Mia: It feels really nostalgic to me.
Sebastian: That’s the point.
Mia: Are people going to like it?
Sebastian: Fuck ’em.
– La La Land
* * *
The popular culture critic Simon Reynolds has contended that the last few decades “instead of being the threshold to the future … turned out to be the ‘Re’ … decades dominated by … revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments. Endless retrospection.”1 Stefano Baschiera and Elena Caoduro write about the “fascination with the ‘outdated,’ the pastiche of ‘retro’ styles, and the evocation of past technologies … evident in media, fashion and industrial design and in different digital realms, from video games to Smartphone apps”.… as well as “the emergence of a postmodern ‘nostalgia for the analogue’ with the rapid increase of faux-vintage and retro phenomenon in different aspects of media culture.”2 In screen media, they see “the reappropriation of analogue aesthetics, textures and genres from different cinematic eras, including the recurring homages to Hollywood golden age as illustrated in La La Land (Damien Chazellle, 2016) and Hail Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2016).”3 To demonstrate how this production, reception, and representation of this “new old” leads to a form of mediated individual narcissistic nostalgia, Ryan Lizardi in Mediated Nostalgia: Individual Memory and Contemporary Mass Media uses an example from the first part of the Harry Potter novel:
Harry has always been nostalgic about his parents, victims of the dark wizard Voldemort’s evil magic. He is shown an enchanted object that allows him to live in a past that was lost to him, the mirror of Erised, and he finds himself unable to pull away far from this pleasant reflection of a world where everything appears to be uncomplicated. Pointedly, Professor Albus Dumbledore tells Harry that “It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live” in an attempt to stop him from looking into the Mirror of Erised (an anagram for desire), an object that shows each individualized viewer their “deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts.” Dumbledore warns that the images created by this mirror will “give us neither knowledge nor truth” and that “men have wasted away in front of it.”4
Lizardi goes on to argue that, similarly as “Harry is made to stand transfixed at an idealized version of his past, rendering him incapable of dealing with present problems, so too has our convergent media presented us with our own mirror of narcissistic nostalgic desire,” which prevents us from utilizing the past to construct useful criticisms of our own culture and society.5 Rather than a fetishized past, a dynamic exchange between the past and the present, the old and the new, needs to take place. How we determine the relationship between the past and present is a fundamental aspect of human self-definition. Lizardi shows how the media and films attempt to sell the public on the value of nonexistent good old days by examining film remakes, reboots, vintage video game downloads, vinyl records, older forms of cinematography, and zombie television series, all of which leads to the creation of something he calls an individual “playlist past” that does not allow for the active commitment with the past or present. Using Lizardi’s semiotic analysis as a template, this article will explore the specific meanings and diverse types of commodified media nostalgia found in the film musical La La Land that provide understanding of why such a contemporary film remake of past musicals fits so well into “a larger cultural trend aimed at constructing a past-centred entertainment experience through content and technology”6. Also, how La La Land fits into what Marc Spitz terms “twee,” a post-World War II gentle revolution that focuses on our “sensibilities, aesthetics, and tastes, driven by an ethos of kindness and a quest for purity in an impure world.”7 What then is the relationship between “Twee” and mediated nostalgia? Wes Anderson’s latest film, Isle of Dogs (2018), represents the epitome of “twee.”8
Damien Chazelle’s film La La Land has proved to be one of the most divisive and problematical films in recent memory, which is surprising for a musical.9 It has undoubtedly enchanted and moved many viewers who confess to watching it multiple times.10 And even jaded reviewers admit to its pleasures: “Yes, it seems La La Land is the rare film destined … to be part of dating profiles for decades to come.”11 Some find it wise, others as pessimistic or light as froth.12 “In light of 2017’s #Oscars So white controversy,” went one article in The Economist, “many will feel that the current year’s attention and critical adulation rightfully belong to more socially and politically minded fare like Moonlight, Loving, and Birth of a Nation.”13 It earned a record of 14 Academy Award nominations with six wins including Best Actress for Emma Stone. And of course the film will go down in Academy and popular culture lore for the erroneous win as Best Picture before Moonlight (2016) correctly got the Oscar as best picture over La La Land.14 Attitudes toward the film have appeared to move in cycles. Initially highly praised as groundbreaking and saving the Hollywood musical, over-hyped for the Oscar (not surprisingly, academy voters have historically loved any film that deals with the movie business), then came a wave of criticism, followed by a backlash to these attacks, leveling off into parody. The vast majority of reaction to this film was played out on Twitter. In fact, the idea that something must not be right with anyone who did not like the movie prompted a skit on Saturday Night Live in January 2017 by Aziz Ansari where he gets arrested for not being obsessed with La La Land. The act begins with Ansari in a police station after some “incriminating” footage was found of him on a date. The video? Just a dinner conversation where Ansari admitted that he liked La La Land but thought it dragged a bit toward the middle. That was all it took to book him, as the interrogating officers mocked his lack of enthusiasm for it. “La La Land is a perfect film,” roars one cop played by Cecily Strong. “Ryan Gosling didn’t learn piano from scratch so some little prick could come and nitpick!” The point being that La La Land is perfect and Ansari needs to get it or else. The interrogating officers reached a boiling point when Ansari’s character revealed he fell asleep in the midst of La La Land. Viewers know that this is the point at which some of the film’s most iconic moments happen, including Sebastian and Mia’s starry dance at the Griffith Park Observatory. With this revelation that he missed this gorgeous sequence, Strong goes ballistic, “You sick son-of-bitch! You disgust me.”15 Even Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone got into the act on the 43nd premiere of SNL in 2017. Gosling’s monologue was built around the idea that his character Seb “saved jazz.” Gosling said after walking out on the stage, “I haven’t felt this excited since I saved jazz.” The star went on to explain how instrumental he was in protecting and nurturing jazz music, much to the consternation of SNL cast member Kenan Thompson (“Nobody needs to hear you do that” and surprise guest Emma Stone. “Can I speak to you for a second? What are you doing? You didn’t save jazz. How frequently have we discussed this?” Stone said, before dropping the punch line: “Since you didn’t save jazz … we saved jazz.”16
