Few movies have represented LA with such fawning reverence and nostalgia as La La Land. The filmmakers depict a clean, spare, elegant city, sluiced in mid-century Technicolor, consisting almost exclusively of jazz clubs and studio backlots, dreamy piers and sodium lamps, starlight and cappuccinos. There is little traffic (after the opening scene), no crime (other than Ryan Gosling’s singing), no industrialism, no poverty, no homelessness, and very little cultural or geographical diversity.
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Director Damien Chazelle has said that he intended the beginning sequence of his musical La La Land (2016) as the antithesis of Joel Schumacher’s opening to Falling Down (1993), in which Michael Douglas’s disenfranchised government worker, D-FENS – stalled in rush hour traffic and driven to madness by a hectoring fly – suffers the final mental break that will send him careering on a Dantean journey of violence and insanity through a racialized Los Angeles.1 The setup in both films is virtually the same, right down to the crappy cars, with the key distinction being that D-FENS is trapped underneath an overpass while the commuters in La La Land sit on top of one. Where Schumacher’s framing is claustrophobically tight, his camera a low, slow creep, Chazelles’s camera lifts and flies down the traffic-choked freeway. His motorists might not be moving, but they revel in having a spare moment on this lovely “winter” day, leading them to burst from their vehicles and into the movie’s ecstatic first song-and-dance number, “Another Day of Sun.”
The contrasting takes on the scenario illustrate two historically predominant ways of representing Los Angeles in the movies: as utopian or dystopian, or as Mike Davis puts it in his seminal book on the history and culture of the city, City of Quartz, as “sunshine or noir.”2 Davis argues that Los Angeles has been contradictorily presented to the nation by successive waves of “boosters” and “debunkers.”3 Boosters included the early writers and publicists – working with the L.A. Times and the city Chamber of Commerce – “who at the turn of the century created a comprehensive fiction of Southern California as the promised land of a millenarian Anglo-Saxon race odyssey.”4 Their mission was to entice white folks from the East and Midwest, sick of industrialism, urban density, bad weather, and immigrnts, to come California way (and bring their capital). Writes Davis, “In doing so, they wrote the script for the giant real-estate speculations of the early 20th century that transformed Los Angeles from small town to metropolis. Their imagery, motifs, values and legends were in turn endlessly reproduced by Hollywood, while continuing to be incorporated into the ersatz landscapes of suburban Southern California.”5 Movies that “boost” the region as a land of sunlight and opportunity populated by fit and great-looking people include Grease (1978), Valley Girl (1983), Pretty Woman (1990), and 500 Days of Summer (2009); television shows include CHiPs, The Hills, Baywatch, and Beverly Hills 90210.
Meanwhile, the debunkers “attacked Los Angeles’s philistinism and skewered its apologists.”6 They exposed the history of class violence and labor suppression in the development of the region, deconstructed the “Mission myth” of racial harmony, and recounted the seldom-told story of 19th-century “genocide and native resistance.”7 Later, noir evolved from literature to film, and became central to exposing the propaganda of the boosters, emphasizing the corruption of the city and its leaders. Weaving themes of oppression, exploitation, brutality, and alienation, noir, along with noir-tinged futuristic dystopia, has long been a favored way of debunking the city. Celebrated examples include Double Indemnity (1944), In a Lonely Place (1950), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and L.A. Confidential (1997). Other debunking examples include so-called ’hood films of the early 1990s, such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), which depict the Los Angeles landscape as one of domestic apartheid. More recently, the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson – including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will be Blood (2007), and Inherent Vice (2014) – has taken up the debunking cause, exposing deep channels of unhappiness running like the dried-up LA River through the lives of the So-Cal seekers and strivers.
