What I love most about film is our ability to converse with it. A great film inspires feeling and thought, and I’ll turn it over in my mind or talk it over with some friends, trying to understand ever aspect of it. These conversations with film are by no means immutable: they are ever changing, and the conversation with a great film is likewise, never ending.
Great filmmakers know how to use the film language to its fullest, and when we talk film language, we mean a collection of cues and tropes to tap into something within us, some larger collective unconsciousness. These filmmakers can minutely control a sequence, a scene, or even a shot, utilizing the syntax and vocabulary of the language in order to inspire specific feelings in the audience. With La La Land, it’s clear that director/screewriter Damien Chazelle has not mastered this language quite yet. It’s more that he is in love with the language, but without the knowledge to converse with depth: it is almost like a student of French, so enamored with the beauty of the thing, without fully understanding it’s conversational meaning. To love beauty or aesthetic over meaning is to be obsessed with a reflection of a thing, something not quite real.
What’s so crazy about Chazelle’s apparent ignorance of meaning is that somehow, the film works so very well. Perhaps, it’s his earnest sense of storytelling or his clear and apparent love of cinema and the reflections and dreams that build it. Much of film is a reflection of reality, a somehow copied sense of realness that is made all the more cinematic through the use of technique, emotion, and, above all else, this film language. This word, cinema, is hard to define, but to me, it’s the capturing by camera the point where the beauty of a production meets the unpredictability of reality. It’s a dream, cinema, ill defined and caught in the middle of the thing itself and its onscreen reflection.
La La Land tells the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two dreamers who meet, then argue and annoy each other, and eventually fall in love. Sebastian dreams of opening a jazz club in which he can preserve all of his artifacts from this bygone era, and Mia dreams of being a Hollywood actress in the vein of Ingrid Bergman and James Dean. Both are so enamored with all these dreams that sometimes they lose themselves in the reflection, in the beauty of the dream.
Like Seb and Mia, much of the film also gets lost in the reflections of things, the surface level beauty of dreams, Hollywood, Jazz, and perhaps even, love. Their ignorance of the realness of these concepts provides much of the conflict within the film. Chazelle’s main goal with La La Land, as he’s mentioned before, was to inject a certain amount of modernity and realism into the Technicolor movie, to add depth to the tropes of the genre. It is these dashes of realism though, these sources of conflict, that highlight Chazelle’s ignorance of the film language, of the function behind beauty. Perhaps the most obvious example of the film’s flaws at capturing “the real” is it’s two central conflicts: John Legend’s philosophical antagonist and the couple’s breakdown.
Keith (John Legend), now a successful pop musician, is introduced as an old classmate of Sebastian’s, and Seb indicates that they weren’t exactly friendly, although it does come off as rather one sided on Seb’s part. This central animosity we come to learn is more of a philosophical difference on the nature of jazz. Seb is so obsessed with classic jazz, Keith points out, that he can’t even see that the very essence of jazz is evolution, a constant look towards the future. Seb is so very in love with the reflection of jazz, his beautiful idea of it, that he can’t understand the actual reality of it. Seb’s obsession with jazz is very much similar to the film’s flaws: both are obsessed with the conceptual beauty of something to the point that they ignore its realness.
This philosophical conflict comes to a head when Mia attends one of Seb’s concerts. The music opens with a brief piano melody from Seb, but then “devolves” into a top 40 pop number. It seems that Keith’s music doesn’t have the same integrity that classic jazz and, by extension, that Seb has. The big problem with this line of thinking from the movie is that Keith’s argument is so cogent and so very right. Keith not only highlights Seb’s white savior-ness (Ira Madison III excellently breaks this down at MTV), but also never once is presented as being a musician for the money. Although his art and integrity might look different than Seb’s, it doesn’t justify Keith as an antagonist to Seb’s dream. Seb’s “artistic conflict” then sets up perhaps the most boring sequence of the film.
Seb surprises Mia with a home-cooked meal, but their first time together after weeks of Seb touring turns into an argument. Seb lays it out that he’ll be touring with Keith’s band all the time and won’t be able to open his jazz club. Mia is upset that Seb would sacrifice his dream and essentially sell out, but only brings this up after Keith throws it in her face that this is what she wanted. The outburst isn’t even organic. A lot is put onto Mia, but every scene up until this point is about how committed Mia is to not just her own dreams, but also Seb’s. There’s a prior scene meant to explain his behavior, in which he overhears Mia defending his dreams to her mother. But Seb’s reaction doesn’t even make sense in terms of the classic out-of-context eavesdropping trope (from Othello, White Christmas, and even Shrek).
It’s even more frustrating because the whole scene is presented as Seb sacrificing some artistic integrity, when really his dream is literally to buy property and open a jazz club. We can dress it up as much as we want, but his goal is literally to be a small business owner. And that’s a wonderful dream, but it shouldn’t be confused with “artistic integrity” or “commitment to jazz,” especially since the film presents money and property as Seb’s biggest roadblocks. His touring gig may certainly be extensive, and Keith’s music might be artistically different, but there’s no way he couldn’t use the tour to save up money to eventually start a jazz club. Frankly, Keith actually seems like a nice enough guy that Seb could have committed to a two-year contract.
