So keep dreaming because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion, and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.– Marc Platt, producer for La La Land, immediately before losing the Oscar to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.
Rush hour traffic is hell. It’s irritating, a waste of time, and dangerous while also incredibly boring. As a former commuter to and from Chicago, it was easily one of the most unpleasant, enervating parts of my day-to-day life, and nothing before or since has managed to inspire in me quite so much contempt for my fellow man. I earnestly hope that one day, technology will eliminate rush hour traffic once and for all. Until that day comes, however, I’ll have to find relief from the whimsical dance number “Another Day of Sun“, which kicks off Damien Chazelle‘s 2016 pastiche musical, La La Land.
Composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and choreography by Mandy Moore, “Another Day of Sun” opens on the discordant soundscape of the 105/110 interchange into Los Angeles. Horns beep, and radio static cuts through the air. The camera pans down and tracks right over heavy traffic. There we see many different kinds of people in different kinds of cars listening to different kinds of music: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” gives way to a pounding hip-hop beat, Verdi’s “Si Ridesta in Ciel L’aurora” cuts into a fragment of “It Happened at Dawn”, a show tune from Chazelle’s musical film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). This radio static collage is not only an excellent portrait of L.A. but also the booming loud, contradictory clash of peoples, cultures, and technologies emblematic of all modern metropolitan cities.
The camera zooms in on a young Hispanic woman in a yellow sundress humming along to what will become the opening riff of the musical number. The studio-polished sound of “Another Day of Sun” pushes away the ambient noise of traffic and competing radio stations, signifying our shift from the discordant, quotidian reality of the traffic jam into the heightened reality of the musical number. Yellow sundress steps out of her car and starts singing along, striding smoothly forward and, enchanted by the spirit of music, everyone else leaves their cars as well, falling into a choreographed step behind her.
In this growing crowd, we see L.A’.s incredible diversity of people: white office workers, a black break dancer with dreads, and an elderly Spanish matron dressed in a red trajes de flamenco. The divisions of race, class, and culture dissolve as everyone comes together, unified by the spirit of the music, all the contradictions and discord of the metropolis erased as they—for the brief span of the number anyway—come to coexist in perfect harmony.
The irony here is sharp. Chazelle has taken the traffic jam, this scourge of the modern grind and one of the nadirs of middle-class life, as a setting for a joyous, bouncy display of energy and community spirit. Chazelle creates this sense of plenitude, fulfillment, and community—in a word, utopia—emerging from rush hour. Is the rush hour setting essential to this magical moment?
Entertainment as Utopia
Film scholar Richard Dyer’s Only Entertainment (2002) provides an excellent baseline for explaining how musicals like La La Land function to create this sense of fantasy emerging from the banal. The chapter “Entertainment and Utopia” studies how popular entertainment functions by creating a sense of utopia; that is, by showing a world where needs that are only partially or badly fulfilled in the real world are given a sense of being abundantly satisfied. (Dyer focuses particularly on the musical, but his concepts broadly apply across genres and mediums.)
Dyer brilliantly demonstrates how Busby Berkeley’s Depression-era musical Golddiggers of 1933 was only intended as mindless popular entertainment, something to relax to at the end of a long week. Still, this film was also deeply in dialogue with the social problems of the day. For example, Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s classic show tune, “We’re in the Money”, was produced right at the heart of the Great Depression when money problems were on everyone’s mind. Dyer argues that Depression-era films could be enjoyed as light entertainment p because they seemed to respond to the deeply felt social problems of the time and created the feeling, at least for the duration of the film, that those problems had been resolved.
Of course, entertainment as utopia only seems to resolve such problems while not actually or seriously addressing them. As Dyer states, “To be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audience. Yet to do this, to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is, ideologically speaking, playing with fire. What musicals have to do, then … is to work through these contradictions at all levels in such a way to ‘manage’ them, to make them seem to disappear.” In other words, nobody wants to go to the movies after a long day of work (or after desperately looking for work if you were living during the Depression) and hear a serious discussion about the socioeconomic problems facing the country.
Classic literary utopias like Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) are often quite agitating given that they highlight the disparity between what is and what could be and thus potentially create a call for revolutionary action. To function as light entertainment, a film must create a sense of utopian fulfillment but avoid addressing too directly the social problems that create the need for this fulfillment in the first place. This is exactly what “Another Day of Sun” accomplishes by using a soul-killing traffic jam to stage this wonderful, spontaneous musical number.
