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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, simultaneously performers and part of the audience.

La La Land: Star-Crossed Lovers in the City of Cultural Mass Production

By Feb 10, 2017

Image credits: Summit Entertainment.

A young couple cheerfully walks down an unfamiliar street - a spontaneous promenade, an escape from the unmoving LA freeway. As they stroll, a tune piques their interest, and soon they find themselves descending into a nearby club. To Mia (Emma Stone), the young wife, the ownership of the club is an instant appeal to an earlier life. “Welcome to Seb’s” is all the host of the club (Ryan Gosling) can choke out. As he sees her in the crowd, their eyes meet in an intense shot-reverse-shot gaze. He plays a song, their song, strange to the other characters but intimately ingrained in the minds of the off-screen audience. The lights dim, the world shifts beneath their feet and they escape their surroundings into a utopian retelling of their lost lives in La La Land. The moment is what Richard Dyer calls “pure entertainment”, the kind that offers “something better” that our daily lives cannot provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized. La La Land finds its climax.

Throughout the film, Seb professes his love for music that is “conflict and compromise, and new every time” while stubbornly defending the virtues of romance and nostalgia. It is fitting, then, that his concluding performance should be a combination of those virtues that also fulfills the titular promise to carry its audience, or for him, just Mia, away to their dream world in La La Land. However, to avid watchers of the director Damien Chazelle’s films, the ending feels ironic. In its insistence on particularity, the strength of the passion between the lovers depends on its being exclusive, unforeseen, unreproducible, an absolute expression of the moment unique to their experience.

Thus comes to light an internal tension between two of the La La Land’s core themes: the virtue of unique and spontaneous art or performance, artists and performers, and the infinite reproductive capacity of entertainment into commodity, within the capitalist, cultural hegemony of Hollywood.

This film is in fact the third installment of its kind in its creator’s corpus. Recall earlier works Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, both also featuring a struggling young jazz musician whose stories climax with a truest expression of their selves in music. To further draw the parallels between the films, in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench this self expression is played for the audience as something that could be the last encounter between two lost loves. Thus comes to light an internal tension between two of the La La Land’s core themes: the virtue of unique and spontaneous art or performance, artists and performers, and the infinite reproductive capacity of entertainment into commodity, within the capitalist, cultural hegemony of Hollywood.

The tension between the themes stems from two distinct visions. On the one hand, there is what Seb values most about performance art, in particular jazz: its quality of being “here and now”, a unique existence which testifies to the artist’s authority in its creation. On the other, it reflects what Walter Benjamin refers to as “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things spatially and humanly, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction.” The significance of that desire for proximity will become clearer when I turn to Mia’s story, but for present purposes, it exists in tandem with the relationship between the business of entertainment and the audience to be entertained.

As a musician who refuses to engage in any profitable labour other than the sale of his musical performances, Seb is a professional entertainer. For Dyer, entertainment is “a type of performance performed for profit, performed before a generalised audience (the “public”) by a trained, paid group who do nothing else but produce performances which have the sole (conscious) aim of providing pleasure.” Perhaps built into this definition of entertainment is another point of tension with art, since Seb claims throughout the movie, and in particular, during one exchange with Mia when she worries the audience will not like her play, “fuck them.” However, in the end, this attitude is more of a stubborn will to impose his own tastes over the audience rather than a true sentiment, since the end result of Seb’s struggles as a musician is ownership of a jazz club, allowing him to profit as a true entrepreneur from the labour of performance art.

Herein lies the tension between the artistic desire for unique actuality with the public desire for proximity; that is, entertainment as performance art requires its own replication, the loss of its unique character, in order to succeed.

On that note, Seb, as an entertainer, produces entertainment that he and Mia escape into at the film’s climax only by responding to an inadequacy, the lingering and unresolved romance between Mia and himself. That is to say, Dyer’s entertainment “is not just what show business, or ‘they’, force on the rest of us, it is not simply the expression of eternal needs – it responds to real needs created by society.” Herein lies the tension between the artistic desire for unique actuality with the public desire for proximity; that is, entertainment as performance art requires its own replication, the loss of its unique character, in order to succeed. The climax of La La Land exhibits the conflict of Seb’s pursuit of artistic uniqueness and entertainment which addresses the needs of its audience by self-commodification, and thus, subjection to mass reproduction.

While on the level of artwork this loss of individuality may be viewed as only tangentially significant, it is more problematic when the implications extend to the person of the artist, the performer, and the entertainer. For the purposes of this discussion, the trajectory of Mia’s story throughout the film serves as an almost perfect example of the transformation (in the studio system, a necessary one) of the artist into commodity. Aside from her relationship with Seb, Mia’s primary activity throughout the film is auditioning for various roles. It is evident early on that her dream is to be a star. As the camera lingers on a close-up of her gaze focused on an approaching unnamed famous actress, the audience understands her longing for the same status. In one sequence, Mia is shown playing three different characters at three different auditions, the colour of the background changing from yellow, to red, to green, along with her donning a different outfit to match the plethora of roles. The goal of each is to receive a call back, and when she finally does, for a role she describes as reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, she goes to it wearing a bright red leather jacket, the same as Dean’s outfit in the movie. Ultimately these endeavors are fruitless, as she is asked to leave after delivering just one line.

