1. RE-VIEW-VIEW LAND
Oh you saw that movie? Is it it good or is it bad? How was the cinematography? Was that person good? Or what about that other person, were they good? Was the direction good? You know, all that direction? Was it... was it good?
Criticism spends so much time making value judgements and as the years go on I get increasingly skeptical of our collective ability to do it. To the point that when talking to people I've found that I've started trying to get in a habit of saying "Did you like _____" as in, "did you like the cinematography?" or "did you like The Ryan Gosling abs?" It's what most of us are really talking about about, anyway. So it's no accident that criticism has mostly become the medium of having opinions. That statement may sound obvious or dismissive depending on how you take it, but it's meant to be neither. It's just acknowledging that larger cultural function of criticism is changing. Gone are the days of your local paper's recommendation for what to see at the theater this weekend. Now, it's all how your opinion fits into the larger consensus or whether or not you got one of them piping "hot takes." Honestly though, as much as we're making fun of the term "hot takes" these days, criticism deserves any form of critical thinking, just as it deserves a constant discussion on social values. Besides, criticism thrives, and has always thrived, on the presence of beautiful, engaging voices. When I think of all my favorite critics, I don't care if I agree with what so and so thinks, I just more like hearing what they have to say. I like seeing how they think. I like being with them. Ultimately, the fundamental approach to reading any criticism should always be expanding your viewpoint, not finding evidence to keep it intact.
But even with all that (and at my most cynical), I would be lying if I didn't say that the list of critics who have a truly good grasp on "the function of cinematic aesthetics" is... well, I would have trouble counting onto my second hand. But I think most critics would probably agree with this estimation. But most critics would probably include themselves on that list, too. I'm no different. Therein lies the problem. But I actually think about this problem all the time. When trying to navigate anything we do, I feel like there's always this weird sense of "a spectrum of understanding." You can hang around a group of self-styled film nerds who don't really know shit about shit, even though they're completely talking about how some other people don't know shit. Or you might find yourself on the other end of the spectrum as you listen to Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Robert Forster discuss how a certain movie works, and you implicitly understand that you are an ant... And I don't know what to do about this other than recognize that that spectrum very much exists.
But beyond our human ability to diagnose, I really think that objectively good and bad cinema exists too. It's just evasive because it's really hard for anyone to see through the layers of complexity. And even then, whether it ends up being good or bad there can be valid reasons to like or not like either. Which brings us into veins of criticism. Because when we talk about film in terms of art and craft, so often it seems like we're making this easy separation between the two: art being the imbuing of meaning while craft is just knowing what F stop to hit. But the line is so much more blurred than that. Without getting lost in the weeds, the best I have to offer is the argument that much of the craft of filmmaking is really just a straight understanding and execution of mise en scene en route to desired audience reaction (i.e.) function. The end result of which being the difference between someone saying "ooh, that looked pretty" versus them getting so caught up in the moment they can hardly breathe.
I always use that word: functional. I like it because it makes you think about your audience. I like it because it gets to the heart of how comedy and horror are pure genres because they gotta work and do their job. You gotta laugh or you gotta be scared. Comparatively, I think a lot of films can get by on coaxing artifice, but it always reveals itself with time. I mean, there's a reason why 2013's Frozen, Gravity, and Her linger in our cinematic lexicon, but no one ever really thinks about American Hustle anymore. The movie's problems are clearer now, but it didn't work then, either. It was just too easy to look at and see "filmmaking!" and enjoy its airless frivolity, but in terms of deep function it was all empty calories. It wasn't even about anything.
Every award season I feel like we go through this. Like right now, I can make a host of arguments as to why no one will think about Jackie after this winter and they all have to do with startlingly poor function vs. impressive texture. Because ultimately, functionalism is what makes things stick. It's the reason I could sit down and point to all the bits of craft that make films like Jaws, The Killing and Young Frankenstein still play like gangbusters. But this all points to the obvious difficulty...
Functionalism hides in plain sight.
2. LA DI DA LAND
This was all just a big preamble to me saying that La La Land, i.e. one of the years sure-fire best picture contenders, is all over the damn map, but maybe in a way that doesn't matter, and maybe it a way that matters more than anything... If that sounds complicated, it is. And it makes it even more difficult to know where to start.