With or without the Ansari skit and the Gosling/Stone parody, criticisms and reviews of the film abound, falling into such categories as gender imbalance, “mansplaining,” the above perspective of jazz and “white saviors,” the intersection of race and jazz, the individualistic view of art and success, its “white” view of Los Angeles and Hollywood, Chazelle’s directorial style and history, its proper place in the history of musicals, the meaning of the ending, the poor quality of the singing and dancing, its relationship to the Trump political phenomenon, and many more. Many of these critical categories overlap with each other and with what might be arguably the most commented upon of all the categories, i.e., nostalgia. “This is something different,” observes Lucas Sharma, “Beyond the Charm of a Typical Romance; La La Land Evokes a Longing for a Nostalgic Past.”17 Michael Koresky writes, “A simple minded nostalgia pervades the film, whose constant refrain is to remind viewers of lost things – real musicals, real jazz, real romance, real movies.” Nick Pinkerton views the film as not attempting to do anything extremely new to revive musicals, yet rather “it doesn’t want to bridge the last sixty-odd years, to pretend they never happened, to return to an imagined Eden of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle and audience innocence.”18 And then there is the effusion of movie critic Laura Keller: “fantasy and reality blend.… The way the past and present fuse together while the real world fades into insignificance in the circular exposition is sheer brilliance. I’m over the moon about La La Land – it’s a breath of fresh air.”19
Moving on from the nostalgic concerns found in video games, complete DVD sets, and the never-ending sequel and reboot (e.g., Spider Man etc.), Lizardi examines a standout amongst the most prevailing patterns in contemporary standard film production: the ubiquitous nostalgic remake. He finds that in “film there is a unique opportunity within this larger exploration of the individual nostalgic development to analyze a medium that quite literally defines the past through its own media texts by consistently remaking popular films from the past.” The filmic remake has the double impact of appealing to audiences who already knew the original text as well as introducing those texts to new viewers who were too young to remember the original.20 Media and pop culture, in general, are overwhelmed by revival projects that attempt to recapture the feeling of the past. They extend from Netflix’s remake of the ’70s TV sitcom One Day at a Time with a Latino family, ABC’s revival of the ’90s sitcom Roseanne, NBC’s return of another ’90s sitcom Will & Grace, to Broadway’s musical adaptation of the 1993 romantic comedy classic Groundhog Day or the staged version of The Twilight Zone based on Rod Serling’s TV series that ran from ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964.21 Other forms of retro-escapism are actually set in the historical past such as the time-travel drama Timeless on NBC. Eliza Berman writes that just as “Hollywood is rebooting old hits and elevating forgotten comic-book heroes, the theatre industry has turned to existing intellectual property – and movies in particular – for inspiration.”22 But is La La Land really a typical remake? Dan Golding recognizes that the film is unusual for 2016:
It is original (in the sense that it’s not a sequel, part of any franchise, or an adaptation); recognizably human (it is set on planet Earth, in the present day, and features people who to some degree have relatable life experiences – they struggle to pay the rent, they wonder about what makes their lives meaningful, they have fun); it is not overly concerned with grimness of any kind or men in conflict as the primary source of drama (no posturing superheroes here; and it is brightly lit, colourful, not animated, and generally about happy people.23
La La Land is more of a composite remake; even better, an archive, where Chazelle cleverly uses a combination of parody, homage, and nostalgia to continue, remake, and reimagine nostalgic themes or franchises established in earlier times that places it in the epistemological category of the nostalgic remake as defined by Lizardi that blocks engagement with the past or present.
“La La Land ultimately feels bloated by its references, by the mad rush to imitate all Chazelle’s inspirations,” writes Christos Tsiolkas.24 The movie opens with the old CinemaScope logo in a similar way that Quentin Tarantino pays homage to the movies that he is imitating. The shooting of the film in CinemaScope is important because “the technique represented a groundbreaking new widescreen process that revolutionized filmmaking in the 1950s,” which explains why aesthetically the film manages to look like a classic movie-musical even when it’s just panning across a modern-day traffic jam at the beginning of the film.25 This is a film that draws on classic musicals and films that most people would only know from watching TCM religiously: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Top Hat (1935), Shall We Dance (1937), The Band Wagon (1953), Broadway Melody (1936), An American in Paris (1951), An Affair to Remember (1957), West Side Story (1961), Bogie Nights (1997), Funny Face (1957), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Sweet Charity (1969) among many others. Sara Preciado has, in fact, compiled a YouTube video comparing scenes from La La Land with ones from these famous musicals.26 Rebel Without a Cause (1955) also plays a significant role in the film. Even Annie Hall (1977), Pulp Fiction (1994), and 8 ½ (1963) make the list. But none resonate as much as Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and his lesser-known The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Demy’s Umbrellas provides not only inspiration for the plot, ending, along with the 1927 silent film 7th Heaven, and music of La La Land, but also for Chazelle’s use of vibrant colors of blue, red, green, and yellow in the cinematography.27 Chazelle’s first, rarely seen film from 2009, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was his student film thesis from Harvard. Shot in black and white 16 mm using amateur actors, it resembles an economically made preview of the significantly more splashy, colorful, professional, and expensive La La Land. Both his student film and his better-known feature Whiplash (2014) feature jazz as a central motif along with the male lead teaching women about music, reflecting Chazelle’s youthful desire to be a jazz drummer. The theme will return in La La Land with Sebastian’s aggressive mission to save “real jazz.” While he “mansplains” the significance of jazz to Mia, she strives to find her own dream of becoming not just a working actor but a “real old-time Hollywood star,” a real celebrity. The romance between these two would-be artists that Chazelle weaves will come down to them choosing between love and personal accomplishment, and success in their chosen profession or artistic calling.
