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In defence of La La Land

Accusations that the musical movie is sexist or for Hollywood insiders rest on the false idea that making art is more important than engaging with it.

Perhaps the most pivotal scene in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land takes place in a restaurant, one that Mia (Emma Stone) chances upon while walking the long journey home, with no idea that Seb (Ryan Gosling) works there playing the piano. But before that, as Mia approaches the restaurant, she passes a long, colourful mural. We see Mia walk past Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, WC Fields, and James Dean. The wide shot that follows reveals the full wall, a crowd of recognisable figures all sitting on red velvet seats in a darkened theatre, staring out at the street in front of them, as well as Mia, stepping out of a perfect empty frame of red neon light.

This is the “You Are The Star” mural, which sits at the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue in LA. Fred and Ginger dance in the aisle, while Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sit up front. A nod to the Old Hollywood legends La La Land so often pays homage to, the mural plays with the idea of spectatorship, inverting the roles of artist and audience by seating screen legends in the cinema, and the average passerby on screen.

La La Land has been described by various critics as a “love letter” to lots of things: to Hollywood, to musicals, to dreamers, to LA, even to romance itself. It is, to an extent, all these things. Its familiar story (cynical, frustrated male creative seeks wide-eyed female creative, for the mutual following of dreams) necessarily romanticises the experience of being an actor, a musician, a writer – even, especially, if it involves struggle. But La La Land is also an ode to the audience.

Mia and Seb both hope to be performers: Seb wants to run, and play at, his own jazz club; Mia wants to make it as an actress. But when we meet them, working low-paid, dead-end hospitality jobs, they are primarily audience members. We see Seb obsessively playing jazz cassettes and records on loop, Mia gushing about a childhood spent watching Notorious, Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca.

In fact, Seb and Mia fall in love as observers – their romance blossoms as they share experiences as audience members. They stroll around the Warner Bros lot together, watching films being shot. “I love it,” Mia sighs. They go to a jazz club together and bond over the music. Shifting in red velvet seats, their hands inch towards the other’s during a screening of Rebel Without a Cause. They even go to a literal observatory together (the Griffiths Observatory – yes, the same one they just watched on screen in Rebel), where their romance takes off. We even see them watch a home movie of their own potential life together in the film’s epilogue.

Theatres, music clubs and sets therefore become significant sites of communion, both culturally and personally, and fetishised by Seb and Mia. In fact, Mia leaves her uninspiring boyfriend, Greg, when she sinks into the jazz melodies underscoring their dinner at a posh restaurant. Meanwhile, Greg and his brother and sister-in-law discuss the advantages of their expensive home cinemas compared to public theatres: “You know theatres these days, they’re so dirty. And they’re either too hot or too cold. And there’s always people talking.” (After comments like these, Greg is a write-off.)

We often use films, books and music as tools to make connections with each other, even form lasting relationships. The experience of being “Someone in the Crowd”, as the film’s soundtrack describes it, doesn’t just inspire the creative careers at the heart of La La Land, but every area of life.

When Seb suggests taking Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause, he’s embarrassed – it seems too obviously like a date, and Mia isn’t single. “I can take you,” he says, before adding, “You know, for research.” “For research!” Mia repeats. “Yeah. Great. For research.” The joke, of course, is that both Seb and Mia know their date is just that, a date – but the script also plays with the idea that watching movies can be a kind of emotional research, not just for an actress preparing for a new role, but for anybody. For Seb and Mia, their “research” brings them to each other, a life-changing (if not lifelong) relationship.

We see Seb and Mia’s relationship play out as a series of performances, with Seb playing and Mia watching. There are five scenes that explore this dynamic – their first meeting at Seb’s restaurant, their run-in at a pool party where Mia requests “I Ran”, a few weeks into their romance at The Lighthouse, at a huge gig where Seb performs in his new band, The Messengers, and, finally, in Seb’s own club. Each of these scenes reveal incremental changes in Mia’s perspective on her life, her ambitions, and her desires, as she moves from awe to playful cynicism to optimism to disillusionment and, finally, to a bittersweet compromise of all the above.

Critics have raised eyebrows at the gender politics of this film on the back of these scenes – arguing that they present the male lead as the artist, the female lead as mostly observer, contributing to decades of fetishising male artists while dismissing women as primarily muses or facilitators of male art and ambition.

“Guy gets Madeline, Andrew gets greatness (and Fletcher), and Sebastian gets his club (if not Mia),” writes Morgan Leigh Davis, of La La Land and the plots of other jazz movies Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash. “And women? All they get to do is listen.”

But scenes of Seb’s performances don’t actually focus on Seb, nor do they form deep explorations of his career ambitions – they are important to us as an audience because Mia is watching. We rarely see him perform if not through her gaze, and we see her emotionally develop through her evolving reactions to his music, while the film’s most fantastical scenes are all her projections, her imaginative response to what she hears. We repeatedly see Mia writing, auditioning, and performing without Seb present – and the film’s opening and closing scenes are all shot through her eyes. For me, this is Mia’s film, the story of her ambitions realised.

Criticisms of the focus being on Seb performing also rest on the idea that making art is fundamentally more important than engaging with it, envisaging culture as a series of monologues rather than a great, messy dialogue. But watching is a key part of Mia’s artistic life. It’s as important to her as performing, and La La Land suggests that watching and listening are not passive activities. When Mia notices the jazz in the posh restaurant, for instance, listening is positioned as something that requires skill, practice and attentiveness; while going to see Rebel Without a Cause can end in a beautiful dance sequence at the Griffiths Observatory. Watching and listening are figured as active, creative, transformative acts. Here, consuming art can have as much personal and cultural value as making art: both must occur for “culture” to exist.

