Star Wars in La La Land

As of late, I’ve had relatively few opportunities to go to the movie theaters, due both to a lack of funds (combined with avg. ticket prices of around $17) and a surfeit of media options at home, included better, older films catered to my exact mood at any particular time. Interesting that it would take two nostalgia-tinged films, Rogue One and La La Land, to bring us all back to the multiplex. December often brings everyone to the theater for one reason or another. Last year it was The Force Awakens. Typically Oscar bait and big-budget blockbuster franchises are enough to attract even the most entrenched couch potato to rise to the occasion and consume cinema in a public location, though increasingly the reasons we gather in public are materialistic, fascistic or escapist. Case in point: Marvel and Star Wars movies.

To go on about Marvel and Star Wars is a bit like beating a dead horse, though that horse is not dead, and is in fact the size and density of an AT-AT, that is, extremely dense and difficult to damage. Still, it is worth saying that the franchise-zation of both Star Wars and Marvel, which need not be expounded upon in detail, establishes an unprecedented scale and scope for blockbuster action movies, one that speaks to not so much a lack of originality as a lack of focus group commonality between people in our stratified cultural ecosphere. Perhaps owing to the fact that we constantly want to be self-affirmed by the external world, including cinema, the business approach to blockbuster filmmaking- written about in Blockbusters by Anita Elberse- is actually indicative of a risk-averse, unpredictable filmgoing public. Safe bets like Harry Potter and Iron Man actually enable Kristen Wiig to star in 140 indie movies about 30-something disaffection every year, because the tentpole pictures account for somewhere near 90% of studio profits. That a budget of $200 million couldn’t drum up enough writers and producers to limn a single human or alien or robot character with humanity in Rogue One is downright head-scratching, but disappointment at the theater is as expected as busy carpet patterns in the lobby.

The surprising critical praise for Rogue One has inured me to wonder if I saw the same movie as Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, who while offering up the caveat that Star Wars is largely and sadly a monolithic boardroom moneygrab, still seemed to enjoy it. Sure, it wasn’t quite the goofy failure that Force Awakens proved to be, personified by a bored Harrison Ford, but Rogue One‘s cliche-ridden formula and (again) risk-averse plotting is almost more inexcusable considering it wasn’t supposed to be as indebted to the original trilogy. Underneath the whole reboot and all-in mentality of Disney seems to be a kind of central nervous system that is “Star Wars”- an idea that is seen most clearly through advertising for the franchise, through the poster art and action figures and sentimental car commercials. The “idea” of Star Wars is such: sci-fi fantasy escapism. As a concept, it is extremely appealing, and I believe that our desire (neigh, need) for quality escapist fun, especially in a schizophrenic late capitalist matrix of solipsism and consumption, is made apparent by the multi-generational hysteria surrounding the Star Wars Empire. Our collective imagination really seems to fuck with the Death Star, light sabers, Jabba the Hutt, and Darth Vader a lot.

The crushing and obvious blade hanging over the entire charade is the not-so-subtle business approach to the entire ordeal- and it is here that I found a critic to agree vociferously with in Richard Brody. His New Yorker review aptly targets “the kind of corporate Kremlinology that would rightly take the place of criticism in assessing the substance and tone of the movie.” The film doesn’t make any egregious missteps like throwing in a Jar Jar Binks. In its cold and mechanic delivery of plot and faces, Rogue One performs the simple duty of being a new Star Wars movie in the Star Wars universe. That is no longer a duty worth performing.

The other film whose title has escaped the mouths of many Americans in December of 2016 is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. While I’m not entirely sold on his jazz + creativity/passion/determination thematics as a recurring schtick, I viewed the film as an exploration of just how cold our hearts have become, and whether there still is even a small spark of true joy and love that Hollywood might be able to unearth within us. I would say that the looming Other of La La Land is modern society and deep, lacerating cynicism- the fact that the film takes place in contemporary Los Angeles is even more curious, as it turns Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s relationship into a kind of bubble protecting them from the hideous and crass modern landscape- the world of lame tapas/samba restaurants, bumper-to-bumper traffic farting pollution balloons into the atmosphere, overproduced electronic music, and artificiality in all of its forms. Shaving away artifice, what you are left with is beautiful music with real instruments, and emotion.

Considering Donald Trump is our new President and we are all glued to our phones drooling in a swirl of simulated ideology, a simple reminder that we each have an equally precious beating heart is a welcome respite, a breather as we continue the march towards techno-apocalypse. What’s more, like a thumb war, Chazelle successfully lures in and courts ironic detachment and distaste for saccharinity- basically understanding Twitter’s unique brand of spiraling, failed discourse, and offering a welcome palliative. The film would certainly fit under the oft-misunderstood “New Sincerity”, a kind of post-modern gesture towards literalism and empathy that seems nearly foreign when films are either too stupid or take themselves too seriously, or aren’t really movies, such as Rogue One. To all the real dreamers, the real artists and poets etc. who aren’t adopting and regurgitating shallow mass culture in a circular way but instead endeavoring to create true, lasting art- La La Land is a much-appreciated nod. It is the kind of movie that makes cinema worth thinking about, worth learning about, and worth looking forward to.

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