Chazelle and his musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz felt they made a critical breakthrough in popular culture by reimagining a hit movie musical for the modern age. In an interview, Chazelle stated:
We live in an age where Hollywood has trouble making anything that lives outside the franchise/tent pole/reboot system. Anything that can help shine a light on what’s outside that is ultimately a good thing for no matter how many years it may shave off my life.28
A backlash could be expected over such high claims. In any case, have Chazelle and Hurwitz danced too far ahead of themselves in claiming La La Land as the new musical genre for the 21st century?29 What may make the film seem revolutionary comes down to the way that it is the rare movie musical that was not adapted from a stage play. From the earliest planning stages, it was envisioned as a sui generis film project, which goes far in explaining how the song-and-dance routines merge so well with the narrative. In fact, the movie could have stood on its own without the musical numbers. And the dream of making it in show business can hardly be considered novel in the historical backdrop of musical dreamers, which would include movies such as Funny Girl (1968), Hair Spray (1988), and Billy Elliot (2000). Michael Koresky in Film Comment notes that:
Like the Western, the Musical is an inherently self-referential genre, devoted and tied to certain mannerisms and motifs; each new one is a palimpsest, containing traces of those that came before.… The traditional musical can’t really make room for other forms; it’s both self-sustaining and self-destructive. It is alone in the dark, dancing with itself.30
Chazelle and Hurwitz fail to realize that musicals are everlastingly returning, ignoring for the most part, the history of musicals since the 1960s. Back in 1987, Rick Altman commented about the requirement for a revival of musicals.31 Koresky concludes, “Now we seem to be in the midst of another revival, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s about to be gone again before it returns and disappears, twirls and spins and dances away into the dark one more, last time”32.
When watching La La Land, one frequently gets the impression that Chazelle made the film particularly to mimic other films, “like something you might see on the Universal Studios back lot, a fake film created to walk tourists through ‘the Magic of How Movies Are Made.’”33 Simon Reynolds mocks the tendency of contemporary music in general to recycle, saying that the “strangeness” of sampling and collections “has worn away after all these years” and has become a kind of “future past.”34 Reynolds places this phenomenon in the already mentioned nostalgic and “idealized version of a historical text that flattens the distinction between the past and present”35.
Beside the music and choreography, Chazelle has infused La La Land with retro-references, large and small locations and objects beginning with the title. “La La Land” is a long-standing nickname for Hollywood/LA because of the faux-reality of a city associated with movies, dreams, unreality, and flakiness. It stands as a contrast to different parts of the country viewed as more rooted in reality. The phrase lends itself perfectly to a film that employs cotton-candy cinematography. Sebastian drives a 1982 Buick Riviera convertible and listens to music on a tape deck. He plays vinyl jazz records at home. And the needle-scraping ending of such records figures prominently as a metaphor for his relationship with Mia winding down as well. Early in the movie, a dinner conversation between Mia’s then boyfriend Greg, his brother, and his wife deals with the subject of “nowadays theatres … they’re so dirty – and they’re either too hot or too cold – always people talking.” When Mia and Sebastian meet at the vintage Rialto theatre in Pasadena, later shown as closed (Chazelle loved the old red velvet seats), to see Rebel Without a Cause, the celluloid film during the scene of the drive up to the Griffith Park Observatory melts in the projector. This is a retro-intertextual reminder of when the film burns in the middle of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). It prompts Mia to suggest that they go to the Griffith Observatory themselves. Chazelle sees the structure as “a monument the way that the Arc de Triomphe or Big Ben are monuments.… Griffith sits atop a hill as if it’s in its own world. That speaks to the sprawl and spirit of Los Angeles. It’s totally, authentically, ironically, its own thing.”36 A portion of the ten-minute replaying of their life as it might have been at the end of La La Land is shown via an old Bell and Howell Super-8 projector. When Mia gives Sebastian a tour of the retro-Warner Brothers back lot, she shows him the window that was used in Casablanca (1942). Mia’s room has one wall fully covered with a photo of Ingrid Bergman. Of all Hollywood’s trips down memory lane, none has more “built-in nostalgia” than Casablanca.37 One of Sebastian’s most cherished possessions is a stool that Hoagy Carmichael sat on at The Baked Potato Jazz Club that shows his reverence for the jazz greats of the past. Pool parties are another retro motif well represented in the film. “Pool parties are synonymous with Los Angeles,” says Production Designer David Wasco.38 Mia attends two such parties in the film. One is an upscale “dive into the pool fully clothed” evening bash, while the other is a swimsuit-filled, sun-drenched party featuring Sebastian’s 1980s revival band that was filmed in Encino, but meant to represent a party in the iconic Hollywood Hills. Both, but particularly the latter, are based on the 1960s pop art paintings of LA swimming pools like David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash.39 The starry dance scene was shot on a set so production designers David and Sandy Wasco could create an art deco feel and use wires to lift the performing actors.40 The British Film Institute compares Quentin Tarantino’s anthology gangster film classic Pulp Fiction (1994), which David Wasco also worked on, with La La Land as contrasting directorial visual reconstructions of Los Angeles.41 The LA that Tarantino crafts is still recognizable, yet at the same time a “place of his own making, one infused by the films, comic books and pulp fiction he loves.”42. Chazelle and the Wascos likewise craft a much more sunny, colorful, less crime-ridden, and more optimistic view of the city, one that is similarly grounded in recognizable landmarks – from the opening traffic jam on the I-105/110 exchange, also known as the Judge Henry Pregerson Exchange, to the Watts Towers, but completely steeped in and dedicated to the lore and traditions of an archaic, nostalgic Hollywood dream factory.43 “It’s not Training Day,” jokes David Wasco. “There’s sweetness to it – kind of a heightened, dreamy movie ‘world thing.’44
Los Angeles is most likely more “movie/media-made” than any other city in the world, where the “spatial imaginary” of the city, writes Giuliana Bruno, acts as a “canvas to be imaged and imagined” by media.45 An example would be the work of Ramiro Gomez, a young LA painter born in California of undocumented Mexican immigrants who reproduced Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, now called No Splash, where he replaced the implied diver with a “pair of faceless, dark-skinned workers raking the water for impurities and squeegee-cleaning the house’s floor to ceiling windows.”46 Gomez has filled in the gap that is missing from the Hockney painting and the swimming pool scenes in La La Land. The opening traffic jam number, “Another Day of Sun,” is the special case that gets close to a run-down part of LA. Los Angeles native Carlos Valladares observes of the setting for that now famous opening song and dance:
This traffic-jam ditty is the only one set anywhere remotely near a run-down part of LA. Set atop the ramp that connects the 105 and 110 freeways, it’s true inner-city. Watts hovers soundlessly off to the camera’s right. The slightly sfumato’d downtown skyline is shown in foreshortened urban grimness. Maybe if you squint, you can see the South Central apartment I grew up in off to the left, near Crenshaw and Slauson.
