To round off her second curatorial fortnight of the year (focused on films), Senior Contributing Editor Afshan Shafi has chosen a personal essay on the movie La La Land.
Before any of this unfurls, before I empty my pockets, I must first be honest. I must be honest before waxing poetic over how a sweatshirt can also smell like a nightmare. I must ruin the story here and say love is only love if the busted lip of someone—bleeding into the galloping heart—is also pressed into the lips of desire. I must also quote Jacob Bronowski, “we are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”
It must also be said that you, reading this right now, could not possibly beat me to a La La Land karaoke contest. I am well versed with each lyric and each progression and percussion that follows the musical.
I am no loose-lipped prophet, reader. I am no jealous God. I am a glass of whiskey that takes its time to taste like a good idea. And perhaps what I really am is a hustler. Perhaps I drag love into moments when love is not needed. I dream of someone I know only through a glowing phone screen.
In the grand scheme of things, reader, love is merely an experience. An imbroglio as most might say, but a luxury for some. Love is what made us, and what may undo us when the undoing is destined.
It’s not rational. There’s no sense in what kind of love we are granted, and what God may snatch from our palms in return. Love is waking up every morning and groping around for your phone only to see how another thing you wanted could not be yours.
La La Land presents itself the same way. It has us measure the limits at which we are willing to sacrifice all in the name of love. My inheritance of this thought process had an influence, perhaps, on how I viewed the movie. I saw nothing but how love, too, can be sacrificed for desire. And yes, I am separating love and desire. Because I have been in love enough to have seen desire choke whatever love two people have committed to.
I was taught sacrifice as most brown children were. On Eid, my father would hand me a dagger and have me slit the throat of a goat I named and loved, promising me nothing more than the grace of a God of whom I knew very little about back then. This ritual would repeat itself every year; the goat would be brought home a month prior to the day of its death. We would take it out for walks around the neighborhood, waving at those who were also eager for the bloodspill.
Perhaps loving something dearly was also a ritual within this ritual. And perhaps betrayal to that love was also a ritual within the ritual.
I do vividly remember the last time I did this. I named him Edgar. He was brown with patches of white around his stomach. I fed him even when he didn’t need feeding, I sneaked him some fruits as well sometimes. In the Muslim Sunni community, the night before Eid has an old wives tale attached to it, about how the goat bleats louder in fear because he dreams of daggers hanging over his head. Edgar did so too, he bleated all night, kept me up, I kept going outside, caressing him, calming him by telling him how much I loved him, knowing that this may be the last night I have him with me.
Come morning, the ritual was enacted. My father presented the dagger to me, I looked at Edgar and ran to him, begging my father to not kill him. He told me “it’s not killing, it’s sacrifice,” and had the butcher drag Edgar by his long ear. I kept crying and screaming until my mother came to my rescue, she took me inside and told my father that I didn’t need to see it. After a while I went back outside, Edgar’s head was lying on the grass, his body hanging from the tree, and his soul—hopefully— in an open field filled with grass and fruits hanging low enough to reach his mouth.
Damien Chazelle’s ‘La la Land' also speaks of a similar heartbreak, reader. It speaks about how we have to pay the devil its price, how we always have to choose between want and love.
The movie opens up on a song, also known as the overture in theatrical lingo, ‘Another day of sun’—a bit about how each day brings new hope for young artists—a hive of people who were once stuck in the notoriously dreadful L.A. traffic under a hot summer day, proceed to jump out of their cars and dance on the freeway. Here and throughout the film, Chazelle works in long, uninterrupted takes. The song swings onto two sun-gazers: A pianist, Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), someone who is not just in love with jazz but is obsessed with it to the extent at which it is lunacy, replaying his own progression on his car stereo, dissatisfied by the sound. And Mia (Emma Stone) rehearsing her lines for an audition,confusing the word lunacy with insanity.
Reader, there’s much to an artist’s life that we do not know of—for example, we don’t know the ways in which Leonard Cohen failed in the face of love with Meraline, or of how Frank Ocean’s Blond was about how each time he walked into the arms of love, he was ridiculed.
And you will never know how many nights I stayed up staring into a phone screen stalking someone I love and who is perhaps miles away. Someone who is now flying an ocean away from where I'm thinking of her, wishing on all my lucky stars that I could kiss her again.I have failed in the face of love more times than you can fathom, if one decides to measure the limits of my pain. Reader, there is an emptiness within an artist that is never filled. That's perhaps the pursuit: to create something big enough to fill that which is destined never to be.
