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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (2/5/17) 9:35pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  La La Land, Love & Friendship, Rogue One
TV:  <none>

La La Land
This is Damien Chazelle's recent love-letter to MGM and French New Wave musicals about a pair of struggling artists who fall in love while pursuing their dreams in modern-day LA.

What an odd experience I've had with this movie. I watched it, and I liked it, and I was relieved to like it as much as I did. Prior to that, I'd seen two movies -- Moana and Rogue One -- that everyone had *loved*, and I myself had, well, I'd liked well enough. They were fine and I liked a lot of things about them. But I couldn't help feeling sad that all my friends were having a much better time with those movies than I was.

So then I saw La La Land, and I really liked it -- it was my favorite movie I'd seen in some time.

Ah. Finally, my tastes were somewhat matching those of the world around me. I know, I know, conformity isn't everything, nor is it necessarily even desirable, but eventually you want to share *some* opinions with your friends. I really liked a movie, and other people really liked the movie, and it had met with wide critical acclaim, and soon enough it was hoovering up every Oscar nomination in sight.

And then: backlash! A world of people rolling their eyes and saying that La La Land wasn't all that.


I admit, I didn't come out of La La Land thinking it should sweep the Oscars and stand for all time among the titans of cinema. But I loved it more than any movie I'd seen in months and months. I doubt I could convince any naysayer to give it another look, but I have my reasons why it worked for me.

Weirdly, I find myself circling back to that quote from Phil Tippett, the "dinosaur wrangler" for Jurassic Park: "Stop motion looks fake but feels real. CG looks real but feels fake." With La La Land, I see them working with one of the fake-est genres there is -- the old-school, MGM-style movie musical -- but within that, doing everything they can to make it feel... tangible. Grounded. Connected to real life. Yes, everyone broke into song at that moment, because that's how that moment feels.

Part of it's how they choose to shoot the film: lots of long takes; lots of wide shots; minimal use of post-production effects (like CGI). And that alone feels refreshing -- seeing a dance number set on a hillside at magic hour, and realizing, holy shit, they just literally shot a nearly uninterrupted dance scene at magic hour -- that creates a sort of frisson. Just knowing that what you see is largely what was there on-set that day -- it kind of pulls you into the space, and into the experience.

And this was the first time in ages I'd seen a movie do such dramatic practical lighting changes -- an emotional beat happens, and suddenly all the lights go down, on the set, except for a spot on Sebastian at his piano. It's meat-and-potatoes for theater, but film would accomplish this by cutting to a close-up, or tweaking the depth of focus so that the other characters fade into mush. And, again, it put that movie, in its bright, brassy, fake genre, into that space of theater, into the magic of sharing space with the performance, in a way that makes you lean forward a bit.

It felt like the film was trying to bridge that gap between a modern indie's mumbly depictions of natural, modern-day life and this more heightened and formal film-musical style. It was making choices to make that happen. It was putting even the most heightened sequences -- say, the closing dream sequence -- in a real physical space. It sets the story in a very recognizable take on modern-day LA. The songs are not big, brassy numbers that ping off of the back row of the theater, but they're more often songs like "City of Stars", gentler and more intimate pop numbers that make sense when the camera (and thus, the audience) is two feet from an actor's face.[1]

I would even defend the dancing, on these grounds. I've been in the social-dance scene for nigh-on twenty years now, and I've developed the strong opinion that you can split the whole world of dance into two types of dancing: there's dancing that expresses "This is who I am, and this is how I feel"; and there's dancing that expresses "I am good at dancing." Even with the best dancers in the world, they make a choice -- either they aim their audience's attention at feeling and character, or they focus them on the skill and the artifice.

Let's be clear: there's nothing at all bad about skill and artifice: a good point of comparison is the sailors' dance from Hail, Caesar! It's the showstopper number of the whole film, and it's breathtaking and fun, and yet the dancing *means* nothing. It's just graceful moves that exist in and of themselves.[2]

So yes, I well recognize we don't have lifelong Broadway hoofers as our leads. I recognize that there are dance numbers in it that *I* could theoretically do passably. But it doesn't matter to me, because those pieces serve the characters and the story. It's like a Hirschfeldt caricature, where the man has only drawn three lines -- but they're the *right* lines, and that makes all the difference.

