The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land

What does Damien Chazelle hope we see when we look back?

Movies Features La La Land
The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land

Near the middle of Damien Chazelle’s recent movie musical, La La Land, Emma Stone’s character Mia wonders if her proposed one-woman show is too nostalgic. Her love interest, Ryan Gosling’s resplendent Sebastian, rejects the premise: No amount of nostalgia is too much. And on the movie goes, recalling in form and function the 1940s and 1950s aesthetics of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and the grand Hollywood musical—a vision of the past reanimated in the present.

The film has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a piece of popular art in which to rest for a moment at the close of a punishing year. It’s escapism. However, the politics of the past do not satisfy universally. A McClatchy poll on the eve of the election found 56 percent of America’s white population believed life was better in the 1950s, and, according to the same poll, 72 percent of likely Trump voters agreed. Meanwhile, 62 percent of black voters thought contemporary life was better. The 2016 election wasn’t a chasm into which the nation fell, it was a time machine into which many white Americans hoped to escape.

If La La Land holds the power to transport, we might ask where—and importantly when—it takes us. There lies a profound irony in liberal white folks heading to La La Land to repair after a political season overflowing with the nostalgia of white supremacy. (For all its gauzy backwards glancing, Chazelle’s film might be subtitled Make Hollywood Great Again.) If seeing Gosling and Stone tap dance in the Hollywood Hills tickles something deep in some viewers, perhaps it’s worth investigating the roots of that feeling and its supposed universality. Quite simply: The past represents liberation for one group, a horror show for another.

Novelist Zadie Smith spoke recently of white nostalgia while receiving the Welt Literature Prize in Berlin. “Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream,” she said. “And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too.”

White fantasies of the past are not innocuous, it turns out; they link to discrete economic and political policy. Even in the platitudinous past tense of “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s red hats told a truth of a kind: Their way forward was back. Smith rejects the image of white, regressive time-space with the succinct, “But neither do I believe in time travel.” How could a person of color long for a past bleaker than the already admittedly bleak present? Many white viewers of La La Land may well consider nostalgic escapism as a horizontal unifier—something with which everyone identifies—but longing for the past is itself a political act.

Through a Los Angeles ruined by modernity, technology and commerce, Mia and Sebastian wander. The latter longs to open a “real” jazz club to save the genre; Mia longs for Old Hollywood, a poster of Ingrid Bergman on her wall. Eventually they long for each other, and Chazelle’s camera conspicuously longs for the days of the Hollywood musical. Mia and Sebastian watch Rebel Without a Cause on their first date, only now the generational conflict isn’t between disaffected young people and their conservative parents, it’s between young people and their present. La La Land’s cultural language speaks in the vocabulary of loss. Like Trump voters pining for an idealized, mythic past, La La Land articulates a displaced, if no less powerful, nostalgia.

So where exactly does Chazelle send the viewer? The allusions begin with Rogers and Astaire, whom Chazelle first saw while studying film at Harvard. Of the moment he discovered Rogers and Astaire, he told the New York Times this fall that he felt like he’s “been sleeping on a gold mine.” The Times interview was even aptly titled “‘La La Land’ Makes Musicals Matter Again,” beating the reader about the head with Trump-ish sloganeering.

Of course, the key difference between Chazelle’s homage and Astaire and Rogers’ films lies in temporality. The musicals of the 1930s rarely sought historical displacement. Consider Rogers and Astaire’s most famous works, films like Top Hat and Shall We Dance, movies Chazelle references with varying degrees of explicitness in La La Land. The musicals of the 1930s were escapist, to be sure—singing and dancing in the teeth of the Great Depression—but the films occurred in a version of present day. When Hollywood did traffic in nostalgia in the first part of the 20th century, it looked, famously, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind being two of the most famous and, to put it extremely mildly, racially problematic films of the era. The racial politics of nostalgia, not unlike America’s racial history, are rarely anything but gnarled. For the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, escapism could be found in a European setting or a “cheek-to-cheek” dance routine. Chazelle, in returning to the visual aesthetics of Rogers and Astaire, suggests that escapism is instead found in the past.

Singin’ in the Rain, the famed 1952 musical, did look backwards, to the 1920s. But the all-white cast did not confront the politics and social changes. The issue of the day involved, not unlike La La Land, a changing Hollywood: one moving from silent films to “talkies.” A key plot point in in Singin’ in the Rain revolves around a studio responding to the release of The Jazz Singer, the first Hollywood film with synchronized sound and one of the most famous musicals of its day. Of course, The Jazz Singer, though progressive for its historical moment, featured Al Jolson parading around in black face. As with so much of American cultural history, looking backwards with a romantic eye courts dangerous contemporary politics. What does Chazelle hope we see when we look back?

Among the deepest of Chazelle’s references is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a musical from the 1960s related to the French New Wave and known largely for its heart-breaking love story and decision to have characters sing, not speak, all of the film’s dialogue. Chazelle told IndieWire The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a movie that “go[es] for broke.” Of course, this reference point seems, at first, not to conform to Chazelle’s dangerous white nostalgia, at the least because it emerged in the wake of a progressive school of cinema, and it isn’t American. But, like so many artifacts of Western history, some investigation might suggest more than a little darkness beyond the love story in Demy’s film: The main plot device dividing the two lovers, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), is the Algerian War. Guy leaves to serve in the conflict, returning years later with war wounds. In this case, Chazelle’s reference point, and context, is bleak.

