By Slavoj Žižek
Among the PC reproaches to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the one that stands out for its sheer stupidity was that there are no gay couples in the film which takes place in LA, a city with a strong gay population… How come those PC Leftists who complain about the sub-representation of sexual and ethnic minorities in Hollywood movies never complain about the gross misrepresentation of the lower class majority of workers? It’s OK if workers are invisible, just that we get here and there a gay or lesbian character…
I remember a similar incident at the first conference on the idea of Communism in London in 2009. Some people in the public voiced the complaint that there was only one woman among the participants, plus no black person and no one from Asia, to which Badiou remarked that it was strange how no one was bothered by the fact that there were no workers among the participants, especially given that the topic was Communism.
And, back to La La Land, we should bear in mind that the movie opens up precisely with the depiction of hundreds of precarious and/or unemployed workers on their way to Hollywood to search for a job that would boost their career. The first song (“Another Day of Sun”) shows them singing and dancing to make the time pass while they are stuck in a highway traffic jam. Mia and Sebastian, who are among them, each in his/her car, are the two who will succeed—the (obvious) exceptions. And, from this standpoint, their falling in love (which will enable their success) enters the story precisely to blur in the background the invisibility of hundreds who will fail, making it appear that it was their love (and not sheer luck) which made them special and destined to success. Ruthless competition is the name of the game, with no hint of solidarity (recall numerous audition scenes where Mia is repeatedly humiliated). No wonder that, when I hear the first lines of the most famous song from La La Land (“City of stars, are you shining just for me / city of stars, there is so much that I can’t see”), I find it hard to resist the temptation to hum back the most stupid orthodox Marxist reply imaginable: “No, I am not shining just for the petit-bourgeois ambitious individual that you are, I am also shining for the thousands of exploited precarious workers in Hollywood whom you can’t see and who will not succeed like you, to give them some hope!”
Mia and Sebastian start a relationship and move in together, but they grow apart because of their desire to succeed: Mia wants to become an actress while Sebastian wants to own a club where he would play authentic old jazz. First, Sebastian joins a pop-jazz band and spends time touring, then, after the premiere of her monodrama fails, Mia leaves Los Angeles and moves back home to Boulder City. Alone in LA, Sebastian receives a call from a casting director who had attended and enjoyed Mia’s play, and invites Mia to a film audition. Sebastian drives to Boulder City and persuades her to return. Mia is simply asked to tell a story for the audition; she begins to sing about her Aunt who inspired her to pursue acting. Confident that the audition was a success, Sebastian asserts that Mia must devote herself wholeheartedly to the opportunity. They profess they will always love each other, but are uncertain of their future. Five years later, Mia is a famous actress and married to another man, with whom she has a daughter. One night, the couple stumble upon a jazz bar. Noticing the Seb’s logo, Mia realizes Sebastian has finally opened his own club. Sebastian spots Mia, looking unsettled and regretful, in the crowd and begins to play their love theme. This prompts an extended dream sequence in which the two imagine what might have been had their relationship worked out perfectly. The song ends and Mia leaves with her husband. Before walking out, she shares with Sebastian one last knowing look and smile, happy for the dreams they have both achieved.
As was already noted by many critics, the final 10 minutes fantasy is simply a Hollywood musical version of the film: it shows how the story would be told in a classic Hollywood musical. Such a reading confirms the film’s reflexivity: it stages in a movie how the movie should end with regard to the genre formula to which it relates. La La Land is clearly a self-reflexive film, a film on the genre of musicals, but it works alone; one doesn’t have to know the full history of musicals to enjoy and understand it (much like what Bazin wrote on Chaplin’s Limelight: it is a reflexive film about the old Chaplin’s declining career, but it stands alone; one doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s early career as the Tramp to enjoy it). Interestingly, the more we progress into the film, the less musical numbers are in it and the more of pure (melo)drama – till, at the end, we are thrown back into a musical which explodes as a fantasy.
