“La La Land” – Hooray for Hollywood

December 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The second movie I ever blogged about, nearly ten years ago (here), was “Words and Music,” a forgettable romantic comedy with several original songs and two big stars – Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. What I saw was a movie that was less about romance and more about career success.  In fact, I wondered if maybe all American movies were about success.* 

Yesterday, I saw “La La Land” and had the same reaction. The trailer, intentionally or not, makes this same point. It starts with the two stars – Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) – being hit with abrupt career setbacks. Mia is rejected at an audition after she speaks one line. Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano in a restaurant because he plays one song of his own in addition to the simplistic Christmas song arrangements on the owner’s playlist.

In that earlier post, I said, “In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.” That’s not where “La La Land” goes.

In “La La Land,” what most concerns the lovers is not their relationship; it’s the other person’s career. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her passion to write and star in her own autobiographical play. Mia encourages Sebastian to pursue his passion – creating his own club as a home for mainstream jazz. In their most passionate scene, Mia tries to persuade him to be true to his dream rather than take a lucrative deal to go on the road with a pop-funk group headed by John Legend. Given these well-worn ideas, the dialogue is predictably predictable.

Fortunately, that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s not primarily concerned with telling you about Mia and Sebastian’s careers, or about their relationship. What “La La Land” wants to tell you about is movies – Hollywood musicals of the classical era. “La La Land” is full of the cinematic cliches (maybe tropes is the better term) of that period, and there are deliberate allusions to specific films. That’s what makes “La La Land” so enjoyable. It’s like pulling a school yearbook off the shelf and paging through it, recognizing old friends you haven’t seen in a long while and remembering what they were like. From the  opening scene – a freeway traffic jam that becomes a huge production number – you’re hooked. Sebastian and Mia are not real people; they’re movie characters. So if their motives and feelings are familiar cliches, that’s part of the game.

It’s not just Hollywood musicals that inspire the film. The Jacques Demy musicals of the 1960s – “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” with their bright colors – also get a large wave of the hand. At least one of the songs seemed like a deliberate attempt to emulate Michel Legrand. And the plot at the end strongly resembles that of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” though with an added Hollywood-ending variation that may be the best thing in the film.

The wrong note, to my ear, was Sebastian’s piano playing. Big props to Gosling for learning to play the piano – that’s really him playing, they never used a piano double – but when he plays solo, it does not sound at all jazzy. He has a photo of Bill Evans that appears twice for a split second, but there’s no Evans in his sound, nor is there a hint of bebop-tradition pianists from Bud Powell on. The writer-director of the film, Damien Chazelle, has an obvious affinity for jazz. His previous film “Whiplash” centered on a young man trying to become a jazz drummer, and the film had several moments of solid big band jazz. (For more on “Whiplash,” see this post from four years ago.) The combo scenes in “La La Land” do sound like real jazz, and it looked to me as though they used real musicians, not actors pretending to play to the pre-recorded music we hear.

But to repeat, the movie is not about playing jazz or opening a club; it’s not about auditioning and acting and writing a play; and it’s not about love. It’s about exactly what the title says – Hollywood.


* The first movie discussed in this blog (here) was clearly a critique of the American ideology of success – “Little Miss Sunshine.” It too, like
“La La Land,” seemed like an homage to a movie of the 1940s – “The Grapes of Wrath.”

You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma

December 27, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How should a liberal think about Oklahoma? It’s just about the most politically conservative state in the Union. Oklahomans voted nearly 2-1 for Trump. Hillary got only 29% of the vote. Oklahoma was just as conservative a half-century ago. They don’t like liberals now, and they didn’t like them back then. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey got 32% to Nixon’s  48%. And 20% of the vote went to George Wallace, an avowed racist. Only five years earlier, Wallace had famously declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Times change. The arc of history, at least American history of the last 50 years, bends towards those liberal policies once hated by conservatives. Even in Oklahoma, nobody is campaigning to bring back Jim Crow. Other attitudes too look a lot like what Sooners opposed a half-century ago.

Claude Fischer makes this point at his excellent Made in America blog (here) by offering a retrospective on an important conservative Oklahoma document of 1969 – “Okie From Muskogee,” the Country-Western hit (with some crossover popularity) by Merle Haggard. It was a culture-war statement, defending traditional ways and attacking the 1960s urban, college-educated liberals, the counterparts of the people who today are the objects of so much resentment among Trump supporters. They resented us then, and they resent us now. But the ideas they resented us for back then they have now come to agree with. 

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

We don’t make a party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

Times change. Hairstyles change – “long and shaggy” is now country.

Left: Chris Stapleton with his armful of CMA awards.
Right: Georgia Line, CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, who will
perform in North Carolina despite the LBGT laws.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Drugstyles change too. Even in Oklahoma, marijuana is now legal for some medical purposes. Non-medical weed and other illegal drugs, notably oxycontin and opioids, have achieved at least a niche market of country users. As Fischer notes, current C/W hits refer openly to getting stoned and rolling joints.

As for old-timey romance (“holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo”), the percent of rural and small-town residents who say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all” has doubled since the 1970s and is now the majority opinion.

Perhaps as a consequence of this relatively recent change in attitudes, rates of teen birth, including births to the unwed, are higher among country folk than among city folk. I guess with this premarital sex thing it takes a while to figure out how to do it right.

Maybe in fifty years, Sooners will look back on Trump the way they now might see George Wallace or Nixon and the Vietnam war, which they once supported.  Merle Haggard himself had a change of heart. “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song,” he said. He supported Obama, and he supported Hillary.

Meanwhile, I know that I am supposed to realize that the good people of Oklahoma are in fact good people and that we should not deplore their ideas and political choices. The recent books by Arlie Hochschild and Kathy Cramer paint a sympathetic and understanding picture of Trump supporters in Wisconsin and Louisiana, respectively.

