La La Land just set a record for Golden Globe wins (7). Does it really matter to cinephiles? Yes and no. Yes, because if you like the film, it helps get the word out and reward the kind of filmmaking you like; no, because what matters is your own standards and tastes.
But we can still ask: Is it really that good?
- Opening/Overture: it starts with one of the best long takes in the history of cinema, perhaps best in nearly fifty years (since Sixties master of the long take Miklós Jancsó made his best films, including the musical Red Psalm (Még kér a nép). Yes, better than the famous long takes in Russian Ark and The Player. Plus, the entire movie is in the opening scene, even the opening lines: “I think about that day, I left him at a Greyhound Station… I knew what I had to do, ’cause I just knew….”
- “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” My English teacher always said that. Apparently Chazelle’s said it, too, because that’s how this film is structured (with a twist for the last part).
- The ending one-ups the ending of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a cross between that film and the ending of An American in Paris. It’s a triumph of visual storytelling and imagination, imagining what could have been as opposed to merely showing what is.
- It’s cinematic. According to the dictionary, anything suitable for motion pictures is “cinematic.” If that’s the case, setting up a camera, hitting record, and playing back whatever you capture is “cinematic.” Maybe. But to me it means something that’s mostly missing from most films which come off as little more than filmed theater, people talking, and talking, and talking. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s clever talk, but it’s still talk and it’s not cinematic. Cinema is capable of so much more than what Hollywood usually allows, and La La Land is proof. Hollywood money is not the only thing holding cinema back from realizing its full potential. It’s also audiences and critics. We need more films like La La Land. That doesn’t mean more musicals; it means more films that explore what films can be. Musicals came in with sound film, but something was also lost. The promise of cinema as a distinct art form that was so promising during the 1920’s disappeared and film seems to have become a medium to translating books and plays for people who for whatever reason cannot read the book or see the play. This is not cinematic. La La Land is.
- It’s realism. Not phoney or melodramatic, lugubrious realism of a film such as Manchester by the Sea, but the realism that most people experience every day. (Incidental thought about Manchester by the Sea: Comedians are making a living with jokes about how depressing this film is. But can a film that tells you what you want to be told, i.e. it’s really OK if you can’t change, be that depressing?)
- It’s fantasy. Fantasy in the cinematic sense of using visual means to express emotion, making visible something that not only is invisible but doesn’t really exist: emotion: love, joy, depression.
- It’s rhythm. In his book, In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch writes about a hierarchy of values to respect when editing a film: emotion above all else, then story, then rhythm, etc. For me, a great narrative (i.e. story) film does not know the difference between these. If it does not have rhythm, it can’t have emotion or story. La La Land‘s rhythm is the rhythm we long to live by. It’s a utopian rhythm. A utopian vision. Utopian not in the sense of pipedream, pie in the sky, but of a vision of a better world, a world that we long for, dream about, and never give up dreaming about. La La Land is not about people living in the clouds, in Never Neverland, but about a world where everyone dreams of making the world a better place for everyone.
ADDENDUM ONE: Some More Comments About Rhythm
I like variation in all artistic forms, and especially in the cinema for the evocation that it implies in the unconscious. Rhythm and synchronism make the magic of cinema. — Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch’s comment applies perfectly to Paterson, a film unfortunately dissed by the Golden Globes and many critics. To me it’s obvious that a film without rhythm is a hopeless film. But apparently not to some other people. One such person is A. S. Hamrah, a film critic who wanted to see the farmers market where Paterson’s wife sells her cupcakes. This might seem a valid idea, except it would rupture the perfect rhythm of the film. Yes, A. S. Hamrah did not like the film, but did this critic watch the same film as me? Did this critic not notice this film’s perfectly structured rhythm? Based on this wish for the farmers market scene, it appears not. This leads me to wonder if some people have a blind spot for film rhythm, like some people are tone deaf or don’t like music at all. To them, film (and probably graphic art in general) can never be musical without literal music. To them, film is drama, not music. And so they will never get a film such as Paterson. But here’s a quote from someone who would get it:
A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. — Stanley Kubrick
In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie. — Jean-Luc Godard
The Comics Journal asked 31 for their list of the best comics of 2016. The lists are here. However, they did not tally the results. So I did it for them.
