La La Land: A Leninist Reading

La La Land: A Leninist Reading

Among the PC reproaches to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the one that stands out for its sheer stupidity was that there are no gay couples in the film which takes place in LA, a city with a strong gay population… How come those PC Leftists who complain about the sub-representation of sexual and ethnic minorities in Hollywood movies never complain about the gross misrepresentation of the lower class majority of workers? It’s OK if workers are invisible, just that we get here and there a gay or lesbian character…

I remember a similar incident at the first conference on the idea of Communism in London in 2009. Some people in the public voiced the complaint that there was only one woman among the participants, plus no black person and no one from Asia, to which Badiou remarked that it was strange how no one was bothered by the fact that there were no workers among the participants, especially given that the topic was Communism.

And, back to La La Land, we should bear in mind that the movie opens up precisely with the depiction of hundreds of precarious and/or unemployed workers on their way to Hollywood to search for a job that would boost their career. The first song (“Another Day of Sun”) shows them singing and dancing to make the time pass while they are stuck in a highway traffic jam. Mia and Sebastian, who are among them, each in his/her car, are the two who will succeed—the (obvious) exceptions. And, from this standpoint, their falling in love (which will enable their success) enters the story precisely to blur in the background the invisibility of hundreds who will fail, making it appear that it was their love (and not sheer luck) which made them special and destined to success. Ruthless competition is the name of the game, with no hint of solidarity (recall numerous audition scenes where Mia is repeatedly humiliated). No wonder that, when I hear the first lines of the most famous song from La La Land (“City of stars, are you shining just for me / city of stars, there is so much that I can’t see”), I find it hard to resist the temptation to hum back the most stupid orthodox Marxist reply imaginable: “No, I am not shining just for the petit-bourgeois ambitious individual that you are, I am also shining for the thousands of exploited precarious workers in Hollywood whom you can’t see and who will not succeed like you, to give them some hope!”

Mia and Sebastian start a relationship and move in together, but they grow apart because of their desire to succeed: Mia wants to become an actress while Sebastian wants to own a club where he would play authentic old jazz. First, Sebastian joins a pop-jazz band and spends time touring, then, after the premiere of her monodrama fails, Mia leaves Los Angeles and moves back home to Boulder City. Alone in LA, Sebastian receives a call from a casting director who had attended and enjoyed Mia’s play, and invites Mia to a film audition. Sebastian drives to Boulder City and persuades her to return. Mia is simply asked to tell a story for the audition; she begins to sing about her Aunt who inspired her to pursue acting. Confident that the audition was a success, Sebastian asserts that Mia must devote herself wholeheartedly to the opportunity. They profess they will always love each other, but are uncertain of their future. Five years later, Mia is a famous actress and married to another man, with whom she has a daughter. One night, the couple stumble upon a jazz bar. Noticing the Seb’s logo, Mia realizes Sebastian has finally opened his own club. Sebastian spots Mia, looking unsettled and regretful, in the crowd and begins to play their love theme. This prompts an extended dream sequence in which the two imagine what might have been had their relationship worked out perfectly. The song ends and Mia leaves with her husband. Before walking out, she shares with Sebastian one last knowing look and smile, happy for the dreams they have both achieved.

As was already noted by many critics, the final 10 minutes fantasy is simply a Hollywood musical version of the film: it shows how the story would be told in a classic Hollywood musical. Such a reading confirms the film’s reflexivity: it stages in a movie how the movie should end with regard to the genre formula to which it relates. La La Land is clearly a self-reflexive film, a film on the genre of musicals, but it works alone; one doesn’t have to know the full history of musicals to enjoy and understand it (much like what Bazin wrote on Chaplin’s Limelight: it is a reflexive film about the old Chaplin’s declining career, but it stands alone; one doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s early career as the Tramp to enjoy it). Interestingly, the more we progress into the film, the less musical numbers are in it and the more of pure (melo)drama – till, at the end, we are thrown back into a musical which explodes as a fantasy.

Apart from obvious references to other musicals, Chazelle’s more subtle reference is Sandrich’s classic Rogers/Astaire musical screwball comedy Top Hat (1935). There are many good things to say about Top Hat, beginning with the role of tap dancing as the disturbing intrusion into the daily life routine (Astaire practices tap dancing in the hotel floor above Ginger Rogers, which makes her complain, thus bringing the couple together). Compared to La La Land, what cannot but strike the eye is the total psychological flatness of Top Hat where there is no depth, just puppet-like acting which pervades even the most intimate moments. The final song and its staging (“Piccolino”) in no way relates to the story’s happy ending; the words of the song are purely self-referential, merely telling the story of how this song itself came to be and inviting us to dance to it: “By the Adriatic waters / Venetian sons and daughters / Are strumming a new tune upon their guitars / It was written by a Latin / A gondolier who sat in / His home out in Brooklyn and gazed at the stars // He sent his melody / Across the sea / To Italy / And we know / They wrote some words to fit / That catchy bit / And christened it / The Piccolino // And we know that it’s the reason / Why everyone this season / Is strumming and humming a new melody. // Come to the casino / And hear them play the Piccolino / Dance with your bambino / To the strains of the catchy Piccolino / Drink your glass of vino / And when you’ve had your plate of scalopino / Make them play the Piccolino / The catchy Piccolino / And dance to the strains of that new melody / The Piccolino.” And this is the truth of the film: not the ridiculous plot but the music and tap dancing as a self-goal. In parallel with Andersen’s Red Shoes, the hero just cannot help tap-dancing: it is for him an irresistible drive. The singing dialogue between Astaire and Rogers, even at its most sensuous (as in the famous “Dancing cheek to cheek”) is just a pretext for the musical-dancing exercise.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

1 Comment

tayoulevy · February 20, 2017 at 11:32 pm

I always like to hear what ZiZek has to say about the most disparate issues. And the associations are wild

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