Dyer argues that different kinds of societies tend to have different sorts of problems, and these problems, in turn, will shape what a film audience wants to see in their light entertainment. He outlines five needs he thinks are particularly symptomatic of life in modern capitalist society: these are needs for energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community. All five of these factors are manifest in “Another Day of Sun” and also the prevailing need for community.
Capitalist society, by its very nature, breaks apart organic communities, alienates individuals, and inspires antagonism between people forced to compete with each other relentlessly. One of the most emblematic places of this quintessentially modern condition is rush hour. Is the squeeze of the city ever more viscerally felt than when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic? If you’re commuting to or from work in this manner, you’re losing even more precious hours of your day to the job, and you’re not getting compensated for your time in traffic.
You’re stuck in an unpleasant, stressful condition because of the sheer mass of strangers you don’t know or care about that seem to be blocking you from your destination. You’re probably experiencing some road rage, possibly the most natural reaction in the world right now. However, it’s still unfortunate, given that you’re getting angry at people in the same position as yourself. It’s hard to appreciate others’ similar frustration or feel any sense of solidarity or community when everyone is stuck, alone and anonymous in their car. It doesn’t matter how good your stereo systems may be. For all the time you’ll spend surrounded by other human beings, you’re unlikely to see anything recognizably human in this sea of metal and glass. Maybe the odd middle finger or two if you’re unlucky.
“Another Day of Sun” supplies the need for a community so brutally denied by the everyday reality of rush hour traffic. The time spent in gridlock is transformed from an intense social antagonism into a community where everyone can spontaneously get out of their cars and dance with each other. The number solves the real problem of traffic not by providing any realistic solution to it—the lady in the yellow sundress doesn’t get out of her car with a flowchart illustrating how funds can be directed from the state budget into improving city infrastructure—but rather through music and dance to impart a sense of what it might feel like if these problems were solved. “Another Day of Sun” takes the very setting of what makes you so unhappy—traffic, isolation, the daily grind—and transforms it into a font of energy, spontaneity, community, etc. As I wrote in “The Ghost of Modernity in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery ServiceHaunted Utopia: The Ghost of Modernity in Kiki’s Delivery Service“, the poison is made to seem its own cure.
It would be a mistake to look at “Another Day of Sun” only through the lens of class, given the painstaking attention it pays to represent racial diversity. The sequence shows a balanced racial color palette, including black, white, Hispanic, and east Asian performers. It carefully cycles between “races” as different performers are given the chance to sing the lead. Not only do we see broad racial and ethnic diversity represented in the sequence’s dancers, but we even see these dancers at points performing their ethnicity. We see this during the dance-off during the musical break when the crowd forms a circle and a couple of individuals briefly take turns in the spotlight. It opens with the Spanish woman in the red dress doing a flamenco dance with a fan before yielding the floor to the Black break dancer in yellow, their moves met by roaring affirmation from the crowd.
The sequence’s picture of a utopian community is one in which racial equality is achieved, and racial diversity is respected. Not only is it possible for every individual to participate in the spectacle, but they can also do so without abandoning signifiers of racial difference. Those signifiers are accepted and met with full approval. This marks a sharp contrast to the reality of race in America, in which markers of race often bring disadvantages and in which racial and ethnic minorities find themselves having to suppress those markers for greater socioeconomic mobility.
Following the model of entertainment as utopia, La La Land assiduously avoids these realities. At no point does “Another Day of Sun” address the statistical likelihood that its Black and Hispanic dancers are more than three times as likely as whites to be stopped by the LAPD on their commute. Nor does it make mention of the fact that those drivers likely had to “whiten their resumes” to get the jobs to which they’re presumedly commuting. “Another Day of Sun” presents the feeling of being part of a diverse, racially inclusive utopia, but it’s important to remember that this is all it is and all it can be: the feeling of diverse and inclusive community enmeshed in all the problematic structures which generated the need for that feeling in the first place.
There is more to be said about the particular formal structures Chazelle and his choreographers used to accomplish this sense. In the movements of the dancers relative to each other, there can be read simultaneously a pressing, violent desire to crush diverse bodies down into conformity along with the constant disavowal of this desire.
The Disavowed Mass Ornament of “Another Day of Sun”
The choreography in “Another Day of Sun” consists in groups of dancers coming together, breaking apart, and then reforming in ever-greater displays of synchronized movement. The first time we see this is when the sequence’s opening singer steps out of her car and starts walking toward the camera and is joined by two other dancers who briefly match her movements for a quick step and sway before separating from her (01:12-01:21). Later, we see two rows of dancers facing each other atop the highway dividers and mirroring each other’s dancing before jumping down (02:07-02:18). The sequence reaches its climax when all the dancers climb atop their cars in a gridiron pattern and converge on one set of shared choreography (03:52-04:10) with one glaring exception: Purple Shirt Parkour Guy.