The movie shows us the same kind of longing. Mia not ‘making it’ at the auditions, and being forced to go out with her friends, until she ditches them at the party and decides to walk home. Soon after, she hears a heart wrenching melody being played inside a restaurant, where Sebastian, who’s been playing jingles all night, finally frustrates himself into playing his own progression. Now this melody is significant, reader. It’s Chazelle’s way of saying that words are sometimes not needed to feel the wretchedness of the void. A simple piano refrain can sometimes have more power than a lyric.
The first major centerpiece of La La Land is a scene with Sebastian and Mia taking a long walk as the sun sets over Hollywood Hills. They find similarities within one another—Sebastian holding on to his jazz-ideals, dreaming of one day opening his own jazz club and Mia tired of worthless auditions where the producers don't even look up from their phones. And there it is, reader. That moment. That spark of love. So even as they sing about how a gorgeous night is wasted because of how they still haven’t met their true lovers, their bodies tell a different story. I told you reader, there’s very little said in words in this movie, and much more said through dance and song. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not natural dancers but they birthed character into every movement to the beat in that scene.
La La Land also exists as a very conscious ode to the allure of classic Hollywood. The pair goes to see Rebel Without a Cause (ending in one of the most magical scenes in years) and films like Casablanca and Bringing Up Baby are also mentioned.
It’s easy to let the world get you down sometimes, especially in a year like this one. It’s easy to think that dreams don’t come true, and that love only exists in movies. La La Land serves as a reminder that love is still magical, and life is nothing more than an experience.
Later in the movie we watch Sebastian and Mia slowly fall in love, until this one intersection when Mia tells Sebastian she 'hates' jazz. And as much as we knew about how much Sebastian loves jazz it is only then we find out the true intensity of his love. He invites her to a jazz club in pursuit of having her fall in love with jazz. In this scene he also mentions Sydney Betchet, a jazz player from the early ‘90s who shot someone because they told him he played the wrong note. Sydney missed the musician and accidently shot a woman. He was imprisoned in France for 11 months for this incident after which he said he was trying to shoot a musician who insulted him and that he has no remorse.
The scene is followed by my favorite song from the movie City of Stars, a song about unfulfilled dreams.
But dreams do come true, reader. At least in movies. Sebastian lands a place in a popular modern jazz group that soon goes on an national tour, and Mia lands a role in an upcoming movie. But the price is yet to be paid.
As the plot continues, Mia and Sebastian pay the devil its price. They sacrifice love for their desire of success. Reader, this is why I separate love from desire. This is why that day I could either love Edgar in his last moments or slaughter him with my own hands. There’s always a price, but we get to choose which price we want to pay.
The closing scene of the movie is what love really is. Mia walks into a club with her fiancé. And there he is, Sebastian. Playing his own progression, on his own stage, in his own club. Both of them now granted what they always desired, but robbed of love forever. Sebastian is playing the same melody he played that night which pulled Mia into that restaurant. He glanced up and sees Mia in the audience. And his heart weeps over the corpse of another dream which he killed with his own hands for the desire of opening his own jazz club.
After his performance, Mia immediately makes her way out, reaches the door and pauses for a brief moment, imagining what it would’ve been like, if she had chosen love.
I think, often, about love strictly as a matter of perspective. For some, it is something they receive from someone whom they might slowly be draining the life out from. Others might sacrifice everything they have for someone they love. And for someone like me, love is paramount. Worth any sacrifice that can be afforded. Even if it means to place the dagger on my own throat. But again, it’s a matter of perspective.
Ammaar is a non-binary poet, essayist and music/cultural critic. Born in Lahore, he found closure in the arms of poetry and expanded his poems into personal essays about art, love and music. Ammaar has showcased his work for The Daily Times and Propergaanda. He is popularly known for his series for Mashion, ‘Love Letters to Past Female Feminist Icons.’ He has been published in three global anthologies and has been featured in the Riggwelters Press, The Winnow magazine, Desi Collective and other literary online journals for his poetry. Ammaar is also working towards establishing his non-profit organisation, Akhir Kab Tak, an organisation that will deal with child abuse cases and help in preventing such cases through school by school sexual harassment awareness campaigns.