Tag Archives: Oscars

I Don’t Like Musicals, So Why Did I Like La La Land So Much? A Self-Investigation. La La Land and the Year in Movies

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I’m almost embarrassed by how much I liked La La Land. On the surface it is the exact type of movie I should not like, i.e.—a sappy rom-com musical, based on an era I don’t particularly care about with ridiculously good looking actors who struggle for a period of time but then succeed beyond all expectations. Ugh.

But I liked it, a lot. And I’ve never ever been a musical guy. This means, along with Hamilton, the number of musicals I like has skyrocketed to two (!) in the last year alone. I mean, what. the. fuck. is happening to me? I told my photographer friend Mike (a fellow dark and cynical artist) that he needed to go see this movie called La La Land and he turned to me with a straight face and repeated the title: “You want me to go see a movie called Laa Laa Land?”

But yes, La La Land seduced me and cast me under its hypnotic, romantic, magical spell.
The music! (by Justin Hurwitz, good luck getting the songs out of your head).
The acting! (by the always excellent Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling).
The writing! The directing! (especially that freeway scene) by Damien Chazelle (who previously wrote and directed the taut and intense Whiplash).
Generally, films like Manchester by the Sea are more in line with my taste for movies. Casey Affleck, the main actor of the film, referred to Manchester when he hosted SNL as “a testament to how unbearably sad movies can be … funny, but crushingly sad.” That’s generally what I like. Crushingly sad movies. Or else weird, art-house flicks. Birdman was one of the only films in recent memory that I thought was absolutely brilliant and way too weird to win Best Picture, and yet did.

https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/casey-affleck-christmas-monologue/3442501?snl=1

What’s even more telling, however, of how much I like La La Land, is that I still like the movie, even after the hype of winning seven Golden Globes and being nominated for FOURTEEN Oscars. Generally, once a movie wins awards, I pull that move pretentious music people do and say something about how “I was into that movie before it won all the awards.” La La Land is a great film, but I don’t think it’s great enough to sweep anything per say, which it nearly did. And the song “City of Stars” (which won a Golden Globe for Best Song) is good, but “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” happen to be great songs.

Still the question remains, why did I like this particular film so much? I don’t know. Maybe as a secret romantic, I’m just sucker. Perhaps it’s because I’m white, as it is undoubtedly, a very white movie.
I think though, more than anything, it is a movie that, as my cousin Dane put it (who I saw the film with in Hollywood while visiting), “sticks to its convictions.” It embraces its antiquated musical numbers, its tap dances, its sentimentality and romanticism and melancholy. Not to mention everything in the film, whatever you might think of the content itself, is crafted with perfection.

Why did other people like the movie then? is perhaps a better place to start.
I’m pretty sure a lot of people liked La La Land, consciously or not, specifically because it was based in Hollywood nostalgia, and people in Hollywood, i.e., people who make up the Academy and vote for awards, love movies about Hollywood, they love movies about movies, and films about films, and anything about how wonderful they and their industry are. I can almost imagine these people touching themselves as they watched La La Land. (There was even an SNL skit about a guy being arrested because he said La La Land “dragged in the middle.”)

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/la-la-land-interrogation/3457925?snl=1

But also, because of the shit show 2016 was, maybe everyone just wanted to feel good for a couple hours.

Why I liked La La Land however, is not really a mystery. I knew immediately why I liked it so much and it was the ending. The sense of optimism and romanticism that begins the film, soon ends in two people who should be together, not being together. It is both tragic, simple, and in some way, a metaphor for how life goes awry and upends our expectations. I don’t know why, but that wrecked me. I wanted to grab Emma Stone through the screen and tell her to dump her shitty husband and run away with Gosling (though the husband actually seemed like a pretty decent guy).
La La Land did the thing all cliché movies do. It “touched a nerve” or “tugged at my heartstrings,” probably because I spend a lot of time in my head—in nostalgia or fantasy (not for some sort of “Golden Age” but pining for some sort of world or reality that never existed in the first place). I spend a lot of time thinking about what could have been versus what is, wondering if either one would make a difference in a sort of existential or universal sense, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what I don’t have and what my life could look like, even though I don’t particularly dislike my life as is. There’s something within me that can’t help think what if, which is essentially, what that whole montage with Emma Stone towards the end of the movie is about.
The ending is also, “surprising, yet inevitable” which, as writer and my previous Antioch mentor Peter Selgin says, is exactly what makes a great ending in fiction. The ending surprises you, but in a way that you say, “Of course, it couldn’t be any other way.” And it is in this “turn” at the ending where La La Land transforms from a 1930’s garish Hollywood musical into something else. A meditation on art, romance, relationships, love, nostalgia, and struggle (though, in typical Hollywood fashion, both of the leads are successful in their career pursuits, unlike, say, Don’t Think Twice).

