LA LA LAND, RACE, AND THE OSCARS

It’s worth noting that this little blurb reacts  1.) the film industry as filtered through awards predictors, journalists, and fans. All of those film buffs and light-historians fascinated with the cheap thrill of awards records (“Will La La Land sweep ala Titanic?”) 2.) my “customized” social media network (roughly 40% establishment democrats i.e. “i voted for Hilary in the primaries,” 40% leftist idealists i.e. “Bernie would’ve won,” and 20% leftist “purists” i.e. those stumped individuals that didn’t vote in the November 2016 elections due to supposedly equivalent reasons for rejecting both of our popular candidates. I do not mean to lambaste these parties, as I consider myself to belong to both in different ways. I just want to try and make sense of the hubbub.

So what I’ve noticed is a conflict between the film industry, which is almost certain that La La Land will sweep (and this goes for even those that find La La undeserving) and the liberal editorials of this years batch of “seasonal” critics who have taken La La Land prisoner. The consensus here is that the film is undeserving because well– white people. I think this speaks to a broader cultural mood, one born of the Trump fiasco.

I think there are less problems with La La Land than people want to accept.

Personally, I have no “politically-charged” problem with La La Land in and of itself. It is so funny to me to see on social media scores of people denouncing the unbearable whiteness of this film. “They’re not even that good at singing.” “How can a movie that dares to include jazz as a character element not include black people?” “Why is John Legend the only black person?”

I am not offended if a movie includes an all white cast. Whiteness affords a certain neutrality that is conducive to narrative flexibility, if not freedom. At the end of the day, the “meaning” of the film is pretty simple. It’s about dreams, and career hurdles, and lost love. It does not want to go further than that. The relative simplicity of the “meaning” this film wants to convey is not drenched in the heaviness of particular, real-life struggles. As a woman of color myself, I can say that I have dreams and guilty pleasures that are not dominated by my sense of feeling second-class or peripheral to the white protagonists of culture, politics, and everyday life. Sometimes escapism is welcome.

La La Land does not touch on issues of representation, or purport to be about jazz in any authentic way (despite the claims that its about jazz and yet involves very few black people). It does not even try to ground itself in any precise era for which it can be held historically responsible (the use of modern technology floats around an LA that is aesthetically a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood.) Its concern is nostalgia. It shies away from the particular of anything else. La La Land purports to a sort of universal narrative.

This should be taken less as an affront and more as a concession.

Would we really want Harvard-educated, New England-raised premium cut white guy Damien Chazelle to make a movie about jazz instead of Hollywood’s nostalgia for jazz culture. Would Damien Chazelle be capable of casting two leads that are not white and stick to his story? Impossible, in my opinion. In any case his attempt to understand two non-white lead characters might come under attack.

Of course, I don’t want to say that white people aren’t allowed to make movies about non-white people. There should be no set law for art, it all depends (to put it cheaply). What comes to mind is David Gordon Green’s George Washington. He was a white guy that made a movie about black people (it was quite good, I think, though the film was not praised for its incisive cultural examination of the black condition. It was praised for being beautiful and poetic like a malick film). My point is that in 2016/2017 in the midst of the apocalypse or what have you, identity politics matter. People care about being represented accurately and correctly (the backlash of several asian actors like Constance Wu comes to mind. Why cast Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell? It’s a good question I think). In some cases distance from the subject has proven beneficial to films that study a certain demographic or culture. Andrea Arnold is British and yet she made an incredibly nuanced film about the lives of American outcasts (American Honey). But film history is saturated with the white imaginary. It is hard to imagine a world in which Damien Chazelle would make the definitive film on the black experience when Barry Jenkins or Ava Duvernay are around.

La La is a very good film that reinvigorates the tired old “follow your dreams” genre into something more entertaining, cinematically dense, and visually interesting. I enjoyed La La Land. City of Stars was stuck in my head for days. I even teared up a bit when I thought about how our personal dreams often tear us apart from those we love. Is it worth it? The film is not sure, but it makes a point to show us– beautifully, colorfully and joyously–how the different possibilities and arrangements that life tosses our way or makes viable can be felt. All of this is set in LA, filtered through the foreign rules of “showbiz,” which is really just a fantasy world (Are you on set or in the real world? How authentic are you?). I don’t feel guilty about liking La La Land, and I don’t find it inherently problematic either (at most, it’s escapist). The equivalent of a celebrity refusing to weigh in on Donald Trump, for instance. My reason why it is not one of the absolute best films of the year is because it is emotionally shallow. 

