Make Hollywood Great Again?

Maybe I should’ve seen Hidden Figures. 

If you haven’t already, check out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s funnily on-point critique of La La Land, which many expect to win the Oscar today. The NBA star and fellow UCLA alum directs his criticism to the controversial ending, which I personally liked. But I also see its problems–and problems don’t end there.

I enjoyed the film in general, with its tale of artists trying to make it and the characters traipsing around all the familiar places in L.A. And of course the musical aspects were fantastic. But as it says in the review:

In fact, the better a work of art is, the more we must dissect it.

A grumpy British man complains about the film in the Guardian, and he does have something of a point.

Of course, its characters are humourless and insensitive: narcissists usually are… Still, La La Land is a film for our time. With our self-nurturing, self-promotion, clicktivism, Twitterstorms, sexts and selfies, we are all narcissists now.

…[For the Academy’s voters] Seeing their life-choices vindicated by the witchcraft of their trade must have been something of a comfort.

But I suppose this piece from a frustrated Arab actor in the industry gets closer to my issue with it.

I pray that La La Land doesn’t clean up at the Oscars (as at the BAFTAs). For this would be a sign that the industry prioritises the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic – and white – mythology.

The Economist notes that the Academy has “frequently ignored films with political and social relevance.” That’s the thing: La La Land is political. (Don’t groan; everything is political now!)

Let’s reconsider the story of Mia and Sebastian, two washed up white middle class millennials trying to make it in L.A. as an actress and a musician, respectively. The story opens with an enthralling number on the freeway (“On the 105 ramp heading north, a place rife with existential crisis,” as one reviewer writes), and we know we’re in for a fun movie. It’s interesting that it ends with everyone filing back into their cars like nothing happened. This movie has you thinking even L.A.’s terrible traffic culture could change–but this is not a movie interested in change.

Take Sebastian’s character–he’s an uber-traditionalist, when it comes to jazz. (In the words of Kareem, “The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout?”) He longs to return to the glory days of the genre, instead of “selling out” to the impure sounds of the new millennium (thanks-no thanks, John Legend). He drives the most ridiculous classic sports car (and I say that as someone who appreciates cars). Not too far into the movie do you realize that this guy is more anachronistic than Captain America–you know, the dude frozen in ice for 70 years.

Then there is Mia, the girl trying to make it big in Hollywood, a girl who, as apparent in her room decor, worships the classics. But in the meantime, she’s working in the studio Starbucks, serving lattes to uptight execs–and to become that apparently is the dream. It’s to pursue “art” and become a snobby corporate overlord.

What was that thing about selling out?

In the end, Mia achieves her dream–she becomes that person buying the latte instead of serving it. It’s a twisted version of the American dream that makes you question whether you want the American dream resuscitated in the first place. More importantly, the cycle just continues: society is the same as before; Mia is just higher in the hierarchy.

There are smaller things. The whole number recreating scenes from famous films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” leaving viewers not just thinking, Oh, I remember that movie! but also with the impression of Wasn’t that a nicer time. There is the scene in which Sebastian and Mia see Rebel Without A Cause in the theater, instead of Netflix-and-chilling like irreverent, uncultured millennials. There is the not-so-subtle criticism of the industry’s present-day culture, such as the pretentious tools Mia meets at parties (a networking business that, having gone to school with kids working their asses off to get into the industry, I know is a big deal).

And then there is the scene of Mia sitting down for dinner with her business exec boyfriend and friends, and the boyfriend takes a call and answers it in Mandarin. It’s a dig at the influence of Chinese business and audiences on the industry, and I can understand where Chazelle, the director, is coming from. But in the moment, the way Mia looks at her boyfriend–something between uncomfortable and disgusted–just comes off as xenophobic.

I don’t think I’m making a stretch here. Discomfort with foreign influence. Reminiscing on the life a changing industry once offered. Making movies and music more traditional. Reverting the culture. This film is wishing Hollywood would be Made Great Again.

And so the great irony will be when celebrities step onto the stage and rail against Trump (as well they should), and then sit down and wait for the vote of an Academy that’s getting off at the thought of taking us back a century–and we thought that was Donald’s job.

Generally, we’re a society that likes to keep moving on, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But lately I’ve noticed a wistfulness for the past, whether it’s in politics or the movies. (Why else would we revive Star Wars?) Why does no one, like our ambitious star-crossed lovers, want to move forward?

History becomes glorious in retrospect, but sometimes we make it more imaginary than the future. Even if the present moment has challenges, it’s never helpful to cling to the past. We would do well to remember that on Oscars night.


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