It can only happen on film.

‘La La Land’ Is a Delightful Return to Mise en Scène Cinema

The melancholy in this film's musical sequences serves as commentary on cinema’s bygone capacity to produce a unique kind of magic.

In an article written for Cahiers du cinéma in 1957, the renowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “After seeing Rebel Without a Cause, one cannot but feel that there is something which exists only in the cinema. Which would be nothing in a novel, the stage or anywhere else, but which becomes fantastically beautiful on the screen” (Cahiers du cinema, Volume 1 1985, p.114). Godard’s point was that Nicholas Ray had made visible the ways one can work with the expressive means of the medium and tell a story in medium-specific ways; a story that could not be appreciated if adapted into another narrative medium, because it would miss all these elements that make it worthwhile.

Importantly, La La Land includes one significant scene in an art-house cinema, where Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) are having their first date. They go to see Rebel Without a Cause. Suddenly, the screen goes blank due to a technical problem and their film viewing is interrupted. Evidently, this is far from an incidental reference. While much of the critical reception of the film has focused on the ways it mourns the death both of musical as a genre and of jazz as well, there has been minimum discussion of its nostalgia for a mise en scène cinema that distinguishes itself from other media narratives. A type of cinema in which the filmmaker is not an executive who simply illustrates a pre-existing script, but a visionary whose work can tell a story but can also create a meta-space that reflects on the power of cinema as a unique medium.

This is precisely what La La Land is. It’s a film that has demiurgic objectives analogous to the great mise en scène filmmakers of the past. This is easily understood when one looks at the storyline, which is far from original, but follows the well-trodden path of the talented couple that want to make it in show business. Cutting the film’s story to its basics doesn’t create many expectations, but it’s not the film’s fabula, but the syuzhet (the way the story is told) that makes it unique.

This is also interrelated to the ways that Damien Chazelle brilliantly manipulates the musical genre and pushes it further by overcoming many of its conventions. This is not to say that the film’s musical sequences don’t operate as a celebration of the medium. Obviously, they serve this function and efficiently. But there’s also a sense of melancholy in these sequences, a type of melancholy that exceeds the film’s diegetic parameters and acts as a commentary on cinema’s bygone capacity to produce this type of magic that no other medium could compete with it.

This is made visible in the opening musical sequence, “Another Day of Sun”, that makes use of all the standard mise en scène elements such as colour, blocking, and expressive camera movements to insert us into a space whose narrative implications are far from being clear. This is not an establishing shot, since it’s only after the ending of the sequence that the scene narrativises the space and focuses on Mia and her frustration with the traffic. From then on, the narrative begins.

“Another Day of Sun”, however, is more of a preamble of what is to follow not in terms of musical excessive moments, which do not abound throughout La La Land, but in terms of their function in the narrative, which is normally to ameliorate a situation that is far from being positive. For instance, against audience expectations what follows the ending of the opening sequence is a visual of stressed commuters in a LA highway trying to keep their calm in a disturbing traffic. Similarly, when Mia and Seb walk together to find their cars following their frosty encounter at a party, there’s an implied sense of chemistry between them that’s insinuated by the sequence titled “A Lovely Night”. By the end of the sequence, they both find their ways to their cars without bringing their flirt to a completion. All the same, the City of Stars sequence prefigures Seb’s touring with Keith’s pop band. This will later on be the reason for a big argument between Seb and Mia.

In the same way, the “Audition/The Fools Who Dream” sequence prefigures Mia’s career success, which will, however, bring her romance with Seb to an end. But the most obvious example of the ways that the musical break plays a totally different function than what they do in the classical Hollywood musicals of the past, is the concluding dream sequence in which Mia fantasises having being married to Seb and combining a successful career with love. By the end of the sequence, reality kicks in leaving her and Seb contemplating on their past romance.

There’s a magic in all these sequences that derives from the fact that their excess is restrained. The music fluctuates in tempo and dynamics to the point that most of the musical sequences end up having an anti-climactic effect at the end. It’s this constant interplay between excess and moderation, utopia and reality that makes La La Land unique. The primary characters are brilliantly portrayed as young aspiring artists with talent, but not as super-gifted people that distinguish themselves immediately. Both characters make us recall “folks next door-type stories” of young aspiring and persistent artists whom we know and see them move from rejection to rejection.

To Chazelle’s credit, for both of them luck will play an important role in their successful careers. But this career wise luck will be combined with the breakdown of their relationship and this is another departure from conventions associated with backstage musicals. The successful career is not combined with an idealised heterosexual romance. If one of the charges pressed repeatedly against Hollywood is that it blissfully disregards labour relations in its portrayal of characters, La La Land dexterously avoids this pitfall by showing how labour relations and aspirations may come at the expense of love and private life. There is significant emphasis on labour conditions throughout the narrative, showing the characters doing all sorts of crappy jobs hoping that one day they will make it. When they do make it, though, they have to separate for practical reasons. Utopia and reality are not seen as polar opposites but as the two sides of the same coin and this is something that some critics of the film seem to ignore.

Watching the queues of people of all ages in the arthouse cinema of my neighbourhood in Leeds waiting to get a ticket to sold-out performances of La La Land took me back to a time when cinema was an event (not in the blockbuster sense of waiting to be inundated with trite visuals of explosions after explosions), but in the social and artistic sense. Cinema as a medium, to evoke Godard’s quotation, can do things that other media cannot. In an age when we tiredly encounter talks about how media outlets, or even the banality and communicative capitalism of social media have challenged cinema’s uniqueness, La La Land is vivid proof that cinema can produce a magic that no other medium can contest.

It’s also a timely reminder to Hollywood that its dalliance with computer, video-game aesthetics and awfully clinical digital images that resemble computer screens rather than cinema might have to be brought to a halt and reembrace the mise en scène aesthetic of its past masters. This is what can motivate people to go back to the movie theaters, and make once again the idea of cinema as a collective experience relevant. To borrow some lines from one of the film’s sequences. “A bit of madness is key. To give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us?”