Both Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Arrival, and even Hell or High Water are more profound, complicated, and richer films in many ways. Manchester and Moonlight especially deal with grief, tragedy, and often untouched or “unfilmed” emotions of unspeakable depth. Both films are generally the sort of stuff that is in direct contrast to business banking or even “award garnering” movies (and they are BY FAR the two best films). And yet, La La Land did indeed win me over. Even if it is to the dismay of my own sense of self and overall identity.

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12 Years a Slave is Brutal and Beautiful at the Same Time

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Steve McQueen is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors…and he’s only made three full-length movies. I’ve only seen two of the three, Shame, which came out in 2011 about one New York City man’s addiction to sex, and recently 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s movies are highlighted by an intense focus on the body and the physical, as well as stories that have gone untold, such as his first debut Hunger, which focused on a prison strike by IRA inmates in Northern Ireland.

The camera work of his films is incredibly interesting, artsy even, the shots long, and the detachment visceral. 12 Years a Slave is no different. It follows the trials of Solomon Northrup (played heroically by Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man who is duped and drugged by two frauds, and awakes to find himself in Washington D.C. in chains. His new captors tell him that he is no longer a free man, but a slave from Georgia, and mercilessly beat him till he agrees, or at least stops talking. As the camera pans up we see we are not but a few blocks from the capitol of the United State of America.

Northrup is then shuffled off to Louisiana where he has a relatively kind master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being transferred to the manic cruel servitude of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way he must keep his reading and writing skills a secret lest they get him in trouble, as they must assuredly do throughout the course of the movie. Northrup is smart, too smart for his own good, and finds his education, status, and name all but worthless in the bayous and plantations of Louisiana. He is merely the “property” of another human being.

12 Years is complex in that it refuses to generalize or demarcate its characters. Some of the white people are good (well only a few), some utterly evil. And yet there is almost the sense that within the “masters” of the plantation, the guilty consciences over their treatment of others in fact spurs even more violence, violence to cover guilt in an endless circle. Michael Fassbender is insane in this movie and I mean it in both the bad way and the good. 

12 Years also draws our attention to the fact that some of the greatest evil was in fact imposed by the hands of fellow slaves at the behest of their masters. How much crueler can a whipping get? By having the perpetrator (themselves a victim) perpetrate the violence upon another victim. Was race-on-race violence a form of oppression and suffering devised at the hands of the white elite unknowingly years ago? I might say so. 

 Of course Brad Pitt gets to be the good Canadian abolitionist in the end, his speech and opinions coming so late in the movie it feels as if he is from another planet, but who can resist Brad Pitt? Actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, and Adepero Oduye are incredible and even surpass the heroism of Northrup, especially Patsey (Nyong’o). Each portrays a different version of how women handled their situation with grace and perseverance, and yet not without a few tears, or scars.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit let the camera linger on scenes of 12 Years for extended periods of time, as if McQueen is forcing us to look when other filmmakers would cut or the average person avert their eyes.

“Look!” the entire film seems to scream out.

In what is perhaps the most infamous scene of the film, Northrup is disciplined by standing on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for an entire afternoon as plantation life continues on around him. Some images, particularly Ejiofor’s burning of a compromised letter, are stark and say more than words can. Certain critics have complained that this “artsy” camera work takes advantage of Northrup’s story and allows McQueen to showcase his talent of imagery and beauty at the expense of the story. To that I say, “Pssht.” No way. It makes the film.

Detachment is a huge theme in all of McQueen’s movies and while 12 Years is a deeply heartfelt and passionate experience, there is something about it that leaves you numb and void of emotion, or perhaps so overcome by emotion that you have nothing left. Even though the film recreates the South and experience of slavery in a way that is so real and visceral, it also lacks a hearty psychological interior. I see this detachment as the only experience of emotion left to feel at the end of such horrific events. It is the absence of feeling, anti-attachment, that visually recreates experiences such as slavery or addiction in ways you can’t otherwise. To be addicted is to be utterly overcome with desire, and yet completely numb. I can’t speak for slavery but there is something about the way in which Northrup must categorize his servitude and refuse to give in to despair that requires a certain amount of stoicism or even ignorance on his part.

McQueen is able to take a story and historical experience shown or written about thousands of times and make it feel fresh, deeply important, and utterly terrifying. One friend I was with remarked that the entire feeling of the film felt more like a horror film than historical narrative. My body was tense from the minute the first image drifted on screen to the moment the credits started rolling. So, be prepared when you see the movie, but the result is breathless. Breathless in beauty. Breathless in terror. Breathless in acting and directing. If this movie isn’t the best of the year I will be personally offended. 

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