It’s officially Oscar week, and— surely there’s been enough talk about LA LA LAND already! Right? Well, guess what? I’ve got one more for you.
I started writing this in September after a literal awe-inspiring weekend at The Telluride Film festival where I saw it, with essentially zero expectations or prior knowledge. I was maybe even a bit skeptical going in just because, admittedly, I was jealous of Emma Stone getting another role I sensed was “made for me”. Unfortunately, quickly upon my return to NYC, I got swept up in the absurdity of US politics, the city grind, holidays, a ridiculously adorable and distracting new kitten, the continuous downward spiral of US POLITICS… (ooooff) and lost that luster. If you’ll indulge me (perhaps with me!?), I’m still going to share my sanguine experience of that weekend, in such an enhanced environment, in September. What I felt leaving that theater, I want to feel again. I can only hope it is re-kindled within you too— artists, dreamers, humans— reading this, or watching the film for a first, or maybe second time.
I don’t intend to praise or to critique the film, though, full disclosure it might happen a little. I just think that we’ve been inundated with press and many people were turned off it’s general success, or the mega-stars attached, lack of diversity, etc. Of course, you can find these problems with roughly 99% of Hollywood films— especially by a relatively new filmmaker just trying to get his piece made. I think you should try to forget all of that for a moment and allow it to sink in for you as just what it is: a gift to artists and everyone with a dream they’re yearning to realize to put us in that “high-vibrational frequency”, in Law of Attraction terms, that can propel us to act upon and even attract our own— now.
So there I was in Telluride, Colorado… “In TELL-UU-RIIIIIIDE, snow fallin’ down…!!” Oops, I can’t help but think of that Tim MacGraw song of circa Y2K (listen baby, I am from Texas). At this film festival, after a summer of hiding myself away in a coffee shop garden somewhere in Brooklyn working on a feature film script I’ve been wanting to put into physical form for 6 years now, just trying to find a bit of nature in a cement city at the same time. An actor. Creating my own work in order to put my skills and all that I feel to proper use. Doing the classic restaurant-by-night gig to keep me afloat. Cliché? Absolutely. Mais je m’en fous!
There, in the garden, where no computers are allowed, the story poured out of me as I my hand struggled to keep up on paper! When it came time to put it into proper script format on my computer, somehow I got blocked and just couldn’t move forward. Maybe it was my perfectionism, or fear of what would arise when I finished it.
Watching LA LA LAND was the apotheosis of my propitious weekend in the majestic Rocky Mountains I used to call home. This film was, for me, a sign to keep going on this path, at just the moment I was jumping and really looking for a net. It is the opposite of what 99.5% of people tell those with aspirations such as mine, and it’s exactly what people like “us” need to hear: “Fuck being a realist— you keep on dreaming because that’s who you ARE. And we NEED you.”
Back to it: So, in Telluride, the Saturday of the festival and day after my birthday, I jog-trotted down from a glorious morning waterfall hike to make it to the Bob Geldof documentary on the poète and mystic William Butler Yeats. To backtrack a second—the hike— with strange seemingly gnome-laid formations of stones off the trail by the river (I found out later hikers do that— whatever; I like remembering it as the gnomes, cool?), light filtering through the Aspen trees onto the pathway as if straight from the realms of glory, and lichen-covered boulders… exactly what I had been craving all summer— but I had substituted with the back "yard” of the coffee shop. This escape into nature was swiftly followed by the doc, which filled my head with the mystical faerie-land wonderment of Yates’ childhood spent in the Irish Hinterland. Geldof explored W.B.’s poetry, occult beliefs, muse/source of greatest inspiration AND heartache, and revolutionary spirit to create free Ireland as we know it today. It was, I think, the perfect entrée to Damien Chazelle’s, LA LA LAND I would find my way to later that evening.
“Here’s to the ones who dream” Emma Stone sings in her song “Audition” towards the climax of the film. The film is THE quintessential ode to the dreamers- those who have no choice but to “follow their star” as Don Quixote sings in the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. In fact, I had that song stuck in my head all summer after a break-up with an incredibly passionate and principled young Portuguese man who basically just stepped out of a time-capsule from 300 years prior somewhere in Portugal. He was the embodiment of the modern day, younger version of Don Quixote (which happened to be his favorite book)… rescuing his Brooklyn ‘Dulcinea’ from herself only to let her go to follow her star. I mean, I was hardly working in a brothel when I met him, but after a 6 month non-paid Tennessee Williams play about washed up spinsters burning from their own spiritual and sexual desires with no hope for requital, losing all my jobs (aka “let go”; aka broke) to devote my time to this play, and feeling equally spiritually broken by the transient city and a couple other failed romantic attempts prior, it was the breaking point in an already rough patch. But I digress…
As I was saying, I was singing “The Impossible Dream” when I left the theater, explaining to my friend Amalia, who accompanied me to the festival, that it was all coming together for me!! I felt a power leaving that screening. Like it was a new dawn. Everything I’d been thinking and seeing in my head and working toward, slogging through the muck of my residual fears and doubts, was in fact on the horizon for me. The way that film shook my very CORE, was as if it was saying to me, “Girl! You’ve done your soul searching and you know what you want! Don’t question the actions you have taken. You’re just on the cusp.”
For me that cusp is telling a story I’ve had swimming in my brain for about 6 years now— ever since I moved to NY and began this crazy adventure. LA LA LAND, at that moment, was like drinking an elixir of inspiration that erases doubts and forces you to go fucking write your story, or get out and audition and FAIL if you must! Just MAKE whichever project compels you, STRAIGHT from your heart.
