January 30, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsLiterature

La La Land, Swing Time, and Nostalgia in 2017

Perhaps now is not the best time to discuss artistic nostalgia. We have just witnessed the inauguration of a president whose campaign routinely masked bigotry with invocations of longing for earlier eras in U.S. history. In our current moment, nostalgia has become synonymous with “Make America Great Again,” the slogan of those resistant to the past several decades of social and political progress. In the days and months since November 8th, I have felt increasingly resistant to nostalgia in any form, wondering if it has root in the same impulses that produced our current political climate.

The election, then, created a complicated environment for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, two high-profile works preoccupied with nostalgia. Created in pre-election environments but released into a post-election world, Smith’s novel and Chazelle’s film suddenly have the responsibility of answering for a far more ugly, insidious brand of nostalgia than these artists may have at first anticipated. It is unfair to ask these texts alone to bear the weight of responding to our alarming political landscape. That work will have to be done by innumerable pieces of art in the coming years. And yet, both La La Land and Swing Time present similar if not identical examinations of contemporary nostalgia within the same subject: classic Hollywood musicals.

La La Land announces its purpose right from its initial frames. The film opens with a shot of present-day Los Angeles. The camera pans through a highway clogged with cars and frustrated drivers. Then, suddenly: song. The music begins with a lone woman singing to herself, though soon we are watching a full ensemble dancing on tops of cars while a jazz quartet plays out of the back of a truck. This opening sequence is bold, joyful, and without irony. It states the film’s intent to bring the dormant genre of the Hollywood musical into the twenty-first century, to be a descendant of films like Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born.

At first, La La Land seems skeptical of contemporary life, which the characters view as culturally empty. Mia, played by Emma Stone, lives in an apartment bedecked with old movie posters (markers of a bygone era). She struggles to gain traction as an actor in modern Hollywood, stuck auditioning for clichéd, poorly written TV roles. Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, expresses animosity for present-day Los Angeles, a city that, as he says, “worships everything and values nothing.” More specifically, he resents living in an era where jazz—or at least the traditional form of jazz that he values—is “dying.” The club where he played piano went out of business, replaced by a “samba/tapas” restaurant. This restaurant—in its combination of two disparate businesses (“just pick one,” he complains)—serves as the focus of Sebastian’s derision of the present. At this early point, I felt the film was staking out shaky ground. It seemed to be expressing a desire to “Make Movies Great Again,” to reinstate an era in which movie musicals could simply be movie musicals and not have to address weightier topics like economic recessions or shifting cultural interests.

Subsequently, La La Land reveals itself to be more nuanced and thoughtful than it may initially appear. Despite all of Sebastian’s misgivings, La La Land bears similarity to the samba/tapas restaurant he resents. The film combines two disparate elements, melding a more modern romantic and artistic sensibility onto the hallmarks of the traditional musical. Eventually, the Technicolor romance of the film’s first half transitions to a more muted, melancholy conclusion. Mia and Sebastian’s relationship gradually disintegrates as they follow their respective careers to unbridgeable geographic and emotional locations. Their love is transient, not the universalized, everlasting passion often seen in older Hollywood romances.

This is not a tragic ending. Mia is the focus of the film’s final section, in which she has become a famous actor with a child and a healthy, supportive marriage to another man. Too frequently in older romances—and unfortunately even in some contemporary films—female protagonists must chose between their career and having a family. One of the progressive graces of La La Land is the film’s willingness to allow Mia to successfully have both without equivocating her achievements.

In that regard, La La Land acknowledges its debt to and respect for classic musicals while ultimately crafting a story that departs from these musicals to become its own commentary on the limits of artistic nostalgia. As John Legend’s character, Keith, tells Sebastian, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” While ostensibly this quote applies to music, it doubles as a statement of purpose for Chazelle. To that end, Keith’s approach proves to be rewarding: his modern blend of jazz, pop, and R&B achieves the widespread popular success that has evaded Sebastian. Within the film, Keith’s liberal philosophy—as opposed to Sebastian’s traditionalism—ultimately succeeds in reintroducing jazz to mainstream audiences. It is the future, not the past, which proves sustainable in La La Land.

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” is a question Zadie Smith has seemingly been asking herself throughout her writing career. Many of her novels are stylistically distinct from one another, each a foray into a different genre, whether it be the “hysterical realism” of White Teeth, the Fosterian neo-realism of On Beauty, or the avant-garde experimentations of NW. When considered as a set, her bibliography charts an author attempting to locate a viable medium through which the twenty-first-century novel can remain relevant.

