One of my most cherished memories as an early filmgoer was seeing Buster Keaton dancing in perfect synchronization with himself in The Playhouse (1921). Vaudeville and cabaret traditions in general often depend heavily on a simple attribute: timing.
It might sound like an obvious reminder, but when music meets dance it becomes very much about timing as well. Damien Chazelle knows a thing or two about that. His first feature, Whiplash (2014), was made famous for a scene that showed J. K. Simmons’ character throwing a chair above Milles Teller’s head and drum set, precisely for not being able to say whether he was “rushing or dragging”. The film was so obsessed with this idea that it almost reduced music and jazz to just that: timing.
Ironically, lack of timing is Chazelle’s latest movie’s major set back.
Performance-oriented narratives – such as action movies, slapstick comedies or musicals – are driven by technical spectacle. They are hence more likely to sport the mastery of skills as a redeeming quality: “sure the script and the acting weren’t great, but the action sequences, wow!”
In the classic era, this attention to the performance would typically translate formally into the “head to toe” shot, where Gene and Leslie, Fred and Ginger would be filmed in wide long takes (often on the insistence of the actors) actively involving them in the filmmaking, from choreography to directing. Much of the cinematic experience works as some kind of ballet, a constant contrast between camera and subject, where the performance of the latter is balanced by a contemplative and removed filming, so that the camera can get in and participate more actively in building the dynamics between characters only when the action “calms down”. The musical stars acquired an authorial status rivaled by very few actors: in the traditional studio system, there was a seemingly organic process between artistic creation and the creation of a star.
This process seems warped in La La Land: we have stars, therefore whatever they do in front of the camera, as long as it looks like dancing and singing, will make a musical. The film is centered on Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, two well-intentioned actors whose limitations are all too flagrant, a limitation acknowledged by the directing, fragmentary montage, there to hide what it should be celebrating and exposing frontally for us to see. Everything they do is just a bit off – the singing, the dancing, the doing all of it together. As a principle, it’s hard to criticize actors for aiming beyond their original abilities or skills.
One of Whiplash’s core discourses was an off-putting ode to sufferance in performance, a praise of blood and sweat as necessary tools to attain a quite mathematical idea of perfection. La La Land, on the other hand, focuses on artistic integrity: Gosling represents the honest-at-all-cost starving artist, while Stone plays the ready-to-make-it hustling actress with a perhaps more naïve attitude. Both live in an idealization or veneration of the past of their respective arts. A dire turn takes place when John Legend’s character, Keith, tries to convince Gosling’s Sebastian to join his jazz band by explaining the necessity for jazz to reinvent itself. The modern lectures the purist on the inevitable death of their art, unless they rethink its form, which in this case is a rethinking not for the sake of quality, but commercial success understood as only criteria of its survival. The relation shifts: he, Sebastian, starts selling out (but succeeding) and she, Mia, begins to strive for true art (but failing even harder).
While this new film tries to focus on the “heart”, the truthfulness of artistic integrity, the promotional strategy has heavily advertised the hard work and the months of training the stars went through to nail down this or that song, this or that choreography. But in this genre, perhaps more than others, the devil is in the details: it takes great precision to hide the demands of the craft behind a façade of ease and casualness. The less the audience is conscious of the mechanism behind the trick, the more seamless the effect, and the more space is provided for the spectator to experience the spectacular, the “attractive quality” (as Tom Gunning would say) of the images on-screen. As Bastiàn frames it in her The Atlantic article about method acting: “by going method, a performer can signal that he works for his art; he can make his labor visible” – both a marketing tool and a way to bring performance closer to an strong-male type of rhetoric.
What differentiates musicals from more distanced, self-expository avant-garde studies of movement is their juxtaposition with a story in which lies the emotion. When a musical moment simply works as a narrative tool, and not as an attraction in itself, it is only doing half (or less) of the job. Writing about dreams, Vincente Minnelli and his American in Paris (1951), Jacques Rancière makes the following remark: “In Minnelli’s work the flame of dance always banishes the smoke of dreams because dance, by eliminating all realism from the setting, sidelines the characters and their emotional states to leave the stage clear for performance alone. (…) The passage from ‘reality’ to ‘dream’ is in fact a passage from the mixed element of fiction to pure performance. Here again the musical comedy journeyman comes very close to the great avant-gardist tradition, which has always wanted to drop the conventional silliness of stories so that art could let its pure performances shine. But he knows that purity does not go unaccompanied. The ballet would just be a dance number if its floating grace did not elicit that small flutter of the heart brought about by fiction. Minnelli’s art is all about operating the passage between the regimes.” (Cinema Intervals)
In the past thirty years, few industrial movies have been even mildly successful at “reviving” musicals. The few that were tried to explore this interval between fiction and pure performance through all kinds of directing and staging tricks, at times drowning under effects – Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrman, 2001) or Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), both imperfect yet solid enough to sustain at least the entertainment contract. It is then no surprise that American classic musical has found a refuge in animation, and most significantly in the Disney studios. There, one could find some kind of hierarchical synergy at its best that was reminiscent of the golden age of the studio system, in addition to a material itself particularly adequate to stage in ways never seen before, at times reuniting the close proximity between avant-garde “art for the sake of it” with heartfelt, well rounded narratives. Animation pushes, perhaps more instinctively, to that constant reflection between performance and narrative: no matter what regime you are in, the artificiality of its material is always self-evident.