Some films that came to mind watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
- The Searchers (similar plot twist; see also Taxi Driver and Hardcore.)
- The Silence (Bergman’s silence is also Scorsese’s.)
- Sophie’s Choice (dilemmas, dilemmas.)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (parts of Scorsese’s film recall this film’s WWII Japanese POW camp and its commander.)
- Andrei Rublev (vallis lacrimarum, i.e. vale of tears)
- Saving Private Ryan (these kind of quests never end well.)
- Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses” (The Searchers plot twist, again.)
- Manchester by the Sea (similar Job-like story.)
- Arrival (communication problems, alien and domestic.)
- Shōgun (TV mini-series. Fish out of water, culture clash.)
- 7 Women (what is it with missionaries?)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (burn, saint, burn.)
- The Last Temptation of Christ (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)
- The Keys of the Kingdom (more missionaries)
“The rest is silence.” Just a smart-ass way of saying: You’ll have to see Scorsese’s film to see why these other films popped into my head.
While watching Moana, I felt there was a problem, but the film is the very definition of entertaining. It draws you in, takes you on a journey through a whole new world, and leaves you with a smile on your face. In other words, it leaves you no time to think while your watching, but once the lights come up, it cannot stop the brain from doing its job.
So there’s a problem with Moana. I’m not sure what, but I’m going to try to figure it out.
Moana is made up of two parts. There’s the setup, then there’s Moana’s hero’s journey. I have the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier between the two that separates them, like the barrier reef that separates Moana’s island from the larger world. Perhaps the film’s problem is simply a lack of unity between these two parts. Let’s see.
- Setup. The situation is this: the islanders have used too many resources. Fish have disappeared; coconuts are rotting.
- Solution: fish beyond the barrier or leave the island for a new one
- Problem: the King says no. His reason is simply personal: a personal tragedy makes him stand firm
- Solution: get rid of the King. Replace the absolute (but benevolent, of course) monarchy with some kind of democracy. That is, revolution is the logical solution to the problem depicted in the story’s setup.
But for some reason the story goes in an entirely different direction: it turns into a single hero’s journey. In the discussion after the film at my screening, the two directors and screenwriter specifically referred to the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell. Like so many Hollywood creators nowadays, they know the hero’s journey template backwards and forwards. And they wanted this story to follow that template even though the logic of the story as they set it up did not lend itself to this type of story.
So what did they do to get it going in the direction they wanted it to go? Well, the film doesn’t actually begin by depicting the situation. It begins with a myth, the story of a Hercules/Prometheus type figure, Maui, and he is blamed for the “darkness” falling on the land, the reason why the coconuts are rotting and the fish have vanished. What did he do? He stole the heart from a goddess. Why? Who knows?
What this does is shift the blame for the ecological catastrophe the islanders face to a mythical demigod and therefore the solution to the problem is also placed in the realm of magical thinking.
The solution to a real world problem is shifted into the realm of fantasy. This division in the film’s structure is actually quite common in Hollywood films. But this film makes the division even more blatant than it usually is.
5. Why is Moana chosen by the Ocean? Because she saves the baby turtle. She shows empathy for other creatures and therefore passes the Ocean’s test to become the Chosen One. Such a low bar test , however, implies that the other islanders are all unworthy because they all lack basic empathy. They just don’t care about other living beings, and this sort of fits the situation: they’ve used up resources, killed off all the fish. But the film does not have the courage to depict them as lacking empathy. Once again, the natural causes of their problem are bypassed and the demigod Maui is blamed. Before we meet him, we expect him to be a badass evil guy. He turns out not to be evil, but it’s never explained why he stole the heart of the Goddess other than getting carried away. Something like: he did it because he could. In any case, blaming him lets the islanders of the hook. But it also produces a film that lacks unity.
6. Perhaps the greatest problem with the film, however, is that it is formulaic. I’ve already said that the filmmakers referred to Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. But other screenplays gurus seem to be in control of their minds, too. Every time Moana saved a turtle or the chicken, it made me think: “How many copies of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder does the screenwriter own? The topper may have been this, said by the screenwriter during the post-screening discussion: “The audience has expectations for these types of films that they want fulfilled, but in a new, surprising way.” “Expectations” = formulas.