Mia is always open to art that is new to her – music she hasn’t yet heard and films she hasn’t yet seen. Ultimately, staying open to new kinds of watching and listening is what allows her to create genuinely original work. Her time spent watching films with her aunt inspires the audition that bags her her breakout role – and we know those also shape her final performance (the film she gets a part in has no script; the producers want to work with Mia to mould the role over three months of rehearsals and a four-month shoot in Paris).

Seb, on the other hand, is a closed book to the new. He’s never genuinely interested in The Messengers, and prefers to stay stuck in the past, listening obsessively to the same pieces of music over and over again. We first meet him rewinding cassettes in his car, and later see him dropping the needle of his record player on the same spot on the vinyl in his kitchen. His hands instinctively move to the same keys on the piano. In the end, he decides to move away from original work, instead choosing to become a facilitator of the music of others, in a club that only plays traditional, nostalgic jazz.

Seb might spend a lot of time explaining what makes art beautiful, but we can never take him seriously – his insistences on “pure” jazz, fists clenched with passion, or claims that he is a “serious musician”, are usually played for laughs. Mia’s dreams aren’t (even if she is a lot more likely to laugh at herself).

The visual landscape of La La Land creates a world hovering somewhere between fantasy and reality. Through melodic camera movements, oversaturated colour palettes, dreamlike fabrics, dance and song and references to Old Hollywood’s most iconic scenes, the ordinary becomes fantastical. Bathroom lamps become spotlights, hilltop sunsets become perfect movie sets.

And it works both ways: a cinematic tracking shot of Mia auditioning, slowly focusing on the emotion of her face, is interrupted when an assistant outside the door enters the right of the frame. Many of the film’s most dramatic moments are punctured by the mundane: phones ring, smoke alarms go off, records abruptly finish, analogue film eats itself just before the romantic climax. These both serve to disrupt and reinforce classic tropes (the interrupted kiss is as familiar as the dramatic, orchestral one), and as a result we’re never sure when we’re in La La Land and when we’re in the real world.

This is an impulse that seemingly comes from Mia. She gets herself work on a film set, to immerse herself in the fictional landscape, and we watch her twirling along the streets like she’s in a musical in her own mind. She writes in her play blurb that she’s interested in the “porous border between” dreams and reality, and we know that her play “So Long, Boulder City!” is concerned with windows, like the one from Casablanca that sits opposite her cafe, which offer a portal from one world into another. (“The whole world from your bedroom?” Seb says of her play, while the stagehand is left baffled by “that whole window thing”.)

We see lush posters of Ingrid Bergman taking up space in Mia’s apartment, then we see Mia, lying on her bed in sweatpants, shot in a similarly dramatic fashion. She literally steps into the movie at the screening of Rebel Without a Cause, the film projecting onto her face, then takes Seb to the film’s real sets.

Mia’s touchstone for inspiration is the story of her aunt jumping into the Seine in the snow. We see a picture, in Mia’s living room, of a woman in a red bathing suit frozen in a dive above a swimming pool – then see that moment recreated at different LA parties across town, never fully sure if it’s coincidence or a trick of Mia’s mind, while snow suddenly falls after her “Somewhere in the Crowd” solo.

In the film’s epilogue, places from her memory become movie sets, from the lamppost Seb danced on at the LA hilltop where they first danced, to the motorway where they were stuck in traffic at the movie’s opening. As Seb plays, she’s writing the movie of their perfect, alternate lives.

La La Land’s own audience can never fully escape the fact that they are watching a movie: though it is undoubtedly immersive, the experience of watching La La Land is too referential and self-consciously cinematic to transport its audience out of their seats into another specific place. But the dreamy, technicolour panorama of La La Land encourages audiences to revel in the moments when life feels like a movie, and to find the connections between life and art.

The “You Are the Star” mural is a strange cultural artefact. It shouts that anyone can make it in Hollywood, anyone can have their dreams come true, but if you look at the selection of celebrities sat in the theatre, it’s hardly the most broad selection of humanity. If you squint, you might see a few faces that aren’t white, but they’re few and far between. The vast majority of the stars are white, chiselled young men and women; and so the trick of the mural works better if you fit a similar description. La La Land functions in a similar way, and at the end, Emma Stone seamlessly slots into the role of successful Hollywood actress – as she’s already a rail-thin, white, traditionally beautiful, successful Hollywood actress. As Ira Madison III wrote on the film’s US release: “La La Land opens with a stunning and visually masterful dance sequence sung by an incredibly diverse group of Los Angeles denizens”, but they “are quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

Life mostly happens inside our own heads. Two hours of one movie can sometimes have a bigger impact on us than two weeks of our day-to-day lives at our jobs and homes. The kind of creative internal landscapes La La Land explores through Mia are, of course, not limited to the narrow selection of people Hollywood reveres, and the film itself fails to recognise that. But the idea that borders between our imaginations and our realities are more porous than we believe, and that art and life can have a tangible relationship, is a hopeful one for anyone who has felt that their life has been changed by an album, an old movie, a painting, or a TV show. It’s an optimistic way of viewing the world – one that is as open to the observer as the performer.

***

Now listen to a discussion of La La Land on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.