Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…

so much depends upon a red collar

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Eddie Redmayne was lauded for his problematic performance in The Danish Girl, but it’s not until the closing credits of Paterson that it is revealed that here Marvin the dog  is actually played by Nellie (and has since died).

What are we to make of this? Is it a sign that her human, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is so obsessed by her relentless redecoration of their house in black and white that she hasn’t noticed Marvin’s sex? Or in her world is Marvin a gender neutral name? She is explosively creative — painting the walls, the soft furnishings, the shower curtain, trying to learn the guitar in three days, wanting to make a fortune with cupcakes — and even subjecting Marvin to the indignity of bad paintings. It’s only a wonder she hasn’t painted on Marvin.

Whilst Laura stays at home, hubby Paterson (Adam Driver) drives a bus.

Imagine that. Imagine the version where they’d cast Minnie Driver.

Paterson, living in Paterson, has read Paterson and aspires to be a poet. He writes poetry when he should have been starting on route 23, he writes poetry in his lunch hour and he writes poetry in his den. He writes it in big friendly letters in his Moleskine (gotta love stationery porn) and on the screen, just in case we don’t get it. It is clean and there are no crossings out.

First thot, best thiught.

Obviously it is Paterson-esque because this is Paterson in Paterson. No wonder Marvin’s confused. Is it meant to be any good? Paterson’s let Laura read it, but he’s never performed it and he’s never submitted it anywhere and because he doesn’t do any fucking drafts, the Moleskine is his only copy. So is it any good?

And every night, Marvin is taken for a walk to a bar. Not into the bar — he is made to sit outside, even though it is made clear that dog jackers are about. His life is at risk.

Paterson just sits there nursing a drink, chatting to the locals, in a kind of post-racial utopia where one of the African American patrons can pull a gun and not be gunned down by the law. Everyone can quote Abbott and Costello routines.

Maybe Marvin is better off outside.

But clearly Marvin is building stress and resentment, and, having committed minor acts of vandalism takes a bloody revenge on his humans. Serves them right. He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I have to say I never quite trusted Paterson. I suspect he’s on the edge of becoming all emo, obsesses over his dead grandfather and is likely to upset his parents.

Meanwhile, Marvin the paranoid canine has good reason to be paranoid, and Nellie is a great loss.

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.