Los Angeles Pleasures Itself: Against the ‘art’ of La La Land

Hollywood celebrates itself, bullshit and all. Especially the bullshit. That’s a known fact, and I would have been naïve to go into La La Land not expecting a healthy dose of it. It’s also a cliché that any near-universally acclaimed awards frontrunner can expect a backlash. With this in mind, I’m reluctant to blog here and rain on everyone’s love-fest for a nice little movie my mom will probably see and like. Still, criticism is staking a position, so here goes: La La Land embodies ideas about art I find objectionable in both content and its burgeoning position as an awards contender. There are fine lines between celebrating the dreamers, validating their self-absorption, and exploiting the lot of it for commercial purposes, and La La Land conflates all those impulses – admirable and awful – together in a big ball of masturbatory stardust.

Simply put, in La La Land, creating cinema is closely equated with moving to L.A. and being employed in ‘the industry’, and it gives much less attention to the creative aspect than to the professional one. The result is you’re not rooting for the characters to make meaningful art so much as gain employment in a willfully exploitive industry.

While that may pay the bills and amount to reasonable professional aspirations, as a vision of the pinnacle of artistry I personally find it highly unsympathetic. It never occurs to Stone’s character that she could maybe act in a low-budget, independent production. It never occurs to Gosling’s character that he could reach out to fellow jazz traditionalists. In fact, no one in this movie seem to have ‘friends,’ just romances, flat-mates, relatives, professional connections, dreams and an industry that’s shutting them out. It never occurs to them that they could make art outside the industrial systems against which they’re chafing, and which they are not shown expressing justifiable resentment towards. As the movie being fawned over this year as 2016’s pinnacle of the cinematic art form, it’s frustrating.

There is a certain current awards-season narratives positions Land as a film of privilidge, contrasting Land’s heterosexual white leads against Moonlight’s queer African-American ones. I see the privileges La La Land celebrating as running deeper: the privilege to move to L.A. and spend years *aspiring* to work unreflectively making American commercial culture. Which is to say, I think we’re supposed to watching the opening musical number – set in a routine traffic jam – and think wow, Los Angeles is awesome but difficult, whereas all I could think was – dear crap, how much gas must all these cars be burning? Why exactly should the audience care which of these interchangeable aspirants get to ‘make it’? Couldn’t they maybe take the damn bus and work in regional theater? Why are we celebrating this horror?

To be fair, as an examination of creation, what the film has – and I suspect, a big part of why it has garnered a lot of its support – is sympathy to challenges faced by the laborers on the edge of the Hollywood system. In the words of the movie, it “worships everything and values nothing”. I appreciated how the final half hour (the film’s best section), raises questions about where personal and professional concepts of success might diverge. These challenges often go unacknowledged within films, including films that take place even more narrowly within the Hollywood matrix (2011’s Best Picture winner The Artist, 2016’s Hail, Caesar!), whatever other critiques they raise. Yet when watching those, I get the sense that they more clearly demarcate their subject matter as concerning the Hollywood system unto itself. While La La Land acknowledges the difficulty of Hollywood, it ultimately takes the position of a successful insider who eventually succeeded. Even its nuanced counter-point to Gosling’s jazz traditionalism (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) is gently voiced by a character whose ‘revolutionary’ thinking is in the service of making a slick commercial product with broad four-quadrant appeal.

It’s here that La La Land’s intense devotion to frustrating ideas about professionalism stand in contrast to the film’s under-developed treatment of art. Gosling and Stone’s characters are clearly passionately committed to their respective ‘ideas’ about jazz and acting, but they never articulate much about what those ideas are. This is similar to criticisms leveled at Damian Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014), that it didn’t ‘understand’ jazz. I didn’t buy those criticisms because I never thought the audience was supposed to take Whiplash’s leads’ boneheaded ideas about art-as-personal-sacrifice as valid, so much as read them as justifications for a mutually self-destructive relationship. It produces artistic results at a great cost. I can’t argue, however, that La La Land shares that same sense of perspective. As such, I’m inclined to suggest that putting an Ingrid Bergman poster on your wall or watching Rebel without a Cause are actions so iconic that they’re largely bereft of meaning, and merely clocking in the requisite name-check doesn’t entitle you to shit.

Similarly, there’s little attention to the process of artistry (in which, I find Richard Brody more convincing than I did in regard to Whiplash). Here, let’s examine how the film depicts the art of writing, gallingly underdeveloped in light of Gosling’s assertion that you “need to see” jazz to understand it. Late in the story, Stone’s character writes a play. It’s a one woman show, based on her childhood, called Goodbye, Boulder City – the individuated narcissism of such creative choices going unremarked upon in La La Land itself. We get only fleeting glimpses of the play’s creation and production, mostly related to her character announcing ‘I’m writing a play’, though one could surmise it’s drawn from various anecdotes she mentions throughout the movie. We see nothing of her artistic choices, how she has shaped a particular telling of her story for the stage, the edits she made and the revisions she did. The film cuts between her preparing to perform and its reception afterwards, further reinforcing the play’s primary value in terms of its relation to industry. The play is treated as valuable not as an act of Stone’s self-expression, nor as art unto itself worth of audience attention. Rather, its value is that it’s an audition piece for the movie industry. Her childhood, the subject of the play, is by extension most valuable as preparation for Los Angeles; leaving the city to return to her hometown is equated with abandoning her art altogether.

Here, I partially realize how different my own preferred cinematic myths are. Growing up, I romanticized the origin stories of directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Sam Raimi who spent weekends covered in fake blood, with limited budget and no distribution guarantees, working on masterpieces far outside the Hollywood system. Other B-movie directors who never ‘made it’ within the system still made films – terrible ones, sometimes, but they made something and showed a lot of heart in the process. In that mode, I thought 2016’s Sing Street a delightful film in which Irish teenagers start a band, fight the power, make some listenable-but-imperfect songs, and follow their dreams against long odds.

So anyway – what I’m saying is, follow your dreams, find a job, and make your art – and by all means buy tickets to the work of the other creative laborers who do. Nonetheless, Hollywood is but one exceptionally-privileged venue of many, and don’t equate its commercial constraints with what cinematic art is or should be. See an independent film; make one of your own. America’s media industry doesn’t need more validation from within or without.

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