The tragedy for some viewers might well be the lost love—two white characters divided by a war—but a more critical eye might see the war itself as the tragedy. The longest and latest running of all the post-WWII colonial wars for independence, the French fought brutally to retain the Algerian nation as a colony. Ending just two years before the commercial release of Umbrellas in 1964, the Algerian War saw the French terrorize the Algerian people—the people the fictional “Guy” was sent to kill. The French, inventors of the guillotine, routinely beheaded opposition leaders in Algeria, eventually leaving more than a million Algerians dead. In a 1958 essay entitled “We Are All Assassins,” philosopher and critic Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the French army’s brutal behavior, “it’s beginning to horrify, and that is all.” Repression of colonized people, a tradition the very term African-American references, is not the unique purview of the United States—it’s all over Western art. Perhaps this is not the past Chazelle considered when the film inspired him.

One suspects Chazelle and his defenders will say analysis of this sort over-interprets, goes too far, but this is a luxury, too, a privilege. “It’s only a movie” is the apologia of people who have never been victimized by culture.

Which brings us back to La La Land and its longing. What Gosling’s Seb and Stone’s Mia share is a commitment to the past—a place where, supposedly, dreamers dream their dreams awake. But which dreamers dreaming what dreams? Why do white Americans (in politics and film) often so wistfully return to the era before federally mandated desegregation, voting and civil rights? (Would La La Land ever have been made with two leading actors of color? Obviously not.) The film only functions as an ode to a lost era of white supremacy, and its viewers, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the delusion. The film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness are inextricable.

La La Land contains other more explicitly problematic politics—in fact, Gosling’s “white jazz savior” narrative has been unpacked well by MTV’s Ira Madison III. John Legend’s Keith is cast as a sell-out to “pure jazz,” which Gosling promises to successfully save by the movie’s end. The movie concludes with Gosling taking over the piano from a black musician: The erasure of black art is complete. Madison documents the opening number, full of the many diverse faces of Los Angeles, only to see the film retrench into the middle-class bourgeois love affair of two white people. That one of them drives a Prius and the other a drop-top convertible seems to be the extent of the film’s commitment to diversity.

However, Chazelle, Stone and Gosling are almost certainly not racists, if judged by the metric of personal unkindness. Their missteps lie elsewhere in the blurry discourse of cultural hegemony, the degree to which dominant ideological and political structures of oppression—like a longing for the past—must be consistently affirmed and reified. In portraying the romance and escapism of watching two beautiful people mourn the past by returning to it, Chazelle suggests viewers might enjoy this transportation, that these stories are universal. Considering the long history of racism in Los Angeles, it’s uncertain which part of the past would provide a comfortable landing spot for the viewer.

How many in a La La Land audience would be unable to vote, live in their neighborhood, marry their partner, work in their job, attend their school, if Chazelle’s film were successful in landing them in 1940s Los Angeles? Where do LA’s Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when thousands of white folks organized themselves into street gangs to assault people of color, fit in Chazelle’s reverie? Or what of the historical record of housing discrimination, whereby 80 percent of 1940s Los Angeles real estate was off-limits to buyers or renters of color? When Gosling’s character wishes the public to remember the history of jazz rightly, it’s no wonder so much else must be redacted to suspend disbelief.

These realities are best forgotten in La La Land. Much is lost when we dream of—not recognize—the past. When Gosling and Stone walk into the stars, and into the past itself, at Griffith Observatory, they traffic in a dangerous political invention. People do not long for the past equally. Many do not long for it at all.

Chazelle and his movie will receive much deserved acclaim. The film is an achievement of a sort—it’s beautiful and charming, if one doesn’t think too hard. He’s even done the work to feature a few characters of color at the margins of the action, a gesture that insulates the film from the outright racial ignoarance of the musicals to which Chazelle pays homage. But these efforts at contemporary posture, quite literally, pale in the face of the film’s white nostalgia. La La Land isn’t the escapism America needs right now, it’s a regressive effort at time travel with no sense of shame for America’s many historical sins. Chazelle engages in the most dangerous type of cultural production: to have an audience feel without thinking. In this case that means the past seems like a good enough place to escape our current problems. The film isn’t as far as you might think from the asinine phraseology of “Make America Great Again.”

The word “nostalgia” originates from a merging of the ancient Greek words “nostos” and “algos”—meaning “returning home” and “pain.” Modern application means “nostalgia” translates to home-sickness. Of course, bizarrely enough, the Trump voter and the La La Land viewer, however separate from one another they imagine themselves, often long for a past they never experienced. They feel homesickness for a home in which they never lived.

Part of the artistic satisfaction of La La Land is in its ability to produce the pain of longing. For many white viewers—and voters—the pain reads as pleasure, like a middle-aged person walking the halls of their high school, remembering themselves more grandly than they ever were. While the romanticizing of one’s youth isn’t the purview of one race or another, longing for the historical past has become a dangerous cultural habit for white Americans, and whiteness more globally in the age of Brexit. But about Zadie Smith, a Brit, who knew better than to dream of time travel? Art like La La Land is best approached with a measure of circumspection. In grappling with the modern displacements jarring us all, white Americans engage in a peculiar and troubled fantasy: A time machine is the only vehicle that can bring us back home.

Geoff Nelson is a music and culture journalist working out of Brooklyn. He’s appeared in The Village Voice, Bandcamp Daily, DIY Magazine and Consequence of Sound. He tweets @32feet and isn’t sure if that’s a compliment or not.

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