Purple Shirt Parkour Guy is introduced toward the end of the sequence spinning on hoods and doing front flips off of cars (03:33-03:42). He then utterly steals the show when he decides to continue his freerun, weaving between cars and vaulting over dividers, despite the rest of the sequence’s dancers having converged on one shared set of choreography. By doing this, Purple Shirt Parkour Guy breaks the otherwise perfect kinetic unity the sequence has so painstakingly been building towards.
This dual coordination and frustration of synchronized movement is an ideologically complicated version of something that critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer once called a “mass ornament”. Kracauer invented the term to describe the kinds of dancing and mass displays that had become popular in industrialized societies during the 1920s and ’30s. For Kracauer, the huge coordinated dance spectacles by the likes of the Tiller Girls and shown in Busby Berkley’s films was evidence of a kind of new mass culture, a reflection on the aesthetic register of the ways people were being brought (or forced) together in the modern machine age.
“Another Day of Sun” seems to try for something similar in the way it unifies diverse groups of modern urban people on the interchange. However, I don’t know if Kracauer would recognize the formations in “Another Day of Sun” as a mass ornament. As Kracauer writes, “[Mass ornaments] are composed of elements that are mere building blocks and nothing more. The construction of the edifice depends on the size of the stones and their number. It is the mass that is employed here. Only as parts of a mass, not as individuals who believe themselves to be formed from within, do people become fractions of a figure.”
Kracauer’s reading of mass ornaments depends on the extreme sublation of the individual to the whole structure to the point where you don’t see people anymore, just an abstract pattern of bodies and body parts; the individual dancing woman vanishes, and her kicking leg becomes a tiny detail in the abstract pattern she and the other dancers create. “Another Day of Sun” exhibits the type of synchronized movement distinctive of the mass ornament, but it’s never completely pure. The sequence comes close at the end to this, but then Purple Shirt Parkour Guy stubbornly insists on distinguishing himself with the kind of individualized movement that the mass ornament is supposed to exclude.
There are a couple of other distinctions between “Another Day of Sun” and the classic mass ornament. In the mass ornaments of the ’20s and ’30s, the dancers are usually dressed exactly alike to help achieve this sublation of the individual to the ornament. In “Another Day of Sun”, however, all the individual dancers are coded as very visually diverse, and not just in terms of race, gender, and class, but also in regards to their color scheme and their place in the choreography. Members of the dance break in and out of formation with each other constantly, the focus shifting from one person to the next, highlighting each dancer’s individuality and flair.
Contrary to the classic mass ornament, this sequence at least ostensibly seems to value diversity and variety of expression. However, despite all its gestures towards diversity, “Another Day of Sun” is animated by the desire to unify its dancers into a mass ornament. The sequence wants to create a perfectly unified community of everyone being so in tune with each other that they can spontaneously come together as one synchronized body. Still, it disguises this drive with streaks of anarchy running through its mass ornaments. Everyone wears brightly contrasting clothing, and different dance styles are spliced into the center of the action and briefly take over the sequence. There’s always at least one exception to displays of a unified movement.
Why do the choreographers of “Another Day of Sun” shy away from committing fully to the mass ornament? The answer is simple: mass ornaments are creepy. It is eminently a totalitarian desire to take a myriad, contradictory group of people and force them into one coordinated, dancing, smiling hivemind. In her essay “Fascinating Fascism“, (1975) Susan Sontag would eventually identify such displays as hallmarks of the fascist aesthetic. Sontag writes, “The rendering of movement in grandiose and rigid patterns is another element in common [of the fascist aesthetic], for such choreography rehearses the very unity of the polity. The masses are made to take form, be design. Hence mass athletic demonstrations, a choreographed display of bodies, are a valued activity in all totalitarian countries.” The kicking legs of the Tiller Girls became the goose-step of the Wehrmacht marching through Nuremberg, and contemporary audiences can still sense the association; watch a video of the Tiller Girls today, and it’s hard not to have kicking jackboots come to mind.
Being on the opposite end of the Second World War from us, the Tiller Girls and Busby Berkley felt much less self-conscious about indulging this desire to brutally crush down individuals and press their bodies into mass ornaments. “Another Day of Sun”, however, has the burden of history to contend with and must find ways to allow us to enjoy these choreographic displays of mass unity while also constantly disavowing the drive towards conformity underlining these displays. The animating desire of “Another Day of Sun” is to take the mega diversity of L.A.—the radio static of different music, cars, and people all thrown together—and press them down into the conformity of the musical number.
