Wednesday, April 12, 2017

La La Land was a good movie but it's narcissism really bugged me a lot.

I feel like I'm behind with my blog because I have so many movies I want to discuss. Today I wanted to talk about La La Land, even though it isn't necessarily something that people are talking about anymore. So obligatory SPOILER WARNING.

I saw La La Land in January, and I honestly wasn't surprised that it didn't win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (although I was surprised at the mixup on stage when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner). I admit to being one of those people that thought the mixup was due to Warren's age. I'm glad it wasn't. However, I've been watching the Oscars for decades now and don't ever recall a flub of that magnitude. Best Picture award aside, La La Land was stylistically an important movie and a musical (I like musicals). But here's the thing: I thought it was merely okay.

I have my reasons. First, I wasn't expecting the overall film to be about narcissism. I thought it would have been more whimsical and fun. Instead it was about this story of two people with ambitions, paying lip-service to those ambitions, forsaking love, luckily achieving those ambitions, and then experiencing a weird kind of regret that they both chose wrong but in the end...were somehow okay with it because it allowed them to achieve lofty goals by giving each other what they needed. Why not? Right? Give up on one fantastic life to embrace another fantastic life. It doesn't sound all that bad.

Personally, I don't like these kinds of stories, because I feel that too many people have unrealistic expectations toward life already (job, income, sexual partners). I would even say a majority of Americans fall into this group. That being said, this same majority is going to defend against my assault of "you have unrealistic expectations" with something like, "I loved it. It reminds me of how the real world is."

Really? The real world doesn't look anything like this except for a select few (maybe less than 1% of the population).

So here's my rebuttal to that idea. If you loved La La Land because you are part of this majority, and thereby have a very different ideology to mine in that, if something isn't right you just make it happen...then I applaud you for making that work. However, my ideology has been shaped with my own ambitions, failures, achievements, and education. My ideology is that people indeed have distinct limitations, and there are simply some things that certain people cannot do no matter how hard they wish it to be true.

It is the anti, "You can accomplish anything!" speech. It is the anti, "Sometimes you have to sacrifice to get your dream!" In my world, "sacrifice" can get you a shot at a dream, but it is not a guaranteed thing. There are lots of people who sacrifice, and the shot they think they would get never shows up. And no, in every single one of these situations, the sacrifice was not worth it, because their lives are worse off. That is reality. Where are those stories? Where are the stories of the people who were delusional, sacrificed a good thing thinking that a great thing was within reach (when it never was), reality handed them the badly needed "reality check," they realized their mistake (and tried to backtrack), and found out that the road to that previously good thing they used to enjoy had evaporated? Where are those stories? You know...the ones that end in failure--the end--that's all folks! Because I know a lot of people from my home town who fall into this category. They were young and handsome men, circled by a plethora of choices, but they never settled because they always deserved more. I'm sure their thoughts went something like this: I'll settle down when I get a prettier girlfriend. I'm going to quit this job because I deserve better. I'm going to leave this relationship because all my friends say I deserve better. They embraced unrealistic expectations. Now, they find themselves at the age of 40 living in poverty with no options at all. It is the epitome of a mid-life crisis. Now they are angry white men that squandered their privilege of choice, whose joints are causing pain in the morning, and who want to burn down the world because they have become the losers.

To steal a quote from another great movie, Inception, these people become, "an old [person] filled with regret." In the original quote the word "man" is used, but it is relevant nonetheless.

La La Land is a movie that is a fantasy, and for that it should be appreciated. Some women going to it are probably envisioning themselves as the beautiful Emma Stone with all of the options in life at their fingertips (including being able to shag Ryan Gosling). Please don't be mad if I insert an eye-roll here. It's good to have a fantasy. These people (in the indulgence of their fantasy) may see themselves as once having those kinds of options, choosing one, and then experiencing the regret of leaving behind the incredibly beautiful boy because they chose yet another drop dead gorgeous man to be the father of their child and a life filled with riches and loveliness. Sigh. If only.

But the truth is that a lot of these people would never have a chance with Ryan Gosling, and never had any such choices in life. The gulf between many women and Emma Stone's character is the same gulf as a homeless person and Donald Trump. It's just not possible to bridge that gap. Ever.

In finishing this rant, I think that La La Land is particularly an American movie. It reminds me of a quote from "Shameless" when the Russian woman (Svetlana) in a relationship with Vi and Kev responds to Fiona. Fiona walks in on her and Svetlana says, "You are all the same. You think you are up here, but in reality quite a few of you are down here [puts hand just above floor]. You make bad decisions because you think something better is always going to come along. You never check where you actually are in life. I recognize I am whore. But I put money away to buy my own Quiznos. When I have business, I will be above you, because you are still waiting for something that will never come."

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers, has something more to add to this topic. There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them--at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. And in revealing that hidden logic, Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential. And the fact is, some people are just outliers, and their success is not something that can be reproduced.

The majority of us will live average lives. William David Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." This is as real a quote as it has ever been.

Friday, I want to talk about how I think schadenfreude is the most dangerous emotion in the world.


  1. Very true. It's why those Joe the Plumber types worry about taxes for the rich when they pretty much have nothing.

  2. Thank you for the review. I have not seen a movie this year, but again it is only April. If La La Land comes in the theater close to us may be I will see it. In India most of the movies have an unrealistic ending and they do great as people see them to escape their hardships if only for three hours. Majority of us live average lives is correct, but an average life for someone living in the US is like luxury for someone living in an underdeveloped countries. So sorry for being sour but it helps to understand others as well.

  3. My daughter says that when she is feeling down she likes stories that remind her that humanity is still good ( may be a narcissistic movie is not the best choice for people like her.)

  4. You should check my review of La La Land.

  5. I can't recall disliking a movie as much as I disliked this one. The actors couldn't sing or dance very well, and the plot was not interesting. I do enjoy good musicals like Funny Girl, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, but this movie didn't compare.

  6. Have not seen this film but have heard the narcissism accusation before. I do have a can do attitude but it's not naive to the point that I think I can do just about anything. People think reality ruins things but the truth is anything can ruin you if you let it.

  7. I haven't seen this. Only heard good things about it. It sounds like I probably would have been disappointed.

  8. You made a couple excellent points, Mike, about the dangerous pipe dream we're given in our society: you can be anything you want. No, you cannot. And following a dream you can't attain can be a dangerous waste of your life.

    The only book I know of that addresses this idea is Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. I read it years ago, and still recall how deeply unsettled I was when the protagonist's fellow art student in Paris realized she would never be good at what she loved and so killed herself. Only then did the protagonist (as I recall) realized he too had been wasting his life and returned home, only to become involved in a disastrous relationship.

    Sometimes we American really can be too optimistic and starry-eyed, and Hollywood hasn't helped.

  9. I recently watched LaLaLand and came away unimpressed. The concept was interesting but the whole thing felt bloated and overimportant while both leads were overshadowed by the extras. I'm a big Emma Stone fan but as I watched it I kept asking myself if her performance really was Oscar worthy.

    The answer to my frustration dawned on me about halfway through the show. Movies are no longer the place to go for the best video content. Television passed them recently because networks discovered it can be profitable to tell a complete story. As a result, I think I saw a half dozen performances by female leads on TV that were better than Emma Stone last year. I bet I watched at least ten TV shows that were better than La La Land.

    Hollywood is really struggling to figure out how to entertain people right now and last summer showed that old tricks like sequels and comic book movies aren't enough to boost profits. The only thing that surprises me in hindsight is Hollywood didn't give La La Land Best Picture as its self indulgence is a perfect metaphor for the movie industry right now.