La La Land, the story of the rather easily attained success of two of those seekers and strivers, is unambiguously utopian, an alternative reality of the kind those with a financial stake in the city like to boost to the wider world. Not surprisingly, the city of Los Angeles awarded it the Made in Hollywood Award, which honors below-the-line professionals and “ongoing efforts to persuade producers to shoot in California.”89 Few movies have represented LA with such fawning reverence and nostalgia. The filmmakers depict a clean, spare, elegant city, sluiced in mid-century Technicolor, consisting almost exclusively of jazz clubs and studio backlots, dreamy piers and sodium lamps, starlight and cappuccinos. There is little traffic (after the opening scene), no crime (other than Ryan Gosling’s singing), no industrialism, no poverty, no homelessness, and very little cultural or geographical diversity. As with most booster efforts, La La Land is careful to elide areas of the city that might contradict its utopian vision of whiteness and prosperity. Protagonists Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) roam all over, from Pasadena to Griffith Park, Downtown to West Hollywood to Manhattan Beach, but we get hardly a glimpse of the areas in between. Little Armenia, Chinatown, Koreatown, Lakeview Terrace, Boyle Heights, Harvard Park, Skid Row, Leimert Park, or any of scores of other ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhoods, fail to rate an appearance, even though our heroes would have to regularly pass through – or at least by – them. (They do make a barely glimpsed visit to the Watts Towers, but the site is contextualized outside the neighborhood, within a touristy montage.)
La La Land renders the same post card highlights that adorn so many L.A.-set films – Griffith Observatory, the Rialto Theater, studio lots, the Château Marmont, the Hermosa Beach Pier, the Colorado Street Bridge – the collective images that make up “movie L.A.” In contrast, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1986) traverses just as much of the city, alighting in traditional booster locales such as Malibu and Beverly Hills. Yet that movie captures the in-betweens, eschewing the standard booster images of beaches, film studios and palm trees to focus on the rarely photographed industrial metropolis: the warehouses, stockyards, oil refineries, and power plants. Nor is such verisimilitude merely the domain of the crime genre: Alex Cox’s comedy Repo Man (1984) reveals a down-and-out Los Angeles of poverty and punks, homelessness, crime, and post-industrial dilapidation. Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves (2002) moves between Beverly Hills and the working-class neighborhoods of East LA Quentin Tarantino’s romantic caper Jackie Brown (1997) serves up a beachside apartment, but centers much of its South Bay action near LAX and in the region’s malls, bail bonds offices, and bars. Paul Thomas Anderson’s San Fernando Valley quartet “portrays the Valley as a specific place, rather than as a stand-in for Anytown, USA,” capturing the “Valley’s wonderland: the Ed Ruscha–like beauty of mini malls and gas stations painted against dark night skies and flat, open, blue daylight.”10 In sum, the LA movies that appear on lists by real Angelenos tend to capture the specificity and complexity of the city’s many distinctive sectors.
La La Land isn’t about real Angelenos, which is why it narrativizes yet another version of one of the city’s favorite and most ubiquitous fairytales, that of the “movie-struck girl,” who sets out to golden California with nothing but a solitary suitcase and a sparkle in her eye and whose plucky pursuit of her dreams leads her from small-town nothingness to world-famous stardom.11 The opening freeway dancing number, “Another Day of Sun,” sets the myth to lyrics:
I think about that day / I left him at a Greyhound station / West of Santa Fé / We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true / Still I did what I had to do / ’Cause I just knew
Sunday nights / We’d sink into our seats / Right as they dimmed out all the lights / A Technicolor world made out of music and machine / It called me to be on that screen / And live inside each scene
Without a nickel to my name / Hopped a bus, here I came / Could be brave or just insane / Climb these hills / I’m reaching for the heights / And chasing all the lights that shine.
But while La La Land follows in this narrative tradition, rarely has the story been told with so little edge or satire. The most memorable of these movies are cautionary tales about the merciless exploitation of Hollywood and the moral and ethical compromises required to achieve success: Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), Star 80 (1983), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), Mulholland Drive (2011), et al. These subversive classics illuminated the bitter reality set out so inimically by Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust, which is that virtually none of these naive newcomers are going to make it, and, worse, in the words of Robert Sklar, “the road to becoming an actress might also be the road to hell.”12 Almost 70 years ago, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard knew that Westbound dreamers end up at best fleeing automobile repo men; at worst, floating dead in a swimming pool, the indignity compounded by the pool being L.A.’s most ubiquitous symbol of success. And even those precious few ingénues who do “make it,” such as Sunset’s Norma Desmond, will be mentally warped by its cruel demands. Not every critique is as savage as Wilder’s. Gentler takes, such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Ed Wood (1994), Get Shorty (1995), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) lampoon the pretensions of the industry and its aspirants while still giving us happy endings.13 La La Land takes a few tired shots at the industry – the screenwriter who talks exclusively about himself, the casting agents who never look up from their phones – but is ultimately only interested in the happy ending. While the movie acknowledges that the lights of LA might “let you down,” you’ll still “get up off the ground / Cause morning rolls around / And it’s another day of sun!”
