La La Land, or, A Slap in the Face
La La Land does not need any more praise, backlash, awards, hot takes, hotter takes, hottest takes, nuclear takes, nor further attention of any kind. BK Mag has already done its part and run a review of La La Land, and I’m not here to write another one. The movie is impressive and affecting and Damien Chazelle is a very exciting filmmaker. I enjoyed watching the movie quite a bit, and at this very moment I am listening to the melancholy song at the movie’s heart (“City of Stars”), and I am enjoying that experience as well, because the song is good; I am also, at one and the same time, loathing myself because the movie is loathsome. And that is a weird position to be in. And that is what I want to talk about.
We all know what it means to love something, to hate something, and to hate-watch something, but I’m struggling to find analogs for my experience with La La Land. I don’t enjoy loving it, I don’t enjoy hating it, and I can’t stop being bothered by the whole experience. This goddamn thing sticks with me like the best Woody Allen lines do (like [gack], “those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym”), like the hardest-hitting hard-hitting Clint Eastwood scenes do (like that time when Sean Penn just straight-up killed his buddy Tim Robbins for the crime of not being a sociopath). It sticks with me like a slap in the face. It make me seethe, but I can’t forget it.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about some of the slaps that Chazelle delivers.
Let’s talk: Seb. I hate Seb. The character (who, again, was intentionally named “Seb”) is hard to like by design, but no hero should be so accidentally loathsome. His disdain for anything but “real jazz,” as he defines it, is grotesque even at the best of times, but it gets downright twisted when Seb begins lecturing actual real-life musicians of color about their fictional betrayal of that real shit that he loves so well.
Let’s talk titles: Why is there a space between La and La? I feel like that choice alone adds ten minutes to the film.
Let’s talk: real jazz. (No, actually, let us not.)
Let’s talk: Mia. I hate Mia. The character is wafer thin, but when the wafer that’s there isn’t singing or dancing, it’s dumping Seb for betraying his grandest dreams (or, to put it more plainly, just taking a job). These characters are dreamers, granted, but holy smokes.
Let’s talk: Mia’s friends. Mia’s friends were great, and also quite diverse! Remember them? They served as supporting cast for a couple of Mia’s early numbers, and then they disappeared, almost as though they didn’t matter at all.
Let’s talk: the songs, especially the bad ones. “City of Stars” is lovely, loose, limber, melancholic, and ambiguous (central metaphor aside); but Mia’s audition, clearly intended as a showstopper, lacks a compelling melody, and the opening number is hard to even make out over the surrounding traffic. “City of Stars” and the finale carry much of the film’s weight, but that’s still a lot of dead air.
And finally, let’s talk source material: Damien Chazelle has been quite open about his debt to Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but there is something more than simple homage happening here. Chazelle translates the plot architecture, the conclusion, the emotional tenor, and the musical atmosphere (melancholy melodies overlaid with realist dialogue and sung by non-professional singers) from Demy’s film, and although Chazelle finds new terrain and hits his own high notes in the course of La La Land, especially at the open and close, much of the remaining film feels strangely loose and unmoored. It begs the question: without Umbrellas, what’s left.
A Return to the Source: Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Although Umbrellas still feels incredibly strange and fresh, it’s actually not very far removed from Godard’s similarly prosaic musical, Une Femme Est un Femme, from 1961. What is unusual, however, is how overwhelmingly beautiful Demy’s film is. How beautiful, you ask? Here’s a reminder.
Flaubert, good writer man, wrote a sentence that many good book critics think is a great bunch of words. The words what he wrote was: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle drum on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” (Or something.)
The climax of that Umbrellas scene, in which Demy’s doomed lovers proclaim their love with the most banal, predictable, and mundane three words of all time—I and Love and You—repeated over and over alongside Michel Legrand’s stunning score, is, if anything an improvement on Flaubert’s iconic sentence. If I were feeling provocative, I might even say it’s a better sentence than Flaubert ever wrote, period. But if that’s going too far, let me just say this: no sentence, ever, has had the impact on me that this scene continues to have.
I sincerely wonder if Demy had Flaubert’s sentence in mind, just as I wonder how much Demy had Godard’s film in mind; but in the end of course it doesn’t matter. The scene stands alone.