And yes, even within the straight-up "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" story, I found aspects that were nuanced and rewarding. I came away from the story thinking that Mia and Sebastian had a good relationship, and they got from it what they needed at that point in their lives, and they moved on when they couldn't make it work any more, and that's okay. But I loved that the closing dream sequence asked me, so, what if you're wrong about *all* of that? I loved the questions it raises with Seb about balancing authenticity against appeal and outreach, which are questions I see come up all the time in swing/blues dancing and in improv. I myself came away from the film thinking that Seb is pretentious and wrong, but you can make strong arguments that he's instead principled and justified.

It's not a philosophical treatise or anything, but it asks questions, interesting questions, in a way that musicals and love stories rarely do.

I still have problems with the film, of course. The vocal mixing is shockingly amateurish, most notably in "Another Day of Sun", with its singers buried so far in the mix that you can't even make out half the lyrics. Lindsey has pointed out that Ms. Stone acts out Mia's uncertainty up to "The Audition Song" by using a whispery singing voice with insufficient breath support -- and c'mon, there are many, many other ways to get that character choice across besides singing badly. And the arc of the relationship felt kind of herky-jerky to me, with sudden turns to "okay, NOW THEY'RE FIGHTING" to "okay, NOW EVERYTHING'S COOL" that would have made more sense for much younger (or much flightier-seeming) lead actors.

And for all I know, there may be far superior movies that highlight La La Land's flaws. I'm told Sing Street, for example, is a very strong music-centered indie. And honestly I haven't seen enough of the MGM or French musicals that it's drawing off of -- just a smattering of 50s flicks that everybody's seen, plus The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. All I can say is, I really dug this film, and I'll happily watch any movie that might leave it in the dust.

Love & Friendship
This is the Whit Stillman adaptation of Lady Susan, an early Jane Austen novella about a conniving widow who tries to find husbands for herself and her daughter.

It's a good movie, but it kind of glanced off of me. It's one of those films that introduces about fifteen characters in the first ten minutes, and you're left thinking, "Welp, I'm just not going to be able to follow what happens in this movie." I was okay with that. I took the movie in without much in the way of "what's going to happen next?", and instead just took it as an hour or two of interetsing characters being witty. Somewhere, a plot was working itself out, and maybe further viewings would clarify that for me.

This also meant that I watched the film from a distance -- not really feeling the story, but sort of contemplating it, leaning back, laughing occasionally. But I think that's in keeping with Whit Stillman movies, in all their icy and WASPy wit, and in keeping with the source material, a first effort from Austen that was something of a parody of contemporary romantic novels.

But even on that level, there was a lot to appreciate -- the meticulous period detail, the delightfully devilish lead character, and the hilarious support characters. For instance, Sir James Martin is a particular kind of idiot, a combination of "ha, that is incredibly stupid" and "aiee, that is exactly how I act when I am incredibly stupid" that's simultaneously funny and cringe-inducing.

So: there's stuff to enjoy in Love & Friendship, but don't expect an emotional main course. It's more of a wickedly silly amuse-bouche.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This is the first stand-alone "Star Wars Anthology" film. It follows Jyn Erso on a mission to capture the Empire's plans for their first Death Star.

See? This is what happens when I fall too far behind on writing media updates. Now there are eleventy-billion thinkpieces about Rogue One, and I sincerely doubt my lagging commentary can add anything meaningful to the conversation.

For instance, there are many many many thinkpieces saying "Rogue One is not Star Wars", and there are many many many rebuttals saying "It is so Star Wars." For me, it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie. And I say that knowing full well that nothing out there has captured the feeling of the *world* of the original trilogy better than Rogue One. Hell, it was to the point that they actually cut in unused Episode IV footage and I didn't notice.

But I subscribe to Roger Ebert's credo that "a movie is not about what it is about, it is about *how* it is about what it is about." And so, even though the "what" of Rogue One is very thoroughly Star Wars, the "how" of it is unprecedented. It's a stark, bleak war movie. The rest of the canon is whimsical high fantasy for kids. This one hurts.

None of this is to say Rogue One is a bad movie. No -- it's great that the film picks a specific tone and commits to it, unlike the prequels, which sighed, shrugged, and said, "Oh, I dunno, it's some kinda movie or something." But Rogue One wasn't the movie for *me*, right here, right now. Sure, the series has had darkness before. You came away from Empire despairing for your beloved characters. But I came away from Rogue One despairing about the world. The oppression, the jackbooted thugs, the loss the violence -- those felt real to me. But the movie's repeatedly vaunted hope rang false, like a manufactured Hollywood sop. No farmboy pilot saves you. Not out here.

