Watching Scraps: La La Land and West Side Story (2021)

I was going to see West Side Story, and I had a bit of time earlier in the day, so I thought I might put on La La Land to see how it’s aged.

Always, around, the posters, the crowd, in the background. When Emma Stone goes into the restaurant, she slips through time slightly, caught by a melody. Potent icon of a lost time, attractive to romantics, the jazz piano solo. Trying to escape the grind, or be successful at creating a kind of special creation, having the cake and eating it.

The power of the moment when he slips from Christmas muzak into the jazz solo isn’t altered despite the kind of solipsis the movie is built around. Two creative sparks setting each other off, becoming tragic and living in their dreams. The movie knows its solipsis can’t create a romance because romance bypasses solipsis. If you were unhappy with the end of the film, you weren’t watching properly – these people aren’t meant for each other. They’re two people in a traffic jam in L.A. getting mad at each other, always out of sync. And maybe that works for them.

The characters are obsessed with trying to slip into the old tropes, and the movie too. ‘They do make em like they used to‘, said the tagline. And that’s what kind of hobbles the film despite some moments taking off, escaping out of the trope and into the real. That moment with the piano, for example, or the moment when they lift off in the planetarium. The characters’ demands upon each other are dependent upon that synchronicity between their life and the trope – both main characters have main character syndrome.

People in L.A. worship everything and value nothing, says Ryan Gosling’s character. But this film doesn’t escape that, because it’s so nostalgic, and wants over all, a successful, jazzy golden age of the new. ‘The joke’s on history.’ But the economics of moving from a Jazz Club through to a tapas bar is never addressed, nor how Hollywood and Universal would have bought into this process, aided and abetted it. And the film’s treatment of Jazz seems quite superficial, given its rich material history.

The film is reflexive, but not reflexive enough. Both characters attain their dreams, at the cost of their lives. They live in a kind of Hollywood preserve jelly, which doesn’t want to touch the concrete of L.A, just kind of hover over it, dancing.

Then I went to see West Side Story. I smelt the popcorn, I saw the lights, the trailers. I heard people around me, crying, laughing. Breathing. I felt the concrete importance of cinema as act, as social space.

The initial shot takes off over the ruins, which I immediately linked to Robert Weiss’s 1961 movie. It’s like Spielberg is saying, the ruins of America are here. Let’s see what we can do with them. Then the camera lingers on the wrecking balls. I wondered why, initially but by the time the movie returns to the ruins again, I remembered why a wrecking ball might be a good symbol for the relationship between Tony and Maria. The relentless action of the plot-character matrix is like a recursive wrecking ball.

This is concrete, grounded cinema which has something to say – in that it brings some of the concrete problems into the mise en scene. Not, like La La Land, about characters who don’t need the money, who go and make movies because they want to be cinema-tropic, obsessed with the image of creation, and the mise en scène is often diegetic mise en scène anyway! If La La Land had something to say, it was that there is a certain emptiness to modern ‘Hollywood’ which is filled with images of the past. Though to whom and why this emptiness occurs is the really interesting question. And about the drive, a kind of passionless drive to make it.

But then, here too, in New York, we’re in a remake, we’re travelling back again. But we’re being more careful, we’re filling in some of the gaps, the Puerto Rican spanish, for example, the context of New York. The realness of history, with the Puerto Rican revolutionary anthem. This stuff in the film acts as a great, disjunctive device – speak English, Anita keeps saying. And as part of the crowd you start to feel a discomfort at that, at not being able to understand. And you feel that violence coming in to the movie theatre, of having to leave your family tongue to interact on a daily basis, of not being accorded the courtesy.

There seems to be something a bit odd and scrambled about the way the film approaches the source of its troubles. That might be due to the musical originally trying to rejig Romeo and Juliet, and now being remade in a more materialist fashion, with the enforced slum clearance as the context. But the text and the story still only implicates class in it in a scrambled fashion, through the officer krupke song, and through shots of eviction protests and the Puerto Rican-american maids working in the department store. Of course class doesn’t fully determine consciousness but then the American experience of class is very much mixed in with a lot of other oppressions and experiences, like the Puerto Rican experience of colonialism.

Nonetheless, there is a taste of the universal here, in the grand old Shakespearean sense. In that, every character seems to be listened to with humanity, bestowed with. That’s what Spielberg has brought here, and touches often in his other movies. The Officer Krupke song, which you might think aimed to excuse the jets, has this playful lying side to it, played with a nod and a wink. It’s plausible that they know what’s going on, they’re just making up excuses. The universal is exactly whats lacking in La La Land, where some characters barely deserve the name. Their main character syndrome is so bad, there are barely any other characters! Try and think of one.

Both have the magic, La La Land has a bit of it, stumbling. But then, it had less than half of the budget. West Side Story is really full to the brim. And good lord they can dance. Go see it, if you can safely. It doesn’t deserve to flop.

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