Inevitably, Chazelle is going to get flak for using the same “Shot in LA” mistakes as all the other Hollywood directors before him. Basically, anything south of Wilshire and east of Culver City doesn’t exist. If it does, the location is mainly for postcard or jazz-album-cover decoration, as in the scene where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone climb the Watts Towers.47
The 105 and 110 freeway exchange scene has turned out to be so famous in popular culture that General Motors decided to copy it using a blocked-off LA freeway that mimics the vista from La La Land, but in this case pitching the reliability and safety of its Chevrolets to, ironically, avoid getting marooned on those same LA freeways. Here is an example of a promotional ad that went nostalgic almost instantly. La La Land’s “retro-chic” nostalgia makes playthings of the past. As Simon Reynolds writes, “This playfulness of the past is related to the fact that retro is actually more about the present than the past it appears to revive. It uses the past as an archive of materials to extract subcultural capital – through recycling and recombination: the bricolage of cultural bric-a-brac”48.
With respect to the principal characters, Sebastian’s nostalgia is significantly more obvious, even aggressive, than the nostalgia of Mia. He tells Mia about his old jazz club, the fictional Van Beek, turning into a “samba-tapas place.… Pick-one, you know, do one right.” “Mia: A what? Sebastian: Samba-tapas. Mia laughs. Sebastian: It’s … exactly. The joke’s on history.… Anyway, that’s L.A. They worship everything and value nothing.” Sebastian laments that the Van Beek jazz club has been turned into a samba-tapas joint. He considers this conversion a perversion of history, not wanting the past to die, which is the reason he will not let go of his dream of playing “real” jazz in his own club to single-handedly save it from dying. What he fails to realize is this very fusion of cultures represents the dynamism and creativity of contemporary LA. He only sees the past as something captured forever in amber and refuses to compromise. His friend Keith (John Legend), whose band blends pop elements with jazz, tells Sebastian that “jazz is dying because of people like you.… How are you going to be such a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Sebastian at that point places himself in the incongruous position of attempting to be the “white savior” of black jazz traditions from what he perceives as sell-outs like Keith. Sebastian lives in his own world as a good romantic and believes what he wants to believe with scant ability to self-reflect. After firing Sebastian from a piano gig in a supper club, his boss (J. K. Simmons) tells him, “Whatever. Tell yourself what you want to know.”
Mia also has her dreams. She discloses to Sebastian that her acting ambition goes back to when her aunt in Boulder City, Nevada, introduced her to the old classics like Notorious (1946), Casablanca (1942), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). “I never knew the world was so enormous.” To put it succinctly, Mia worships the old -time glamour of Hollywood and serves as the platonic ideal of the struggling actor. Her world exists far from the sleazy Hollywood of Harvey Weinstein about which Rose McGowan, the former actor, could write, “The Man is telling you what he wants. It’s a propaganda machine.… Ironically, they can’t see what’s happening in their own life and their own cult.… I felt safer in Afghanistan than I ever did in Hollywood. Ever.”49 Sebastian convinces Mia to write a one-woman play so that she can “make history.” After they become a couple and Sebastian has read the play, Mia says: “I don’t know. Is the whole thing too nostalgic?” Sebastian: “That’s the point.” Mia: “But do you think people will like it?” Sebastian: “Fuck ’em.” Mia: “You always say that!” Sebastian: “I truly believe it.” Interestingly we see Sebastian’s musical performances multiple times but we don’t see a single second of Mia’s play. The only hint we get about it is from two unimpressed men in the audience, who scoff that she had better keep her day job. Mia’s embrace of nostalgia comes together most strongly in her climactic audition scene where she memorializes her aunt (a failed actress herself) and all the other “fools who dream.” While both Mia and Sebastian share a self-centered nostalgic outlook on life, they also represent stark oppositions within that nostalgia. As Walter Metz writes, “Sebastian voices the revolutionary aspect of the artist, self-destructive, monolithic, and committed to a pure, traditional form of jazz that is commercially unviable. For her part, Mia represents opportunism, concerned with becoming a star, driven less by craft art than by a shallow sense of success.”50 Even when she finally achieves major success as an actress, all we see are the outward trappings of that success – billboards, cars, clothes, husband, child, nanny, staying at the Chateau Marmont – without a trace of her professional life. In many ways Mia remains a cipher.51 But at least she was not the one who had to give up her dreams for romance as so frequently happens to women in the movies. The counterfactual or alternative history presented at the end of the film suggests to the audience that the only way the relationship would have worked meant putting love ahead of ambition; sad nostalgia for something lost. But who is going to believe that about the present Hollywood seekers of fame? By putting counterfactual history on the same level as what really happened in the film, both of them become fantastical. In spite of the enchantment and magic of the movies and Hollywood, that would be closer to a reality where millions of voiceless dreams have been extinguished.
