The Kids Are All Right: "La La Land" and "One Wonderful Sunday"

A couple sulks in stagnation, the quotidian confines of their surroundings the sole occupier of their starved and unsatisfied senses. One of them looks up at the ceiling and fixes on the erosive dampness soaking through and staining it. This couple is young, beautiful, creative, and in love. But that ceiling is a reminder of their stunted social mobility as a unit. That one of them stares at the damp ceiling stain and seems to interpret its meaning conveys how detached they are from each other in the seclusion of thought, even in this cramped space. It’s agonizing, given their weakness for dreaming, searching for their future together in the stars but their optics halted at the dead-end dankness of the ceiling. Still they move forth, together and alone at once, eventually parting ways for what may be an indefinite time, but still smiling. Nevertheless, in their story, music’s heightening powers becomes a flooding rhapsody that salves proverbial shortcomings.

The above description applies to two motion pictures, one of which you may have concluded is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a flexing and often charming feat of fleet-footed (if shoe-gazing) impressiveness–meaning, simply, Chazelle is determined to impress on his viewers. He’s the Valentine’s partner who says sod to flowers and gets his partner a parade–with elephants!–instead. He begins with a long-take traffic jam dance sequence before twirling through the air with his protagonists, unemployed jazz snob Seb (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone), then, long after these two have drifted apart to pursue their separate goals, wraps up with an undeniably moving 10-minute sequence that considers the “could-have-been” had they stayed together. Articles and reviews of La La Land make mention of how Chazelle, an apparent prodigy who’s now completed his third musical (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the Oscar winning Whiplash being the others), pays loving homage to an eclectic number of films: the work of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort), Gene Kelly (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain), Albert Lamorisse’s Red Balloon,  that traffic jam a B-12 shot into Fellini’s 8 1/2, some green curtains evoking Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and then the mismatched lover Movie Brat musicals of Martin Scorsese (New York, New York) and Francis Ford Coppola (One from the Heart), and so on and so on. But the mysterious ancestral wearer of that aforementioned ceiling shot, heretofore unmentioned when discussing La La Land‘s treasures and shortcomings, is Akira Kurosawa’s postwar social realist romance One Wonderful Sunday (1947), and while the reference to one of Kurosawa’s lesser known films (he made it shortly before his major breakthrough, and first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Drunken Angel), reinforces the breadth of Chazelle’s influences and ambition, but nevertheless the association contributed to my growing skepticism of his film, specifically its stakes set for Seb and Mia, who while struggling to get their bills paid and dreams realized, don’t seem nearly as existentially hard-pressed by their circumstances to the degree of Kurosawa’s lovers, Masako (Chieko Nakakita) and Yuzo (Isao Numasaki), a pair whose dead-ends make the miraculous concomitance of non-diegetic music to their barren and bleak world all the more profound and shattering.

The crack rippling on La La Land‘s decorously plastered walls grows more irksome when comparisons prompted by the anxieties of influence continue, especially considering its place as a modern Hollywood musical of non-professional singers and dancers when its anomalous success is set against the more infamous legacies of its antecedents: Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), after which the honored helmer of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc, and Paper Moon was put in the Hollywood doghouse; New York, New York (1977), Scorsese’s major misfire after transitioning to successful studio ventures Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver; and then One from the Heart (1982), which financially ruined the ostensible wunderkind Coppola who was constructing an alternative Hollywood paved by a string of ’70s pearls–The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. La La Land will win several Oscars Sunday night, has grossed $340 million internationally (off a modest $30 million budget), has a bestselling soundtrack of original songs by Justin Hurwitz, will probably be the Favorite Movie of Performing Arts majors everywhere for the next ten years, and–écrasez l’infáme!–has now inspired engagement photos. To be fair, it was greeted with exasperated enthusiasm from all sectors upon its Venice unveiling last August, not simply by that derided and marginalized bastion of critics consigned by cinephiles to the dread circle of the “Middle Brow,” but with oustanding defenders with more steadfast defenses than say already regrettable nostalgia flavors-of-the-year like The Artist (2011). And certainly, while at those stages in their careers Bogdanovich, Scorsese, and Coppola didn’t need more adulation and may have been due for a rough critical and commercial trouncing (though Coppola’s looming bankruptcy was a bit excessive on the part of the gods), it’s a bit infuriating that their films, much riskier than La la Land, more vulnerably human as they were also more willing to be disliked (whereas La La Land has a face-licking Good Dog disposition), were so intensely condescended and written off, taking years and even decades before being vindicated–in small circles, mind you–through critical reevaluation.

