La La Land versus Paterson: Adventures In Earnestness
This review is being published late due to the writer being chickenshit.
Not so long ago it was my thirtieth birthday. Clearly the only way to celebrate was a movie marathon. My partner suggested La La Land and I was conflicted: my Facebook timeline was fairly divided on the topic (from abject adoration to scorn) and the trailer looked bleak and uninviting. What if I hated it and it RUINED MY BIRTHDAY? We agreed then to see two films, with La La Land as his choice. Mine was Paterson: it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Jarmusch movie, but they never failed me yet. Spoiler alert: they didn’t this time, either. La La Land on the other hand…. .
La La Land is this film that is trying to be too many things. Glamour 50s style Hollywood musical tribute – check; bleak love story and difficult lives of creatives – check; meta meta meta as fuck/Singing in the Rain 4 – check. To me, it succeeds only with the second one, and even in that – barely.
Mind you, for a failed (in my mind) movie, it’s a fairly good movie. It has structure, characters, some clear thought behind it. For me it falls short, but there are a lot of people for whom it hits the sweet spot – I’m not here to argue about why it’s a bestest movie evah!, I’m here to wag my tongue as to why Hollywood is dead.
We open into LA traffic. That’s great, we’re meant to think – here’s the film that tells it like it is! LA is traffic, pointless parties where people practice creative pitching on one another, joyless penniless existence and humiliating castings. Except, watching people jump out of their cars to dance mid-traffic, old-time musical style, I can’t help but think how many castings they’ve had to do to get to this point. And if they were more humane than the ones shown in the movie. So that we-get-you empathy is falling short right there; the grins on dancers’ faces feel forced and so does the dancing. La La Land is trying to sell you #revolution and #itshouldntbethisway while very likely being part of the problem. (Please tell me if I’m wrong: I would love to learn that they took time and effort to make a difference to their performers and will amend accordingly).
Onto the love story! Girl meets boy and they dislike each other. Standard. They meet again and she likes him but he’s an asshole. Okay. And then she’s an asshole back. Enter romantic song about how neither of them can stand to express interest and be vulnerable, plus tap dancing shoes. Why is this not doing it for me? Maybe, as per a snippy comment I remember from Twitter, two okay-ish singers and dancers could only get this job if they were White. Maybe it could be that lack of genuine connection between them (the only moment something sizzles is in the cinema, plus the break-up scenes). Maybe it’s that Gosling’s piano player, Seb, while well-shown as a jazz-obsessed conservative holier-than-thou musician is a real struggle to like – his single redeeming quality is being bizarrely, shoutily supportive while Mia falters in pursuit of her creative dream. (I was told this director doesn’t do likeable characters, which, whatever, but this character is a cliche, a douche and doesn’t make sense, except as some weird self-insert fantasy asshole. Mind, I felt for him when he was awkward or being stood up — the acting is good, it’s the messages I don’t like). As for Mia, she is a bit better at being likeable — being both an actor and, cough, a woman, cough – but that doesn’t count for much. I connected with her storyline – as a female with a solo show, how could I not? – but the film doesn’t really give anything concrete as to what to do as a penniless creative. “Go home after a string of failures, rail against the system, receive a golden bullet casting call” is one of these stories we all know: darkest before dawn and all that, #youneverknow. Positive thinking, make your own show, don’t give up. I don’t disagree, but the systematic humiliation that the film does a decent job of showing doesn’t go away just because one thin White actress got her dream job. I get it, just – not helpful. Was it meant to be? I’m not sure.
La La Land’s bits of realistic depiction are confusing when the main couple dance in the air or break out singing. They sing too rarely to actually make it a musical – on that count, or in the “artistic realness” competition it ain’t no Rent – and the faded Hollywood glamour only serves to underline their impossible dreams. Although the dreams turn out to be more possible than a relationship between two busy creatives, which I totally empathise with — apparently wanting to be both creatively and emotionally fulfilled is the real la la land-worthy delusion, here, not — say being treated with a modicum of respect in a casting. In the end, she is with a blandly nice man, just as before she met him — and he is Artistically Alone, albeit way more successful. They go full circle but with successful careers. How nice. And depressing. (Speaking of depressing, the tune of their love is one of the saddest examples in recent memory. No wonder it didn’t last; the level of bleak is beyond anyone’s endurance, even Seb “jazz is dying” the stubborn jazzman can’t withstand it.)