Allison Willmore writes that Mia and Sebastian have “old fashioned aspirations and touchstones … a half-step out of sync with everyone around them, making them, La La Land intimates, more romantic and – in a way that should frankly be twee and irritating as hell – purer.”52 According to Marc Spitz, twee is the “most powerful and capable youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop.”53 Twee is gentle, celebrates beauty and goodness, and aims to preserve the past. This is the age of retro-kitsch where we are drawn to the styles, objects, music, and movies of the past. Spitz argues that in a world perceived as violent and ugly, twee remains optimistic and idealistic, focusing on our “essential goodness.” Nostalgia of all sorts, kitten ephemera, Disney, J. D. Salinger, owl-shaped cushions, polka dots, gluten-free acai berry cupcakes, cotton candy, James Dean, quinoa, goat yogurt, retro bikes, sundresses in ice cream shades, the films of Wes Anderson, The Big Bang Theory, the glorification of childhood and Peanuts are just some of the examples of twee.54 Charlie Brown “became a sort of existential hero in an age of helplessness and horror, broken-hearted but still hopeful.” He confronts a “cold world with idealism.”55 “Like Disney and Dean and Seuss and even the cynical J. D. Salinger,” Spitz writes, “he has not lost hope even as most around him have grown hard from their pain and fear”56 The “Twee Tribe” creates “highly stylized alternative modes of existence in opposition to competitive-driven mass culture”57. Spitz gives the Oxford English Dictionary definition of twee as “excessively affected, quaint, pretty, or sentimental”58. What could be more twee than Mia singing about the perseverance of the “Ones who dream Foolish as they may seem.” For the “Twee Tribe,” the real dream behind the quest for celebrity is the dream of being children forever. As Katie Salisbury writes, “We live in an era when youths subsisting on fantasy, otherwise known as millennial, have taken centre stage.… We’re too wide-eyed for our own good, and we’ve had the luxury of delaying adulthood because we’ve had opportunities that other generations didn’t.”59 The iPhone has now become a mechanized narcissism for them.60 For this younger generation of dreamers with iPhones loaded with “selfies,” La La Land, where “every night is another opportunity for the young and restless to cut their silhouettes across the pastel hues of twilight,”61 represents the epitome of all that is twee.
The contemporary period of retro-kitsch and twee is also the age of the remake and mediated narcissistic nostalgia. Returning to the Harry Potter analogy, La La Land with its overabundance of nostalgia for the past places the viewer before a mediated past similar to the one Henry Potter experienced in front of the Mirror of Erised:
Harry was given a vision of whatever his heart desired most, which became for him an idealized and transfixing version of history.… For the perpetual individual nostalgic, this idealized vision is presented not through a mirror, but through media that continually exploit a constructed drive to recapture lost media objects that have been altered, remade or made better through the passage of time.62
We stand transfixed in front of an idealized past that makes it impossible to critically coordinate the past to solve the problems of the present. As Lizardi observes, “What the contemporary media consumer is left with is the drive to recreate a version of history that is comprised of their past playlist, a collection of altered, contemporized, and idealized texts that have come to define them and their individual history”63. The past becomes nostalgic, myopic, and solipsistic. In order to understand the present, the past has to be something continually explored, rather than being a musty, dead archive or mausoleum of a truly irrecoverable past that becomes what Frederic Jameson terms “nostalgia.”64 To understand my identity as a person, all “you have to do is look at my constellation of cross-media texts I loved as a child”65. This failure, which is critical to understanding the past and integrating it into the present, becomes obvious within La La Land’s diegesis itself and includes: Sebastian’s failure to understand the black history of jazz; the diversity of jazz music itself; the “whitewashed” view of Los Angeles; the failure to critique how African Americans have been shut out of Hollywood; the failure to recognize the fusion of cultures in LA; Mia’s failure to understand how success is really achieved in Hollywood; Mia’s attempts to “grow up” while not having to; “dreamers” becoming a code word for privileged whites; the argument that jazz, musicals, and Hollywood were better in the “good old days”; the lack of a single gay person in the film; and John Legend’s character Keith as a sell-out to jazz. Although set in the present, the film seems to be taking place in some other time, all of which makes it “appear to straddle an indeterminate space between past and present.”66 David Sims writing in The Atlantic sees nostalgia being double- edged in La La Land as well:
Nostalgia has propelled Mia to stardom; it’s given Sebastian his imaginative and artistic integrity, but little else.… Mia has a family and fame, Sebastian is stuck behind a piano. From everything we see of his club, ‘Seb’s,’ he’s presenting his art form as he prefers it: beautiful but trapped in amber.67
We see him frying chicken in his apartment, referring back to his original name for the club, “Chicken on a Stick” in honor of Charlie Parker, known as “Bird” for his fondness for fried chicken. Parker died in 1955. We see a framed picture of his sister and her African American husband and their child. Sebastian spent the entire movie preaching about his mission to save jazz, he fulfilled his dream of opening his own club, he never compromised – well, perhaps once when he joined Keith’s sell-out band – however, now he has nothing else going on apparently.