But I want to push back into focus the dialogue in my head between La La Land and One Wonderful Sunday, seeing how ruminating on that damp ceiling contributes to my reluctance to fall for Chazelle’s film, but even, in a pragmatic way, having me reconsider its perspective which may be a more ironic gesture of appraisal on the part of its millennial writer and director. One Wonderful Sunday was produced at a pivotal point in Kurosawa’s career. Then 37 years old, he had worked his way through the Japanese industry to direct propagandistic films during the war. The martial arts saga Sanshiro Sugata (1942) and its sequel (1944) reveal a precocious force, particularly in editing and in the use of landscapes, immediately highlighting Kurosawa’s talent in tackling space (climactic battles occurring as the wind blows through grass or within a snowy desert), but they’re of course hampered by a fiercely nationalistic mandate, especially the sequel; during this time he also made The Most Beautiful, following a mostly-female ensemble through a manufacturing plant that produces optics used by Japanese planes to target the enemy. Here Kurosawa was nourishing his ability to look at human warmth. He managed to flourish after the war with No Regrets for Our Youth, perhaps an ironic title given that its an intimate denunciation of the right-wing attitudes that enveloped Japan the last 15 years, and then One Wonderful Sunday, after which were classics for which he’s more recognized, Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and Rashomon (1950), which made him a substantial figure in world cinema. This period preceding 1954’s Seven Samurai, which included a gorgeous though compromised adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1951) and the masterpiece Ikiru (1952), reveals how complicated both Japanese culture and the Japanese film industry was after the war. One Wonderful Sunday obliquely shows decay and misdirected bureaucracy, Masako himself being a war veteran unable to get a leg up, part of a lost generation of warriors who fought for a nation that uncannily doesn’t exist anymore (the Emperor was a god; now he isn’t. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were big cities–now they’re laid to waste by nuclear devastation).

The American occupiers were in many ways just as stringent on the Japanese film industry as the right-wing government was during the war. Western democratic values were stressed, as were bigger roles for women. While Kurosawa showed repeatedly in film after film the existential and spiritual toll the war and this readjustment took, in addition to the rising morbidity of diseases like syphilis and TB, and the affluence of the black market and Yakuza, he feeds the meter, in a sense, with baseball (something the occupiers wanted films to highlight) and Western music (which often Kurosawa subtly mocks, as jazz clubs in Drunken Angel and Ikiru come off rather tacky, superficial, and decadent). One Wonderful Sunday features a diversionary ballgame with Masako playing with some neighborhood kids, as we get familiar tunes on the soundtrack like “My Blue Heaven,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and myriad Western classical composers.

There’s disdain, nevertheless, for the influx of materialism the West has evidently brought with it, and One Wonderful Sunday is replete with status anxiety. Masako and Yuzo walk into a model home that they could never afford; she plays house as he looks at her shoe which is afflicted with a deteriorating hole. While this place could be their dream home, another couple, garishly dressed and spoiled by their social cushioning, scoff at such cheap environs. Everything’s for sale here, and throughout the picture we see Masako and Yuzo–who can only meet every Sunday and have but 35 yen between them–dwarfed and drowning in the frame by advertising signage. “You’re in a dream world,” he tells her as she play-acts a homemaker anticipating marriage. “We have to face reality.” She retorts from her sentimental illusions, “This is the kind of world where you need dreams the most. You can’t live without them. It’d be too painful.”

