Thursday, January 5, 2017

In Defense of La La Land. Nostalgia, Not So Much

I come to bury La La Land, not to praise it.

No, honestly, I’m defending the movie outright because, while imperfect, it did a lot of things well. The earlier numbers, in particular, set dazzling dance numbers using the city of Los Angeles as a stage; that read like a great choice to me, in that it evokes the idea that inspiration (OK, magic) is where one finds it, or just sees it. More to the point, though, La La Land is a movie about the nexus between art and dreams, finding one’s vision and holding it, even when it seems like no one else wants to hear about it. I can’t go deeper than that, not without dropping a fairly defining spoiler, so I’ll leave it there. No, La La Land isn’t terribly original and, yes, it adopts the tropes from classic musicals. And, yes, it’s a pretty simple story. Simple, however, isn’t synonymous with “empty.” Some things are so simple, and sometimes so true, that it gets lost in needless complexity.

I’m defending that movie, which I have seen, but not Stranger Things (because I’ve only seen a couple episodes),because both headlined the charge that they're vehicles for “empty nostalgia,” as argued by the author of this Vox article. That article uses La La Land, and few other current pop culture products, to make the larger point that, when a general mood of hopelessness seizes a society, the pop culture it produces regresses toward nostalgia, a belief in a happy past when things were just “better” (yes, yes, for some not others; he gets there, the author does), and cling to the notion that more things would work out if we all cleaved to the habits and practices of the, a time that memory tells us worked so well.

As acknowledged in the article, if a little sheepishly, one doesn’t have to go too deep into the topic of nostalgia before one lands on president-elect Donald Trump. The author – and why haven’t I named him yet? It’s Todd VanDerWerff – did produce a stellar passage on the Trump phenomenon:

“…those who opposed Trump never quite understood the story he was selling, because it was a story so at odds with their own understanding of a cosmopolitan world coming into being before their very eyes. His was a self-created dark mirror of the pop culture Obama narrative.”
That’s one line gets to what makes this article worth reading, because it gets to a fundamental tension in pretty much all Western Civilization right now. In very rough terms, the Obama presidency represented the ideal of an optimistic maximally cosmopolitan future; sort of what Hillary Clinton let slip during one of her Goldman Sachs cash-ins, when she talked about a world without borders (Goldman’s role in that world quite aside, at least from my point of view, because fuck the greedheads). Trumpism is the rejection of all that, a retreat into (what I view as) the 20th-century malady of nationalism and fear of whatever other presents itself.

That’s a good point. I just don’t see why VanDerWerff has to drag a perfectly cute movie like La La Land through the dirt on his way to making the point. So, yeah, there’s your take away: go see La La Land, but continue to have faith in others, and believe in coexistence. It’s nice, dammit.

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