I may be a little late on the curve, but the other day I saw La La Land.
I’m sure you’re wondering if I enjoyed it. Well, a more appropriate question would probably be if me singing along to the film bothered other theater patrons. (They let me off easy the first time, but I drew some looks on the second viewing.) I also say this to clarify for anyone who saw a seemingly crazed UMKC student grooving in and out of classes over the past week.
I must confess that even amongst midterms and application deadlines, I couldn’t get La La Land out of my mind. As soon as I’d put those earbuds in all my scholarly stresses would simply melt away. I then got to wondering exactly why this is the case.
Most people I’ve talked to say La La Land left them feeling inspired. I believe this stems from the fact that La La Land is, simply put, wholesome entertainment. It speaks to the part of us that dreams of better things and feels hope at the prospect of what tomorrow might bring. Its narrative isn’t dark and tragic, nor do the leading characters tread a morally ambiguous line between right and wrong. But it seems today’s audience desires characters and situations marred by these kind of dilemmas. We don’t want to see things as they could be. Instead, we want a mirror that reflects our world as it is.
Characters who don’t compromise and who dream beyond their day to day existence are threatening to the individual. They’re difficult because they force a person to examine themselves in light of an example they might not live up to. It’s much easier to watch characters who give up what they value in order to fit into reality. This could be dressed up as a desire for realism, but ultimately this just makes us feel better about ourselves and what we have given up on. More often than not, we aren’t confronted with the fact that we should strive towards something better and work to achieve that goal. That makes us much more comfortable, because while dreaming is dangerous.
The one thing more frightening than having a dream is pursuing that dream. While dreaming gives an ideal to strive towards, it simultaneously introduces the possibility of disappointment. With this comes the danger of idealism causing us to neglect reality. Instead of endeavoring to find a balance between these two, we often decide to simply choose one world and reject the other.
I believe Rudyard Kipling found the secret to success in this regard. In his poem “If” he describes how to find ones place in the world. He makes a series of adages that include this phrase: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master.” Though it may seem like a subtle distinction, very few people manage to successfully dream without making it their master. Yet to envision a world as it could be while also engaging with reality isn’t just rare: it’s perhaps the most influential trait a person can have.
All these musings started with a film that no one should have expected to work the way it does. A movie musical that calls back to the film-making of yesteryear doesn’t seem like a smash hit. Yet by succeeding in telling a story that operates in both the real world and one of idealism, it proves that people have a desire for stories of this caliber. These don’t just have to be retro movies that harken back to things of old. They can be a consistent aspect of modern cinema and society itself. I truly hope people can acknowledge the part of them that resonates with this movie and respond in kind. Maybe that won’t happen, but I’ll choose to dream of that possibility.