A similar book could probably have been written about Oklahomans – now or in 1969 – and liberal readers might have regretted their lack of empathy for the heartland. But they would also have found it hard to separate the political views from the people who held them. Would such a book back then have led liberals to think that these Oklahomans who supported a very wrong war and who opposed civil rights were actually fine people?

I keep thinking of what an old friend, an Oklahoma native, said many years ago. He had grown up in Tulsa and still spoke with that Southwest twang. But he had left the Southwest and wound up going to universities in the great cities of the North (New York, Chicago). He never looked back. He became an educated, urban liberal. One day, there was a front-page story about a natural disaster in Oklahoma, a tornado that had killed people and destroyed homes. I noted that he seemed unconcerned, almost hard-hearted, about it. 

“It’s Tornado Alley,” he said. “That’s where the tornadoes come, and those people keep building and rebuilding their houses there.” I imagine he might be saying the same thing about the Oklahoma earthquakes today. If you keep voting for politicians who give the oil and gas companies free rein, don’t complain to me about the earthquakes their fracking causes.
“Still,” I said, “don’t you have some sympathy for their loss?”
“No,” he said.
“Why not?”
“ ’Cause they’re a bunch of fuckin’ Okies.”

“Manchester by the Sea”

December 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is very good movie, not just for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. That is, it avoids several cliches of American movies; and for that, it is more honest and more powerful.

Lee Chandler (Casey Afflek), is a troubled man, forced to become guardian of his 15-year old nephew Patrick when Lee’s brother Joe (Patrick’s father) dies. Lee was not always troubled. The opening scene, seven years earlier, shows  Lee, Patrick, and Joe fishing on Joe’s boat near Manchester, north of Boston. It’s all good family fun. It’s also the opening of the trailer, which sketches the plot of the rest of the movie as well.

In the intervening years, tragedy has befallen Lee, and he lives with its pain. He works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy south of Boston. He lives alone in a single room there. He is withdrawn – asocial with flashes of anger.

We know how this will go. The Lee-Patrick relationship will be rocky at first, with arguments and misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, Lee will not only become a good and willing surrogate father, but with Patrick providing subtle advice and help, he will become a better person. He’ll be more sociable and less angry, he’ll find a good woman, he’ll get a better job.

Not quite. That’s the scenario we’d expect from Hollywood, where children are in most ways better than adults. Adults become better people by dealing with kids (“Kramer vs. Kramer”).  Or kids help the adults overcome their silly problems (“The Parent Trap,” “Sleepless in Seattle”).  Even teenagers are more capable than adults at dealing with life’s problems. (See earlier posts on “The Descendants”  and “The Kids Are All Right.”). In fact, “Manchester” has what seems like a deliberate comment on films where children manoeuver adults into an eventually successful relationship.

As the two sit in the car outside his girlfriend’s house, Patrick asks Lee to come in and talk with the girl’s mother. (“Can you at least hang out with her so I can be alone with Sandy for half an hour without her mother knockin’ on the door and askin’, ‘How’s it goin’?’every twenty seconds?” “This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says. The Hollywood formula would prove Patrick’s wisdom. It would be good for both of them. Lee would sit with the girl’s mother and talk, awkwardly at first, but gradually, her kind openness would draw him out of his shell. But in “Manchester,” Patrick is wrong. It’s good for neither of them. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation with the girl’s mother. His refusal of even minimal, polite small talk seems childish, petulant, not deserving of our sympathy.

In the end, the relation with Patrick brings Lee not some grand transformation but maybe a glimmer of hope. He will still not become Patrick’s guardian. But he does move to Boston, a half-hour closer to Manchester, and he takes a two-room apartment so that Patrick can visit. But Lee is still a janitor, he is still alone, and he still gets drunk in bars and starts throwing punches.

The other anti-Hollywood virtue of the film is its honest treatment of working-class people. “Manchester” refuses to portray them as noble in the face of adversity à la Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” And as A.O. Scott says (here), comparing it with other Boston working-class films, “This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives.” Nor is upward mobility an issue. You could imagine Lee insisting that Patrick go to college – trite dialogue like “You don’t wanna end up like me.”  But when Patrick says in passing, “I’m not going to college,” nothing more is said. 

The world of “Manchester” is White working class and largely male. But these are not the people at Trump rallies, resentful, on the attack, vowing to take back their country. Lee is just a man trying to come to terms with the challenges and sorrows of his life, some brought on by his own actions, some handed to him.

Call Me, Maybe. Or Maybe Not.

December 3, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The big news today is that the president-elect called Taiwan. Big mistake. The American Conservative (here) calls it “the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior.” That’s our next president – impulsive and ignorant. Not a good combination for the leader of the free world. Those traits were not a liability in the election campaign – maybe they were an asset – but foreign governments are not the US electorate, and every gesture carries great meaning.  If the US talks with Taiwan, China will be upset. In fact, they just lodged an official diplomatic complaint.

I sympathize with Trump’s ignorance on this one. The story reminded me of one of the early posts in this blog (here), ten years ago, about a similar issue of who could talk to who.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved.

It was like those disputes from my childhood.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine Trump’s reaction on being told that the phone call was a major blunder. “What, you mean I have to pretend that Taiwan doesn’t exist? That they don’t have phones? They’ve got terrific phones, the best. Believe me. And I know they exist, bigly. Great economy. That’s why I want to put up hotels there. Fantastic, classy hotels. Besides, it was just a phone call.”

A State Department official tries to explain the rules about talk and that if you really want to communicate with Taiwan, you have to go through other channels. As I said at the end of that 2007 post

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.