Hope from Hollywood?

February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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My first experience of applause for a film was in early 1970, at a Curzon Mayfair screening of Costa-Gavras’ antifascist thriller Z. I’d gone with a Czech friend who, along with many others, had settled in London after the Soviet invasion of his country less than two years earlier. The film would have resonated as much for him as for the Greeks in the audience, hence the loud, prolonged and heartfelt clapping. Catharsis through recognition and political identification, and for others too; at the time there were dictatorships even closer to home: Spain, Portugal. Applause as the credits roll is still fairly unusual, and I’ve only ever heard it at film festivals and in arthouse cinemas. Until recently.

At a Cineworld multiplex in December I wasn’t entirely surprised by the scattered applause following Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. My surprise was greater at a local Vue last weekend, when some people stayed in their seats and clapped as the rest streamed out, after La La Land.

La La Land is a curious phenomenon. ‘THE FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR’ screamed a full page ad in The Guardian’s Weekend section, emblazoning its accumulated five-star ratings across the LA sky and listing its multiple award nominations. Where does all this success come from?

I love musicals (films, I mean, not theatre stagings), their energy, their lavish expansiveness, their very artifice, out of which can bloom transgression and reversal of rules and expectation, and, not least, the dizzying virtuosity of the dancing. Musicals can convey meaning in so many modes, can be simultaneously simple and complicated. I’m thinking of the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movies of the 30s and 40s, Gene Kelly’s roles in Singin’ in the Rain and paired with Judy Garland in The Pirate (a kind of anti-Taming of the Shrew) I’m thinking of South Pacific and West Side Story and the sublime Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And I’m thinking of my favourite musical of all, a film joyously infused with the optimistic spirit of the 60s, which didn’t come out of Hollywood although it borrowed some of its dancers: Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), a French New Wave musical with a vital abundance of wit, glamour and irresistible music by Michel Legrand. Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac do the dancing, among others, while Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux feature as middle-aged lost lovers. Searching, finding or failing to find is the motor of the plot, which moves in vaguely Shakespearean fashion.

Unlike most Hollywood musicals, it was filmed on location, in a made-over Rochefort which later named a square and a street after Demy and Dorléac (Deneuve’s sister, killed in a car crash soon after the film). The director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, has acknowledged the influence of Demy, and his film’s opening, on an LA freeway, plays with immobility and motion in a way reminiscent of how Les Demoiselles begins, with travellers stepping out of their vehicles and starting to dance on what’s revealed to be the spectacular transporter bridge across the river Charente. Chazelle’s freeway sequence is terrific, a riot of primary colours and different dance styles shot from lane to lane among the stalled cars. Below them traffic flows on oblivious, in a duller parallel world.

Yet this set piece gives way to a mood that seems to derive more from Demy’s earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a melancholy love story against the background of the Algerian war, sung throughout, without spoken dialogue, and forever remembered for its subsequent English-language hit, ‘I’ll Wait for You’. La La Land employs a variety of pre-existing music, but the tunes played by Ryan Gosling’s character, jazz pianist Seb, are often pastiches of Legrand’s scores for Demy’s films, which is puzzling, as if making references, or hommages, to other musicals means more than the character’s coherence. Gosling and Emma Stone don’t do a lot of dancing, and dance well enough for non-dancers, but are light-years away from the aerodynamic panache of the genre’s great exponents. The freeway sequence is a grand chorus full of diverse life, but it’s not until the film’s closing sequence that it achieves any similar vibrancy, and here the couple step happily through a vivid montage of studio sets that evoke classic musicals. What’s between beginning and end is remarkably bland, particularly once the couple’s ambitions – he for his own jazz club, she to succeed as a writer and actor – contrive to hurry them apart.

La La Land lacks two qualities that made those classic films powerful and sometimes subversive: comedy and sexual chemistry. It’s a romance without a hint of sex, unlike those films of the 30s and 40s, 50s and 60s, before on-screen nudity became prevalent, but where the potency of sexual attraction was visible, and often mixed with the comic.

Why has this film been viewed as an escapist antidote to the grim times we live in? Do audiences just leave feeling elated by that final upbeat nostalgia for the musicals of a distant Hollywood, despite the earlier mood of melancholy? Or is it the sweet, charming blandness itself that makes for the film’s appeal?

I don’t think there are any antidotes, but I’ve been gladdened by some of the new films I’ve seen in the last month and they bode well for Hollywood. The Chilean Pablo Larraín now has a foothold there. If you’ve seen Post Mortem (2010) or The Club (2015), or even his more straightforward No (2012) you’ll know his films resist easy interpretation. Jackie is no celebration of the Kennedy presidency and its Camelot myth. Kenneth Lonergan’s success with Manchester by the Sea will open more doors for future films to be financed and distributed – he’s an outstanding director and he writes intelligent screenplays. Both these filmmakers set the mind to work.

I have another favourite musical I’d like to recommend. It’s the Egyptian Youssef Chahine’s Le Destin (1997), about the 12th-century Arab philosopher Averroes in the caliphate of Al Andalus (Andalusia). Here the music (a mixture of Arab and flamenco style) and dancing (a touch of Bollywood in its exuberance) is a release of joy and sensuality. It expresses untrammelled freedom, freedom of action and ideas being the argument that runs through the film, as Al Andalus ceases to be a refuge for fugitives from France, where books and heretics alike are burned, and falls prey to punitive fundamentalism. Music, among other things, is banned.

The banning of music, or certain kinds of music, has been a feature of so many dictatorial regimes. Costa-Gavras’ Z had a score by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music was banned in the Greece of the colonels. You could be arrested if you were caught listening to it in your car; as Greeks have told me, they were careful to keep the windows rolled up. No wonder they clapped at the Curzon in 1970.

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