A note on diversity casting: when your movie full of dancing
straight couples but only three of them are interracial…. When you have a Black dancer, East Asian dancer, Latina dancer show up in the first scene but then the main couple of glorious whiteness (and singing mediocrity) enter…. When you have a jazz club chock full of Black folks and your White heroine (of yellowface fame) is dancing So Well they clap for her….. need I go on?
I guess this film bothers me so much, because it tickles a lot of issues I feel strongly about while getting them wrong. The diversity thing is just — wrong, but the “we’re a creative couple how do we make it work” realistic bits were on point and painful and so were the castings. It’s unreasonable to dislike the film for not being revolutionary enough for my taste (although hello! Have you met me?! See also me scolding National Theatre for the very same thing) and I should make my own films and get criticised for not being on point - but meanwhile this is my blog and I can rant on it. *nods*
AND NOW PATERSON AND ALL THE LOVE.
Paterson is played by Adam Driver, but it’s also a city. Confusing? Don’t worry. Adam Driver drives a bus in Paterson, and is also a character called Paterson, and is also a poet. Poems are recited by
him as he writes in his head – show up on the screen – we see them being created as he walks through his week. We’re with him Monday to Monday. He lives with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) and dog Marvin (think Carrie Fisher’s Gary). He wakes early; writes in the bus, then talks to a permanently depressed character of Indian heritage named Dev. He drives the bus, listening to people talk. He comes back from work, surveys the newest, black and white artistic edition of his house (his wife is both creative and enthusiastic as well as a dab hand with wall paint), eats dinner, writes some more, takes the dog out for a walk, goes to a local pub. Small story, slowly told. Working class, but with strong artistic background. Poetry – and so, so much love.
The earnestness that La La Land claimed to convey in places but desperately missed? Paterson has it in spades. A small town, but with a beautiful waterfall. Twins, showing up everywhere in true Jarmusch style. Driver’s not-very-talkative but personable chracter who takes life as it comes and is always adorably charmed by his adoring, enthusiastic wife’s newest venture. The pub owner – and his hall of fame, where he collects titbits of Paterson-the-town-related information (the weirder the better). And of course, the characters of colour (next to random people on the bus, Paterson is the only white person in town), who — next to being “of colour” are actual people, like the outspoken Marie, frustrated with her ex who won’t get a clue (because shock! Gasp! She expects to be left alone after a break-up) or the frustrating ex, Everett, a geeky, romantic-minded actor who can’t take a no for an answer (yes, the storyline is creepy and gets to a logical albeit magic realism type conclusion, but that’s important too — Everett is not a monster, but a dude who misunderstands love and devotion and freaking boundaries). The characters, inasmuch as I can tell, don’t stand in for their racial stereotypes, partly because there is enough of them to diversify (although watch out for the Japanese Poet character — a mysterious dude who appears out of nowhere and mystically knows too much. Small character so it’s only upon re-reading the cast list that I remembered that there was an Asian Man Who Knew Too Much). Jarmusch takes small realistic histories and drenches them in his special style of poetry — the photography is beautiful, so are the poems, the dialogues both beautiful and alive, the everyday landscapes (early morning shot of the couple in bed; writing on the bus; driving the bus; dinner; pub) shot slightly differently every time, with reverence, patience and humour. Oh my, the humour! The beauty of life in Paterson. I swear to god, at the end I wanted to drown my fucking smartphone, get my notebook and start driving a bus.
I saw two movies for my birthday and quite obviously I liked one of
them better — I freely admit I’m harsh to La La Land in the disappointment of what I hoped it would be, whereas Paterson made me fall in love and therefore be more forgiving. But I’m happy to have seen both: they showed me what kind of creative situation one wants and needs when making a movie. Also, I’m reading a book about shame and realised that I don’t audition or act purely to avoid that emotion. So I have a lot of career-related thoughts thanks to both. But I know one thing: I want the creative freedom that Jarmusch clearly has. There’s nothing that feels forced about that movie – nothing tense or unhappy or fake. The fakeness of La La Land is way too White and straight to be either honest or at least fabulous – it feels empty and sort of sad. The magical realism of Paterson suits me much better. So sign me up for that…..