Such concerns extend into her nonfiction as well. In her essay “Two Directions for the Novel,” she questioned whether classical realism deserved to remain the dominant literary thoroughfare, asking, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?” That essay implies her intent to move beyond artistic genres that provide recognizable, reassuring themes and instead create works that challenge our sensibilities through new literary forms rather than relying on dated genres.

It accordingly surprised me that her new novel, Swing Time, begins in the present with the unnamed, biracial narrator watching the classic 1936 Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire musical of the same title. The film is intimately familiar to the narrator, one she watched “over and over as a child,” not unlike the figurative bedtime stories Smith previously decried. Smith’s Swing Time thus begins in a mode similar to La La Land, reintroducing a twenty-first-century audience to the comfort of classic musicals.

However, Swing Time quickly grows thorns. The narrator rediscovers a scene they had forgotten, in which Astaire dances in blackface: “I’d managed to block the childhood image from my memory: the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin. I felt very stupid.” The film stops being a comfort and turns hostile, as Astaire’s routine renders the work inaccessible and discriminatory toward the narrator. In turn, this prologue demonstrates how frequently nostalgia is built on the willful erasure of old aggressions, how taking solace in the past necessitates forgetting the forms of bigotry that can arise even in something as seemingly harmless as an old musical.

Hollywood’s long history of racism is a point that La La Land—with its white romantic leads—fails to address. While Sebastian briefly gestures toward the multi-ethnic artistic lineage of jazz, the film appears uncertain how to bring race into its thematic considerations. As a result, the opening number on the highway is rather diverse, but the rest of the film limits actors of color primarily to supporting or non-speaking roles. Though La La Land is critical of Sebastian’s traditionalist, predominantly white perspective on jazz and instead seeks to adopt a more progressive approach to art, it cannot fully incorporate race into its discussion of nostalgia.

In contrast, Swing Time identifies race as a primary site of concern. During this opening scene when the narrator witnesses Astaire’s blackface routine, Smith pushes her critique of nostalgia further than Chazelle’s film. She foregrounds the often-racist history of musicals in a manner that La La Land never achieves. In doing so, Swing Time reaffirms her goal of complicating the Anglo-American artistic tradition and working toward a literary discourse that is more tolerant and accommodating than the canonical works (like Swing Time the film) to which she gestures back.

Later in the novel, Smith provides her reader with a vision of what this new discourse may look like. The narrator—a child at this point—is making pottery with her mother and her friend Tracey. Her mother attempts to turn the activity into a teachable moment:

What if we didn’t plonk our children in front of the telly each day, to watch cartoons and the soap operas? What if we gave them, instead, a lump of clay, and poured water over it, and showed them how to spin it round until a shape formed between their hands? What kind of society would that be?

This speech, in which a simple act becomes symbolic of a broader worldview, belongs to the brand of “lyrical realism of Balzac and Flaubert” that Smith critiques in her “Two Directions” essay. Such writing, she argues, buries lived experience beneath layers of beautifully wrought metaphors. It leaves the world “covered in literary language,” an act that uses romantic humanism to elide the more perverse aspects of daily life.

Smith responds by reintroducing this perversity into her novel. More specifically, she turns the mother’s lyricism into a sex joke. The narrator explains that, despite her mother’s optimism, the clay only reminded her of “a penis—a long, brown penis.” At first, it reads like Smith is merely deflating this brand of lyricism. Her intent shifts, however, when the narrator elaborates on the phallic quality of the clay: “it was only when Tracey whispered this idea in my ear that I allowed myself to acknowledge the thought I was already having.” The mother’s lecture obscured the narrator’s individual thoughts, yet in the laughter that ensues, the narrator realizes that defying her mother and recognizing the humor of the situation feels “liberating.” Smith suggests here that if we extract literature from the elegant metaphors so often used to convey meaning we are instead left with the awkward specificity of human experience. Rather than limiting representation, such extraction is freeing. It allows for a more diverse range of expression beyond just the utopian sentiment her mother’s speech represents.

Swing Time, then, arrives at a conclusion where the specificity of individual experience comes to replace an older, romantic, and universalized worldview. This idea bears similarity to the thematic arc of La La Land but is more fully articulated within the novel. Swing Time is therefore not merely an indictment of nostalgia. Instead, it seeks to carve out a more modern artistic space within a preexisting genre. In these early days of 2017, the egalitarianism and empathy of this endeavor is reassuring. It is progressive but not elitist, inclusive without being reactionary. Such a perspective is not revolutionary or monumental, although—in response to the hateful rhetoric of the past year—nevertheless feels like a point of resistance. It offers a path forward in the coming years.