Another day of sun and toil for most Angelenos, who work regular, often joyless jobs to try to make ends meet and don’t have showbiz aspirations. Of course, the utopia on display in La La Land, as in most musicals, is meant to provide two hours away from that toil. As Richard Dyer writes, movie musicals offer “the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day to day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia.”14 Dyer lays out five specific utopian sensibilities that musicals offer to their audiences: abundance, energy, intensity, transparency, community. Through immersion in the movie, viewers can temporarily attain these ideals, which are in such short supply in their workaday lives.15
The energy in La La Land is consistent with the way Dyer defines its purpose in most musicals. Characters have a surplus of it, so they can shrug off “exhaustion” and “the pressures of urban life,” and break into song and dance, get creative juices flowing on command, make passionate love, spring lightly around the city. However, Dyer’s idea of community – “that everybody is together in one place,” and there are “communal interests” and “collective activity,” is subverted by the film, which virtually isolates Seb and Mia.16 They have few friends and find themselves mostly alone in public places and popular tourist spots. Mia performs her one-woman show to an all but empty theater. As I show below, even when in public, the movie frames them apart from other characters. In a congested metropolis of four million people, perhaps the Angeleno’s true utopia is finding oneself alone, with space to breathe.
Abundance, which Dyer defines as the elimination of poverty and scarcity, is especially key to the movie’s fantasy. Although both Mia and Seb start out on the lowest rung of the economic ladder – Seb can’t hold down a job and Mia works at a coffee shop – neither character wants for anything, despite the city’s notorious cost of living. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a filmed mediation on LA in cinema, contains a segment in which Andersen pokes fun at the absurdity of the extravagant domiciles in which working-class and poor characters live in films such as Heat (1995) and Kalifornia (1993). “To someone who knows Los Angeles only from movies, it might appear that everyone who has a job lives in the Hills or at the beach,” he narrates. If Andersen were updating his film, he could include Mia’s many-roomed Spanish Colonial Revival apartment, a typical movie affair: ornately tiled, so poshly decorated it contains a wall-size mural of Ingrid Bergman, and expansive enough that the camera can fly unencumbered down the halls in complicated tracking shots. Yes, Mia has roommates, but unless one of them is a trust funder, they can’t afford that. Compare that to another movie about Hollywood strivers, Swingers (1996), in which the young East coast aspirant played by Jon Favreau lives in a hole-in-the-wall bereft of furniture and littered with pizza boxes.
As the film progresses, Seb and Mia easily achieve rarefied success in hugely competitive showbiz professions. The answer to Seb’s money problems materializes when he runs into an old acquaintance who invites him on the road with his successful band; this eventually allows him to fulfill his dream of owning a jazz club. When Mia wants to create a one-woman stage show, she quits her presumably low-paying job as a barista so she can write full time. These developments raise many questions. If Seb could score a high-paying gig as a touring musician so easily, why does he struggle to stay employed earlier in the film? Where does Mia get the money to take time off work? How does she get her play produced? Not only is she able to write and stage it, but its solitary performance leads directly to the audition that makes her a global star.