Apart from obvious references to other musicals, Chazelle’s more subtle reference is Sandrich’s classic Rogers/Astaire musical screwball comedy Top Hat (1935). There are many good things to say about Top Hat, beginning with the role of tap dancing as the disturbing intrusion into the daily life routine (Astaire practices tap dancing in the hotel floor above Ginger Rogers, which makes her complain, thus bringing the couple together). Compared to La La Land, what cannot but strike the eye is the total psychological flatness of Top Hat where there is no depth, just puppet-like acting which pervades even the most intimate moments. The final song and its staging (“Piccolino”) in no way relates to the story’s happy ending; the words of the song are purely self-referential, merely telling the story of how this song itself came to be and inviting us to dance to it: “By the Adriatic waters / Venetian sons and daughters / Are strumming a new tune upon their guitars / It was written by a Latin / A gondolier who sat in / His home out in Brooklyn and gazed at the stars // He sent his melody / Across the sea / To Italy / And we know / They wrote some words to fit / That catchy bit / And christened it / The Piccolino // And we know that it’s the reason / Why everyone this season / Is strumming and humming a new melody. // Come to the casino / And hear them play the Piccolino / Dance with your bambino / To the strains of the catchy Piccolino / Drink your glass of vino / And when you’ve had your plate of scalopino / Make them play the Piccolino / The catchy Piccolino / And dance to the strains of that new melody / The Piccolino.” And this is the truth of the film: not the ridiculous plot but the music and tap dancing as a self-goal. In parallel with Andersen’s Red Shoes, the hero just cannot help tap-dancing: it is for him an irresistible drive. The singing dialogue between Astaire and Rogers, even at its most sensuous (as in the famous “Dancing cheek to cheek”) is just a pretext for the musical-dancing exercise.
La La Land may appear superior to such an exercise since it dwells in psychological realism: reality intrudes into the dreamworld of musicals (like the latest instalments of superhero films which bring out the hero’s psychological complexity, his traumas and inner doubts). But it is crucial to note how the otherwise realist story has to conclude with the escape into musical fantasy. So what happens at the film’s end?
The first and obvious Lacanian reading of the film would be to see the plot as yet another variation on the theme of “there is no sexual relationship”. The successful careers of the two protagonists which tear them apart are like the ice hitting the Titanic in Cameron’s movie: they are here to save the dream of love (staged in the final fantasy), i.e., to mask the immanent impossibility of their love, the fact that, if they were to remain together, they would turn into a bitter disappointed couple. Consequently, the ultimate version of the film would have been the reversal of the final situation: Mia and Sebastian are together and enjoy full professional success, but their lives are empty, so they go to a club and dream of a fantasy in which they live happily together a modest life, since they both renounced their careers, and (in a dream within a dream) they imagine making the opposite choice and romantically remember the missed opportunity of their life together…
We do find a similar reversal in Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000). Jack Campbell, a single Wall Street executive, hears on Christmas Eve that his former girlfriend, Kate, called him after many years. On Christmas Day, Jack wakes up in a suburban New Jersey bedroom with Kate and two children; he hurries back to his office and condo in New York, but his closest friends do not recognize him. He is now living the life he could have had, had he stayed with his girlfriend—a modest family life, where he is a car tire salesman for Kate’s father and Kate is a not-for-profit lawyer. Just as Jack is finally realizing the true value of his new life, his epiphany jolts him back to his wealthy former life on Christmas Day. He forgoes closing a big acquisition deal to intercept Kate who also focused on her career and became a wealthy corporate lawyer. After he learns that she only called him to give back some of his old possessions since she is moving to Paris, he runs after her at the airport and describes the family they had in the alternate universe in an effort to win back her love. She agrees to have a cup of coffee at the airport, suggesting that they will have a future… So what we get is a compromise solution at its worst: somehow the two will combine the best of both worlds, remaining rich capitalists but being at the same time a loving couple with humanitarian concerns… In short, they will keep the cake and eat it, as they say, and La La Land at least avoids this cheap optimism.
So what effectively happens at the film’s end? It’s, of course, not that Mia and Sebastian simply decide to give preference to their careers ahead of their love relationship. The least one should add is that they both find success in their careers and achieve their dreams because of the relationship they had, so that their love is a kind of vanishing mediator: far from being an obstacle to their success, it “mediates” it. So does the film subvert the Hollywood formula of producing a couple insofar as both fulfil their dreams, but NOT as a couple? And is this subversion more than simply a postmodern narcissistic preference of personal fulfilment over Love? In other words, what if their love was not a true Love-Event? Plus, what if their career “dream” was not the devotion to a true artistic Cause but just a career dream? So what if none of the competing claims (career, love, etc.) really displays an unconditional commitment that follows a true Event? Their love is not true, their pursuing of career is just that — not a full artistic commitment. In short, Mia’s and Sebastian’s betrayal is deeper than choosing one alternative to the detriment of the other: their entire life is already a betrayal of an authentically-committed existence. This is also why the tension between the two claims is not a tragic existential dilemma but a very soft uncertainty and oscillation.
