Sunday, February 26, 2017

On ‘La La Land’

Rahul Vaidya

The movie ‘La La Land’ (directed by Damien Chazelle) is a Hollywood box-office hit, winner of 7 Golden Globes and has received a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and premiered to rapturous reviews at film festivals. It’s a 21st century movie which models itself upon the 1950s and 1960s era Hollywood musicals. A romantic starry eyed tribute to the ‘good old days’- starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, leading actors in Hollywood who portray struggling young artists in Los Angeles, their romance, professional dreams, parting and how do they face each other when they succeed. The city of Los Angeles and Jazz music play such an integral part in the movie that they rather are central characters in themselves.

In a nutshell, one can safely conclude how the movie has played to the gallery of Hollywood pop culture, monetizing the nostalgia and rehashing the old ‘aesthetical’ in the new cinematic techniques, colors and tapestry. Unsurprisingly, it has won the establishment recognition and approval, and has achieved what was unthinkable in past few years- indulgence in romantic musical genre both as auteur as well as spectator is once again respectable and ‘cool’.

However, the sheen is coming off ‘La La Land’ pretty fast. In the weeks that followed, and as the film screened for more and more critics, a backlash began to grow. Broadly, the issue of ‘representation’ encapsulates the bulk of the criticism coming the way of this movie. The complaints of how the movie has misrepresented women, African Americans, and how it has tried to underplay the black identity of jazz have led to ‘an all-out war (albeit one waged mostly on Twitter) between the film’s fans and its detractors’[1].

 I would like to argue that this criticism is necessary and it does point to a significant problem with our popular culture, its sponsors and cultural actors. However, this criticism is insufficient and in some ways, deeply flawed. It is quite problematic because if counter-cultural efforts (which are inspired from such criticism) remain arrested in the jugglery of representation, then we have either an uncritical fairytale ‘pursuit of happiness’ in multicultural clothing (as we saw with Will Smith’s movie) or an exotic celebration of realistic trope- which depicts grief and sorrows of victims of race, gender abuse and broken families and despair post-financial meltdown America. In short, it is necessary to penetrate to the core content of any cultural artifact as well as how its reception is structured if we need to postulate dialectic proper.

Celebrating Jazz or whitesplaining Jazz?
One of the major lines of criticism is misrepresentation of Jazz in the movie. The critics have argued how Jazz, is a uniquely black American genre. “Many of its most famous artists were heavily involved in the civil rights movement. It’s noteworthy, then, that the jazz musician Sebastian most reveres is Charlie Parker, who died in 1955 before that movement really got started,” Noah Gittell writes points out in The Guardian.

And this is precisely why Ira Madison III finds the cast of La La Land problematic. “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre,” writes Ira in MTV News, “you’d think that artist would be black.” “The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-saviour film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man”[2].

It is necessary to raise the issues of representation, most certainly where historical struggles and cultural expressions so strongly linked with marginalized and oppressed communities. However, it is equally necessary to remain on guard and explore the link between the subject and object of representation. Jazz as a black protest music is a monolithic and a-historical understanding of how this music form evolved in port cities around the world through a gramophone revolution[3] in 1920s and 1930s- Havana’s son, Rio’s samba, New Orleans’ jazz, Buenos Aires’ tango, Seville’s flamenco, Cairo’s tarab, Johannesburg’s marabi, Jakarta’s kroncong, and Honolulu’s hula. Although the African American origins of Jazz remain quite strong, this music form was influenced and developed through across the world via own experience and styles to the art form as well.

There is another issue here. How far can Jazz be considered a radical expression for the marginalized? Gramophone revolution essentially involved an element of celebration of ‘exotic’ at every location around the world. As much as Jazz and other music forms were originated from oppressed working classes of color and races around the world, they were not catering to a political project in direct fashion. They were functioning in a commercial setup which sought to expand the market for music beyond the concert halls and become part of everyday life. As much as it became a part of decolonizing project, as well as protest music, jazz and other musical forms through their commercial existence were structurally undermined to lead to various deviations and ‘whitening’ pulls as happened later.

What is more, is the harsh truth about Jazz being perceived as a ‘snob’ taste of art is something similar to what happened to aristocratic bourgeoisie arts of 19th century such as opera. And ‘La La Land’ is certainly not guilty for holding a mirror to this reality of Jazz ending up as elitist escape from popular culture.

Magical realism, utopian art and politics
The opening scene of people stuck in traffic jam on Los Angeles Freeway and their radios streaming a plethora of music. The individualistic bubbles of everyone in the car are shaped and realized through fantasies which are so diverse- symbolized in the music ranging from rock, jazz, hip-hop to sports radio or funk. However, at an abstract level, this music and the bubble like existence melts together into a symphony and gives rise to of people stepping out of their cars and joining in the carnival of a surreal celebration of free-spirited music and dance. At the same time, these dreams and characters do not take us on any escapist trip but the imperfect material situation of everyday struggle in which they continue to exist is what holds such sequences together. The depiction is not too harsh nor too sentimental. It is this magical realism which defines the movie.

