writing

What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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Prologue – Would You Read this Book?

This is one fucked up way to end the holidays.

Those were the words that entered his mind in that moment.  If he had believed they might be the last words he ever thought, maybe he would have something else to say about everything, but as it was, it seemed a fitting enough way to sign off.

No more words.  No more deeds.

As a boy, he had never been able to open his eyes underwater, but somehow he was looking around without any burning. All around was murky, muddy water, shady and blue. If he couldn’t save himself, he would breathe it all in, filling his lungs. The world would darken around him, and he would sink into the quagmire at the bottom. He would have to act quickly if he wanted to live.

Only, he wasn’t sure he wanted to live.

No more dreams. No more nightmares.

And to think. . . I actually shaved for this.

He had had enough of this world, and it seemed to know he thought so. After all, it was the earth that was trying to kill him.

Bubbles rose from his nostrils as he looked up at the thick sheet of ice above his head. He couldn’t see a break to the surface, but he knew if he looked hard enough, he’d find the opening his body had made that landed him in this silent, frozen hell.

No more debts. No more harassing phone calls from creditors.

Where’s my left shoe? I don’t remember losing that.

There was no telling how long he had been in the cold water, but he knew there couldn’t be much more time before everything would start happening. Already, his fingers and toes were numb. Already, his chest and stomach were crying out for warmth. Yet he found serenity in it all. Maybe it was God’s hush bringing this calm. Yeah, maybe that.

Or the head wound.

No more tooth decay. No more hair loss.

Did I remember to pay the waitress?

Blue hands hung in front of him. They reminded him of the limbs of a tree, blown lightly by a passing summer breeze. He knew they were his, but he couldn’t feel them anymore. It struck him funny that this was all there was left. Just to float. And then to die. No fanfare. No trumpets or a flickering film of his life passing before his eyes. Just this.

Just water and cold and pain and death.

No more sunrises to break the dawn. No more stars burning overhead.

I wonder if they’ll ever find me down here.

He forced himself to recall the events of his life, to the moments that led to his demise. He conjured the faces of those he loved into the dusky bog. It almost made him feel criminal to do that; to bring them down here with him. So he closed his eyes. Life had just one last lesson for him:

How to let it all go.

No more fading memories. Just. . . no more.

Wait a second! I wasn’t the only one that fell in!

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