For many mostly white viewers La La Land’s simple nostalgia, effervescence, and escapism were not only harmless but positively welcome after the divisiveness, partisanship, and multiple shocks associated with 2016. But in today’s America, as Lizardi reminds us, nostalgia for a simpler time can be dangerous. No amount of nostalgia is excessive in the present society. “Make Hollywood Great Again” or “Make Musicals Great Again” sounds suspiciously similar to the red cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”68 Geoff Nelson connects the film’s nostalgia to the nostalgia of Donald Trump’s campaign: “There lies a profound irony in liberal white folks heading to La La Land to repair after a political season overflowing with the nostalgia of white supremacy.”69 While not overtly racist, the film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness are connected, due in no little part to the absence of an understanding and integration of the very past that Damien Chazelle wants us as viewers to be transported back into; therefore, considering “the long history of racism in Los Angeles, it’s uncertain which part of the past would provide a comfortable landing spot for the viewers.”70 And as Liza Barkin observes, “the broad, uncritical gaze of nostalgia can conveniently fog over the social realities of any ‘golden age,’ and elide important details about who it was golden for.”71 Similar to Trump voters who longed for a return to an idealized, mythic past, La La Land articulates a displaced, yet powerful, narcissistic mediated nostalgia rooted in the pop culture movement of twee. How profoundly one can connect the popularity of the film, and the inevitable backlash against it in the age of the Internet, Twitter, and blogs, to the desperation for such a feel-good movie on the part of the American public after the gut-wrenching year of 2016, only time will tell. But certainly escapist nostalgia is in part a reaction to social change and insecurity. Spin magazine wrote that La La Land, if “viewed in less apocalyptic times … its escapist qualities would fade.”72 There is no doubt that the film came out just on the cusp of a perceived flowering of opportunities for women and African Americans in Hollywood. La La Land remains a complicated, problematical, and at times moving,inter- textual retro-maze of twee-driven past references that promotes a beguiling nostalgia and retro-escapism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, after attacking the film as having a bigoted message, as not knowing the history of jazz (he owns 5,000 jazz albums as well as a jazz label), and having characters who are obsessed with their careers at the expense of romance, concludes, “I know I will be watching it again and again over the years, just as I will be listening to the wonderful soundtrack. Yet every time I do, along with the immense joy, I’ll have a tiny nagging feeling of, “What If?”73 Abdul-Jabbar’s remark reminds us all that the more controversial a film may be, the more it needs to be discussed and dissected in terms of its place in and impact on popular culture, in order to utilize the past to construct useful criticisms of society and culture for the future. Simon Goldhill suggests society beware when “politicians play the nostalgia card.”74 That warning applies to filmmakers as well. In this age of twee and narcissistic mediated nostalgia, if we make history too simple-minded, we will indeed live with the innocence and naiveté of children.
* * *
Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, New York: Faber & Faber, xi. [↩]
- Stefano Baschiera and Elena Caoduro, “The New Old: Archaisms and Anachronisms Across Media,” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 12, Winter 2016, 1. www.alphavillejournal.com/issue12/Editorial.pdf. In this special issue there are the following articles on the topic of nostalgia, retro, and archaisms: Kathleen Williams, “The Wonder Years: Nostalgia, Memory, and Pastness in Television Credits”; Louis Bayman, “Retro Quality and Historical Consciousness in Contemporary European Television”; Marieeta Kesting, “History/ies with Obsolete Media: The Example of South African Photo-Film”; Jonathan Rosenkrantz, “Analogue Video in the Age of Retrospectacle: Aesthetics, Technology, Subculture”; and Philippe Theophanidis, “Media Hysteresis: Persistence Through Change.” Accessed 01/12/2018. [↩]
- Baschiera and Caoduro, 1. For a discussion of how other contemporary Hollywood movies use nostalgia and the trappings of Hollywood to suggest a simpler time, see Alison Willmore, Buzzfeed, “The Privilege of Hollywood Nostalgia,” buzzfeed.com/alisonwillmore/la-la-land-and-the-privilege-of-hollywood-nostalgia. Accessed 03/12/2018. [↩]
- Ryan Lizardi, Mediated Nostalgia: Individual Memory and Contemporary Mass Media, New York: Lexington Books, 2015, 1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, New York: Scholastic, 1997, 213-214. For the purposes of his study Lizardi offers the following general definition of “nostalgia” as a “yearning for the past or some past state, which results in the focusing on the past or past object to assuage this yearning and to reassure already held ideological positions.” 2. [↩]
- Lizardi, 1. [↩]
- Ibid., 117. [↩]
- Marc Spitz, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, New York: HarperCollins, 2014, 12. Anna Katharina Schaffner, “Walt, Holly and Lena,” Times Literary Supplement, February 20, 2015, 13. [↩]
- Stephanie Zacharek, “Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs hides the treats,” Time, April 2, 2018, 54. [↩]
- For a useful bibliography of articles, blogs, and videos dealing with La La Land, see “La La Land 2016, Critics Roundup, n.d., criticsroundup.com/film/la-la-land/. Accessed 11/21/2017. [↩]
