Friday, January 06, 2017

Time travelers in La La Land: here's to the past

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

The beginning of a year is possibly not the best time for an appreciation of the remote and misty past, but here goes anyway.

Reading about the ruckus created by some Mohammed Rafi fans over an “insulting” line in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – where Alizeh (played by Anushka Sharma) dismissively says that Rafi cried more than he sang – I had a conflicted response. As a supporter of freedom of creative expression, I was appalled by the idea that a filmmaker might be coerced into apologizing on behalf of a character in his story (even if what was said had been many times crasser than “Rafi gaate kum, rotey zyaada thay”). As a critic, I shook my head at this inability to understand a scene’s function in the context of a specific narrative.

But another part of me – the fan of old movies and old music, who is always a little defensive about the cinematic past and how it might be perceived by the current generation – knew I would give this Alizeh person a wide berth if we ever chanced to meet. “Airhead,” I thought, humming one of Rafi’s most stirring songs “Dil ke Jharokhe Mein” to myself, “I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with her about music, or possibly anything else. It would be like talking to that Sid Mallya kid who said ‘Top Gun’ when asked about his favourite classic film.”

It’s a small tribe I belong to – call us hoarders and worshippers of things that were made (or sung) decades before we were born – and our conversations are often fraught. As someone who became addicted to the great Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s as a teen, read all the literature available about the period, and later found his way to the vintage cinemas of other countries, I grit my teeth at people who think these relics are quaint or irrelevant compared to the edgier films and TV shows of today. Or when, on Quora, a question like “Which is the most amazing movie climax?” or “What is the most philosophical movie ever?” begets answers posted by users who are invested enough in cinema to have elaborate conversations about it, but seem unaware that there was a pre-Christopher Nolan world – let alone that medium-defining things were being done a hundred years ago.

With the past being a foreign country that very few of us apply for visas to, there are obvious reasons to be entranced by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film about two people who are in many ways anachronisms. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) loves jazz in its original, pristine form and frets about its decline (“the world says let it die, it had its time,” he despairs; he would identify with old-movie buffs who worry about poor print preservation and lack of public interest), while Mia (Emma Stone) has a giant Ingrid Bergman poster on her wall and loves movies like Casablanca. They both look ahead to the future, to the realization of private dreams, but they have such a strong connection to a cultural past that the film itself is seduced into telling their story in a language that evokes the golden years of the big-screen musical.

Notably, even though La La Land is set in the 21st century, in a world of intrusive cellphones and electronic car keys, the musical numbers – many of which could easily be from 1950s or 1960s films – are played straight. There are tiny nudge-wink moments: for instance, when Mia sardonically sings “Maybe this appeals / to someone not in heels” during a nighttime stroll and then sits down to put on shoes more suited to dancing, I was reminded of the famous, uncredited observation that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did in their dances together, except she did it in high heels. But the overall tone is affectionate and unironic.

It’s likely that many of La La Land’s fans – especially the younger ones – love the film not because it reminds them of a grand, larger-than-life cinematic past, but for its novelty value; it will remain a delightful one-off, like almost nothing they have seen before (or will see again) – in this sense it is like The Artist, a 2011 black-and-white silent film that became massively popular among audiences who knew little about the actual silent era. But I feel Chazelle’s film generously invites a viewer to use it as a channel to explore bygone treasures – not just the obvious influences such as American and French musicals, but also other old films that it explicitly pays tribute to, such as the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause, and even the ones we only see posters of, such as The Black Cat and The Killers.

Here’s to the ones who dream, sings Mia in a rousing scene that expands its scale almost magically: it begins as an effort by an aspiring starlet to clinch an audition (I was reminded of Janet Gaynor’s Vicki Lester in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, saying “But maybe I’M that ONE” when told that only one in a hundred thousand make it in Hollywood), then soars into a gentle commentary on the frail times we live in; a time where the vanguards of art and culture, the “painters and poets and plays”, seem always to be under threat by larger, bullying forces. But the lyrics, about a fiercely independent aunt who inspired Mia, are also a paean to the past; to the achievements of those who paved a road for the realization of our current dreams. They could just as well be a tribute to old cinema. So here’s to the amateur historians, the time travelers, the dabblers who are weirdly nostalgic about things they never actually experienced. Foolish as they may seem.

[An earlier post on Damien Chazelle's excellent Whiplash is here]

1 comment:

  1. I like what you have absorbed from the movie. As for me, I simply couldn't understand what the fuss was all about, La La Land being touted as the film likely to win the Best Picture Oscar if not won by Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It is a well made movie, but I just kept wishing for Singin in the Rain or any of Fred Astaire's numbers because of the superior songs and dancing. I had read a review where the critic remarked that La La Land's simple songs and steps were perhaps meant to reinforce that the protagonists were ordinary people trying to realise their dreams. However shouldn't the songs be the centerpiece of a musical?
    Also 100% agree about being a classic film buff. I absolutely adore old films and feel they are much better than the current crop for all their technological achievements. I often think I should stop watching the new movies, since I want to make time for watching all the old classics. Why waste time when there are so many classics yet to be watched. I get a thrill on seeing the black and white screen unfold. I am 31 and most of my peers are either unaware of the classics or just look down upon them, them being black and white. Which reminds me of "Midnight in Paris" where both Owen Wilson's and Marion Cotillard's characters want to escape from their present and go back and stay in the past which holds so much of gold tinted nostalgia for them.