So let's start here: When I watch a director that really knows what they're doing, I feel like I'm going along with an amazing dance partner. I'm getting twirled and bandied about, but suddenly it all feels effortless. I'm not thinking about my steps, I'm just letting them guide my movements. I watched Jaws for the millionth time the other night and the way Spielberg plays you like a fiddle is just mesmerizing. Every lurch. Every beat. Every breath. Every gasp. It's all part of a perfectly executed dance where he directs your attention and moves you. I've also been watching The Knick for the first time and Soderbergh's sense of editorial rhythm and visual clarity is sharper that ever. There isn't a wasted second. And while I'm just listing great direction, please get ready for Julia Ducournau's Raw next year, which might be the best debut film I've ever seen. Anyway, in every single one of these cases, I'm aware of the craft, but I'm not looking at the craft. I'm in the moment. I'm swooning alongside whatever emotional state is intended by my adept dance partner. It doesn't matter what "kind" of filmmaking it is, either. Because Mad Max: Fury Road might use as frenetic and aggressive a style as anything Michael Bay does, but I'm going to link to this scene for the four millionth time and do me a favor: watch the character's eyes and the way it leads the movement of every next event:
Yeah, it's aggressive filmmaking, but Miller is the ultimate action film dance partner. Watch as from the eyes of each character, we move to subjects in motion, from the subjects in motion we guide the movement of the shot, from the movement of the shot we determine the flow of our next edit, etc. etc. And every framing choice is perfect. Notice the lack of negative space, the density, the depth of objects, the nice range of contrast, the balance of color. Even as you are being whipped and twirled, you never once feel out of step. It should probably tell you a lot when Soderbergh said he couldn't direct Mad Max: Fury Road's action with a gun to his head. And all of this is just about the art and understanding of mise en scene. When the movie is alive, the greatest filmmaking is invisible.
And this is where I say I had a such a hard time on and off throughout La La Land and a surprising amount of it comes down to aesthetics. What are you talking about Hulk? It's a beautiful movie! It's in cinemascope! It's in love with color! It shoots gorgeous long takes! It shows actors in full frame to show their actions! Like all those classic movies of the past do! Yeah, I know what they're aiming for. I could talk all about the homages from Godard's Weekend to, of course, An American in Paris, but I could also point glaringly at what's different. Like, if we could sit there and go through the film I'd be pausing every few frames with endless nitpicks. I'd talk about how the negative space on this shot and that shot is really weird. I'd talk about how I'm constantly seeing a lot of room on the actors heads. I'd point out that this really great long take actually could have reeeeeeeally used a cut here, here, and here. Most of all I'd talk about how the choice to use cinemascope radically warps Emma Stone's face for most of the movie, which is why you rarely see closeups in the format, but I think they just decided to roll with it? (We'll get to that.) There's even some weird tonal stuff. (We'll also get to that). There's nothing lackadaisical about their approach. The movie clearly cares. But in the end, it's a dance partner who's trying to flip you about and pull off some major cool stuff while slightly-yet-constantly stepping on your toes.
The truth is I hate talking about these kinds of aesthetics because it usually comes off as being pedantic. And maybe it is. It only tends to work when the other person is willing to get into the nitty gritty of the aesthetics, too. Like talking about what is a perfect close-up for a particular shot and how it's different every time. But I often feel a conversation on aesthetics irrevocably slides into this agree-to-disagree regarding what "kind of style" the other likes. Organic and natural? Hyper formalism? Esoteric and counter-intuitive? And most people don't even realize this is what they're really arguing, so it all starts secretly sliding back to "my favorite style is actually the correct one", to which I snarkily reply in my head, "my favorite style is whatever is best for the moment". Because, in the end, every moment in a film is about functionalism. I don't want to make the mistake of letting over-arching form choices dictate the moment. Instead, the moment should dictate the needed form.
