The Banality of Excellence (or, the Case against La La Land)

(Warning: mild plot details contained within. No plotbreaking here.)

The 89th annual Academy Awards are on Sunday night, and for all intents and purposes, the race for Best Picture is of the two-horse variety. La La Land and Moonlight, two films so different that they might as well exist in different universes. So how can you begin to judge the two?

La La Land is a fine film. That is not a derogatory, especially in an industry where 85% of products are seemingly created in laboratories, polished to an egregious shine, and shot straight into the parts of our brains that are easiest to amuse. To be a “fine film” is to be one of three dozen films in a year that put thought, effort, and artistry into their creation, and it deserves its kudos for that.

And there is, beyond all else, a lot of thought put into La La Land. From the opening sequence, Damien Chazelle’s profound love for music, movies, musicals, movie music, and movie musicals shines. It hearkens back to a simpler Hollywood in both subject and genre, when small stories could be told on the back of lead chemistry with little interruption, and I think it’s a noble effort to look backward to something many may have forgot. The story is serviceable, the cinematography and choreography are stunning, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have a natural compatibility that would be impossible to manufacture in a test tube. I would recommend it to anyone of any age, any creed. It is the definition of a crowd-pleaser.

But to say that La La Land is a tremendous feat of filmmaking, an achievement worthy of 14 Oscar nominations, tied for the most in history, is misguided at best and an act of erasure at worst.

I was raised on movie musicals. I could not tell you how many times I have seen Singin’ in the Rain or The Pajama Game or Damn Yankees or Guys and Dolls; they were staples of my childhood in much the same way as Disney movies. I'm thankful that my parents introduced me to them. So while musicals are magical, something that Chazelle is able to breathlessly convey, they are not novel.

While La La Land touches the boundaries of what has been done before in the genre, every plot point, every development and little twist, and even the leitmotifs are familiar ground. We have seen one lead refuse to give the other the time of day, seen them slowly fall in love despite themselves, seen them drift apart due to poor timing and differing ambitions. And while the movie employs leaps in technology from the golden age of movie musicals, particularly in lighting, continuous shots, and sound-capturing technique, these are not leaps so profound as to reinvent the wheel. It hits the same beats that were hit in 1959 with just a dash more flair. And that’s fine.

The problems with La La Land are not limited to its relative safety. One area where it did have the ability to push the boundaries of the musical genre, at least in film, was in its casting and its depiction of race. Not surprising of their time, you would be hard-pressed to find a person of color in those musicals of yore, so there was a real chance to make some progress and create a world that looks more like our own. But here, in a musical ostensibly about jazz, a musical genre rooted entirely in blackness, there is one black character, and that character solely exists as a mild antagonist to the dreams of White Jazz Savior Ryan Gosling. (The phrase “save jazz” is used, albeit in jest.)

Beyond that, black people are props. Literally. They play in bands that Gosling joins to show off his acquired piano chops (which are truly impressive), they sit in the audience and watch him play, they dance with him on a boardwalk during a solo, and that’s it. When Gosling explains to Stone the magic of jazz while they watch a black ensemble play, pointing at them like constellations far removed from their little world, I rubbed my temples with frustration. The movie eschews any potential growth, instead doubling down on the predictability of its narrative and the conventions of its genre. And while that doesn’t make La La Land bad (it’s quite good), it certainly doesn’t lift it into the realm of high art.

This is where there would be a smooth segue into contrasting La La Land with the other Best Picture favorite, Moonlight, but there’s very little point in it. It would be a Venn diagram where the intersecting middle is occupied by the line “films released in 2016.” And in truth, Moonlight isn’t really even a movie. It is a series of portraits by a master of the form, mood music for an ugly cry. Moonlight is a film with no continuous plot and maybe 5 characters, yet manages to affect viewers in ways that conventional films like La La Land can only aspire to.

What you feel when you watch Moonlight are emotions coming from a place previously untapped by cinema. There have always been coming-of-age films, most recently the remarkably bland Boyhood, but few have grappled with compounding identities so beautifully. Moonlight addresses so many identities (adolescence, masculinity, blackness, homosexuality) and their intersections (black adolescence and masculinity, being a gay black man in the world) with grace. This is a monumental feat of emotional weightlifting, yet director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney not only shoulder that weight, they effortlessly pass it into us.

Chiron's confusion, embarrassment, discomfort, anger, hesitance, sorrow, reads on every single lingering shot of his face (and oh, are there lingering shots). And by chunking the movie into three noncontiguous acts, we get to see how those emotions are expressed throughout Chiron's life without following him around. A child doesn’t know how to process and hides within himself, a teenager is sullen and angry in equal parts, and an adult represses his pain by mimicking the strength he saw in his younger days.

And no, there is nothing new in Moonlight from a cinematic standpoint. The camerawork is apt but ordinary; the lighting is effective but familiar. But I’ve never sat in a theater and felt like I did. By the midway point of the final act, I began to fully comprehend what I was seeing: the perfect balancing of a lifetime of pain and doubt and sorrow on the edge of a knife. And in the end, there was no real reason for the movie to play out the way it did. There was no inciting incident, no magical closure, no neat ending. And that is life. Nothing is tidy.

So come Sunday, we have two movies that succeed along entirely different lines. In La La Land, we have a good love story, one that joys and moves along familiar lines. It is a fun and interesting technical feast, and it achieves its all-but-stated goal of reviving the barely-breathing movie musical. But what you see in 2016 is what you saw in 1959, from the plotting to the setting to the casting. To proclaim it a masterpiece is to forget 70+ years of movie history and to ignore many warts.

And in Moonlight, you have a movie that does none of that. It tells nothing from A to B, resolves none of the issues it addresses, and leaps through time. But it is perhaps the most affecting drama of the decade, one that places you in the care of a story that squeezes your heart with each prolonged look, each cut, each music cue. For its near two-hour runtime, you assume an emotional burden unlike any film before it.

So in the end, the only question to ask is this: What deserves to be remembered? A good story, or a masterful painting?