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City of Stars, Please Shine for Me: on La La Land

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)


We went to the movies often. The screen would light up, and we’d feel a thrill. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. We felt sad. It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t the total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live. – ‘Masculin Féminin’ (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

A man and a woman are sitting next to each other at a piano. The man is Fred Astaire; the woman is Judy Garland. He is looking for a new dancing partner; she is applying for the job. He watches her and then turns his head as if plunged in thought, though he is still listening attentively. The camera approaches the couple slowly, making the space more intimate as the song progresses. She sings “It Only Happens When I Dance with You” and her powerful voice begins to enchant Astaire. He turns his head back to her, turns a page, looks at the notes and then looks at her again. His gaze remains fixed on her throughout the rest of the song. As she finishes, she looks at him insecurely, waiting for his approval. “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?” he asks her. Relieved and happy, she embraces him. The movie is Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948). A relatively simple scene, yet there is so much happening here. A distance, a professional one between teacher and pupil, that becomes smaller and smaller as Garland’s voice enchants and we see Astaire falling in love. Every gesture, look, gaze, movement is loaded with meaning. Even the movements of the camera matches the growing intimacy in the scene.

Another situation: a man is playing the piano as his girlfriend enters. She hangs her bag on the coat stand and walks to the far side of the room. The man changes the key and starts to sing a song called “City of Stars”. He draws her attention. She turns and listens. The camera moves to her face as she starts singing as well – the song turns into a duet. She walks over to the man, leans over the piano, then sits next to him. The scene dissolves to a musical interlude set to the song, showing the couple working towards achieving their dreams. This interlude ends with a dissolve back to the couple at the piano finishing the last notes. A similar scene to the previous one, but with very different things happening. Here, there are no great emotions, no great voices, no distances between the characters to dissolve through the music. The function of the song is more mundane, a way to share time with each other after a hard day’s work. If the distance does not lie between the couple, does it then lie between the couple and the City of Stars central to their song (which is felt in the presence of an overwhelming green artificial light coming from the window)?

The film, of course, is La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) and while in the end it didn’t win the Oscar for best picture, it did become one of the most discussed Hollywood films of the year. Perhaps rightly so, as the film promises to revive or reinterpret one of the oldest and the most beloved film genres of the golden era of Hollywood: the musical.

The story has a familiar ring. A boy and a girl, both aspiring young artists (a jazz musician and an actress), keep running into each other in Los Angeles. The boy, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), dreams of opening his own jazz club, while the girl, Mia (Emma Stone), dreams of her breakthrough role and writing her own plays. Nothing magical happens until Sebastian invites Mia to the movies, where they watch Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After the 35mm film breaks during the scene in which James Dean’s character arrives at the Griffith observatory, the pair decides to visit that iconic location themselves. There, while watching a projection of our galaxy, the magic finally happens. Time stands still. Gravity doesn’t exist anymore. The lovers are dancing in the infinite spaces of the universe. They kiss for the first time.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

They are a couple now and with their newfound love they also find new energy to pursue their dreams. Mia quits her job at the coffee bar on the Warner Bros.’ studio lot and starts writing a play. Sebastian signs a contract with a friend’s jazz combo. The gig turns out to be a commercial success and Sebastian is often away touring with the band while Mia, home alone, works hard at her solo play. (Her story happens to be set in Paris.) One night, Sebastian surprises her with an unexpected dinner at home. When Mia asks him if playing with the band is something he really wants, an argument arises. Sebastian seems to have already renounced his dream of starting his own nostalgic jazz café. Shortly thereafter, Mia finally gets to perform her solo act in a small theatre she booked for herself. But when the lights turn on after her performance, almost all the seats are empty (which means she won’t be able to pay the theatre back). To make matters worse, she overhears some of the people who did show up joking about her terrible performance. Disillusioned, she leaves for her parental home in Boulder City, Nevada.

Then, the impossible happens. Sebastian gets a call from a casting director who happened to have seen Mia’s performance and wants her to come and audition for a film. Sebastian immediately drives to Mia’s hometown and persuades her not to give up her talents and to keep fighting for her dreams. The next day, they drive back to Hollywood for an audition that seems too good to be true: the film will be shot in Paris and the script will be built around the main character. The producers ask Mia not just to read lines, but rather to tell them a story. So, what is promised is not only creative freedom but, more importantly, an artistic collaboration based on equality. A safe place where her need to communicate her feelings and thoughts is stimulated and not ignored.

Of course, Mia gets the role and five years later we find her back in Los Angeles, a successful star and happily married (not to Sebastian), with a kid and a nanny. On a night out with her husband, she visits a jazz club that happens to belong to Sebastian. His dream has also come true. When he spots her in the crowd he starts playing their song, “City of Stars”. For the duration of the song, Mia imagines an alternative reality where she lives the Hollywood dream together with Sebastian, but when the song is over she finds herself back in reality, sitting next to her husband. Leaving the club, Mia turns around and exchanges one last glance with Sebastian.