To wit, after the movie I watched an interview with Damien Chazelle. To be clear, he's probably as talented and as ambitious a young filmmaker as we have. I want him to keep making movies and keep being successful. We need someone like this. But as he starts discussing La La Land (while probably being exhausted on press tour) he starts talking all about how he wanted the film to have the long takes of old musicals, to use the retro cinemascope style, etc. He wanted all the touchstones and hallmarks of old movies updated to his modern setting. To be clear, there's zero percent wrong with this general instinct, but if that top-down view is what's guiding your moment-to-moment decisions you're gonna get yourself in trouble. There's a pretty big name for it and it's called "form over function."
Why do you want this all in one take exactly?
Just to do it because that's what old movies did? It's a pertinent question because if you want to make a functional long shot, I always like pointing to Tony Zhou's essay on Spielberg's "secret" Oners and note how steeped they are in making the moment more effective instead of just being showy. But hey, if you want to use long shots just to show people you can do long shots, well, that instinctive difference might be what makes people call Spielberg one of the best filmmakers of all time and Joe Wright the guy who pulls off impressive feats of production. You'll remember how people always criticize Tarantino for being all form over function, but I think that's hilariously just an example of seeing form over function. Because while Tarantino's form is always SUPER obvious, but it's always SUPER functional. He's actually a spectacular dramatist. So yeah, he'll wear his form on his sleeve, but he'll never let it get in the way of the moment, if that makes sense.
Form is so damn seductive. And the truth is it will often get you halfway there, if not most of the way. Heck, it may even get critics to laud you. Falling for form is just falling for the tangible details (like we do every award season). But if any technically "good" form choice costs you the potential resonance of your moments, then you're not actually helping yourself in the long run. Technically, you're cheating. And when you're cheating with the form of a movie, you're usually cheating in other ways, as well.
For instance, the plot and characterization of La La Land radically cheats in the last few acts. The film's climactic conflict in the "fall" segment is falsified and manufactured for a few reasons. One, Sebastian's motive for fame and a steady job is not even to please Mia, but more a vague inference from her justifying him to her mom? Why would he suddenly care about his exactly? Once on the road, there is nothing about his sudden enjoyment of the crowd response that digs into his pre-existing psychology, nor an explanation that this was about how his snobby ways were always secretly a desperate plea to be liked. So why do both counts blow up into an argument where he accuses her asking for this and worse? Even then, there's nothing to indicate he's gone so far from his center that he would purposefully attend that photo shoot and miss Mia's one night only play. Meanwhile, Mia's clearly still the kind of girl who will support him to follow his dreams so why... wait, what is actually the deep-tissue problem between these two right now? If the core conflict isn't something they actually care about in an ingrained, clear way, then why would we care or feel like there is any real danger in this sequence? This is precisely why none of it "tracks" or feels properly earned. Even while we're watching it, we see it all as a big misunderstanding. And every bit of emotional resonance comes from how it feels like the familiar texture of "these things happen with people" and have very much happened with us.
Which makes it all the more strange when the resolution to this conflict is just a more confused general sequence of them letting go, moving on, and following their dreams all because these things happen, you see! In terms of psychology it's just so secretly weird. We don't really understand why it happens with them. I'm not even sure they do either. It just does. Just like their fantasy dreams of each other and all the "mistakes" they made weren't about twists and turns but more the mistakes of happenstance. Their fantasy relationship wasn't even that different. I have no way to understand the projection being made about him still being with her. I know what those things are like in general, but nothing deeper is actually being played here. In the end, it's just the concepts of love and loss and mistakes and hopes and dreams.
Because these things happen, you see.
It's more form over function, just with storytelling itself. Even on the structural level, we should be getting a nice series of five acts with this given story, but at first it totally feels like it's going to be three, even though the structured naming convention hints it will be four? The epilogue actually feels longer than every other act. But hey, what does transition signaling really matter if you're in it?! Only thing is, yeah, it's a movie where there's something you can at least fall into within every scene, but it also feels like a three-hour movie (I was shocked that it was just over 2 hours). Again, this doesn't have to do with being unenjoyable, but rather the nature of purposeful transitions. It's the lack of clarity in helping the audience track where a story is or is not going, especially from scene to scene. It's my much ballyhooed lack of "therefore / buts" that makes the entire movie feel like a giant series of "and then this happens!" The core danger of which is the audience having to sit through constant feelings of restarting. It's exhausting, no matter how much you're charmed. Again, these are all about dance steps with your partner. You can do all "the right moves", and still be out of rhythm and step on those toes. Which is a failure of function. And it's definitely going to happen in a movie in love with form and texture.