Auteurs and Their Tricks
La La Land has its share of flaws, as noted above, but none of them are necessarily fatal. Plenty of great films have flat characters, dropped threads, and borrowed ideas. But taken together, La La Land’s flaws are as hard to shake as its pleasures.
The initial, rapturous reception that La La Land received in Venice also now seems somewhat out of step with the raised stakes of life in Donald Trump’s America. The film is proudly escapist, and very unconcerned about any graveyards that it might be whistling past. And although I have no desire to pit La La Land against Moonlight in some kind of moral contest, I do think it’s interesting to think about La La Land in the same kind of aesthetico-moral terms that Seb (and Chazelle, to some degree) applies to jazz, and that a previous generation of similarly serious-minded directors applied to cinema. So let’s do this! Let’s talk about the real cinema!
In a 1966 essay on the bogus filmmaking practices of establishment favorite Claude LeLouch, Cahiers du cinema critic Jean-Louis Commoli discounts music as the premier example of filmic “fakery”:
The music… a refrain, a song, an obsessive and insistent tune over images of the sunset, the doggie, or the couple waltzing is a way of winning over the audience, doling out emotion. It verges on emptiness, it’s sleight of hand, flashiness and fakery because the filmmaker is incapable of playing out the full potential of sentimentalism (not everyone can be a Demy, a Reichenbach or a Guy Gilles).
It’s important to note that Commoli’s condemnation of music is not universal, that all rules, and especially this one, are negotiable if the artist in question has, for lack of a better word, a kind of genius. Auteurs, in other words, are exempt (so long as they are the real thing).
La La Land isn’t the first movie to borrow its approach from Demy’s musical, by the way. Woody Allen also made a low-key musical featuring non-professional singers in 1996, with Everyone Says I Love You.
And Allen is another auteur (excuse me) who has the tendency to make films that are as great as they are galling, and who has the tendency to overstuff his films with his inspirations (at times even seeming to scream: “NOW I AM INGMAR BERGMAN!” “NOW I AM DOING A JAZZ!” “NOW THIS WOMAN IS BEING VERY ATTRACTIVE TO ME AND I THINK WE CAN ALL AGREE ABOUT THAT!”). Allen can be virtuosic, too, and so we’re occasionally left in the awkward position of loving his movies in spite of ourselves. That’s the flip side of Commoli’s coin: that if an auteur can get away with fakery when he’s at his best, that can also make such directors think that such tricks and would-be flaws aren’t really their problem. And of course, that’s only true sometimes; it’s only true when it’s true.
Good Movies, Great Movies, and the Limits of Imitation
Movies don’t need to be virtuous to be good (although there are obviously many ways in which moral failures are identical with aesthetic failures, such as in the failure to take a certain kind of character as seriously as another, different type).
Movies also don’t need to be original to be good. (Tarantino lives on pastiche, Kurosawa thrives in translation (in both directions); and Soderbergh loves homage.). And movies don’t need to be substantial to be good, or engaged, or serious, or anything else, so long as they force us to surrender to whatever it is that they are.
And it’s that issue of surrender that matters most here. Because Damien Chazelle, like Woody Allen, like Clint Eastwood, has an acute problem with getting out of his own way.
Chazelle clearly loves and respects musicals in much the same way that Seb loves the real jazz, and I sincerely believe that his own love is both authentic and, at times, overwhelming. But if all that an artist can say to his beloved art is “I love you,” and “You’re beautiful,” those sentiments are going to ring hollow after a while—even if they’re true. (It’s the problem of the cracked kettle drum again.) Love alone isn’t enough. And that, in the end, is the problem.
Which brings me back to politics. La La Land was never supposed to be a resistance film, but a lack of resistance—an inability or an unwillingness to push back against its influences—is also the thing that holds it back from achieving real genius, and that pulls it back from the heights that Demy had reached with Umbrellas—from the heights of a simple “I love you.”
If La La Land wins Best Picture, I might be annoyed, but I certainly won’t be upset. It’s an excellent movie in a year of excellent movies (and also Passengers). But at a time when cynicism seems to be having such a corrosive influence on our media, politics, and culture, it’s reassuring to recognize how something like a moral flaw can compromise even so small a thing as a very pretty, very moving picture.
Maybe those Cahiers guys weren’t so bad after all. (Long live the real cinema!)