I Want To Live in LA LA LAND!
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. (Note: it’s worth remembering that just because a film wins a lot of awards does not mean everyone agrees. Winning a Golden Globe or an Oscar probably means 20-25% of the votes went to the winner. Hardly a majority. Hence, those who think the winners deserve the win more than the other nominees are almost always a minority.)
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?) “La La Land is a light escapist romp through musicals past.” This appears to be the preferred description of La La Land by online hipsters, that is, people who think they don’t need to watch the movie. They already know what it is after reading wikipedia and watching the trailer. If they did watch the film, they were probably unable to break free of their phones.
- 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, i.e. 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
an activity or form of entertainment that allows people to forget about the real problems of life (source)