This film never had a chance to be as good and original as it could have been because the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story down the well-trodden road of the hero’s journey, and it lacks unity because they could not or would not risk offending people by showing the islanders themselves as the cause of their environmental problem. Given that our own, real world faces a problem similar to the islanders of Moana, is this really the type of story we need?
Application of the formulas: B+
Clear Thinking: F
The other day I asked a comic book writer, “What is your favorite comic book?” His answer? “Ahh… ummmm.” In other words, he didn’t know.
The ancient Greeks said, “Know thyself,” that is, know what makes you tick, know what turns you on, know what turns you off.
Recently, the BBC published the results of a poll which answered the question: what are the greatest films of the 21st century. Of course, they didn’t ask me, but that didn’t stop me from answering the question because I find lists are great tools for helping me “know myself.”
The BBC’s list names 100 films. I’ve only seen a bit more than half those titles, so perhaps I’m unqualified to make a list. However, of the ones I have seen there was no question of ever including most of them. They just weren’t interesting enough. Or at least not nearly as interesting (to me) as the following:
1. In the Mood for Love
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. The Big Short
5. The Hateful Eight
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
7. La Commune
8. The Avengers/The Avengers: Age of Ultron
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
10. The Host (2006)
11. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
12. Los Angeles Plays Itself
13. Where to Invade Next
These are the new films I’ve seen since January 2000 that knocked my socks off. Others, at best, were “OK.” For example, Mulholland Drive, which tops the BBC poll, is a film I find inferior to other works by Lynch, mainly Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. But it’s “OK.”
So, having done this list, do I know myself a bit better? Yes, status confirmed: still a weirdo.
This film was not boring.
It was not boring despite not being original.
It’s not original in the same way most movies out of Hollywood are not original nowadays.
It’s a re-mix. A re-mix of many familiar elements.
First and foremost, X-Men. The posters already suggested that, as did the title.
But it’s also Brigadoon.
A bit of Grimm, the TV show.
And especially Burton movies. Lots of them. In fact, you could say it’s a Burton sampler, a parade of his greatest hits.
Alice in Wonderland.
A lot’s there, all cleverly stitched together.
Like I said, a re-mix, or as Burton likes to say, “re-imagining,” but it’s a re-imagining of stuff that’s been re-imagined several times already.
No, it’s never boring, but it’s not original, either.
Not for lack of trying. There are some peculiar things in the mix that could just be new to the Burton universe.
Maybe. Possibly. I’m not so sure.
But even if there’s something new there, it’s not enough to add up to something unique and memorable like the originals from which this film borrows (steals?) so much.
But rest assured, don’t worry, you won’t be bored, or maybe you will. Maybe the film needs you need to be peculiar, too; that is, peculiar enough to have never seen a Burton film.
I don’t know.
However, I do know this: if you choose to stay home and watch Frankenweenie, or Edward Scissorhands, or Ed Wood, or even Big Fish, instead, don’t worry. You won’t miss a thing.
But that’s just sad.
I saw the film about a week ago at a Hollywood preview.
Martin Landau (who was present at the footprint ceremony that preceded the screening) may have been in the audience, watching the film with the rest of us. Why do I think this? Because I spotted him making his way to the nearest restroom. No one bothered him, perhaps because they did not recognize him. Perhaps they did not care. I cared, but I, too, did not bother him. (However, it would be a lie to say the thought did not cross my mind for I was carrying a script of Ed Wood and that script was calling out, indeed, screaming for the signature of Martin Landau.)
Back to the preview: it was supposedly a “fan screening,” according to my ticket, but most seats were off-limits to fans:
The few seats that weren’t reserved were already taken. So we experienced a bit of adventure as we waited to see if any of those “reserved” seats would open up. Finally, they opened the unfilled reserved seats, we sat down, and the show began.
It began on an exciting note with short intro’s by the novel’s author (Ransom Riggs) and the film’s director (Tim Burton).
And then, more than two hours later, it ended with scattered, polite applause.