(Meanwhile, the movie kept *telling* me it was about hope, kind of the way a dictatorship assures you it's the "Most Freest Democratic Republic" of whatever. I never felt it.)

It's a movie I'll need to come back to after some time has passed. I know, intellectually, that there's a lot going on here that's very, very good. It seems to draw on a rich modern culture of fan-fiction, patterning off of those tens of thousands of online writers who've been spackling extra stories into the cracks of existing narratives for a good twenty years now. You see a lot of the same techniques at play, to good effect: picking an established property but doing a story with a sharply different, and perhaps complementary, tone; establishing a new point of view on the material -- in this case, less the revered Jedi and more the boots-on-the-ground types; and, most impressively, taking that one nagging inconsistency that always bugged the hell out of you in the original and retcon-judoing it into the linchpin of your story.

That was one of my favorite parts of this movie. I've seen many, many bits of smug-nerd comedy riffs on "Oh, why did the Empire design a superweapon that could be blown up by one pair of photon torpedos?" I have seen exactly *no one* work backwards from that to a sad-eyed engineer, pressed into imperial service, patiently sneaking a tactical weakness in under everyone's noses.

You'll notice that so far I've kind of talked around the movie, discussing it in general terms. Here's how I feel about the world, here's how I reacted to its tone, here's what I think about how it slots into the established canon. I haven't really said much about the characters or the story. And honestly, I don't think either the charaters or the story made the strongest impression on me.

And that's *weird*, because I can tell they were doing incredibly solid work on both fronts. I marvel at how well the story fits together, given the rumors (and evidence) of massive reshoots. But in spite of all that, they tell one fairly straightforward story. There are a few twists and turns, sure, but it's not the scattered bloat you see in most action tentpoles. I found the "master control switch" exposition a little shoehorned and clunky, and lost track of things a little bit during the Saw Gerrera section, but generally I knew what was going on and why, and the 'why' didn't feel like 'because the studio mandated a fight scene every fifteen minutes'.

And they did fine by their characters, too. "The team pulls off a heist" is a solid, well-worn plot structure, but it's not one known for deep and nuanced characterization. It usually has one lead, maybe a romantic interest, and a bunch of quirky sidemen, each of whom you can summarize with an adjective: "the conspiracy-theory one"; "the young one"; "the snarky one"[3] There are many, many great movies in this genre, but they are primarily about the *job*, not the jobbers, and with so many characters to serve, the script has to give each person a clear, sharp trait and move on.

And so it is for Rogue One -- and they do good work. The characters are sharp and distinct.[4] They explore logical possibilities for characters in this world -- yes, of course there would be Force Buddhists. And of course you could do a more sardonic take on C3P0's prissiness. And of course we can bring back the idea of a low-level imperial conscript stepping out of the machine and saying "no". They get unique looks and unique affects. They don't get much dialog, but what they get feels passably distinct for each character. Even the diversity works in their favor -- when your action-movie cast isn't a bunch of late-20s white dudes, you have a lot more room to make them look distinct.

Again, I can see all of the things in this movie's favor. But for all that, it never quite connected with me. Maybe in a couple of years, it will.

For next week: I'll write about the Ghibli rarity Ocean Waves.  I'm still reading that book about the chemistry of cooking and watching season one of Veep.  Audio-wise, I've moved on to an audiocourse about government surveillance. While exercising, I'm still watching season 10 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.


[1] All credit to Lindsey for this astute observation. Apparently one of the non-Russell-Crowe problems with the recent Les Mis film is that the songs are *designed* for broad, musical-theater interpretations, and they wilt somewhat if played miore naturally.
[2] This characterization also applies to Hail, Caesar! itself, I suppose. (Additional side note: Channing Tatum did wonderfully, but that style of dance is clearly not his wheelhouse.)
[3] I'm working through the bench of Sneakers, in this case. Technically "the snarky one" is "the snarky blind one", so: two adjectives.
[4] Though, side note: apparently
Tatiana Maslany was up for the Jyn Erso role. That's kind of a knife in my heart every time I think about it.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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