... Wow, Hulk you really didn't like this movie, huh? You keep railing on it!
No, I liked the movie and it still very much works.
3. GOSLING LAND
When the fuck did Ryan Gosling get this good?
I keep asking myself that this year. His performances in The Nice Guys and La La Land are so insanely perfect that I'm mostly confused. After years in the kid actor trade he transition into the hot young stud with The Notebook, but quickly moved into the weird indie darling who did this weird baby voiced thing, but clearly had raw talent. And he was trying SO DAMN HARD in Half Nelson and Blue Valentine that it was hard not to notice the devotion. But then his hyper sweet and stupid aura weirdly started clicking for folks in Drive, all before getting misapplied again in a few other movies I won't mention. But suddenly it feels like Gosling's unlocked his incredible adult form. He's unleashed this perfect mix of effortless physical comedy and has a dead-pan blank stare for the ages, even some near perfect comic timing. It's like... How? I mean, the cool thing about this is he's still very much the same guy he always was. Did he just work at it until it was right? Did he just strip away the artifice and slowly become the best version of himself? Whatever it is, he's now a guy who slides into a movie so effortlessly and confidentially that it almost feels like magic.
I'm convinced 60% of the moments in this movie work solely through Gosling's sheer magnetism. With him, the movie's tone even feels correct. He underplays against the big ironic artifice, so he also captures its sense of irony. Meanwhile, Stone's commitment as the authentic charismatic go-getter can't help but feel strange in a movie whose very language is steeped in ironic enthusiasm. But the truth is, I don't know when the film is actually being ironic. The result is a film that carries tone just as haphazardly as the other mentioned elements. There are all these weird patches where I can see the point being aimed for, I can even see the desire for it all to be "heightened", but the execution gets muddled, right down the logic of which Hollywood tropes are comically overplayed and which are underplayed. I know there's supposed to be variation, but it's completely indiscriminate. Luckily, when you go back to Stone's enthusiasm, her authenticity and gumption is still what serves a deeper function when the movie actually becomes about the two of them. Since La La Land's bedrock is in their performance, I know I'm looking at two people who love each other and can convincingly love each other.
This matters, because while the movie itself might be a surprisingly clumsy dance partner, both Gosling and Stone are both literally and figuratively great to watch as they dance the night away.
4. LACKING LAND
I have no real idea who Sebastian and Mia are.
He likes jazz. She wants to be actress. Those core wants are established and the film can milk it for all it's worth. And it is worth something - we will watch these two charming actors flirt with each other for two hours, like, no problem. But I can't really tell you much about their personalities outside of the affectation of the actors. He's nostalgic and stubborn with Jazz, almost cartoonishly so. There are ways he's a jerk and ways he's insanely sweet, but the two often feel incompatible and don't track to a larger psychology. Like I can't ever expressly say what made him do something at one point versus the other (I just know Gosling's in command of them with his sheer force of will). Mia, on the other hand, is even more of a mystery. I have no idea what she's really about beyond being an actress? Again, I know Emma Stone's delightful affectation, but I don't know a lot about her, even from her songs. I don't know what her play is really about. I don't know why she's dating money guy or how she feels about that beyond the reality of the larger construction of "this is a stereotypical thing men think a lot of actresses do." Just as so many of her outside interactions are just replications of conversations I've heard a billion times in LA. But that's not purpose, that's just expressing the familiar. That's form. And in the end...
It's observation without insight.
Which is actually really hard for a relationship movie. You can't just observe. You can't just rely on familiar audience situations. You can't just coast on the actors. You gotta build something simple, but real. What's Sebastian and Mia's relationship about? What are their real problems? What allows them to succeed vs other relationships? Heck, what makes Mia's other end relationship different? What makes her so nostalgic for him other than the fact that we've just watched them for two hours? What makes them special? Is it because they're both charming? Because they both have dreams? Is it just because the movie is saying that they do? I keep looking at the actual text and substance between them, free from the purported grace of its exhibition. The film even finishes the entire first act and I'm like "Wait, I don't know anything about these people's personality other than their stock dreams". This stuff matters a lot when it comes to the staying power of a classic romance... a lot.
