La La Land and the Disenchantment of the World
Modern movies tend toward one or another extreme: They are either severely realistic or dreamily fantastic—cynical hardboiled drama and ironic comedy on the one hand, or superhero or historical fantasy on the other. It is a symptom, I think, of modern culture that we have almost completely separated the real from the ideal. We are all of us victims of the Gradgrindian scientism that dominates our thinking and disenchants our world. There is the empirical world of concrete facts, and the fanciful world of our wayward imaginations, and never the twain shall meet.
It was this gap that the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood used to fill. They were romantic, not cynical; earnest, not ironic. They cloaked reality in a kind of formality that allowed us to see how things really are behind everyday appearance. And they showed real people—soldiers, sailors, people from the sticks—trying to make it big, all attempting to live the dream.
There is a certain amount of truth to the argument that this was only possible because most people were ignorant of what life was really like. Most people lived in the country—or close to it. New York and Hollywood were a long way off. They were isolated by the distances that the transportation and communication revolutions would eventually obliterate. The little farming communities that covered the fruited plain were none of them Paradise, but they did serve to cultivate a certain kind of cultural innocence.
But “how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm when they’ve seen Paree?” one famous World War II song asked.
The disenchantment that resulted from the demise of agricultural America and the suburban takeover of the countryside, along with the rise of television, the accessibility to just about everywhere provided by interstate highways, the proliferation of the telephone, and finally and most decisively the Internet—these things proved hard on the innocence on which the old musical used to thrive. Those faraway things that populated people’s hopes and dreams were now right up the road, and eventually at our fingertips, and they didn’t seem as good as we used to think they were.
Dreams were dashed. The ideal was just a pipe dream. Somewhere around the early 1960s it became much harder to Sing in the Rain. Thenceforth, a tornado would be just a tornado. Stars were extinguished before they were Born. Dreaming the Impossible Dream turned out really to be impossible.
There have been exceptions to this, but they are either mostly animated fantasies (Beauty and the Beast) or set in another time (Les Miserables). Where are the musicals set in the present?
The musical that used to count on this older innocence just wasn’t able to survive the cultural Fall, and now, standing sentinel at the gates to these imperfect Edens are the cell phone, the iPad, and the flat-screen TV. When the first telecommunications satellite was launched into space orbit—that was the day the music died.
There is a scene in the movie La La Land in which Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) and Mia (played by Emma Stone) are dancing and singing with the lights of Los Angeles behind them, and we are enraptured as of old. Then, suddenly, her cell phone rings. The music stops, their feet are stilled, and the spell is broken. The deadening hand of modernity has asserted itself, and we are back in the modern world.
From 1995 to 2007, musicals made up only 2.1 percent of box-office revenue, a sure sign that they are no longer counted among our favorite things.
Any new musical would have to reinvoke what was once taken for granted. Is this even possible? Can we set aside our cynicism and believe that dreams can come true? Can we refrain from sniggering when people leave their cars on an L.A. freeway and break out dancing and singing, as happens in the opening scene of the movie?
La La Land makes you believe in the possibility that we can. What the movie does it does magnificently. There are times when you are simply swept away by its magic. Like the best musicals of old, it effortlessly lifts the viewer into another realm. It contains scenes that are every bit as sublime as Judy Garland’s Dorothy singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz, or Bogart’s Rick Blaine listening to “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca.
It is a stunning achievement. And yet there is something very wrong.
The movie is about the achievement of dreams. For Sebastian, it is to be a successful jazz musician without compromising his art for the sake of popularity. For Mia it is to be the famous actress treated like royalty by the baristas at the coffee house on the Warner Bros. lot and not the barista serving the Hollywood royalty.
But we, the viewers, know what the real dream is—we wait the whole movie long to see the culmination of the relationship between the two lovers. It doesn’t help that they end up simply moving in with each other (although we are spared the details). It’s obviously too much to ask that people get married before they sleep with each other in a Hollywood movie anymore, but what marriage did in older movies was provide a dramatic climax that simply shacking up can never provide. I’m thinking of Guys and Dolls here, but you could think of a thousand other examples if you tried. The lovers are married and they live happily ever after. The prospect of marriage provided ready-made narrative enchantment that plain old cohabitation can never approximate—in movies, or in life.
But even this doesn’t completely spoil things. There is still the future matrimonial possibility. And then a fateful decision is made by the two characters (and ultimately, their author) when, in order to achieve their individual dreams, they are faced with the decision to give up the bigger dream, the real dream, and they end up succumbing to the temptation that kills all dreams in modern movies—to subvert our expectations.
Just as the most magical thing is about to happen, it is stolen from them—and from us.
The ending of the movie will tear your heart out. Don’t let anyone tell you it is bittersweet: It is simply bitter. And it is more bitter in light of the possibility that it is so brilliantly held out to the viewer. We are led to the gates of heaven, only to have them closed in our face.
Aristotle rightly said that all stories boil down to either tragedy or comedy. Tragedy, however, where the high person is brought low, is no longer possible because our political, social, and moral egalitarianism prevents us from believing that anyone is higher or lower than anyone else. All we are really left with is comedy, which for Aristotle is simply a story with a happy ending. So, bereft of the possibility of producing a real tragedy, we instead take comedies and give them unhappy endings. But this is false tragedy, corrupt comedy. It is a degenerate art form for a degraded age.
But what about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Their mutual deaths at the end were the result of their mutual idolatry, and their deaths are not undeserved (contrary to much popular opinion, the play is really a cautionary tale). What about Flaubert’s Madame Bovary? Quite frankly, she deserved it (ditto for Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth).
In stories like these, while not classical tragedies, the unhappy ending is still the necessary outcome of the logic of the plot. And there is still some justice in them.
Any really satisfying story must have three elements: order, freedom, and justice. First, it must have a coherent beginning, middle, and end that follows some pattern of narrative necessity. Every event must make sense in the context of the story. In other words, every story must be true to itself. Second, each character must do what a real character would do if he were a real person and must not seem to do it because of any necessity in the plot, but, as in reality, by his own free will. In other words, the story must be true to life. And, finally every character must get his or her due. If a bad character escapes the story scott-free, there is a problem—and likewise if a good character is not rewarded in some way commensurate with his deeds. In other words, the story must be true to eternity. Take away one or another of these elements, and the story will be less satisfying as a result.
There are modern stories that have unhappy endings, but that still somehow preserve these elements. But Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Jude the Obscure? Cold Mountain? Even Sam Raimi’s otherwise very good Spiderman denies us the satisfaction of seeing Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker get together with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the end for the lame reason that it gave them an excuse to film a sequel. C’mon. The decision violated all three rules.
When the logic of a story is going one direction and the ending goes another, it is a violation of order. When a character makes a decision that a character would not really make in real life, it is a violation of freedom. And when good characters are not given their due, it is a violation of justice.
Modern movies and books are trying to do what musicians and visual artists have been trying to do since the early twentieth century: subvert the classical forms. Think “Erwartung,” an atonal piece by Schoenberg which is virtually unlistenable. Or Marcel DuChamp’s “Fountain,” which is really just a urinal. They’re innovative, edgy, ground-breaking—everything but aesthetically pleasing. They are considered art only because the courtiers keep assuring the emperor that he really is wearing something.
What made classic Hollywood great was its unapologetic assumption that ideals were real and could be achieved, and it accomplished this by staying within the parameters of classic artistic forms—forms which reflected the reality of existence and human nature itself. It evoked these truths without irony, and it didn’t buy into the lie that there was something cheap about a happy ending. Wittingly or unwittingly it acknowledged the great Christian truth that the world itself has a happy ending.
La La Land is not a bad movie: It is a great movie. And this is precisely what makes the ending so utterly disastrous. Corruptio optimi pessima: “The corruption of the best is the worst.”
La La Land. See it—and weep for what could have been.