Saturday, January 14, 2017

La La Land

The title La La Land (2016; dir. Damien Chazelle) denotes L. A. Land—Los Angeles Land, home of the American film industry, the setting and subject of this film.  La La Land also denotes fantasy, extreme fantasy verging on craziness, as when we say that someone who isn’t quite with it lives in La La Land.  These meanings all apply to this film.  It invokes romanticism while at the same time subverting and tearing romanticism down.  It pays homage to earlier musical fantasies (to films in general, with its somewhat off-kilter nods to Rebel without a Cause—neither of the main characters are rebels) while at the same time discarding them and trying to offer something new.
The two principal characters—an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz pianist—are ambitious.  They want careers in the La La Land of Hollywood and the entertainment industry.  They’re not quite prepared to fall in love, but they do.  Love and careerism intersect, conflict, combust.
I admire the fact that this film was made.  It’s a mature and adult film, a serious musical in an era that doesn’t have much room for deviations from the prevailing norms.  It never took fire for me.  Only one or two of the musical numbers came alive.  You could almost see Emma Stone counting her steps—one, two, three—in the dance numbers.  But that’s all right.  Neither Stone nor Ryan Reynolds was supposed to be a stereotypical character in a Hollywood musical.  They’re imperfect, their dancing is entertaining but not on the level of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly—that’s still OK.  This film is about normal individuals, not spectacular Hollywood sensations—normal in so far as aspiring actresses and jazz pianists can be normal.
The opening scene—with people stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam breaking into song and dance, was misleading.  It seemed contrived and artificial and didn’t prepare for the film and story to follow.  It reminded me of the musical Rent.
The final scene—an extended what-might-have-been fantasy dance and musical number—is plaintive and sad.  (It’s also manipulative and predictable). We can all identify with it in one way or the other, speculating over different paths our lives might have taken, in the end recognizing that the one we did take was all for the best.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Lady Vanishes

Fast, witty dialogue is a defining virtue of The Lady Vanishes (1938; dir. Alfred Hitchcock). Although it's a mystery film, with people under various forms of menace, and though it includes gunfire, kidnapping, and murder, it's also quite humorous. Dialogue is one source of humor. Stereotyped characters are another. The stereotypes are mainly ethnic: British, Italian, German, and perhaps East European—I wasn't certain about the last. Most of the film takes place on a train, and among the various passengers are a man and woman who've had an affair, two British gentleman traveling to a cricket match, a doctor, a countess, an Italian magician, a dowdy middle-aged woman (who disappears), and various others. Some humor comes from people of one nationality not being able to understand the language of another.

A young woman traveling to meet her fiancé shares a compartment with a middle-aged woman.  When the older woman disappears, the younger woman takes it upon herself to find out what happened.  No one believes her that the woman has vanished.  In fact, no one claims to remember having seen the woman at all.  As the young woman’s investigation develops, the mystery deepens, and so on.

The story reflects the crisis in Europe as political affairs in Germany and Italy continue to worsen—although neither is mentioned, Hitler and Mussolini are in power, and the prospect of war is in the atmosphere of the film.

Hitchcock’s fascination with human faces, with an array of often eccentric and funny characters, plays into the humor of the film.

Portions of the film, especially early scenes, are fairly risqué for the time. There are also elements that are difficult to interpret, given the year the film was made and the year in which I watched it.  In one scene, the two cricket fans are forced to share a single bed while waylaid in a hotel in the Alps: we see them in bed together, in what I have to say is a cuddled-up position: one of the men has his shirt off.  The other, when he gets out of bed to answer the door, is wearing a nightshirt and no pajama pants. In 2016 we'd conclude the two men are gay, but I suspect that in 1938 most audience members (except perhaps gay audience members) would not have thought much of it, other than to find it humorous.