A while ago Masako was as much of a dreamer as Yuzo is now. They were going to open a cafe together, the Hyacinth, but “the war destroyed that dream.” He still wants to be with her, or rather he needs to be with her. While she appears to be the more positive force in the relationship, we hear him repeat how she’s literally the only thing he has left. “No matter how small it is, I want a place we can call our own,” he says, but they only make 1,200 yen a month between them, which can’t even afford a down-payment for a dingy room where the window looks out at public toilets. People thriving in this environment are the black marketers or people who were privileged before the war. Masako and Yuzo are hanging on by their fingernails as around them, as if the lower depths were closing in, real poverty and helplessness is a taunting specter, like the starving child covered in dirt by train tracks or lumbering vagabonds wandering like ghosts through nocturnal wastelands (where moments before Masako and Yuzo laid out their dimensions for the Hyacinth Cafe, a place they promised would offer fairer prices for its customers!).

Kurosawa’s has a bipolar layout in One Wonderful Sunday, the day vacillating from desperate happiness that has to be feigned to beat reality’s currents, while conversely the tide drones forth the painful recognition of where one is in the social order. Complementing La La Land‘s purposefully flawed dance numbers, there’s a lot of shoe-gazing here too, Masako and Yuzo often casting their eyes to the ground, pulling them deeper in the lower depths. A flight of fancy–the baseball game, a trip to the zoo, a cup of coffee at a bourgeois cafe, the anticipation of a live musical performance–is interrupted by reality’s grating alarm, embodied in black market rogues, outrageous food prices, and endless rain. Like La La Land‘s joyful bickering about the name of Seb’s planned jazz club, Masako and Yuzo have differing ideas of the Hyacinth Cafe’s sign (gold lettering vs. cobalt blue), but such pleasantries that consider a future island dislocated from the present by an interminable gulf have a more palpable foe in tacit feelings that we understand are suicidal. “I just feel like smashing everything to pieces,” Masako says, and Yuzo tries to hush him from saying anymore where all this is going. And yet, needy and toxic as he is, what’s to become of her when her dreams too are wrapped up in him?

Back and forth their Sunday goes, but they manage to persist into moonlit hours, infiltrating an abandoned amphitheater. At first it’s him trying to cheer her up. “You can create worlds in your dreams, right?” He lays out his plan to be the conductor of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” sits her down and asks if she’s sure she “can hear it.” A little baffled, she plays along and says that she can, but, as signaled by an ominous wind rattling up some dead leaves, we know that she doesn’t really believe–until she sees him disintegrate into a crestfallen hush. She has to believe in it–and so do we.

In the only instance of his career, Kurosawa breaks the fourth wall and magic intercedes. After Masako has collapsed in despair, Yuzo rushes the camera, which holds her suspended in close-up. She pleads for us, as if to resurrect Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, to clap and believe. “There are so many poor, young lovers like us in this world! Please give us all a big hand! We’re freezing in the cold winds of the world! Do it for poor young lovers everywhere! Help us dream beautiful dreams!” It’s childishly sentimental, but as her repetitions becomes mantra-like, it cuts deeply into the liminal space between film/dreamworld and audience/reality. The music starts, the camera booms, and before a glaringly artificial backdrop the magic happens. As he conducts, the camera pushes toward her three times, as if getting closer in longing adornment, the visual language of this sequence suggesting, much like the film’s conclusion when the dreaming lovers bid au revoir at the train station, that the gap between people is–with however much sentiment, effort, and dreaming–unbridgeable, and yet must be suckled with some hope. Right now Yuzo and Masako can smile, even while Kurosawa–both a great humanist and pessimist–is probably skeptical about their future prospects. In the last frames of the film we see the word “Trash” on a garbage dispenser, the director breaking the rules against his imposed strictures (because the occupiers wanted to obscure their influence, English lettering was prohibited in postwar Japanese films), much as Masako and Yuzo are allotted one suspended “eternal” moment in this grim place.