The reason for her failure, as made evident by the circumstances of her later success, is her attempt to become the character in the role. Relevant to this is Walter Benjamin’s notion that “[t]he stage actor identifies himself with a role. The film actor very often is denied this opportunity. His performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances.” Since, the process of editing in film has the effect of deconstructing its actor’s performance to individual actions that are spliced, and reassembled for the purpose of the narrative, it is less important “that the actor represents someone else before the audience than the fact that he represents himself before the apparatus.” That is to say, since the actor’s performance on screen is disjointed rather than continuous, Mia’s authority over her role is diluted. The audience’s ability to empathize with her is only through the lens of the camera, so the emphasis in their demand for proximity is placed on her ability (what Benjamin calls aura) to unite the broken parts that constitute her performative labour. It is not that those against whom she is competing for roles are, as she puts it, “like me but prettier,” but rather, that their replication of each other, in trying to meet what they perceive to be the requirements of the role, is misguided.

The break in Mia’s career comes after her one woman live show. A casting director is impressed with her performance and calls her to audition for a role in her upcoming movie, one with no script, and where the story will be developed around the actress. At her audition, Mia is given no chance to try and replicate what she thinks the role will be. For the first time she wears her own clothes, and she tells a story about her aunt that only she could tell. It is her individuality and the spontaneity of her story that appear to have earned her the role. Her aura, her true authority over her performance, is what captivates, in contrast to her previously chameleonic attempts to adapt to roles. Film demands this, for it “responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio.” Mia is catapulted to stardom on the authenticity of her audition, demonstrating that she can represent herself before the apparatus.

Mia becomes one of the same event through her unique talent: a star in a city of stars, mass reproductions of each other by the Hollywood dream factory.

However, while the studios seek the individuality and personality of the entertainer, their goal is to build around them a “cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry that preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character” (Benjamin, 261). In the end, while it was Mia’s uniqueness that made her a star, she walks into the café where she used to work, a mirror image of the actress she had earlier encountered. Her face is displayed on billboards no different from those she owns of Ingrid Bergman, and in effect it was her personality, her individuality, that is exploited. She becomes one of the same event through her unique talent: a star in a city of stars, mass reproductions of each other by the Hollywood dream factory.

Most problematic is that the transformation of Mia into a studio commodity is one that she herself desired. Recall her longing gaze to be the star who walks into her café, and its fulfillment at the film’s conclusion. Similarly, the resolution of Seb’s struggles as a jazz musician is his ownership of a club where, though he claims to produce the music he wants, he is beholden to the consumption of his audience. Thus the desires of both are desires that find their satisfaction in capitalist endeavors. This evidences Dyer’s understanding of entertainment, it “impl[ies] wants that capitalism itself promises to meet… [producing] a ‘one dimensional’ situation. The categories of the sensibility point to gaps or inadequacies in capitalism, but only those gaps or inadequacies that capitalism itself proposes to deal with.” The conflicts in the film are produced by the industry of entertainment. Seb and Mia’s relationship first begins to go awry only as his career takes off, and a direct link is made between his commodification (the drain on Seb’s time with Mia) and their break up. They say what is presumably their last goodbye as she leaves for Paris to focus on her own efforts at becoming a star, her own endeavors at self-commodification. In the film’s climax, they travel to their utopia La La Land, a daydream of what their lives could have looked like together. They share one last glance, and both smile understandingly. They thus accept that, though entertainment “provide alternatives to capitalism, [these are only alternatives] which will be provided by capitalism.”

One would not be mistaken to call La La Land a typical Hollywood musical, though they would have to concede that it is a particularly good one. In fact, if we accept that the purpose of the musical is entertainment and, as defined above the goal of entertainment is to provide an escape, then La La Land appears meta-textual in nature. Its title refers to a musical escape, and we see its protagonists enter the same kind of utopian daydream at its climax that we seek in being entertained. As this article has discussed, the particular kind of escape it provides is one that is defined by the conditions of the entertainment commodity; one where the conflicts and resolutions are both found within the capitalist system. However, it does not leave its audience satisfied that it has provided us with a happy ending. Instead, we feel bittersweet and share the brief moment of regret in Seb and Mia’s locked gaze that circumstance has forced them apart. Might that have been the point of its meta-textual commentary? In making us see what could have been for its protagonists, perhaps the film also make us question what circumstances in our own lives constrain us to experience that idealized utopia only on screen.  Is La La Land an exercise in raising class consciousness? Perhaps not, but just as Whiplash made us flinch at the self-destructive effects of obsession, Chazelle, it would seem, has produced another morality tale, this time provoking us to wonder what really lies beneath our dreams and desires.

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