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

The common conclusion people attribute to La La Land, that love and artistic ambition don’t go hand in hand, is not the point of this film. In almost every musical the music, song and dance create openings for the formation of the romantic couple. The magic in this genre depends on the power of enchantment of these spells. In La La Land, however, the romantic couple is not the central focus of the film. Their love is not subservient to their artistic success, but the most important condition. The question arises if the two main characters can even be considered a romantic couple as such. Their love story is deliberately left unstressed. If we look for examples in any Astaire-Rogers musical, one always finds these conditions that make them magically fall in love in the end: the chance encounter, complementary characteristics (they are equals in their smart talk and gestures) and a song or dance that brings them together. In La La Land, we have three chance encounters (at a traffic jam, in a nightclub and at an 80s themed Hollywood party). We have the smart talk at the party, which sounds ripped-off from the first encounter of the couple in Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly and Donen, 1952) – more on this later – and we get a nighttime walk that results in a little dance together. Yet, none of these elements, separately or together, result in any form of enchantment. What may have worked in the world of the golden Hollywood musicals doesn’t work here anymore. So, what kind of world is Mr. Chazelle presenting to us?

The opening scene starts with a traffic jam on the highway to Los Angeles. Numerous critics were eager to point out the references to films like Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) or Godard’s Week-end (1967). The choice of setting the opening number during a traffic jam, is indeed a smart one. It refers back to the very nature of the musical within narrative cinema, where the song slows down or halts the narrative much like a traffic jam. The camera moves laterally past the cars. A young woman starts to sing “Another Day of Sun”, a song about giving up your daily life to pursue your dream. She steps out of the cramped space of her car. The act of singing feels like a liberation. Other people get out of their cars and join her in the song. They start to walk and make small dance moves. Suddenly, everyone is stepping out of their cars, acting out their moves to each other and us, climbing on the roofs of their cars. Even if they not necessarily share the same Hollywood dream, they do have the same dedication to their dreams. The song connects this shared dedication that becomes an act of rebellion and anarchy… in the hands of Godard maybe. Clearly, there is something anarchic in standing on the roof of your car during a traffic jam, but in the hands of Mr. Chazelle this gesture doesn’t disrupt the natural order of things. It’s all part of the show. Like in the golden Hollywood musicals, Chazelle favors the long take. But unlike the films he pays tribute to, the camera is not subservient to the action. The camera swirls and moves (on a crane) in one long take, as if it has the same urge to prove itself like those young swirling hopefuls whose roles have already come to an end when the song is over. The opening of the film introduces us not to the leads, nor to any secondary characters. The people we see on the screen are just a bunch of extras in colorful outfits.

This is further emphasized in the second number, where Mia visits a party with her friends. As she walks through the room, everyone around her dances in slow motion. We don’t even see her friends anymore. They have merged into the crowd. Everybody is singing “Someone in the Crowd Will Be the One You Need to Know,” but we already know that this “someone” doesn’t exist. The crowd is presented as a homogeneous group who offers a spectacle, one without enchantment. In Hollywood, where you find a reminder of the neighborhood’s rich film history on every corner, everyone can sing and dance. However, the voices have become less perfect, the dancing sticks to rather rudimentary moves and the gestures have lost their meaning. This is very serious, because cinema cannot exist without its gestures! In the musical, you find them in the transitions: from the everyday to the lyrical, from walking to dancing, from talking to singing. It’s how the actors are able to enchant the obstacles around them, like Gene Kelly jumping on a lamppost and stamping in rain puddles in Singin’ in the Rain. Enchantment begins when expression becomes communication. An exchange between actor and actor, between actor and object, between image and sound, between image and image.

An attempt is made in La La Land when the two leads sing and dance together for the first time at night in a park with a beautiful view over the city. We get the right romantic setting and even the playful chemistry (Mia and Sebastian both equally agree they are wasting their time with each other). Their voices are not bad, but they are not great either. Their dancing reminds us of the Rogers-Astaire duo, except that La La Land’s couple knows only one or two moves. The timing of the camera movement is slightly off. Again, the camera isn’t following, but anticipating their movements. When the two leads finally lean forward to kiss, we hear the ringtone of a smartphone. Imitating the moves and gestures of the movies can only lead to a dead end. The couple makes another attempt by visiting the cinema and watching Rebel Without a Cause. But, again, when they are about to kiss, the 35mm copy breaks. In the City of Stars, even film has lost its magic and has become an artefact. What remains are traces in the décor: old lampposts, posters of bygone film stars, the window of the building where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman watched the Germans pass by in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942).

