Saturday Night Live did a skit a few weeks ago called La La Land Interrogation. Aziz Ansari is brought in for questioning after he tells his date that he thought La La Land was ok, but he didn’t love it. The disturbed officers put the pressure on: they need answers. Aziz confesses that he doesn’t remember the bridge scene. He must have fallen asleep. Asleep? They are baffled.
I thought this was hilarious because I’m with the cops. If you tell me you didn’t love La La Land, I need answers. Call it an occupational hazard. When you go from reader to writer, it is not enough to abandon a movie or book halfway through, because you just couldn’t get into it. It’s understanding the “why” that is instructive.
I used to think it was the stories that provided the most dramatic escapes from our predictable lives that resonated the most. Now I understand it’s more about how we feel as we ride along with the characters; their emotional journey invests us in the story.
We watched the movie Sully, and it seemed to have all the elements of a compelling story: terrified airline passengers, a water landing on the Hudson and Federal Aviation Authority heavies, determined to discredit the hero. I enjoyed it but something didn’t land (couldn’t resist). I recalled a writing instructor saying that your reader (or viewer) should feel worried about your character to feel emotionally invested. That was the problem for me. Sully was the story of a real pilot, a highly experienced and capable one, who never wavered in the belief that landing on the Hudson was the right decision. I knew he was going to be ok. His story was incredible, but not particularly emotional. For me anyway. I imagine anyone who has been in an emergency landing would feel differently.
With La La, I was hooked from that first snappy number; all those dreamers stuck in the LA traffic, singing and dancing about it. (I’m from Toronto: I get traffic. I’m a writer: I get dreaming.) Lots has been written about why this movie worked so well: The combination of Justin Hurwitz’ music and the old-Hollywood choreography felt original, yet retro. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have great chemistry, and yes, it is a sweet love story. But it was more than that. It is a story of being young and having dreams. When we grow up, most of us let at least some dreams go; like bubbles on a summer day, we let them float away. But we remember how it felt, the moment when you’ve blown through the wand and they shimmer in front of you, still within reach. That feeling pulled us in, committed us to the story. We watch La La Land knowing that most of those twenty-somethings, script or screenplay in hand, will never be the next Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling; Aaron Sorkin or Quinten Tarantino. Yet we are all in. We root for Mia and Sebastian, hoping they will be the ones to defy the odds.
As Mia sings in her audition: “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem”.