When facing a similar task, inventive artists tend to work around the technical imperatives by setting their own standards on how to approach the two complementary regimes – whether it’s Jacques Demy or Alain Resnais, in rather classical styles, or more radical readings, such as those by Tsai Ming Liang or Miguel Gomes. Chazelle, on the other hand, has found a number of “cues” to explore, but by the end of the film that is how they really feel: just cues, treated as assets in themselves. You can only get so much of lights dimming down. If a magician plays the same trick over and over again, you either try to figure it out or surrender to boredom. In both cases, one can’t help but look away, even though the movie is clearly inscribed within a specific tradition: one of performers, in which technique makes or breaks you and the choreography is trusted to carry much of the emotional experience. It is all useless if the viewer is no longer watching any of it.
The one moment that stands out as a lesson to the film happens early on, when the two protagonists meet after a party. By simply watching that interaction, we all know what feeling they are having, the movie knows we know it and wisely removes itself as a mediator, allowing the camera to capture the duet on a wide, long-take of two people expressing feelings through choreographed body language. It’s a one-off though, as even the final dance-off, in typical Minnelli style, actually contains almost no performance from the two leads, who merely walk through a number of well-decorated sets, defeating the purpose of dance scenes which is to set aside narrative and become physical expression of inner feelings.
Throughout the rest of the projection, La La Land takes the task of indication, rather than expression, culminating in the already mentioned episode involving Keith or the multiple explanations by Sebastian on what jazz (understand art) should do. As in Whiplash the discourse about the art form portrayed is very simplistically outlined. Where his first feature focused on labor and sufferance, his second film emphases mainly the questions of compromise and “purity” – an adjective that rarely comes with a reassuring set of ideas and that is particularly absurd when talking about jazz (and cinema for that matter), both being by nature syncretic modes of expressions. In addition to which in both cases the discrepancy between the diegetic rhetoric and the movies’ esthetical program makes it very hard to extract a coherent thinking about any of it. However the movies itself, if it were to be associated with a character’s vision would be the closest to Sebastian’s. In short: the art is dying, it is stuck in the past, it has to look to the future, a very grim, end-of-the-world discourse that has to be disguised in colorful riffs and gowns. A paralyzing respect for what it was. An idea of what it shouldn’t become: complex and boring.
The result is a mistake often seen in contemporary American cinema: a formulaic understanding of a genre or an auteur followed by its application as a formula. It then fails to recognize that the lesson from those exemplary movies cannot be contained in pastiche, since they come out of their own attitude towards storytelling, their willingness to coherently apply their form to a content and a time. Escaping from this responsibility results in a theoretical object with little regard to emotion, with the necessary discomfort that comes with it.
For better or worse, Hollywood never fully believed in radicalism or the “the ideal of the autonomous artist and the idea of the omnipotence of dreams” (Rancière). On the contrary, it has built itself on more or less conscious navigation within all extremes… an art of compromise, but one that does not have to translate as a compromise of art. Talking about another Minnelli movie, Rancière continues: “For Minnelli there is no radical break between the young girl’s dream, the patterns on fabric and the entertainment value of the oeuvre. There are variable forms of excitement and opportunities for performance.” It is that place of forms and variety that the likes of Minnelli, Berkeley, Donen, Wise, Cukor, as well as many other films by less auteurized directors, managed to explore.
Keith’s and Sebastian’s idea of jazz renewal ends up being jazz without too much jazz, because people don’t like it much anymore. Similarly, La La Land seems cautious to offer the audience too much musical and dancing bits, realizing that mass audiences are not accustomed to see those anymore. Being wary of it, the things that musicals are made off are mostly absent, deciding to rely more on a (paper thin) plot. What this conception ends up doing by paying homage to the musical genre is establishing its irrelevance, its obsolescence, without offering an alternative. Singin’ in the Rain, another major influence for Chazelle and also a movie about falling into desuetude, offers itself as an alternative: staging the sudden lack of interest for a “genre” – silent movies – the story placed its hope in musicals by presenting them, within the film, as the future of cinema.
City of scars
On the other hand, the obsolescence the film refuses to portray is the obsolescence of Hollywood as a dream factory.
For a movie that is so eager to inscribe itself in film history, summoning many great names and titles, it conveniently ignores David Lynch’s take on the city of stars as seen in Mulholland Drive (2001), Brian de Palma’s Black Dahlia (2006) or even going back as far as Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). Not that all going-to-Hollywood stories should end (or begin) in a murder, but one cannot paint in all honesty such idealized portrait of a deeply flawed ecosystem.