I’m definitely focusing a lot on this one detail, perhaps to a crazy degree, and maybe I’m expecting a significant amount of reality from a film, especially one as dreamy as La La Land. My central problem is that this “conflict” section of the movie is just poor filmmaking and screenwriting. In trying to have realism in his musical, Chazelle sacrificed a large amount of technique and function in order to manufacture conflict and rush towards the closing scenes and musical numbers of the film. It’s here where his ignorance of the film language is at the forefront, because these scenes simply don’t work. They’re inconsistent with the rest of the film and the disposition of these characters, and worse, they’re boring and drag on for way too long. A lot of viewers criticize this section for its lack of music, but I’d much more argue that it’s boring because of its lack of functional meaning.
I guess what I REALLY want to ask is, is Seb terrible? But that’s probably a different article entirely, so I’ll digress and move on …
This is now the point in my real-world conversations in which I have to pause and explain that I did, in fact, love this movie. In a year of amazing movies, it’s definitely floated to the top of the pack for me depending on the day. The classic movie musical (all movie musicals, who am I kidding) is probably my favorite genre. What Chazelle did to the Technicolor musical is exciting, and hopefully, it instills a whole filmmaking generation with a love of the genre. But, with it’s obsession with the beauty of the film language and the form of a movie musical, it’s lack of understanding the reason and function of said form, it’s disregard for basic character and story development in order to generate what’s necessary to arrive at the desired conclusion, and most importantly, it’s almost amateurish use of the film language, how does the film work this well?
Okay, full disclosure before diving into answering that question, I listen to “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” on repeat (I’d link it here, but it’s very much the type of song that needs to be seen for the moment it was intended for), moreso than any other song on the album. It signifies not only the beauty of the film, but also of Chazelle’s love of filmmaking. Likewise, I can’t stress enough how RIDICULOUSLY good Emma Stone was in this film. Looking at the awards season, I can’t stop thinking about Mia, especially the audition number. Emma Stone is a talent and a force. She literally took the ill-defined, mysterious dream of a character that was Mia and shaped her into something approaching a real human being. I never really “got” Emma Stone before, but I am a full-fledged believer. She’s one of the strongest of her generation of actresses, which includes Brie Larsen and Kristen Stewart, who are so brilliant because of their “acting” (as opposed to the capital-A Acting of Meryl Streep, which is no less brilliant but certainly different).
Emma Stone as Mia represents the beauty and the potential and the bittersweet emotion of this film. She was able to tap into just what it meant to be cinematic, to be more than a dream or a reflection of reality, but instead to be something real, in a heightened cinematic sense only really achieved by film—she was able to tap into just what makes La La Land work.
Much of the movie doesn’t really spend much time on things like character or plot, as evidenced by the dinner argument, which is normally a terrible way to build a film, but in La La Land, it works. The film never wants to go too deep, and doesn’t need to, because these characters are meant to be reflections and dreams of film lovers, of jazz lovers, of the audience, of everyday people like you and me, of dreamers. What the film says about these dreams is all the more poignant because in La La Land, as in life, the dream is always better and more vibrant than the reality, but that isn’t to say that it’s more beautiful. If anything, beauty comes from this contrast between the two, from this texture of emotions we experience, the happy mixed with the sad, the good with the bad, the dancing with the crying, the love with the separation. The Epilogue, a dance number modeled after the great ones from Singin in the Rain and An American in Paris, doesn’t only serve as Chazelle’s grand ode to films of a bygone era, but also as a grand statement on how beautiful it is simply to dream.
Much of the power of these scenes, the audition and the epilogue seems to flow directly from Chazelle’s love of film and of the film language. It’s so earnest and pure, and there’s such wonder to simply feel it so that all of the messy syntax and internal problems suddenly don’t matter, or at least don’t matter as much. Perhaps this film works so well simply because of the immense emotion that comes from Chazelle’s love of the language, even if he doesn’t necessarily utilize it well or understand its nuances.
So, with an earnest love, Chazelle leads us, albeit awkwardly and messily, towards the films bittersweet conclusion. Seb and Mia do not end up together: he got his jazz club but lives alone, while she got Hollywood but now has a family with another man. La La Land perfectly demonstrated what cinema is: that point between the dream and reality. One is beautiful because it captures a pure aesthetic, the other beautiful because it is emotionally textured and varied. We come to learn as Seb and Mia do about not just their goals, but also each other, that our dreams, when realized, rarely resemble the ill-defined things we first fell in love with.
And maybe that’s okay.
- Please please try to see it in theaters or at least on like the biggest tv screen you can find. Most films are made to be watched with the grandeur of a big screen and a community of dreamers, even if they’re strangers, but this one is especially built for that purpose. Support your local theaters! Save money by sneaking in a sandwich … that’s a trademarked NJVL tip btw.
- I briefly touched on the films race component, but there really is a larger discussion at play and it is one that is important to the industry.
- I do really love movie musicals, but I also wish that there were some truly queer musicals or a queer romance in a musical. Especially since, for so long, loving musicals was condescended to as being “gay” (and might still be).
La La Land is playing in theaters now.
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