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Cynics would say it’s like a tourist’s dream where the film’s location, the observatory, holds more magic than the film itself. But, it is more complicated than that. Both Mia and Sebastian don’t want to be passive outsiders looking in. For them, there should be no difference between what they see on the screen and the world they step into when they leave the theatre. Thus, when they decide not to watch the movie any further and leave for the actual filming location, to continue the film on their own terms, they take the first active steps towards pursuing their dreams. That’s why the magic finally happens in the planetarium. Nevertheless, the galaxy is a projection and it has therefore to be seen as a fantasy, a dream sequence. It’s here, the first turning point in the film, that the mediocre talent of its director becomes fully apparent. The idea of visiting the actual filming locations and living like you’re in a film comes from the Nouvelle Vague. In these films, however, there is always a dialectic relation or a tension between everyday reality and the Hollywood films they play around with. In La La Land, there is no tension at all. The two characters are supposed to fall in love, but the gestures of love are mechanical, the kiss anticipated. When the gestures have no meaning, the characters lose their relation to the world and become just pawns in the game, equal in status to a stand-in or an extra. Chazelle even confirms this notion by showing the two lovers dancing as silhouettes, focusing on the generic instead of the particular.

In the following scenes, Chazelle downplays the couple’s growing love and the work on their dreams by turning them into a musical interlude. He rushes through it in a montage sequence that shows the developments, but it holds no interests then as a mechanical device to drive the narrative further. In La La Land, there is nothing to see behind, in or on the surface. Surely, there is some kind of awareness on the director’s part of these characters who try, but cannot, live the ideal life as seen in the old Hollywood musicals. In that respect, it shares some similarities with Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), a film where nothing happens to human beings, but everything occurs to images that are constantly slipping across pre-existing, presupposed images and where the background in any image is always another image. But Coppola at least had some intimate knowledge about the image and his film remains a fascinating one, because he expands upon it. This was a common mannerism in 1970s Hollywood, practiced by filmmakers such as De Palma (expanding on the imagery of Hitchcock), Spielberg and Lucas (utilizing genre effects of the adventure B-pictures). These directors were film lovers and a love for the cinema desires only cinema. This should not be confused with people like Godard, who were passionate about cinema. Passion is more excessive: it demands more of cinema, it reaches beyond its borders onto the unknown until it becomes something else. La La Land is neither the work of a film lover, nor of someone who feels passionate about film. Its images are designed around recognition. When you reduce your images to visual signs and hints, there is no need to linger. For example, if one looks at the grand finale with the fantasy where the couple share their lives together (obviously seen from Mia’s point of view as it are her dreams and ambitions that we see). We see them walking, or rather running, through different décors that bring to mind the expressionistic film sets of 1950s Hollywood musicals. The focus, however, is not on the couple and how they relate to these spaces. It’s not like the old days where the filmmaker had to invent a whole mise-en-scene (a whole game of distances to keep), which allows us to understand the nature of these relations. Instead, Chazelle focuses on stylistic traits: a close-up of a piano that pulls back and goes up fast, in a crane shot, so that we see a wide overhead shot of an artificial nightclub, a turning mini globe with an overflying mini plane to show the shift from Hollywood to an impressionistic Paris, a 360 degrees kissing shot, a cardboard film set where everyone is dancing in colorful clothing, etcetera. The duration of these décor pieces and transitions are as long as it takes to get the visual signal across, which is around 20 seconds. There are no great emotions, no distances to keep, no tensions to hold.

This is the main problem of the film. Mr. Chazelle seems always in a hurry to rush from one event to the next (a problem shared by many of his contemporaries, like J.J. Abrams’ approach to Star Wars: The Force Awakens), making the film monotonous, a matter of mechanics. For all its colorful decorations, La La Land is ultimately nothing more than a filmed scenario. Even all the big talk about the panoramic 2.55: 1 Cinemascope frame (which refers back to 1950s Hollywood, when the musical genre was already in decline) seems just another empty promise. Chazelle keeps all the visual information on one plane in the center of the frame. Moreover, the 2.55: 1 format is only a little bit wider than the standard and most common 2.35: 1 ratio.

My advice for Mr. Chazelle is to study the argument between Fritz Lang and Jerry Prokosch in the projection cabinet of Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) – perhaps, he’d better study Godard’s approach to the wide frame, too.

Jerry Prokosch: You’ve cheated me, Fritz. That’s not what is in that script.
Fritz Lang: It is!
[he pulls the script away from Jerry, who is attempting to grab it out of his hand]
Fritz Lang: Oh, no!
Jerry Prokosch: Get the script, Francesca.
[he reads the script and then changes his tone]
Jerry Prokosch: Yes, it’s in the script. But it’s not what you have on that screen.
Fritz Lang: Naturally, because in the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures. Motion picture, it’s called.

Of course, Mr. Chazelle knows this. La La Land is the highest grossing film of all the best picture Oscar nominees, but for one who cares deeply about the medium, I just hoped that maybe there was, between all the Prokosches, still a Fritz Lang left in Hollywood. However, this is not a matter of nostalgia. It is about the art and the craftsmanship of making a motion picture in Hollywood.