehand). You know you’re looking at a remarkable film when even its use of routine and ubiquitous editing patterns like shot/reverse shot has dramatic implications.

Finally, this film also hit me particularly hard for personal reasons. I can relate to Mia’s professional struggles, and to Sebastian’s personal struggles. Like Mia, I excel at what I do and am striving toward the dream career I envision for myself, but also like her, there are thousands of others who are also competing for what few jobs exist. Likewise, my dream career also means I must be open to relocating, which can introduce conflicts into relationships, much like how touring makes Sebastian and Mia grow distant. It remains to be seen whether my dream will come to fruition, or if it will somehow involve further compromise. Too bad life isn’t like a Hollywood film, even one where some dreams don't come true.

Other thoughts:

- Aside from the scene with the lamp post, other parts of La La Land also recall Singin’ in the Rain, particularly Sebastian and Mia taking a stroll through a studio lot together as they get to know one another. Don and Kathy do the same prior to their first love song, “You Were Meant for Me.” However, in La La Land, rather than declarations of love, the scene culminates in Sebastian introducing Mia to the way he understands jazz. Chalk up the different speeds of the films’ romances to changes in the way Hollywood films depict courtship now versus sixty-plus years ago (and the somewhat different subject matter of each film).

- Another example of the richness of this film: Mia and her husband are drawn into Sebastian’s nightclub by the music that leaks out onto the street, which parallels the earlier scene where Mia is similarly lured into a nightclub by the sound of Sebastian’s piano playing. Their romance is thus bookended by the sound of music catching Mia’s ear.

- The bittersweet feelings of the climactic fantasy sequence are also solicited by Mia’s entrance into Sebastian’s nightclub. Mia is shocked to see that it’s called “Seb’s,” a name she had suggested to Sebastian when they were together, but which he adamantly rejected at the time. Sebastian has even used her logo, complete with a music note as an apostrophe. His decision to use her suggestion, rather than his initial ungainly but historically meaningful idea, “Chicken on a Stick,” further indicates that in this film, achieving dreams means compromise (to an extent – the Hoagy Carmichael stool is also enshrined on one of the club’s walls where no one can sit on it). These changes to Sebastian's dream club also indicates that he has turned into the kind of person that would be an even better match for Mia now than he was before. It’s a little bittersweet aperitif preceding the full course meal coming up in the musical fantasy.

- The closest thing this film has to a classical Hollywood song and dance number is the roadside scene that adorns the film’s posters, however this scene ends with a modern intrusion: the sound of Mia’s cell phone ringing, which distracts her and Sebastian from a potential kiss. Gene Kelly never had to deal with that! It’s a very modern conclusion to otherwise homage-laden sequence.

- Another nice touch: the lyrics to “City of Stars” changes to suit the narrative situation. The first time it’s sung, Sebastian wonders whether or not he can make his dream of a future with Mia come true. The next time, he and Mia are in the full blossom of their love, and she changes the lyric to “but now our dreams have finally come true.”

- When Mia searches for Sebastian at the screening of Rebel Without a Cause, cinema is literally projected onto her face, as if it imprinted on the character. Perhaps no other image better encapsulates this film’s awareness of its relationship with classical Hollywood. This sequence is also accompanied by the opening title music from Rebel, which also works nicely in this moment.

- The scene where Mia and Sebastian fight is particularly well-crafted not only through its use of shot/reverse shot, but also through its use of music. At its start, a jazzy rendition of “City of Stars” – the song most closely associated with the dream of their romantic future, if not their romantic reality – plays on a record player. However, when Sebastian starts acting like a jerk, saying hurtful and disingenuous things to Mia, the music stops. The moment is emphasized by brief a shot of the record needle at the end of the album. Style corroborates the narrative once again.

- When dream-Mia and dream-Sebastian sit down to watch home movies, the reprisal of “City of Stars” has a tinny, distant quality, as if played over a radio, or filtered through layers of dreams that never came to fruition. It matches the warble of the 16 or 8mm films they watch together.

- As much as I enjoyed and was moved by this film, I do still have a few nits to pick with it, specifically the conflict it sets up about the state of jazz. Sebastian’s claim is that jazz is dying, and his axe-grinding mission is to “save” it by returning it to its roots and opening a club steeped in jazz history. His character growth is signaled by his compromising (slightly) in this regard, but it’s kind of a silly goal in the first place, both because simply opening a jazz club wouldn’t do much to “save” jazz or remedy the situation Sebastian bemoans, and because the whole premise that jazz needs saving is never corroborated by the film. Considering how busy Seb’s is at the end, it would seem the audience for jazz is just fine. It’s a thoroughly undercooked part of the plot, if not a fatal flaw.

- Likewise, I also found Mia’s reaction to seeing Sebastian and Keith’s band a bit hollow. Mia feels distant from Sebastian here because he’s happily playing music that he used to hate. Her reaction is like that of a lover who doesn’t recognize the person they used to love, and it rings false because it conflicts with Sebastian’s seeming to recognize how much of a change this is for him. As he plays, he shrugs his shoulders at her as if to say, “Yeah it’s ridiculous, but who cares?” This gesture should reassure her – it’s as if he’s telling her he’s still the same Sebastian she loves, despite his playing in this band. But instead, she reacts like she’s losing him. It’s an off note.

- On the other hand, this scene continues the motif of the lights dimming for everyone but Mia and Sebastian when she listens to him play (one also taken up again at the end of the film at Seb’s). Moreover, it also works well as an inverse parallel to an earlier scene at a party where Sebastian is playing in an 80s cover band (also music he has no passion for). Then, Mia made fun of him, but now, she feels bad for him. So it still has other things going for it.

- The film does a good job of repeating Mia’s name enough times that I remembered it, but somehow I kept forgetting Sebastian’s name, such that I was initially perplexed by Mia’s insistence that Sebastian call his dream jazz club “Seb’s.”

- With a name like La La Land, I had hoped the film might have something fun, interesting, or knowing to say about life in Los Angeles, and even though it is more of a film about Hollywood than Los Angeles, it doesn’t disappoint. There are many nice Los Angeles touches here: endless traffic jams, Draconian parking regulations, blasé attitudes toward magnificent cityscapes. The film manages to touch on all of these things without being cliché, partly because it doesn’t treat these tics of the city as profound, but merely as observations about what it can be like living here. Likewise, in the various montages of Mia and Sebastian going on dates and falling in love, they manage to hit upon many of the city’s delights and curiosities: Angel’s Flight, the Grand Central Market, the Griffith Observatory, the Watts Towers, the Dodgers, a pier stretching out over the Pacific, lovely bridges, retrospective film screenings. It’s a nice homage to a city that can be a lovely place to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment