Liking La La Land and JackiePrint
The perversity of appreciation
By Phillip Lopate
January 20, 2017
It sometimes happens that I am unimpressed with a film every intelligent person seems to love. Rather than rain on their parade, I will nod enthusiastically, allowing them to think I share their feeling. More awkward are the times when I genuinely like a picture my peers disdain. Such has been the case with La La Land. A number of sophisticated people I know have said how they were bored, they disliked it intensely, they were horrified when it swept the Golden Globe Awards. One friend emailed me recently: “What a silly movie. So disappointing from so many angles, don’t you agree? Do not tell me you liked that movie, please do not.”
But I did. I do.
When I start to admit it, friends give me pitying looks, as though I have been suckered. They’d thought me a man of exigent tastes, and here I am proving them wrong. What can I say? I enjoyed the movie. I was charmed by it, and left the theater smiling.
“Well, maybe I was disappointed because it had been so hyped …” said a friend, helpfully.
Precisely because it had been so hyped, given my usual perverse reflex, I was expecting very little and was pleasantly surprised. I read a bunch of reviews to try to understand why my response was so out of whack with my confreres. The main criticisms seemed to be that the principal performers, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, could neither sing nor dance (gee, you could have fooled me), that the story was sappy and stale, the whole thing a nostalgic confection. Critics on the left argued that in these dire times of Trumpocracy, it was retrograde escapism to wax nostalgic. I see nothing wrong with escapism. Must we shun any entertainment that is not advocating social justice or condemn ourselves now to martyr narratives like Martin Scorsese’s gloomy Silence? (Forgive me, I was turned off by the endless close-ups of teary-eyed Andrew Garfield, out of his thespian depth.)
Conversely, I was very taken with Ryan Gosling’s performance in La La Land. Sometimes you like a movie because you fasten onto a single actor and identify with his or her progression regardless. I’ve always been intrigued by Gosling, who conveys a mixture of tough-guy conceit and vulnerable innocence, which perfectly suited his role here as a musician. For all his manly posturing, there’s something boyish about him; he’s still a gosling. Emma Stone, an endearing screen presence who carries herself with wry self-mockery, has always seemed to me a little wan and washed-out; but since she is not knockout-beautiful, she too fit the role she was playing of a wannabe star who is not acing her auditions. Together, both of them struck a note of weary uncertainty or dubious melancholy from the start, so that it was no surprise when their romance did not last (or did, but only by staging it in an alternate universe as the road not taken).
This film is less a tribute to Astaire-Rogers musicals than it is to Jacques Demy’s haunting Umbrella of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. The trick of those Demy musicals was to infuse pretty-pretty pastel visuals with an air of sadness and regret. If they ironically echoed the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, then La La Land is an echo of an echo. (No wonder its fervent energy is belied by a persistent sense of entropic loss.) There are also references to other movies, such as New York, New York and Rebel Without a Cause, which help explain how the film seems to alternate between two temporal spheres, the brash present superimposed upon the quoted past. Perhaps because I subscribe to the movies as a secular religion, I can be touched by these tributes and not put off by them. Those who complain that the Hollywood lots portrayed in the picture no longer look that way, or that the jazz score is a hodgepodge of bop and schmaltz, or that the film utterly falsifies contemporary Los Angeles, are expecting a level of realism that has nothing to do with its highly stylized intentions. As it happens, I did not like the director’s previous film, Whiplash, partly because its feel for the history of jazz was so distorted, its look of New York streets so off, and yet it seemed to want to be taken seriously as realistic. This time around, he didn’t aim for realism, and I was much more won over by its studio fairyland artifice.
Jackie is another film I liked that is being attacked and dismissed for its lack of historical verisimilitude. Here, there is such a monumental disconnect between the real Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the way she is portrayed by Natalie Portman that you just have to gasp. It is as though Edie Sedgwick or some other Andy Warhol superstar were playing dress-up, pretending to be Jackie O. What is one to make of her baby-talk goofiness in the tour of the White House scenes, or her unhinged brink-of-hysteria elsewhere, which is miles from Jackie O’s centeredness? And Peter Sarsgaard, usually so believable an actor, is even more farfetched as Robert Kennedy: his hangdog, stoical expression has none of RFK’s aggressive intensity. The narrative does not so much progress in a straight line as circle dreamlike around sites of tragedy. The result is a cine-poem, an elegy or rumination—surprisingly experimental for a commercial release—which forces us to think about what the real Jackie might have been feeling at those moments, by putting on the screen such an unrecognizable facsimile. Portman does a great acting job, not because she is so successful at impersonating Jackie, but because she concocts and inhabits another (eccentrically individuated) woman and thereby lets us understand how we can never really put ourselves in a legend’s shoes. Once again, we are allowed to escape our troubled reality for an hour and a half, thanks to the movies, while being offered a corresponding, compensatory sorrow.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.