A movie I enjoyed a lot in the later part of 2016 was “La La Land.” Yes, I know it wasn’t done in Israel, but it doesn’t matter where we live, we all have values and choice. The question for all of us is, from kind of mind-set do our values and choices spring from? Is it Christianly thinking (Hebraic holistic thinking) or the world’s myriad methods of compartmental thinking?
“That’s L.A. They worship everything and value nothing.” So says Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as he walks through the Warner Brothers’ back lot with Mia (Emma Stone) in this now award-winning new film La La Land. These two star-crossed lovers, drawn together by their shared failures, develop a beautiful and beautifying relationship as they share their distinctive dreams for the future. He seeks to restore the popularity of jazz in a world of soulless commercial music. She wants to restore the creative role of the actress in a world of formulaic soap operas.
But what values will drive them as they make choices in pursuit of their dreams? And what impact will this have on their lives?
The Times described this film as an ‘intravenous shot of joy in the January darkness.’ (And it certainly is that.) But it is also more than that. In one pivotal scene, Sebastian shows Mia how jazz musicians are spontaneous, with individual instruments suddenly taking the lead and driving the music in a different direction. In the same way, the film illustrates how life is messy as new opportunities take us in unexpected directions. But what are the core values that underpin the choices we make and do those choices affect what we worship? The statement: “That’s L.A. they worship everything and value nothing,” does that also apply to more than just L.A.? Could it be us too, we worship everything and value nothing?
It’s been about 50 years since Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” and this is probably evident in this film, as its message is conveyed through its particular use of the musical genre, where even its structure breaks the standard mold for movies.
Most films, and indeed many other forms of storytelling, use a three-act story arc. The first act, variously called the ‘setup’ or ‘exposition,’ introduces the characters and their context, with sufficient back-story to cause the viewer to care about their lives. It leads to an ‘inciting incident’ – a dramatic turning point that raises a seemingly insurmountable problem. Then follows the second act, variously called ‘confrontation’ or ‘rising action,’ in which the characters seek to overcome the problem, but the tension builds as their efforts simply make the problems worse. Finally, in the third act, usually called ‘resolution,’ the characters eventually overcome the problems, with a dramatic and emotional climax.
But then again, La La Land has five parts, each explicitly signaled by a title on the screen (winter, spring, summer, fall, winter). What could have become a dramatic, climactic, resolution at the end of the third act (summer) turns out only to be a staging post in the story as it heads on into fall and winter. Yet, when we stop and ponder it for a moment, we realize that life is exactly like it.
It was a famous Sinatra song where he sang about four of those seasons. But as we know, life doesn’t resolve naturally and quickly and never has. We continue to face new and different challenges, sometimes daily. The formulaic three-act story arc of life is as fictional as the tales it is used to describe. Take the classic film that I didn’t like at all for a variety of reasons, Pretty Woman, which resolves at the end where the city financier (Richard Gere) driving off happily with the prostitute (Julia Roberts). However, what would have happened if the story had continued with two more acts? More than likely a relationship breakdown and bitter accusations? Possibly, unfaithfulness and distrust over each other’s pasts unresolved sexual adventures?
In a curious and in a very engaging way, La La Land is actually more realistic in its story arc, despite its use of the fantastical impossibilities of the musical genre; such as the sudden singing and dancing in a traffic jam. In the real-world people don’t join in, magically knowing all the words and the steps. Although, I personally wanted to join in dancing at numerous times throughout the movie! And for that absorbing reason, it is more haunting, for it causes us to think about the values that underpin our choices.
The film leaves us wondering what could have been different in Sebastian and Mia’s lives if they had made different choices. Also, the ending is deliberately enigmatic (puzzling). In the final musical number, whose dream are we watching? Is it Sebastian’s or Mia’s, or do both characters realize that they missed what was true happiness together, which was now beyond them? Or is it possible our dream for them, for us? We expect, even unconsciously demand, a climactic resolution, don’t we? Why is that? Is it because there will indeed be a final decision for all of the creation, in which relationships are fully restored, and we all get to sing and dance together? And, if God has planned that from the foundation of the world, has He put those desired steps deeply in our total being, and our hearts are beating with the tunes that set our feet to dancing! Subsequently, we have a deep yearning for such a resolution? I believe entirely so, I know my whole being of my heart and feet say so!
Whatever your perspective on life and love (I know what mine is, do you?), this movie made me smile almost throughout the whole La La Land musical extravaganza. It is a bright and colorful look at dreams, hopes, and love, that will cause you to think about what we value and what we worship as we make choices in our own lives.
Just a hint about your professor, I was the jazz guy, my bride of now almost 40 years, well she still is the actress excellent, and we have four beautiful kids and three in-love kids and five grandkiddos… you see we made the right choice of love.
Shalom, Yasher Koach El Hashem, (Peace, May you have strength in the Holy One)
Stephen J. Higgins