Why the obvious choice for an Oscar sweep is the wrong one.
To begin with, let me state that I enjoyed La La Land. It’s a beautiful and entertaining work of well crafted cinema. I even included it in my list of the best films of 2016. I could go into more detail about what makes it so good, but there are thousands of gushing reviews out there that have already covered everything I could possibly think of and then some.
La La Land has also gotten quite a bit of backlash for being a film about a white guy trying to save jazz (while also missing what many would say is the point of jazz). While I think these arguments have a point, I’m also not about to join any witch hunts. Part of that might be because I interpreted John Legend’s Keith, the sole named black character, as a relatable voice of reason instead of as the film’s antagonist (though the film, upon close inspection, really does present him as such). However, La La Land’s representation problem is also something that several others have dealt with, so I won’t linger on that, either.
After I first saw La La Land last September, at the Telluride Film Festival, I came out of the theater vaguely irritated, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. As time went by, however, I started to look back on the movie more and more fondly. Though the film has gotten a good deal of attention for its numerous cinematic references and homages, the most meaningful connection I made, ironically enough, was literary. Probably unintentionally, La La Land is quite thematically similar to some of the works of Willa Cather. Though best known for her writing that deals with frontier life, she also wrote multiple novels and several short stories dealing with so-called “dreamers” – usually of an artistic nature, especially musicians – who deal with internal struggles that, in some way, pit their professional ambitions against their interpersonal relationships. While her works often have a romantic slant, she is never one for the “happily ever after” or even “they end up together.” Cather also holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most famous and influential American authors to have never had any of her work adapted into a film that is even halfway decent.
One of her lesser known works, Lucy Gayheart, features a love interest named Sebastian who just happens to be a musician. That said, he and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian are hardly doppelgängers. Cather’s Sebastian is a singer (it’s Lucy who’s the pianist) and a highly successful one at that, and, while he’s similarly nostalgic for days gone by, he’s also well into middle age and, therefore, old enough to actually miss them. Furthermore, Sebastian is actually the character’s surname (his first name is Clement).
The connections are definitely a stretch. However, they were enough for me to gain a retrospective thematic appreciation of La La Land (appreciating La La Land from a technical standpoint was never a problem).
However, I then re-read Lucy Gayheart – as I do ever year around the winter holidays – and shortly afterward saw La La Land for the second time. Unlike some others, I did not find that La La Land got better with a second viewing. At all. Sometimes hindsight is 20/20, other times we see the past through rose-tinted glasses. Ironically enough, considering the nature of the film, re-watching La La Land convinced me that my memory of the film was a case of me looking back at the film through rose-tinted glasses.
Viewing the film through the same lens that had made me recall the film more fondly – as a sort of distant, thematic relative of some of my favorite literary works – ultimately both validated and identified that “something” that bothered me about the film originally: La La Land is indulgently and unapologetically selfish. And that’s not just because nostalgia for the good old days of Hollywood reeks of privilege.
La La Land is a film with two protagonists who both see themselves fighting against the world (which also ultimately includes each other). Mia and Sebastian, and the film as a whole, possess the sort of egocentric attitudes for which millennials receive seemingly endless criticism. Others – and in this film, everyone is an other – are obstacles to overcome, tools to be used towards achieving personal goals, or bodies to fill up the background. Many of La La Land’s most beautiful visuals covet isolation in a way that becomes toxic in large doses. The movie “spotlights” Mia and Sebastian, sometimes as a couple, but often individually, in a number of ways that all ultimately convey the same message: this person is special (unlike all these other people).
Even the scene where Mia, sporting a huge coffee stain down the front of her shirt, does a sort of “walk of shame” after being dismissed from her audition through a hall of perfectly groomed, identically dressed actresses ultimately serves this purpose.
The real-life equivalent of Mia’s coffee stain scene would be when Jennifer Lawrence tripped on the stairs at the Oscars. That, and the way she handled the incident, arguably won Lawrence more fans than the award because it made her more relatable and therefore more likable. Mia’s accident and the aftermath ultimately have the same effect. However, a major difference—besides the fact that one was a genuine accident and the other was staged in a fictional film – is that Mia’s scene in La La Land isn’t just about making her likable and relatable. It’s about making her more likable and relatable than the other perfectly put-together actresses in the scene (the “I’m special” subtext).
Mia is actually quite often the subject of comparisons to other women, most ironically and irritatingly in the “Someone in the Crowd” scene. Mia provides the somewhat dissenting voice in the otherwise upbeat number (“Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?”) which, of course, only serves to demonstrate that she is the special someone in the crowd because she isn’t drawn in by the insincere joviality that surrounds her – as demonstrated by her singing to herself in a mirror. While the second half of the song pits her against all the other party-goers, the first half pits her against her three bubbly, friendly-seeming but utterly interchangeable roommates who aren’t even fully fledged archetypes, not to mention characters.
Even at the end of La La Land, when we learn that Mia has indeed achieved her professional goals, we do so by seeing her walk in the footsteps of the unnamed female celebrity she served early in the film. Sebastian performs a little better, in the sense that the film seems less determined to define his character through comparisons to others, but his rise is still unfailingly selfish.
Granted, there is a certain degree of selfishness inherent in any “rise to stardom” tale. Being able to make a living as an artist is a privilege granted to very few. The question, then, is how the film addresses and/or questions the characters’ selfishness, and any repercussions their selfishness may have. Lucy Gayheart, and Willa Cather’s work in general, spends considerable time dealing with them: showing both the egocentric world of ambitious dreamers from within and then taking the time to give you the view from the outside. La La Land does nothing of the sort. The “bittersweet” ending isn’t really bittersweet, it’s saccharine: Mia has achieved the prestige of her dreams and Sebastian has his jazz club. Whether either one has found happiness or lasting success is left to the imagination, but ultimately both have won. They achieved their dreams, more or less exactly as they originally imagined them. The egocentric bubbles they live in continue to thrive. Reality, of course, is rarely half so kind.
The moment you start to scrutinize La La Land for its own merits as a film – not as a clever easter egg hunt of cinematic references and homages – is the moment it starts to fall apart. As I said in the very beginning, I found it to be an enjoyable film, but like many enjoyable things, such as eating a whole carton of ice cream or spending a whole afternoon binge-watching TV in your pajamas, thinking about it too much spoils the joy.
Movies about movies are award show catnip. La La Land has already swept the Golden Globes, and it looks poised to possibly do the same at the Oscars. But coming off of two years of #OscarsSoWhite, it’s exactly the wrong way to go, especially in a year that has given us films like Moonlight, Loving, Fences and Hidden Figures. Award shows are already self-indulgent by their very nature. This year presents an opportunity to either have more of the same, or do something a little different. I, for one, would really like to see something different.