The problem with La La Land is La La Land in the context of awards institutions in 2016/2017. The issue I have with the La La Land fanfare (and how it threatens to mark cinema “history” with its record-breaking nominations, maybe wins) is that of all the years to honor the most “apolitical” contender (the pure magic of cinema, that charming Gosling, the long-neglected and misused musical medium), this year is not the one. The other nominees include films about 1.) a female linguist forging international peace through mastery of a mysterious alien language 2.) a bildungsroman about a gay, virtually parent-less, black boy living in Miami 3.) the historical re-writing of NASA’s launch of John Glenn to rightfully include the black women behind the operation 4.) the film version of one of ten parts of theater legend August Wilson’s masterpiece about the black experience in the 20th century. What would it mean for La La Land, which is nearly blatantly apolitical, to win?

I believe the Oscars are culturally significant, which is different than critically or financially successful (critically, the festival/local critics circle awards seem to be a better indicator of quality, considering some debatably terrible Oscar picks (Crash, 2004)….as for box office, ticket sales are also responsible for what seems like an endless tapeworm of superhero movies). Generally, when something culturally significant occurs, the internet masses weigh in, whether or not they are genuine experts. A lot of the “fun” about watching the Oscars for people that aren’t entirely into cinema, is that the show invites them to be critics. There is cultural validation at work here that is sort of a happy medium between critical merit and popular success that allows for the Oscars to be a mainstream public event that celebrates something that is really very exclusive.

The Academy has long made a point to rally around a politically “safe” contender (i.e. publicity warming, market appropriate, representational “honors” as it were). Last year the underwhelming Spotlight won best picture because we can all agree that an institution condoning the sexual abuse track record of its members is wrong. This year Hollywood has made a point to show its disdain for Trump and everything he represents: his racist, misogynist agenda of hatred. Trump is and will continue to be the butt of every joke in the opening skit of every awards ceremony. At the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep expressed her disgust, next it will be Jack Nicholson or Robert DeNiro or Helen Mirren (whatever Hollywood veteran gets that honorary promotion to oracle status this time around) and when the speech is over, our specially plucked sampling of Hollywood will stand up and cheer enthusiastically. The oracle has spoken. Hollywood agrees.

And yet La La Land, if it is to “sweep” the Oscars as many predict, stands to render Hollywood impotent, to relegate those actors and artsy types back to the Gatsby-esque, gilded hellhole we always imagined them to occupy. There was much debate about Meryl Streep’s speech: how hypocritical of her, she’s just another moneyed white person. Progress is just a la mode for these Hollywood types isn’t it? I’m not sure what the Oscars even mean anymore, or IF they mean at all (or ever meant), but this year is distinct because it shows the willingness of white elite types to engage in politics that do not concern them. The Oscars are about show business and art and performance, but it is worth reiterating the essential mantra that everything is political, even that which is apparently “apolitical.” To allow La La Land to be the film that represents a very politically charged year(of professed political awakenings for many), would be– to put it softly– a little out of touch.

Anyway, the Oscars have never been about the “best” movie (that’s what we have Cannes and such for). It’s about the performance of an agenda, Hollywood’s agenda. This year has brought the hope that such an agenda might be more inclusive, more progressive, etc. Or, maybe not. My point is that were La La Land to win Best picture, the next day (maybe even a week if there are not too many other “distractions” on the news) would be a Facebook “newsfeed” evidencing yet another instance of Hollywood navel gazing, reaffirming what all those anti-Meryl Streep thought pieces already wrote out so elegantly. Moonlight is the obvious “alternative.” However tiny or even *puny* the victory, to see that a movie about the sort of individual that Trump’s America so ardently hates, win the coveted Best Picture prize, is just another welcome morsel of proof that people are watching. Movies should not be about escapism this year, as much as we want to blissfully ignore our political reality….

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