Love in the Time of La La Land

Pop Culture

Love in the Time of La La Land

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

n a much-discussed New York Times essay in 2012, Christy Wampole wrote about Caucasian hipster millennials, whose “primary mode” of dealing with daily life was irony and who were in “a competition to see who can care the least”. “Irony is the most self-defensive mode,” she wrote, “as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices… To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect… Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.”

I read the essay again last year, around the time I was at a strange juncture in my romantic life. There was a boy and at the same time… there wasn’t. We were in a relationship and simultaneously… we weren’t. This ambiguity wasn’t just a definition of my status – nearly everyone around me seemed to be paddling inexpertly through a river of uncertainty, grasping at meaning. Euphemisms, prevarication and subterfuge seemed to line the banks of love, strewn with phrases like “But it’s only been a year” or “This is moving too fast” or “We are not there yet”. Wampole’s diagnosis of “flagrant indirectness” seemed to distil the essence of a generation’s attitude and its carefully meditated waltz around the idea of love.

La La Land resets the clock on directness, despite taking the form of an homage to the musical, despite being a movie about the movies. Mia is a struggling actor, working as a barista, spending her time auditioning for two-bit roles in half-arsed films and TV shows. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz pianist, recently “shanghaied” of his funds and forced to take up embarrassing gigs. They are both beat because of life’s petty humiliations, and they are both nostalgists – her room is full of old film posters, he wants to start a pure jazz club. When Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia fall for each other, it’s a love that is both simple and cinematic. It’s not uncomplicated; it’s just not complex.

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Musician John Legend speaking to Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian in La La Land.

Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

To be sure, it is not a film where things for its leads are as perfect as the sumptuously composed frames they occupy. At one point, Mia gets out of an insulting audition, frustrated and on the verge of tears, drives by the Rialto theatre, and is reminded of her upcoming date. And suddenly, the day has changed. She hears a song over the PA system that sparks off a thought about Sebastian. And suddenly, she’s lost to the world. This is what love used to feel like, before we dived headfirst into the age of irony and started to abide by an uncodified playbook.

La La Land then, is a historical anomaly, an eccentric deviation from the mean, a bit of a square peg in a round hole. It is soaring and dazzling and gorgeous and all the adjectives that reviewers across the world have employed for it. But more than anything it is a romantic dinosaur, lush with a kind of pure feeling that does not seem to exist anymore.

When Mia and Sebastian move in together, there is none of the hand-wringing it must necessarily be associated with according to the modern-day dating manual. Doubts over “maybe we should see how we feel about a spare set of keys first” are absent. It doesn’t seem like the relationship where there will be distress over her leaving a bottle of shampoo at his place, where the shampoo will suddenly morph into a metaphor for assumed intimacy. I wondered about the scene where Sebastian casually asks Mia to travel with him while his band is on tour. In present-day Mumbai, he’d probably have laboured over that option a hundred times over, done a couple of shots, and then finally chickened out of it for fear of revealing his actual feelings.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Damien Chazzelle’s La La Land.

Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

But this is La La Land, so people say what they mean, and mean what they say. There is a heartbreaking “I don’t know” in the park, possibly the worst response to a question about the status of a relationship. There is a “You know I will always love you” freighted with so much emotion and coded with the end of love. The honesty in La La Land led the Evening Standard to remark that they don’t make films like this anymore. As I watched the movie unfold, I wondered if they don’t, in fact, make love like this anymore.

It matters little if you don’t get all of La La Land’s references, whether you compare its opening sequence to The Young Girls of Rochefort or to “Goriya Kahan Tera Des Re”. La La Land teaches you that a film that has been labelled an homage at best, and a pastiche at worst, can still be authentic.

It all comes together in the film’s lovely last sequence that waltzes through the chances not taken by its protagonists and the lives they could have led, doffing its hat at musical tropes and traditions through the ages. After my first viewing, I enthusiastically exhorted friends and colleagues to watch it in the company of someone they loved, curious to know who they would see in the montage: the companion they were with, or a forgotten face from the past.

As the lights went up, I was one of 15 people applauding – I think I clapped the hardest. For La La Land’s romantic earnestness. For its belief in and presentation of a time when love was love, and love was absolute and unambiguous. When it was not “we’re only seeing each other, not dating” or “we’ve been living together for two years but this is not really a relationship” or whatever. I was really cheering for La La Land’s unapologetically sweet heart. And the idea that in an age of holding back, surrender is sometimes a beautiful thing.

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