- Nicole Sperling, “Can Anything Stop La La Land?” Entertainment Weekly, January 20, 2017, 12-13. [↩]
- Gwen Ihnat, Caitlin PenzeyMoog, and Sean O’Neal, “If You Didn’t Love La La Land, Are You Dead Inside?” The A.V. Club, January 25, 2017, 1, film.avclub.com/if-you-didn’t-love-la-la-land-are-you-dead-inside. Accessed 10/08/2017. [↩]
- See “Love ‘La La Land’? Hate It? So Do We,’” February 15, 2017, The New York Times, nytimes.com/2017/02/15/15/movies/la-la-land-hate.html. 07/5/2017. [↩]
- Nicholas Barber, “Why La La Land Is Making History,” BBC, January 4, 2017, bbc.com/culture/story/20170124-why-la-la-land-is-making-history. Accessed 06/25/17. [↩]
- Geoffrey O’Brien, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” New York Review of Books, April 6, 2017, 165-18, presents a good summary of the arguments for and against the film as Oscar worthy as well as the fiasco at the awards ceremony itself. [↩]
- Corey Chichizola, “Watch Aziz Ansari Get Ripped for Not Liking La La Land Enough in Hilarious SNL Skit,” n.d., 1-3, cinemablend.com/news/1615540/watch-aziz-ansari-get-ripped-for-not-liking-la-la-land-enough-in-hilarious-snl-skit. Accessed 02/13/2018. For the full skit see youtube.com/watch?vzabn6epxrcSW. Accessed 0213/2018. [↩]
- Christopher Rosen, “Ryan Gosling Reunites with La La Land Star Emma Stone to Remind Everyone How They ‘Saved Jazz,’” October 1, 2017, 1-2, ew.com/tv/2017/10/01/ryan-gosling-snl-monologue-jazz/. Accessed 02/13/2018. [↩]
- Lucas Sharma, SJ, “La La Land: Charm, Nostalgia, Gratitude,” The Jesuit Post, March 2, 2017, 2, thejesuitpost.org/2017/03/la-la-land-charm-nostalgia-gratitude/. Accessed 10/16/2017. [↩]
- Koresky and Pinkerton quoted in Girish Shambu, “Review: ‘La La Land’ and Its Discontents,” February 1, 2017, 7, anothergaze.com/review-la-la-land-and-its-discontents/. Accessed 02/06/2018. [↩]
- Louise Keller, “La La Land,” Urban Cinefile, n.d., urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=21959&s=Reviews. Accessed 05/12/2017. [↩]
- Lizardi, 116. [↩]
- Maria Margaronis, “The Dimensions Inside Our Heads: Optical Illusions, Subliminal Soundscapes, Narrative Serves: Reimagining a Classic Series,” Times Literary Supplement, January 5, 2017, 19. Also see David Stubbs, “Reboot, Revive, Repeat: Has Retromania Really Taken Over TV?,” The Guardian, May 24, 2018, 1, guardian.com?tv-and-radio/2018.may/24/reboot-revive-repeat-retromania-really-taken-over-tv/. Accessed 05/22/2018. For an in-depth picture of the ways in which cinema and television have used multiplicities to streamline the production process and to capitalize on and exploit viewer interest in previously successful and/or sensational story properties, see the articles in Amanda Ann Klein & R. Barton Palmer, Editors, Cycles, Sequels, Spin-Offs, Remakes, and Reboots, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. [↩]
- Eliza Berman, “On Broadway, It’s Déjà Vu All Over – And Not Just for Groundhog Day,” Time, 52, May 15, 2017. [↩]
- Dan Golding, “The Dreamers of La La Land,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 82, March 2017, 4, sensesofcinema.com/2017/feature-articles-/dreaming-of-la-la-land/. Golding argues that the film’s “happy-to-dream disposition” invited attacks from critics. Accessed 11/21/2017. [↩]
- Christos Tsiolkas, “Damian Chazelle’s ‘La La Land,’” The Saturday Paper, December 24, 2016, 1, thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/12/24/damian-chazelles-la-la-land/14824980004115. Accessed 02/15/2018. [↩]
- Sophie Atkinson, “Why ‘La La Land’ Is the Musical 2017 Needed to Start Off Strong,” HighSnobiety Opinion, January 20, 2017, 10-11, highsnobiety.com/2017/01/20/la-la-land-musical-why-we-need-it/. Accessed 11/02/2017. [↩]
- Sara Preciado, Video, “La La Land Movie References,” Facebook, Sara Preciado, Video, “La La Land – Movie References”. Accessed 0215/2018. Also Steven Cohan, “La La Land and the Hollywood Film Musical,” OUPBlog, February 2017, blog.oup.com/2017/02/la-la-land-hollywood-film-musical/. Accessed 08/26/2017; and “Six Films You Should Watch Before You See La La Land,” BFI, n.d., bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/la-la-land-damien-chazelle-influence. Accessed 11/21/2017. [↩]
- See Annie Gabillet, “Similarities Between La La Land and Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Could This Be the inspiration Behind La La Land’s Ending,” Pop Sugar, January 30, 2017, popsugar.com/entertainment/Similarities-Between-La-La-Land-Umbrellas-Cherbourg-43065560. Accessed 05/31/2017. [↩]
- Sperling, 13. [↩]
- See Matthew Kennedy, “La La Land and the Dreams of a Musical Renaissance,” Bright Lights Film Journal, January 10, 2017, brightlightsfilm.com/la-la-land-dreams-musical-renaissance/#.WwmySAhUI. Accessed 05/26/2018. [↩]
- Michael Koresky, “Working It,” Film Comment, May-June 2017, 45. [↩]
- Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, 3. For a general history of the musical genre see Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, 2 ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. [↩]
- Koresky, 46. [↩]
- Ihnat, PenzeyMoog, O’Neal, 4-5. Caryl Flinn argues that older films tended to link music to the sense of an idealized, lost past. Caryl Flinn, Senses of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.1992. Tim Greiving argues that “Big, bombastic soundtracks are giving way to more nuanced compositions.” Tim Greiving, “Film Scores: The Next Generation,” The Guardian Weekly, September 8, 2017, 38. [↩]
- Reynolds, 311. [↩]
- Lizardi, 143. [↩]
