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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.





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Sunday, January 22, 2017

entry arrow8:00 AM | Here’s to Dreamers

“Winasak ako ng La La Land,” I said the first day I saw the film. All I knew was, I could not remember the last movie I saw where I found myself pouring buckets of tears after the first hour until right at the very end. It was totally unexpected, even for me. When the credits rolled, I found I couldn’t move from my seat. So I sat there in the dark listening to Emma Stone hum a version of “City of Stars,” thinking what the f**k my eyes are red I don’t want the world to see I’ve been crying. I couldn’t have been lucid when it was finally time to exit, and what struck me immediately was this realization: that this was a different kind of love story, although it is very much cut from the same cloth of oldtime Hollywood romance. It struck me most of all as a love story about dreams—and if you have ever been a dreamer, this film is simply tailor-made for you.

I found myself in a nearby café—and all I could do was look out the window and stare at the rain. And then I found myself crying again.

Surreal.

What haven’t I said yet about this dream film that I haven’t said in that completely emotional first paragraph? Damien Chazelle’s musical comes as a gift. It fulfills everything I require in a movie, and is best allowed to come to you unfiltered by everything else [so no details here in this essay], and must be seen requiring nothing except your total surrender to its vision, its theme of dreams and dreamers, its Technicolor ache.



It is not without its naysayers, of course. People complain about the jazz—that it doesn’t say enough, for example, or that it makes a mistake for assuming it is “dead,” or worse that it involves a white man talking about music that sprang from the pain and the improvisations of black folk. But let me quote film critic Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience: “Though many critics got enormously uptight about the movie’s jazz conversations, they’re a red herring. The movie isn’t about jazz (Sebastian) any more than it’s about acting (Mia). It’s about dreams themselves and how rigid, committed, and proprietary we are about them.”

I have never loved a movie this much, not for the longest time anyway, and I think it is because it is a valentine to cinema itself, and knows every inch of what it is like to be beholden to a dream. And so I went to see La La Land again the next night, with friends Annabelle Lee Adriano and her husband Edo (both of them fellow musical enthusiasts), Renz Torres, Xandro Dael, Jon Riam Quizo, and a bunch of other people.

I was more lucid this time around, although I must admit that Emma Stone’s audition scene still made me tear up. It was a risk watching it again. I am always afraid to watch movies I like the second or third time around, because something always gets diminished from the raw power of the first viewing—but to my delight, the film held up very, very well. This time around, it was all about the nuances. I could appreciate so much better the technical miracles the film has accomplished—the freeway scene, the dance sequences, the chemistry of its stars, and regardless of what has been said about it, the dexterity of its screenplay.

And those nods to old movies! Rebel Without a Cause. Casablanca. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Young Girls of Rochefort. An American in Paris. The Red Balloon. Swing Time and Top Hat. In Cinemascope and Technicolor. A cineast’s wet dream, really.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman—one of my favorite film critics—gets its appeal. And one could get it too, but Mr. Gleiberman says that “getting it” might require a second viewing for some: “I liked La La Land a lot the first time I saw it, but I confess that I didn’t fall head over tap shoes in love with it until I’d seen it a second time. That’s just the way it happens with certain movies; even a great one can kick in more fully on the second date .... [There’s] another reason La La Land gets better the second time you see it: You now have those songs in your system. And why should it be otherwise? Great pop songs don’t necessarily hit us with their ultimate force the first time we hear them; often, on the radio, they kick in that second or third or fourth time. In my own second experience with La La Land, I felt like I melted, all the more, into the story those melodies were telling. And I do mean melodies (though the lyrics are lovely). What I heard the second time is how [composer] Justin Hurwitz constructed the songs out of bits and pieces of the same musical motifs, so that they flow in and out of each other and merge; it’s really a unified song suite. By the end, the music has become a character in the film (which may be why there are so few actual supporting characters). Just watch the scene near the end where Mia is seated in the nightclub and Sebastian, on stage, sits at the piano and plays, very slowly, with one hand, those notes. Da da da da da da ... daaa. Those simple seven notes tell the entire story we’ve been watching.”

Some people though keep comparing its musical attributes to old films featuring Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin songs. The songs of Sondheim or Gershwin are of a piece, complete in themselves—and in classic American musicals, they were used as pop-up numbers that mostly do not really add to the story. The ballet in American in Paris is a perfect example. Perfect and a delight in itself, but was it necessary to the story? No. In La La Land, the ballet at the end is integral to the question the film asks: “What could have been if we only stayed together?”

I’ve actually initially wondered why most of the songs in La La Land felt incomplete in the movie—the first iteration of “City of Stars” which Ryan Gosling hums and sings at the pier, for example, is something you could miss if you blinked hard enough—but then I later realized, like Mr. Gleiberman did in his Variety article, that they all constituted a tapestry together, one song altogether with highlights and refrains and repetitions, and from interviews I read, the composer actually meant that to be the case.

On second viewing, I noticed the perfect and sound architecture of the score: the delight and color and whimsy with lots of songs for the sections of the first Winter and Spring, like the honeymoon of a relationship. When Spring ends with that iris shot of the two leads finally kissing after that dream dance among the stars, it opens to Summer—and there are no more songs and dances save for one: the matter-of-fact duet of “City of Stars,” stripped of glamour, just a girl and a boy with dreams singing together around a piano, just all grit and ambition and trying to make a relationship work.



Fall continues with all that heartbreak—but it ends with “Audition,” Emma’s final torch song, the beautiful lyrics of which is the film’s narrative told with a heart on its sleeves. That leads to the much-needed coda, the goodbye conversation at Griffith Park, and finally leads to the finale in Winter and all its joys and heartaches.

It’s a well-made movie that bears scrutiny, and I don’t want to add to the complaint that the story is “simple.” It’s not. It’s just “lightly” told, which is its best vehicle. What could be more serious than a movie about the demands of dreams and the grit of compromises and the subterfuges of letting go? What do people want, a love story in the philosophical mode of Terence Malick?

One has to say something about what it says about love—and why the end has turned many people’s heads. But director Chazelle has explained it so well: “I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone.” And there has been a long tradition of that in classic Hollywood.

Consider the story of Casablanca. He loves her. She loves him. They have springtime in Paris, and then she suddenly disappears from his life. He goes off to Morocco and somehow finds himself owning a bar named Rick’s. No, the apostrophe is not shaped like a musical note, but there’s a jazz pianist working there. Out of the blue, and of all the bars in Casablanca, she has to come and enter his. But she’s married now, and she needs to save her husband the anti-Nazi activist, and the only way out is a plane out of Casablanca. He’s the only one who can help. She tells Rick she will stay with him, this time—but he has to help. He looks at her with so much yearning, and tells her, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” He tells her to go. They part. Sad, beautiful endings are forever.

Consider the story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He loves her. She loves him. They’re poor but they have dreams. Her mother thinks she should marry the rich, handsome, kind man who pines for her. He goes off to war and she becomes heartbroken. When he returns, she has married the kind, rich man. And he marries the kind girl who consoles him. Years later they meet accidentally in the gas station he now owns. He says hi, she says hello. They part.

Sad, beautiful endings—again—are forever.


[Read also Anthony Lane's review at The New Yorker].

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