One might ask, if La La Land is supposed to provide a few hours of utopian escape, and it’s not meant to be realistic, then why take issue with its fantasy? Because, as Dyer writes, “class, race and sexual caste are denied validity as problems by the dominant (bourgeois, white, male) ideology of society. We should not expect showbiz to be markedly different,” on its surface.17 And yet, he argues, there is necessarily resistance within professional entertainment. The workers/artists who create it will subvert the patriarchal-capitalist ideology of those who control it by expressing agency and equality on behalf of “structurally subordinate groups in society.”18
One would be hard-pressed to argue that this happens in La La Land, however, as there appears to be little hegemonic resistance in its depiction of a Los Angeles in which poor and working-class, gay and lesbian, and most non-white people don’t exist.19 “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Los Angeles ranks among the largest and most polyglot concentrations of humankind anywhere in the world. Sheltering the nation’s largest population of Mexicans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Salvadorans, and Thais, Los Angeles has become a cultural kaleidoscope of global proportions,” writes Eric Avila. But you would never know that from this movie, which perpetuates the Aryan booster vision set out at the dawn the twentieth century and which continues to inform Hollywood representation well into the 21st.20
Much of the backlash against La La Land has centered on focusing a story about black music on a white man, one who is held up as the standard bearer for the purity and history of the form, while his black peers have sold it out to commercial interests.21 In one scene, Seb explains the appeal of jazz to Mia using black musicians as props. This arrogant conceit has a cinematic precedent in another Los Angeles movie, Michael Mann’s Collateral (2005), in which the jazz expert played by Tom Cruise explains jazz to the ignorant black cab driver played by Jamie Foxx. In Woody Allen’s Los Angeles-set Café Society (2016), Jesse Eisenberg does the “jazz-splaining,” a practice that has occurred by white characters in Allen films for decades.
But the racial issues go beyond cultural appropriation in a movie that systematically erases and marginalizes blackness not only through its narrative but also its formal film elements. During Seb’s jazzsplaining, Seb and Mia are foregrounded in close-ups while the musicians are out of focus behind them. Seb and Mia’s whiteness is further emphasized by their white shirts, which gleam under the bright lights, while the musicians’ blackness is emphasized by their black suits.
In another scene, Gosling plays piano with a black band in a club. The spotlight is literally on him, and the camera cuts and whip pans between close-ups and medium shots of him and Mia, who is dancing alone, and for whom the club’s black patrons have cleared a space so that she can do her clumsy self-conscious moves to their deferential encouragement. The lighting and the pans between the two leads emphasizes them while literally blurring out the black dancers.
Later, Mia goes to see Seb in concert and the camera lingers on her – again framed in complete isolation – crestfallen at watching her man compromise himself to this lesser form of jazz forced on him by the black man who is only interested in money. This is both hypocritical – given that the movie itself is an example of whites profiting from black art – and ironic, since this performance, sung by John Legend, is easily the best musical number in the movie.
Finally, there is the scene in which Seb sings and dances on a Hermosa Beach pier and an older black couple figure as extras in his solo performance.
Latinos, meanwhile, cease to exist at all after the opening sequence, except as Mia’s domestic help late in the film, despite that there are far more of them living in Los Angeles today than Caucasians: roughly 49% to 28%.22 (Asians and their 11% of L.A.’s population rate nary an appearance.) Given those demographics, why not cast a Latino and Latina in the lead roles? One reason is the virtual absence of major Latino and Latina movie stars, 75 years after the heyday that gave us Carmen Miranda, Lupe Velez, Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, Cesar Romero, and Dolores Del Rio. Sure, these actors often played stereotypes, but at least they existed up there on our movie screens. Even fifteen years ago Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, and Spanish stars such as Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz were headlining Hollywood films. Why not cast Guatemalan Oscar Isaac, who is at least as charming and charismatic as Gosling? The two appeared together in the Los Angeles-set Drive (2011). In that film, per the usual, Gosling was the hero while Isaac played the racialized ex-con. Then, as now, Hollywood perpetuates its status quo by marginalizing Latinos and giving them little opportunity for wide and diverse representation.
