Tuesday, 31 January 2017

la la land (w&d damien chazelle)

It’s been a fortnight since we watched La La Land in the company of my parents at a packed-out Ipswich cineworld. In that space of time the world has already changed so radically that it feels like it’s almost time to do the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation.

La La Land is a great big feel good hit. The type of film you can go and watch with your parents, who don’t really like cinema, and everyone comes out feeling like the job has just about been done. There’s a (very self-conscious) bravura and a technical pizzaz which marks this out as being the work of an auteur director. No matter what you think of their performances, Gosling and Stone deliver good old-fashioned film star wattage. It feels like a film that has set out its stall to be a classic, one to rival the quoted references of, among others, Singing in the Rain and Casablanca (no less). This might be hubris, or it might be the bold statement of a young genius.

Having said which, here’s the first re-evaluation. This is supposed to be a film about jazz, but truth be told, even though it tries hard, it’s poor on that particular musical genre. At one point Gosling goes on an extended riff about how the instruments talk to one another, and as he does so he’s actually talking over the instruments. Which feels not just gauche on his part but also on the film’s. The plot, such as it is, is wafer-thin, and doesn’t bear close examination, compared to a movie like Casablanca, where the dexterity of the plot is what dazzles as much as anything else. Similarly, the film achieves the notable trick of making its two characters increasingly 2-D. It’s as though they’re more believable at the start of the movie then at the end. Nothing sums this up more than the Stone character’s choice of husband. He’s not a real person: he’s a kind of sub-exec figure who looks good in a suit. Why has she chosen this dork, when she has the world at her feet? It’s a curious touch, which again makes the comparison with a film like Casablanca seem foolish: in Casablanca every figure who appears carries the weight of their history with them. As has been pointed out, there are no secondary characters in La La Land. There’s just two stars. The treatment of the other musicians is derisory. All of which leads you to think, upon re-evaluation, that La La Land is something of a con. As so often, Hollywood brio and straight cash delivers a product which, when all the bows and whistles are removed, proves to be far less than the sum of its parts.

That was last week’s re-evaluation. Now for the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation, given all that has happened since; the way in which the sickness of the state of the American nation has been revealed so candidly (no matter which side of the political fence you are on, even if regular readers won’t have too many problems deducing the reviewer’s side.) This second re-evaluation is triggered in part by the title itself. Where is La La Land? Or what is it? It’s a pretty stupid title, all things considered. It could almost have been the title of a subversive satire on Los Angeles, or the States itself. A place where silliness and shallowness are glorified, whilst real values have been trashed. Gosling’s sometimes ambivalent performance could also be attributed to this reading of the film’s intentions. His hand-in-pocket, too-cool-for-school look borders on the ridiculous. As though the actor himself is sending up the whole business of this ridiculous film, presumably with the director’s approval, a la Belmondo. This re-evaluation would lead us to suggest that the film is a neo-Godardian take on the Hollywood musical: a subversive vehicle which captures the imminent degeneracy of the Trumpian era. (Weirdly you can’t help feeling that both the Obamas and the Trumps might have been happy to have a screening of this at the WH private cinema, even if the snacks would have been very different). In which case Chazelle, rather than seeking to dazzle with nostalgia, is actually doing that thing which no filmmaker is supposed to do and condescending to his audience, only no-one’s got round to calling him out for it. If this were true it would make him closer to Refn/ Von Trier than Gene Kelly, and neatly tie-in with the Gosling love-in.

In the end, I suspect that the re-evaluation of the re-evaluation is a case of the reviewer being too smart for his own good, rather than the filmmaker. What is interesting is that part of the backlash against La La Land is that, within two weeks, it’s come to be seen by many as too pastel, too feel good. Chazelle is going to have plenty of opportunities to get his teeth into some more demanding narratives. Maybe he’ll get round to making his Casablanca one day, after all. The conditions that helped to make that film so remarkable, a context one would would hope would never be repeated, seem far closer today than they did a fortnight ago in the naive shrine of cinema which is the Ipswich cineworld. 

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