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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 inching 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 film 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.

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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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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

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Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

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The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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