If you don’t know the story yet, briefly (and warning some spoilers): The film follows two LA artists- the struggling financially, too-talented for his actually paid gigs, jazz musician, Ryan Gosling, and aspiring actress and current barista, Emma Stone. We see both of them grappling to cope with the woes of pursuing one’s passion in the city of Angels. The tribulations and yearning (for that unreachable star), is mixed with bouts of song and dance numbers that alter present reality to a beautiful 1950s Hollywood-style dreamers’ reality and burgeoning love story as the film progresses. A dreamscape. Their relationship, the song, the beautiful choreography and colors… it is an ode as well to classic musicals- both French and American- from “Singing in the Rain” to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”.
Stone goes through a series of traumatizing audition experiences most working actors can relate to all too well. Gosling is playing Christmas songs at a piano in the middle of an assumingely banal restaurant/ “jazz club”. He gets fired for going off on a riff in a beautiful piece that attracts Stone in, and to him, from off the street in one of their several chance encounters. We see him playing a few places and he’s angry and fairly jaded. Their initial encounters are… not what you’d expect for a “star-crossed” duo, but for some reason they continue to cross paths. The way I perceived it, Chazelle wants to show perhaps a “the universe has a divine plan” philosophy— both through the multiple chance encounters as Emma Stone finally breaks down Gosling’s flinty exterior and they get to know one another, and through various plot twists of the film. It seems to say: the universe brings you what you need, when you need it.
The scenery and skies are stunning and dreamy. Sunset and dusky gradients of purple and pink fading toward the midnight blue, or sometimes golden skies with the occasional emerald-blue sunrise. Exactly the kinds of visuals (if you can’t tell by this website) which inspire me. The planetarium scene in the trailer in which they dance literally among the stars makes me think of my blue goldstone necklace that has been my sort of secret reminder of the ‘infinite possibilities of the universe’ since moving to NYC. We are made of the same stuff as stars…Our DNA is so interconnected… with each other and those far-off burning beauties in the sky… Chazelle reminds us dreamers of that, and provides a beautiful astral escape.
Gosling’s haunting song “City of Stars”, is both melancholy and hopeful. It is the perfect dichotomy of what we feel when we are yearning, seeking, struggling but still have that far off glimmer of the dream to keep us reaching.
The pivotal moment in the story is when (SPOILER ALERT) Stone nearly gives up on her dream forever after what she thinks is a failed attempt to create her own work. We’ve heard so many stories about people who, in a critical moment, nearly leave it all behind until something in them or some circumstance pushes them through. In this case, Stone is saved by her wonderful Ryan Gosling à la classic Hollywood-style. I think our egos want to attack this scene immediately but I will say— I don’t have this beau Gosling to pull me out of the darkest moments of my creative development. However, I literally left the theater thinking, “thank you Ryan, Damien, Emma… I will remember how I felt upon watching this scene (in spite of the cliché) whenever I feel like giving up”. And even sans Gosling, I felt that cinematic moment so strongly, it may be enough just to call upon when I need it in such a moment. That’s a beautiful thing.
She goes straight to this audition, and sings the song. The one that really gets me.
I feel lucky that I get goosebumps and actually a little teary-eyed every time I listen to “Audition Song”, as if I actually have memories of BEING the slightly mad aunt Emma Stone nostalgically recalls in the story she sings. It’s like I personally recall jumping into the Seine and getting sick (as in the song) mixed with my own memories of acting like fools with crazy French friends back in my wilder couch-surfing days, and then going back to my barge on the Seine, which I’ve somehow mixed into my own experience of this song, but took from Anais Nin’s bohomian Parisian life in her Under a Glass Bell. I love how the brain makes these jumps, but more importantly, the song reminds me of the mad spark I had in Paris about 7 years ago that made me feel so alive. As Robin Williams said: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” I felt it, and wept, hearing this song in that theater.
One of my all time favorite quotes— high-lighted in that Tennessee Williams play I was just complaining about— is: “All of us are in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.”, by “Mr. Oscar Wilde” (in southern belle accent). I couldn’t help but recall these words. The feeling it first conjured in me was made more profound through the powerful catharsis I experienced watching this film, alone in this 650-seat theater (my friend and I couldn’t sit together).
I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Yates doc of the afternoon, or the abounding stacks of stones by the river on my hike that had my imagination running rampant, but at one point, I think during the planetarium scene— I saw a glowing green butterfly figure flittering above the heads all staring forward at the screen. I was taken out of the film momentarily watching it flutter around above us, zig-zagging toward the back. I looked around to see if anyone was watching and no one seemed to notice but me!! My actual thoughts in that moment: “Holy shit!! The fairies are HERE. With ME. Showing me I’m on my PATH!!” Yes, my brain immediately jumped to this conclusion, and it was a most enchanting experience…
Later, upon reflection I rationalized: “it was probably a moth caught in the light of the projector. But it stayed green the whole time moving around the space…?” And then I thought- “Why shouldn’t I just let myself remember it as the magical experience my instincts first interpreted??” After all… how do we know that’s NOT the case AND… isn’t that version far more fun?
So I guess, what I most want to say, is that the world is RICH and PROFOUND when you let yourself dream, let your imagination lead you and make jumps to connect the dots of your path. It’s up to each of us to “follow [our] stars… No matter how hopeless, no matter how far” true to The Man of La Mancha. See LA LA LAND with an open heart and imagination. Laugh. Cry. Feel the entire range, especially if that makes you uncomfortable. Let it stir something in you that you’ve been pushing away or that was dormant. And whatever your wish is, go fucking get it.
The following day, and my last day in town, I met my favorite musician of ALL TIMES as I turned to leave the hippie coffee shop that was empty the day prior- the one and only Jonathan Richman. But that story… is for next time.
Written by Kathleen Kuhn