Friday, July 6, 2018

Allegory, Atmosphere, and Artifice in Damien Chazelle's La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land. (Photo: IMDB)

Richard Brody on his New Yorker blog has a problem with Damien Chazelle. He’s disconcerted at how tightly Chazelle frames and edits the spontaneity of jazz in Whiplash (2014), and, on the same theme, by the scene in La La Land (2016) where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring musician, bloviatingly mansplains jazz to Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actor he has fallen in love with, by talking over the live jazz. (The “very, very exciting” ending of that “speech” just adds insult to injury.) Brody also has complaints about the dance numbers, which, being tightly choreographed and rehearsed, for him belie the spontaneous joy that supposedly ignites dancing in the streets. Aside from the mansplaining, I think it’s fine. After all, we're here not to experience jazz but to enjoy a film. And Chazelle’s camerawork does an exhilarating job of guiding the audience’s gaze, transforming the spectacle before us from a stage performance to a cinematic one.

Besides, the opening dance number isn’t supposed to be realistic (it is a musical, after all). It sets the mood of the film, and it also sets the scene: Tinseltown, where dreams and their spectacle are in the air. But something strange is going on in this particular musical. At certain points throughout, the film seems to flicker in and out of realism, which is probably the root of the inorganic quality of the musical numbers noted by Steve Vineberg in his review on this website. Let's call the film's boundary between realism and fantasy an atmospheric framing device, i.e., it is devised to create the fantastical atmosphere of the musical, its hard boundaries, apart from the intermittent flickering, evident in the first and penultimate scenes. The function of the opening dance number, which initiates the frame, explains why Sebastian and Mia aren’t a part of it, even though they are the main characters. All the wondrous, fantastical parts of the film take place within this frame, and the movie's main "obstacle" (so artificial as to seem to have been thought up in some screenwriting workshop) must be imposed from outside, leading to two of three egregiously artificial plot points, which we’ll get to later. The flickering of the boundaries of the frame and its overlap with the boundaries of the leading couple’s relationship can be observed when Sebastian, singing “City of Stars” on a pier, starts dancing with an old lady. Her husband gets offended, because the device’s boundaries don’t extend to include the elderly couple; he reacts as one would in a realist film, whereas she's drawn into the fantasy.  The meta qualities of La La Land, which have led many to call it a love letter to classic musical films, owe a great deal to this device.

Let’s look at how the film introduces us to the protagonists. It’s clear that the real protagonist is Mia, not Sebastian. Before they meet, we get to see Emma Stone act the heck out of scenes that focus on Mia’s day job, the movie audition we see her give (which I thought was great, but I’m no casting director), her roommate situation, and her impostor syndrome. As for Sebastian, all we really find out is that he’s a jazz aficionado who doesn’t like to unpack – and we learn this only with lots of help from his sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). Whatever interiority the acting conveys in this film, Stone gets to show a lot more of it.  Gosling does what he’s excelled at since Drive (2011): use a handsome, smug face to hide a masculine wounded soul. The actual meet-cute happens at a daytime pool party, where Mia is trying to eke out some fun – any fun – while Sebastian tries his best not to bare his wounded ego, and fails. We're meant to see that these two are obviously a match made in heaven. After the party, he walks her to her car, and in a rather ingenious decision by the director, the two share a romantic song-and-dance number, "A Lovely Night," that, by virtue of ostensibly declining to acknowledge the meet-cute we've already seen, keeps a lid on the maudlin sentimentality that forms the core of the scene.

Sebastian and Mia wander through their shared dream. (Photo: IMDB)

I’m going to skip the next 45 minutes or so of plot, which develops in heavily montage fashion, as one might expect of a film about a pair of lovestruck dreamers in la la land. Car horn too loud for the roommates when picking up your date? Who cares! Movie theater closed up? Another date venue is but a jump cut away! Waltzing dream-like among the stars at the planetarium with the help of some basic CGI? Why, I would love to!, etc., etc. Depressing monetary considerations are alien to the idealistic world of the film, so of course it has to enter by penetrating the frame via a remote signal, a phone call from Mia’s mother (Meegan Fay), who appears in only two scenes. It strikes you at that point to wonder, yeah, how do these starving artists pay their bills? Their minimum-wage jobs certainly don’t support their wardrobes and leisure habits. Sebastian overhears the conversation and decides accordingly to sell out, all without a proper discussion; the money aspect is still external to their relationship. It’s only brought into the fold in the second cringe-inducingly awkward scene, the dinner at Sebastian’s place. He thinks she wants him to sell out, and she thinks he wants to sell out, until finally the subject of money is broached, which, as conversations about money tend to do, dissipates the dream, and dissolves with it the possibility of their continuing relationship. It’s awkward because, again, this is a subject that they’ve had enough time to discuss. I mean, when Mia goes to Sebastian’s concert and is horrified at what she sees/hears, his motivations for joining the band led by his friend Keith (John Legend) should be the first thing they talk about afterward. Yet here they are having a “crisis moment.” (Side note: is Mia horrified at what she sees or what she hears? Obviously what Sebastian plays on stage is not the jazz of his dreams, but since he talked over the jazz performance to explain jazz to Mia, can she tell the difference? On the other hand, his supporting role in the band should also have been a dead giveaway – that is, he’s no John Legend.)

The only way to make sense of these flickerings between musical fantasy and realism is to see the film as an allegory, and if we take into account the frame device, we see that it’s not an allegory about dreams and their pursuers, but a meta-allegory about the musical film genre itself, about its possibilities and limitations. This point is made clear in Mia’s final audition and the ending fantasy sequence, taken together. In this spectacle-filled film, Mia’s final audition is the only scene inside the frame (which is restored when Sebastian honks his car horn in front of the library – just look at the Tinseltown-y angle of the street and buildings in that scene!) to be completely devoid of anything but song and story. And this is where the third artificial moment breaks in: the camera revolves around her. If the focus is completely on Mia as storyteller (the quality, we have learned, that the casting director is looking for), emphasized by song, an interpretation strengthened by the blacked-out background, then there’s really no need for any camera movement at all. But the film, beholden to the spectacle of dreams, gets antsy – it needs something to catch the eye. So it makes a non-movement, a revolution that does nothing but draw attention to itself as spectacle-maker. This is the limitation of the musical film.

The musical film’s possibilities are demonstrated brilliantly in the ending montage sequence. By this point we’re clearly outside the frame. When did we leave it behind? When the film cut to “Five Years Later” – although we didn’t, really, as you’ll see below. At this point our main protagonist Mia is a star. She and her husband, a character summoned into the film by the dictates of realism, stumble across a jazz bar that (surprise!) is owned and operated by Sebastian, which, of course, was his dream all along. When he starts playing the piano, initiating the montage sequence, what is tear-jerking about it all is not that the montage represents what could have been, but precisely the opposite: the idea of achieving their dreams together was always unattainable, but the very same dream sustained them until they finally found success. As Zizek points out in his Lacanian mode, a dream literally realized is a nightmare. A true dream is a guiding star, never to be reached, just as people don’t break out spontaneously into un-choreographed dancing in the streets. The possibilities of the musical film genre are in how it keeps the fire alive. The end of the montage sequence is also the outer boundary of the frame, and as it ends, so, too, in every meaningful way, does the film – a film not for the ones who dream, but for the dream itself.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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