It should also be said that this is twice now that I've had a very complicated reaction to a Damien Chazelle movie. I'd argue Whiplash is an incredible film in and of itself, where all my criticisms fall to the philosophical depiction of its subject (for an unforgiving but pointed takedown you can do no better than the great Richard Brody). Here, it's less an argument with philosophy and more just a weird sense of its absence. Even in moments that are clear, even though I know there are genuine feelings of a larger love / hate sentiment towards Los Angeles, I can't work out how Chazelle really feels about much of anything beyond the mere observations themselves. There's no insight. Which in its own way is just more form over function.
It's really hard to think of a film that simultaneously brings you so much in terms of aesthetic and emotion and yet remains so damn reliant on what you bring to it as well. It's particularly frustrating because the moments where it puts everything together on an aesthetic level and cinematically "dances" with you are remarkable. It may even might have the single best cinematic execution of the old familiar "when you see your ex across a room and your heart leaps up into your throat" since Casablanca. But the differences in those two approaches is everything. In La La Land you get the cue, the silence, the texture, the feeling and that incredible pause in the look from Gosling.... But in the the former you understand more about who they are from three lines of dialogue then I can get from two hours of this one. It makes you realize something all the same: if function can hide in plain sight...
Then dysfunction can hide in plain sight, too
Which brings us back to the larger critical dialogue. For I have no way to talk about hidden function in movies without being presumptive. And there's nothing more insulting than saying something like "you didn't see it, but you felt it". Especially if you didn't actually feel it. And in the end, there's no way to take away someone's reaction to a movie. I can insist something has problems and I can insist something doesn't, but you still went on that entire journey of watching the damn thing and arrived at your opinion. And to feel like your "journey" has been wrong in some way, is to feel affronted. It's the very reason why we fight about movies and feel like other people are insane. Because we literally had different experiences with the same exact thing. But maybe all it comes down to is that we have different expectations of our dance partners. Sometimes a movie can step all over our toes and steal our wallets, just as long as they look us in the eye and tell us they love us. So I don't know what to do about this except toast the whole affair and realize that it's not that big a deal. Even if it's something we're all dedicating our lives to understanding, it's okay. It's just a conversation. And aIl we have is an argument.
And when it comes to the argument about this particular film, well, everything I've said should imply that this movie doesn't work. The formal misteps. The empty calories. The cheating. The fudging. All the stuff that makes it seem like we got another American Hustle on our hands... except we don't.
Yeah, I have to keep explaining that I actually liked this movie.
5. LOVE LOVE LAND
So why the hell does La La Land still work in the end?
I once made the argument that movies have souls. And it's probably the most ostentatious, yet most true thing I've said about movies. We relate to them a lot in the same way we relate to people. For they have whole personalities and ideas and voices. And like people, we have to work past the layers of artifice a lot of times to understand what they are and accept them.
So I still don't know "what" La La Land is exactly, but I feel like I know who it is. Like a good character, I know what it wants. I know it wants to charm my pants off. I know it wants to do so earnestly. I don't feel an ounce of smirking cynicism on it. I don't think it's cheating because it's just trying to coax us. I don't think it's trying to chase awards. I don't think it's desperate or using us or even trying to take our money. I know it loves music. I know it loves movies. I know it actually believes that the notion of following your dreams is a real powerful thing that may have all sorts of vague human consequences but all sorts of vague rewards, too. I know it believes in love. I know the characters believe in love. I know I spent as much of the movie smiling as I did feeling puzzled by this weird, eager dance partner who was stepping on my feet and nervously sweating. I knew I was dancing with a hopeless romantic who might not have understood all of what it is was in love with, but still was nevertheless. And I know that sometimes, we blissfully transcend our limitations. And I know that probably speaks to our souls more than anything. With that, La La Land is a movie that is genuinely, truly in love with the texture of what it loves...
And maybe that's enough.
For fortune tends to smile on the pure of heart.