Culture

Damien Chazelle Peddles Gimmicks. Huppert Reigns Supreme.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land (Lionsgate)
But cinematic and political clichés are regurgitated in La La Land and Things to Come.

Why is La La Land so charmless yet so wildly overpraised? It is the work of 31-year-old Damien Chazelle, a movie buff turned director who has no knack for the popular culture he imitates and who is temperamentally distanced from the work ethic he takes as his subject. The two lovers in La La Land, Emma Stone as struggling actress Mia and Ryan Gosling as struggling pianist Sebastian, traverse Los Angeles’s showbiz subculture as projections of Chazelle’s own ambition. Their first stumbles, then inevitable success, glorify Chazelle’s own accomplishments and increase his sense of entitlement; it’s the same cliché that Chazelle tried passing off as unstoppable ambition in his previous film, the ridiculous jazz-psychodrama Whiplash.

TV-bred and hype-oriented journalists, who are equally remote from pop culture and working-class life, are applauding the solipsism in La La Land as new and original. But their praise reflects only the cultural illiteracy Chazelle represents, an idiocy that has contributed to the breakdown of film culture this millennium.

Sorry to get all esoteric about a movie most people will stare back at in dumbfounded disbelief, but La La Land (like Whiplash) is a departure from the old notion that movies should be edifying (much as we’ve forgotten the idea of public service as a virtue and now see it as a reward of egotism). A certain fundamental spiritual belief is missing from La La Land’s ersatz movie-musical conceit. Chazelle’s depiction of career conflict and erotic attraction in Mia and Sebastian’s romance — the un-lyrical cheeriness and nervously paced fantasy scenes — prevents La La Land from being a satisfying movie musical. He imitates the generic form but never imbues it with feeling.

The opening musical number (“Another Day of Sun”), in which a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway turns into a dance routine by frustrated drivers who leap out of their cars and prance about dressed in pastel colors, is an embarrassment. Off-key in several ways, the set-up makes no sense, the song’s ironic uplift is cheesy, the choreography is chaotic, and the preening multiculturalism of the dancers (soon forgotten in the whites-only love story) feels forced and insulting.

In Mia Hansen-Løve’s just-released Things to Come (L’Avenir) Huppert doesn’t strike as deep as she does in Valley of Love, but it is the most politically astute of her 2016 triple crown — before the story sinks into the bourgeois narcissism that plagues all of Hansen-Løve’s films. Huppert portrays Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor outpaced by the new generation of Millennial student activists. Recalling her own college Communist years, she is bored by the cycle of youthful political passions. “I’m too old for radicality. I’ve been there,” she says, sighing at the regurgitations of anarchy, Communism, Stalinism, Woody Guthrie songs, and Frankfurt School homilies. This repetition is as infuriating as Damien Chazelle’s banal copycatting in La La Land.

Huppert hops with the flat-footed clop of a self-made woman and advises her students, “Debate the truth, don’t protest it!” Her reaction to her husband’s confession of infidelity (“Why tell me? Couldn’t keep it secret?”) and her dismissal of a masher when at the movies (it’s Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy) is sharper than anything in Elle.

#related#Committed to empiricism and rationalism, she struggles with the political moment, apparently as fractious in Europe as it is here, but Hollywood’s political filmmakers don’t produce movies this thoughtful or timely. Chazeaux’s newest book is titled “The Radical Loser,” and Huppert is wittiest when challenging her pupils. “Rousseau wrote: ‘If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.’ Don’t misinterpret it.” When Nathalie sees her favorite student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), turn to pampered anarchy, she objects: “My goal is to help kids think for themselves. We may disagree, but I thought I taught you that.” The actress of the year proclaims the dilemma of the age.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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