- Joe McGovern, “Finding La La Land,” Entertainment Weekly, December 9, 2016, 43. LA Insider Tours offers a “La La Land Tour” that takes tourists “to many of the actual locations where they shot LA LA LAND, the film about LA, shot here in LA.” lainsidertours.com/la-la-land-tour/. Accessed 11/21/2017. [↩]
- See Noah Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie, New York: Norton, 2017. Lucy Scholes, “For Old Time’s Sake: Capitalizing On Our ‘Built-in Nostalgia” for Casablanca,” Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 2017, 33. [↩]
- Carly Mallenbaum, “Your ‘La La Land’ Cheat Sheet,” USA Today, December 27, 2016, 3, usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2016/12/27/your-la-la-land-cheat-sheet/95602260/. Accessed 01/04/2018. [↩]
- For description and image see tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-a-bigger-splash-t03254. Accessed 02/17/2018. [↩]
- Mallenbaum, 2. [↩]
- For a discussion of recent films and TV productions made in LA along with the idea that “there’s no single Los Angeles,” see Oliver Wang, “‘La La Land’: Los Angeles and the Hollywood Imagination,” KCET-TV, February 3, 2017, kcet.org/shows/artbound/la-la-land-los-angeles-and-the-hollywood-imagination. Accessed 10/08/2017. For a comparison of La La Land with a wide variety of films set in Los Angeles, see Michael Green, “Los Angeles and the Utopia of La La Land,” Bright Lights Film Journal, May 4, 2017, brightlightsfilm/com/los-angeles-cinema-utopia-la-la-land-racism/#.Wwm3CAh2UI. The title tells everything. Accessed 05/26/2018. [↩]
- BFI, 7. [↩]
- Mallenbaum, 7. [↩]
- Amy Kaufman, “To Turn LA into an Aspirational Dreamland, the ‘La La Land’ Crew Shut Down a Busy Freeway – Twice,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 2016, 1, latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-ca-mn-holiday-sneaks-la-la-land-locations-20161027-story.html. Accessed 06/22/17. [↩]
- Giuliana Bruno, “Construction Sites: Fabricating the Architectural Imaginary in Art,” in Automated Cities: The Architectural Imaginary in Contemporary Art, Robin Clarke, ed., San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009, 38. Also see Norman M. Klein, A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, New York and London: Verso, 1997, 11. [↩]
- Janelle Zara, “The Missing Landscape of Los Angeles,” The Guardian Weekly, September 8, 2017, 40. [↩]
- Carlos Valladares, “Southeast of Eden: An Angeleno’s Take on Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’,” The Stanford Daily, December 18, 2016, 2, stanforddaily.com/2016/12/18/la-la-land/. Accessed 11/21/2017. [↩]
- Reynolds, xxxi. [↩]
- Belinda Luscombe, “7 Questions – Rose McGowan,” Time, February 19, 2008, 56. Also Evgenia Peretz, “Rose Rages,” Vanity Fair, February 2018, 62-65. [↩]
- Walter Metz, ‘La La Land (2016),” Walter’s World,” January 4, 2017, 6, http://waltermetz.com/la-la-land-2016/. Accessed 12/26/2017. [↩]
- See Caroline Framke, “ Emma Stone’s La La Land performance transcends the film’s biggest flaw: a poorly written female lead,” Vox.com, February 27, 2017, vox.com/culture/2017/1/5/14153546/emma-stone-la-la-land-best-actress. Accessed 11/02/2017. [↩]
- Willmore, 2. [↩]
- Spitz, 1. [↩]
- Schaffner, 13. [↩]
- Spitz, 54. [↩]
- Ibid.,55. [↩]
- Schaffner, 13. [↩]
- Spitz, 10. [↩]
- Katie Salisbury, “‘La La Land’ Is the Nostalgic Musical Millennials Have Been Waiting For,” Vice.com,December 20, 2016,2-3, katiesalisbury.com/vice-la-la-land-is-the-nostalgic-musical-millennials-have-been-waiting-for/. Accessed 05/11/2017. [↩]
- For a study of this self-obsession, see Will Storr, Selfies: How We Became So Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, London: Picador, 2017. Also the review by Peter Conrad, “Look the Other Way,” Guardian Weekly, June 3, 2017. 36. [↩]
- Salisbury, 2. [↩]
- Lizardi, 138. [↩]
- Ibid.,142. [↩]
- Frederic Jameson, “Nostalgia for the Present,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 2. 1989, 517-37. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Richard Roeper, “Exhilarating ‘La La Land’ Depicts Love in Classical Movie Fashion,” Chicago Sun Times, December 15, 2016, 2, chicago-suntimes.com/entertainment/exhilarating-la-la-land-depicts-love-in-classic-movie-fashion. Accessed 02/20/2018. [↩]
- David Sims, “La La Land’s Double Edged Nostalgia,” The Atlantic, January 9, 2017, 3, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/la-la-lands-double-edged-nostalgia. Accessed 05/11/2017. [↩]
- See Manohla Dargis, “‘La La Land’ Makes Musicals Matter Again,” The New York Times, November 23, 2016, nytimes.com/2016/11/23/movies/la-la-land-makes-musicals-matter-again. Accessed 08/26/2017. [↩]
- Geoff Nelson, “The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land,” Paste, January 6, 2017, 1, pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/01/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-la-la-land.html. Accessed 07/05/2017. [↩]
- Ibid., 2. [↩]
- Liza Batkin, “The Dangerous, Aimless Optimism of ‘La La Land’,” Broadly., December 22, 2016, 8, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/wje5em/dangerous-optimism-la-la-land-review. Accessed 01/04/2018. [↩]
- Emily Yahr, “Your Guide to the ‘La La Land’ backlash,” The Washington Post, January 25, 2017, 3, washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/01/25/your-guide-to-the-la-la-land-backlash/?utm_term=.bd02baed03a2. Accessed 05/07/2017. [↩]
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How ‘La La Land’ Misleads on Race, Romance and Jazz,” Hollywood Reporter, February 15, 2017, 3, hollywoodreporter.com/news/la-la-land-disappoints-bigoted-race-portrayal-childish-romance-975786. Accessed October 10, 2017. [↩]
- Simon Goodhill, “Look Back with Danger: Why Nostalgia Is Not What It Used to Be,” Times Literary Supplement, May 5, 2017, 15. [↩]