Which brings us back to the opening scene, a particularly dishonest one as it has Latinos and African Americans singing about “chasing all the lights” in Los Angeles, when so many opportunities have been and continue to be systematically closed to them. This is boosterism on par with the early Los Angeles “Mission” literature, which falsely depicted the history of race relations as a pastoral ritual of obedience and paternalism. Writes Davis, “Any intimation of the brutality inherent in the forced labor system of the missions and haciendas, not to speak of the racial terrorism and lynching that made early Anglo-ruled Los Angeles the most violent town in the West during the 1860s and 1870s, was suppressed.”23
Then there is the historic and ongoing conflict between the LAPD and communities of color. For people of those communities, getting out of your car on the freeway is a good way to find yourself on the receiving end of some police brutality. Movies such as Boyz n the Hood, Crash (2005), The Glass Shield (1994), L.A. Confidential, Training Day (2001), Rampart (2011), and Straight Outta Compton (2015) dramatize the regular occurrence of LAPD excessive force and racial profiling. La La Land is unacquainted with even a passing idea of it. Can the Los Angeles of Chiefs William Parker and Daryl Gates, the Zoot Suit riots, “Bloody Christmas,” Rodney King, Mark Fuhrman, the LA riots, Javier Ovando, Jose De La Trinidad, Christopher Dorner, Steven Eugene Washington, and thousands of other traumatic episodes also be a Los Angeles of happy dancing freeway Latinos and African Americans?
The most indelible Los Angeles films speak to the moment of their making. The xenophobic nightmare in Blade Runner allegorized environmental devastation and “white flight.” The paranoia and moral outrage of Chinatown reflected Nixon and Vietnam. Singin’ in the Rain channeled postwar anxiety about technology. Less remembered LA movies such as Shampoo (1975) or Less Than Zero (1987) might feel dated, their flaws and stereotypes exposed by history, but at least they document their eras and try to illuminate the hypocrisies and contradictions of their city. Even love letters to Los Angeles such as L.A. Story (1991) and Clueless (1995) satirize the shallowness and narcissism of contemporary white upper-class Angelenos. La La Land has nothing to say about the Los Angeles of its moment. The movie creates an alternative reality where few, if any, viewers will have frame of reference outside of other movies. It is patently dishonest about race, class, and economic exploitation. But Los Angeles can’t continue to claim an identity as a paragon of liberalism – the anti-Trumpland – if its mass-market media apparatus remains profoundly invested in propagating institutionalized racism and disseminating ahistorical falsehoods. Despite its own problematic representation, Falling Down was prescient about issues surrounding the burgeoning multiculturalism of the city. It dramatized the ways in which neoliberalism and globalization were leading to the dissolution of the middle class and the emergence of a new breed of angry white man. Falling Down portended the coming of the age of Trump. La La Land pretends that it never happened.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.
- McGovern, Joe. “La La Land‘s Director Breaks Down the Movie’s Amazing Opening.” People Movies. January 27, 2017. http://people.com/movies/la-la-land-director-damien-chazelle-breaks-down-opening/ [↩]
- Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 2006, p. 15. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 22-23. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 20. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 32. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 35. [↩]
- McNary, Dave. “City of Los Angeles Awards Its Love to ‘La La Land.’” Variety. February 16, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/film/news/city-of-los-angeles-la-la-land-award-1201990456/ [↩]
- Other movies that have won the award include the Hollywood tales Argo (2012) and The Artist (2011). [↩]
- Lambert, Molly. “The Valley Plays Itself: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Los Angeles.” Grantland. December 8, 2014. [↩]
- Sklar, Robert. Movie Made America: A Cultural History of the American Movies. New York: Vintage Books, 1994, pp. 74. [↩]
- Ibid, p. 76. [↩]
- La La Land pays homage to Singin’ in the Rain in the broad outlines of its “making it in Hollywood” narrative, as well as individual moments, such as when Gosling twirls around a light post, as Gene Kelly did in the title number; the colors, costumes, and the club setting in the final montage are stylistically reminiscent of Kelly’s number with Cyd Charrise; at one point, Seb and Mia walk through the Warner Brothers lot and past a soundstage that resembles the one in which Kelly sings “You Were Meant for Me” to Debbie Reynolds. [↩]
- Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. 2nd ed. Routledge: New York, 2002, p. 20. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 26. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 27. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 20. [↩]
- About 20% of Angelenos live below the poverty line. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US0644000-los-angeles-ca/ [↩]
- Avila, Eric. Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles. Oakland: University of California Press, 2004, pp. 31. [↩]
- Yahr, Emily. “Your Guide to the La La Land Backlash.” Washington Post. January 25, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/01/25/your-guide-to-the-la-la-land-backlash/?utm_term=.b2419e24b66d [↩]
- https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US0644000-los-angeles-ca/ [↩]
- Ibid., p. 26. [↩]