However much wonder there is in One Wonderful Sunday, we can only take a leap of faith into that “musical/teleological suspension of the ethical,” whereas with La La Land the kids are all right. Here are two more young dreamers in love in Los Angeles, city of stars, city of dreams. Seb can’t hold down a job as a pianist because he refuses to adhere to restaurant guidelines (during Christmas he has to play holiday songs; he naturally wants to use his jazz prowess to improvise and play with the familiar melodies, much to the dismay of his boss played by J.K. Simmons). He’s falling behind on his bills and living alone, but at least he has a sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who could help him out if he wasn’t so stubborn to accept. While struggling with her studio lot cafe job, Mia races to auditions where casting directors barely give her twenty seconds to impress anything on them. These two have antipodal problems: while Seb and Mia are both expressive, people unfortunately give a damn what he plays (the jazz impresario shtick at his job resulting in his firing; or playful new wave retro as a for-hire key-tar player at a pool party) while she can’t get anyone to listen to her–memorably with their collision upon his firing, when she approaches to compliment his playing and he ignores her on his way to the exit. These two eventually hook up but, as many detractors have pointed out, we hear Seb “mansplaining” (so the parlance goes) jazz to her–talking over the music in a sparsely patronized club–while she can’t even get him to attend her meticulously planned one-woman theatrical show. This leads to their break-up, but just as he has his back-up resources, we see how she has the cushion of her parents’ sizable property back in Nevada (as well as the option of “going back to school”). Seb and Mia endure slings and arrows of insults to their craft (particularly her, listening to some banter following her theatrical show), with Seb compromising his stiff-necked jazz-snob integrity by playing in a poppier modern jazz band with an old colleague (John Legend) and submitting to a photographer’s demand for stupid album cover poses, that at least gets him a steady income (just as it means missing Mia’s performance).

It’s here where La La Land is troubling–yet perhaps more interesting than it’s given credit. It’s a bit much to denounce La La Land as a picture for modern day narcissism as a piece in The Guardian did this week, but I coyly suggest that the tension of self-interest vs. irrational romance is there, Chazelle, to his credit, not necessarily espousing a positive virtue to either. Seb is locked in his bubble when Mia tries to praise his piano playing, as she was earlier during the traffic jam, being that asshole (you know the one) in front of Seb, too busy listening to her audition material to think about other drivers; Seb criticizes talking during jazz while ‘splainin’ it all to Mia as a band performs behind them; Seb has finally made it, playing in a popular modern jazz band with a roaring crowd, while Mia’s ambivalence steals her enthusiasm away and she leaves the club, upset at Seb’s compromise–even though, for my money, John Legend’s “Start a Fire” song is, if not catchier (or, more properly, “ear-wormy”) than “City of Stars,” really the best song in La La Land. They both have possessions (note the antiques he won’t sell to pay off his debts), fancy clothes, cars, and family who can pick up the tab when times get tough. It’s not just that Chazelle’s characters are spoiled and entitled in a way the film’s fans don’t really acknowledge, but I have to believe that the safety net in which Seb and Mia live is what La La Land is about. Unlike the Masako and Yuza, everything is swell in “La La Land,” wherever it is, as at the conclusion Seb gets his jazz club (taking the name Mia suggested after all) and Mia becomes a well-regarded Hollywood actress, her life complete with a super dopey, good looking dude with whom she is raising a beautiful child. The diminutive put-down Blah Blah Bland is appropriate, and yes, I wonder if Chazelle invites the allegation. It’s a total reverse of Kurosawa’s dreaming lovers, codependent and weak, without a third leg to stand on. Masako and Yuzo need the escapism of movie musicals more than Seb and Mia who, though their civilization be crumbling, can at least recline on some good memes (as if I didn’t sound cantankerous enough).

The final variable in this formula is the audience that made La La Land a hit. And the blah-blah-bland-ness is a major contributor to that. Gosling’s Seb isn’t really that much of an asshole but, quoting Danny Glover to Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, more of a sonofabitch. He’s a perfectly digestible, magazine cover-friendly cad playing up the cereal-neglecting Gosling charm (in one scene, after Seb’s saved Mia from some unwelcome flirtation at a party, she even plays around with calling him “a real hero,” a wink to Gosling’s protagonist in Drive); yet the whole time, given the similar geographical setting, I wanted Gosling to become the true-blue wonderful asshole he played in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (the part for which he truly deserved an Oscar nomination this year). In line with this problem of influence, Robert De Niro in New York, New York is an abrasive dick, as is Frederic Forrest in One from the Heart, which makes their female counterparts–Liza Minnelli and Teri Garr, respectively–all the more fiery and compelling in their reactant agency to move past these jerks (while also making the affection within these romances weirdly more stirring, however toxic or hopeless).