The movie has been commonly described as a nostalgic tribute to good old days. I would beg to differ as the characters and movie are not a straightforward pastiche of the past but operate with a much more complex politics. This politics can roughly be understood with Alain Badiou’s notion of ‘the communist hypothesis’ where he argues that today all the hitherto known concrete pillars of communism- existing socialist societies, trade unions, industrial proletariat, communist parties have either collapsed or are in a structural disarray. In such times, one has to proceed forward while remaining fiercely loyal to an abstract ‘communist hypothesis’. Although his formulation is idealistic and problematic as well, it is a good starting point to understand the supposed ‘nostalgia’ of ‘La La Land’. This nostalgia is not a yuppie uncritical celebration or despair aimed to create a ‘beautiful’ goody goody romantic narration, but on the contrary, this nostalgia is melancholic at the loss of an age of ‘aura’ of an artist and anguished at how every artistic skill has come to be easily replaceable. However, it is this nostalgia which leads both Mia and Sebastian to evolve a commitment towards their worldviews of art and performance. This nostalgia and commitment forms the foundation and end of their romantic relationship. There is a melancholic tone over how their journey unfolds over four seasons where this politics plays a major part and how things keep falling apart despite their efforts. And it gives grandeur to their personal tragedies.

Tradition versus future, Music versus noise
The character of Keith, the band lead played by eminent musician John Legend is quite important and misunderstood to a great extent. Keith is the one who actually articulates the dilemmas of Mia and Sebastian, or for that matter, any struggling artist who dreams to remain true to his ‘art’ and not succumb to compromise. Popular taste/ culture and pressures of market are viewed with suspicion. However, it is here that an artist, much like a revolutionary comes to face a predicament of choosing between staying relevant for actually existing concrete ‘imperfect totality’ via compromises or staying fiercely honest to an abstract conception called ‘true art’ which increasingly becomes irrelevant to changing realities of time and space in which popular culture is consumed.

Keith hence elaborates his vision to Sebastian:

‘The future of the music lies in wedding it to other forms. Bringing new instruments in, New sounds.

People think jazz is irrelevant -- and they should. It’s become time-machine art…

Alright, alright, don’t get me wrong. No one loves the old greats as much as I do. But it’s like a shark. If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. Truth is, nostalgia’s the biggest killer of art forms that’s ever existed.

The proof? Opera’

Furthermore, the way Keith has adopted to fuse varying sounds with Jazz is quite important for us to dwell over the very character and definition of music itself. The very term ‘music’ is always already structured to distinguish and privilege certain sounds and their arrangement over others. And what sound is called music depends on historical social stage of development as well as class- identity locations. Jazz, when it was born, was a sheer noise of the black and other exploited sections to the ears of white colonist cultures which however, was exoticised by them in the course of time. And so much so that it came to symbolize an elite high-cultural taste over the past century.

Sebastian is partially victim of this mythical notion of a frozen era of Jazz as the true and only Jazz. Something similar to what we witness in classical music of Hindustani or Carnatic or European sorts. Whereas, the very discovery of Jazz was a result of new sounds, new instruments and new tunes being developed in hitherto unknown parts of the world, by musicians who were outside the canon of established musical circles, and the popularity of Jazz lay in its ability to fuse with varying styles of music and dance and performances. Sebastian’s reservations about hip-hop encapsulate his predicament. His puritanical music attitude would lead to a ritualistic Jazz genre which would soon be extinct. He comes to realize it slowly, through his conversations with Keith and accepts to work with his fusion Jazz group.

Hence, ‘La La Land’ is not a simple escapist entertainment to soothe the frayed nerves in Trumpland. This movie poses important questions about art and its relation to politics which go beyond the familiar tropes of representation or welfare. It dares to make us boldly face our dreams, fantasies and in the process define our ‘selves’ and our politics.

I would like to conclude by quoting the director of the movie, Damien Chazelle who has spoken about the movie at several instances and why this movie about movies, which works as simulacra of sorts, has a contemporary appeal and relevance. He says: ‘Living in LA, you live in a city that is full of movie history. Everywhere you turn, there's an echo of this glorified movie past. In many ways, there’s also an industry that seems determined to erase that past, or ignore it, and push forward. I have in my head a version of the debate that John Legend and Ryan Gosling have in the movie about jazz. If you apply that to movies, there’s the same idea — do you try to preserve what you love about the past of an art form at the risk of marginalizing it? Or do you try to push it toward the future, at the risk of bastardizing it? Where does that balance lie? I think that applies to any art form, but right now, movies especially seem to be going through a little bit of an identity crisis, caught between past ideas of what movies were supposed to be, and the new frontier, where movies are watched, for the most part, not in movie theaters. What does that do to our sense of the art form? This is a big, rambling non-answer. But these are the ideas that flooded my head, so I tried to put them on the page in some sense in La La Land.’[4]

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