An ecosystem comprised of its codes, semi-gods, narratives, dilemmas, gatekeepers: “driving-up” to the big city, casting calls, side-jobs, success, love versus personal ambition. A milieu that often avoids acknowledging frontally its highly political nature and prefers directing our gazes towards the end product. It is rarely an issue on screen except when Hollywood decides to portray itself, in which case the imagery we are sold becomes hard to sustain, but seemingly indispensible for its survival: primary colors for primal desires, the systematical rewarding of perseverance and such other many tropes that populate Hollywood’s imaginary.
La La Land does nothing but perpetuate this mythology, in which very few still believe, of driving to Los Angeles and coming out of it with money, success and nothing but a little scratch at the bottom of your heart and a small tear coming out of your beautiful eyes.
Everyone and everything involved in this project has been crushed by the weight of the enterprise, forgetting how disingenuous it is to still sell this delusion. La La Land is very reminiscent of the buzz that accompanied Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011). A, seemingly, very harmless pastiche – which La La Land isn’t – by a hardcore classic director, a classic-core of sorts (and I’d argue a brilliant one, with regards to his French comedies); a Frenchman coming to Hollywood to flatter their egos and assure them that they are still relevant. They were charmed.
It is sometimes said that two American cities are particularly delusional in the picture they have of themselves: Washington DC and Los Angeles. On the political-discourse level, they seem to have never been so far apart. Weeks into a new entertainer-in-chief’s tenure, that virtually all of show business abhors, we are witnessing gold distributing events (Golden Globes, Grammys, Baftas, the Oscars) in which some made political jokes or statements against him. But, again, as Rancière argues in his dense and complex essay The Distribution of the Sensible, the political and the esthetical each have their “form”, and this form remains independent from one another, though they can run in parallel lines. The words of a Hollywood star and those of a politician might sound very different, but they allude to very similar sentiments.
What it means specifically for La La Land is that the nostalgia it stages is not unlike the dreams Trumpland has sold the American people. The triggering of nostalgia is in itself not at fault – a sentiment, an emotion that has produced some of the most enduring pieces of art. Rather, it is the combination of the thing it longs for, the shape it takes and the statement it therefore ends up making which is the big problem – a process that is true both on the political and filmic stages. The danger, as mentioned above, is falling into affirming irrelevance: irrelevance of politics, irrelevance of musicals (we’ll let you decide which one is more preoccupying).
It is interesting to notice that the period both La La Land and Trump (or the ideology he embodies) want to revive is roughly the 1950s (with a mix of full-range capitalism of the 1980s), one of the most ideologically and politically vacuous chapters in American history. An era that was great for the development of art forms of its time, for economical prosperity, but only if you fitted a specific sociological and ethnical category. In short, a longing for an esthetic, more than a sentiment – one that has little universality and in which many cannot recognize themselves. One problematic aspect it touches upon is the politics of representation that both this film and Trump have – in their action, not their discourse – little regard for, looking to more or less directly redefine the prevalent conception of “imagined communities”. They are echoing each other not only in the era they look back at, but most obviously in a yearning for the value of entertainment, with a certain disregard for its quality, its craft and its history, in spite of any good intention. Both assume that, by putting recognizable faces in front of the camera, we are all going to have our eyes and ears wide open (and perhaps sadly too many are). There is pleasure in the very basic act of recognition.
Donald Trump entered a political arena directly from a showbiz one (nothing new here) and by bringing unapologetic entertainment methods into politics, by neglecting any of the customary political rhetoric and accountability (this is new) has very strongly staged the fragility and the irrelevance of what are mostly accepted conventions. As Neil Postman has penned some thirty years ago, we are “amusing ourselves to death”. When politics becomes mostly a spectacle that in turn falls under the esthetic regime, it ends up being ruled by esthetics itself. The movie is however not “guilty” of wanting to entertain – that is part of what a movie can do. It is in the impoverishment of its esthetics that La La Land participates in a further debasement of politic-spectacle.
The only salute a figure like Trump can bring now is pushing others to the realization that there is a dire need for a rethinking of the political institution and what it has to offer. What art and film specifically can do best in those circumstances is to imagine and share creative alternatives. At a point when Washington is incapable of reshaping itself unless for the worst, Hollywood seems to have reached a similar dead end. Naturally the power the first city has is much greater and so are the consequences of the actions taking place in its confinements. But when one group is so vocal for the restoration of American elites, its proposition should go through similar (self-)scrutiny. The incapability to realize what is at stake with such esthetic regimes and the inability to liberate itself from misplaced nostalgia are most certainly the sign that it is not going to be La La Land much longer, unless it learns from Wa Wa Wand’s mistakes faster than Ginger and Fred could tap dance.