As I pointed out in my Taki’s Magazine review of the Oscar frontrunner, La La Land:
Demographically, [Damien] Chazelle’s fantasy Los Angeles is much like Woody Allen’s New York or Paris: no Mexicans, Koreans, Persians, or Russians, just good-looking white Americans and dignified old black jazz musicians. To a semi-French artist like Chazelle, America will always be culturally white and black, and the post-1965 newcomers don’t much matter.
The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land
What does Damien Chazelle hope we see when we look back?
By Geoff Nelson | January 6, 2017 | 4:30pm
By the way, here’s a list of article titles featuring the “unbearable whiteness” cliche / racial slur I found earlier this year. My favorite was “The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and …”
… 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.
… 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. … Chazelle, in returning to the visual aesthetics of Rogers and Astaire, suggests that escapism is instead found in the past.
… 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? …
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.
…. 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? …
Redlining! Or as it should be called: The Houseocaust.
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.
… 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.
For a better hostile review of La La Land that focuses on Damien Chazelle’s personal artistic weaknesses rather than his racial faults, here’s Richard Brody’s in The New Yorker. I think it’s excessively focused on the Chazelle glass being part empty — his ideology of artistic ambition is what has pushed him so far so fast — but there is a danger Chazelle might flame out like M. Night Shyamalan or George Lucas.
By the way, here’s a similar review from a couple of years ago about the unbearable whiteness of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
It’s just unforgivable that white guys keep accomplishing stuff. White men should stop so that everybody else won’t have to feel so resentful.