Such a reading is nonetheless too simple, for it ignores the enigma of the final fantasy: WHOSE fantasy is this, his or hers? Is it not HERS (she is the observer-dreamer), and the whole dream is focused on her destiny of going to Paris to shoot the film, etc.? Against some critics who claimed that the film is male-biased, i.e., that Sebastian is the active partner in the couple, one should assert that Mia is the subjective centre-point of the film: the choice is much more hers than his, which is why, at the film’s end, she is the big star and Sebastian, far from a celebrity, is just the owner of a moderately-successful jazz club (selling also fried chicken). This difference becomes clear when we listen closely to the two conversations between Mia and Sebastian when one of them has to make the choice. When Sebastian announces to her that he will join the band and spend most of the time touring, Mia does not raise the question of what this means for the two of them; instead, she asks him if this is what HE really wants, i.e., if HE likes playing with this band. Sebastian replies that people (the public) like what he is doing, so his playing with the band means a permanent job and a career, with the chance to put some money aside and open his jazz club. But she insists correctly that the true question is the one of his desire: what bothers her is not that, if he chooses his career (playing with the band), he will betray her (their love relationship), but that, if he chooses this career, he will betray himself, his true calling. In the second conversation which takes place after the audition, there is no conflict and no tension: Sebastian immediately recognizes that for Mia acting is not just a career opportunity but a true calling, something she has to do to be herself, so that abandoning it would ruin the very base of her personality. There is no choice here between their love and her calling: in a paradoxical but deeply true sense, if she were to abandon the prospect of her acting in order to stay with him in LA, she would also betray their love since their love grew out of their shared commitment to a Cause.
We stumble here upon a problem passed over by Alain Badiou in his theory of Event. If the same subject is addressed by multiple Events, which of them should be given priority? Say, how should an artist decide if he cannot bring together his love life (building a life together with his/her partner) and his dedication to art? We should reject the very terms of this choice. In an authentic dilemma, one should not decide between Cause and love, between the fidelity to one or the other event. The authentic relationship between Cause and love is more paradoxical. The basic lesson of King Vidor’s Rhapsody is that, in order to gain the beloved woman’s affection, the man has to prove that he is able to survive without her, that he prefers his mission or profession to her. There are two immediate choices: (1) my professional career is what matters most to me; the woman is just an amusement, a distracting affair; (2) the woman is everything to me; I am ready to humiliate myself, to forsake all my public and professional dignity for her. They are both false, as they lead to the man being rejected by the woman. The message of true love is thus: even if you are everything to me, I can survive without you and I am ready to forsake you for my mission or profession. The proper way for the woman to test the man’s love is thus to “betray” him at the crucial moment of his career (the first public concert in the film, the key exam, the business negotiation which will decide his career). Only if he can survive the ordeal and accomplish successfully his task while deeply traumatized by her desertion, will he deserve her and she will return to him. The underlying paradox is that love, precisely as the Absolute, should not be posited as a direct goal. It should retain the status of a by-product, of something we get as an undeserved grace. Perhaps, there is no greater love than that of a revolutionary couple, where each of the two lovers is ready to abandon the other at any moment if revolution demands it.
The question is thus: how does an emancipatory-revolutionary collective which embodies the “general will” affect intense erotic passion? From what we know about love among the Bolshevik revolutionaries, something unique took place there and a new form of love couple emerged: a couple living in a permanent state of emergency, totally dedicated to the revolutionary Cause, ready to sacrifice all personal sexual fulfilment to it, even ready to abandon and betray each other if the Revolution demanded it, but simultaneously totally dedicated to each other, enjoying rare moments together with extreme intensity. The lovers’ passion was tolerated, even silently respected, but ignored in the public discourse as something of no concern to others. (There are traces of this even in what we know of Lenin’s affair with Inessa Armand.) There is no attempt at Gleichschaltung, at enforcing the unity between intimate passion and social life. The radical disjunction between sexual passion and social-revolutionary activity is fully recognized. The two dimensions are accepted as totally heterogeneous, each irreducible to the other. There is no harmony between the two—but it is this very recognition of the gap, which makes their relationship non-antagonistic.
And does the same not happen in La La Land? Does Mia not make the “Leninist” choice of her Cause? Does Sebastian not support her choice? And do they in this way not remain faithful to their love?