However, the sequence also strategically breaks up its uniformity at points so that we can enjoy the phantom of Kracauer’s mass ornament without getting a creeping, uncanny feeling like we’re watching an American remake of the 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Purple Shirt Parkour Guy effectively plays the role of fetishistic disavowal, allowing us to enjoy the sequence’s drive towards the mass ornament while assuring us that the individuality of its constituent parts is still respected.
This sense of the disavowed mass ornament is what many flash mobs typically aim to create. Like “Another Day of Sun”, the flash mob also rehearses a sense of spontaneous community emerging out of a banal modern public setting like a mall or a train station. Flash mobs are, of course, meticulously planned by their enactors ahead of time. Yet, their entire charm is that they create the sense that all these people have spontaneously emerged out of the crowd, a modern body with all its myriad contradictions, and found a way to coordinate together into a spontaneous picture of community.
Like with “Another Day of Sun”, the flash mob must hide its drive to conformity behind a veneer of individuality and difference. Flash mobs very frequently feature people coming together to dance as a mass ornament, but markers are preserved to set dancers apart as individuals. The flash mob will typically feature people of different ages, genders, and races in clothing that signifies a diverse range of class positions. Often random passers-by will get sucked up into the flash mob, either awkwardly trying to keep up with the synchronized movement or else standing awkwardly in the middle of the mass ornament with their phones out, recording the performance. These extras serve the same role as Purple Shirt Parkour Guy in “Another Day of Sun”, broadcasting the non-totality of the mass ornament so we can guiltlessly enjoy it.
The type of disavowed ornaments I’ve described here fall squarely into the model described by Dyer’s “Entertainment and Utopia”. The desire of the disavowed mass ornament is to have a perfectly unified community without suppressing the individuality of its members; I can’t think of a better example of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Antagonism and alienation are natural parts of modern society, if not the human condition itself, and the type of unity that the disavowed flash mob shows is, of course, impossible. This does not stop it from working on us as a form of utopian entertainment, however. Flash mob performances are enjoyable because they create the fantasy of an ideal community emerging from the flawed stuff of our modern lives.
Briefly, let’s return to Marc Platt, one of the producers for La La Land, and the epigram I opened this essay with. The quotation comes from the address Platt gave at the 2017 Academy Awards when it was mistakenly announced that La La Land won the Oscar for Best Picture. In his short speech, Platt lauded the power of dreams to change the world, encouraged everyone to keep dreaming, and said that repression was the enemy of civilization. His comments struck me as pure 1960s-era naïve optimism and singularly inappropriate for February 2017. Donald Trump had just been elected U.S. president by riding a wave of unrepressed sexism, racial resentment, and conspiratorial fantasies of illegal hordes bussed in to vote for a murdering child molester. Maybe not all dreams are such good things.
To be clear, I don’t think that La La Land engages in anything like the febrile hallucinations of QAnon. It’s also very far, however, from something like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s speech includes many figures that, at a glance, can resemble those we see in “Another Day of Sun”. His vision of little Black children joining hands with little white children in a beautiful symphony of brotherhood is eminently one of a utopian, post-racial community. What differentiates King’s speech from a film like La La Land, however, is that the speech’s utopian images are constantly contrasted against the racial realities of Jim Crow and connected to the immediate exigency of the civil rights movement; it is the dream that demands you wake up and work to realize it.
Platt’s speech is structured around the injunction, “so keep dreaming”. This is what La La Land and its “Another Day of Sun” performance want you to do. The dance sequence is indeed a dream of racial inclusion, but in keeping with Dyer’s formula, it is also a dream that restricts itself to the level of fantasy and effaces its roots in real social problems. It’s like what you’d get if you took the utopian figures of race and class justice from King’s “I Have a Dream” and ripped them from their native rhetorical context of the call to action. It’s Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, all joining hands to sing how it’s just another day of sun; it is the dream that stays a dream.
Chazelle, Damien. “Another Day of Sun – La La Land Opening Scene”. YouTube, uploaded by ScreenWeek TV | Trailer e News sui Film al Cinema. 5 April 2017.
Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia”. Only Entertainment. Routledge. 2002.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Mass Ornament”. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Translated by Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press. 1995.
Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism”. Under the Sign of Saturn. Vintage Books. 1981.