The tension between fantasy and reality is more palpable in Chazelle’s antecedents, but then again perhaps La La Land‘s dominion in the popular realm of “Delightainment,” which dominates this year’s Oscars–and understandably in times so politically malignant–demonstrates a new sense of the bittersweet. La La Land‘s heart-wrenching “could have been” finale, in which these two selfish but lovable talents actually listen to each other and demonstrate some reciprocity, is a kind of lifelong fantasy of fulfillment or reconciliation with time that, with varying degrees of quality (some I love, others I hate, I won’t say which), are on full display in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, Spike Jonze’s Her, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, Gareth Jones’ Lion, the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, and three other Best Picture nominees of this year, Denzel Washington’s Fences, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and–more arguably in a way in which I haven’t totally convinced myself (though the reconciliation is there)–Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (one may also joke it’s there in the trailer for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, but not so much in the actual film, where Casey Affleck’s Lee admits of his trauma–for which he’s responsible–that he can’t beat it). To use of those historical Hegelian sweeps that a writer regrets in a few years (or weeks), perhaps these films that encapsulate the sense of life’s blunt force and journey is the byproduct of timelines shared and catalogued in cyberspace, augmented as the bittersweet picture book of life, ripe for a poppy soundtrack resounding with all the feels. (Note, for reasons that would require another three thousand words, I’m not including Wes Anderson’s two recent accomplishments, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or Everybody Wants Some!! in this discussion. Maybe it’s to do with differentiating navel-gazing with exploring the navel, or thunderously affirming life vs. submitting to time and its erosive necessities while longing for something perennial. But I digress.)

Contrastively, as Winifred (Peter Simonischek) expresses to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in one of 2016’s best films, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, we only have these moments, and we never can realize how important they are until they’re gone. There’s a temporary salve in the embrace between daughter and (masked) father in that film (where he’s in the guise of the mythological dream monster children may associate with their fathers, fierce but protective; negative and positive dimensions of Patriarchy are examined by Ade) much like I find in One Wonderful Sunday‘s finale, or in several pictures of the last year by older (>60 years) filmmakers (the exceptions being, interestingly enough women: Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Kelly Reichardt with Certain Women, Andrea Arnold and American Honey, Mia Hanson-Love’s Things to Come, and Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits)–Jarmusch’s Paterson, Scorsese’s Silence, Eastwood’s Sully, Stillman’s Love and Friendship, Malick’s Knight of Cups, Stone’s Snowden, Spielberg’s The BFG, Davies’ Sunset Song, the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, Zemeckis’ Allied, Verhoeven’s Elle, Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply–all part of a world moving on, and all mostly absent from this year’s awards conversation. That’s fine, but I still can’t help wondering how our virtual streaming cascade has in part constructed this new genus/species of Squee!!!!#AffirmMyLife#Delightainment (the gee-golly “‘Member Berries” of this last season’s South Park bear some relation to what I’m thinking of), in addition to changing political and cultural rhetoric: would murkier, less sentimental and rougher-edged winners from last decade–The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker (all worthy but none of which feel designed for the accolades they received)–be so honored now, or would stuff like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno be embraced instead? [Shrugs] Admittedly, all of this is oversimplified and I’m evaporating into damnable generalities but that’s the resonance of La La Land, when at a time saying the right things and digesting nicely results to the resounding 90%+ Tomatometer reading that feels a wee bit too widespread to give much credit–the inoffensive, un-problematic, morally clarion, woke, non-conflicting, and assuredly delightful, bristles combed down to a lump free, agreeable soup of the general. 

Originally published in L'Etoile Magazine on February 24, 2017, shortly before the unexpected outcome of the year's Academy Awards

Akira Kurosawa's One Wonderful Sunday is available to stream on FilmStruck.