La La Land came out last year. I saw it a few weeks ago, on a flight from Seoul to Los Angeles. Fittingly, the film is set in LA. Its scenes of traffic, smoggy sunsets, and extra-double-grande sized lattés were a nice welcome back to California.
The film begins with: boy meets girl. Boy is a struggling jazz musician who refuses to abandon traditional jazz for the sake of pleasing the hipster millennials of present-day Los Angeles. Girl is an actress trying to make it in Hollywood. Two exquisitely creative hearts meet and fall in love the way artists do. Completely.
Two such big dreams don’t fit so easily into one relationship. The film follows boy’s and girl’s efforts to cling to their dreams and each other. It’s a musical, interspersed with dreamy numbers where the two dance among the stars, transport themselves to Paris, or break into a synchronized tap dance. The film’s classy costumes and dancing actors bring us back to a Hollywood of times long past. And that’s what the characters are searching for: a time when it was still possible for dreams to come true.
Part of the reason I chose to watch it as I scrolled through Korean Air’s cinematic selection for the evening, ok, all of the reason, was for the title, La La Land. It’s not just a pun on L.A. It’s a place we used to go when we were kids, remember?
As a child, I was something of a daydreaming prodigy. I could still sit for hours, occupied with my imagination. My mother called it going to La La Land. When I went there, I became nearly unresponsive — such was the extent of my enchantment with fantasies. I kept going to La La Land even after I grew up, but the name of the place changed. It became spacing out or daydreaming or having sex fantasies.
Ryan Gosling as the male lead in La La Land reminds me of why I like daydreaming so much. Charmingly arrogant, unbearably sexy, effortlessly talented and just the right amount of tortured. He smelled nice through the screen. Do men like him still exist? Did they ever? Do loves like theirs still exist? Is it all just a daydream?
I looked out the plane’s window and indulged in some star gazing after the movie ended. It’s a clear night somewhere above the Pacific, with cirrus clouds like a whispy silver carpet below. A perfect time for daydreaming… but the film doesn’t let us have the daydream. The characters can’t make it work, no matter how beautiful or sexy or fun or kind they might be. In the end, they couldn’t have practical career dreams and each other. They went their separate ways, only to meet tragically years later, when girl walks into a jazz bar to have a drink with her handsome husband and sees boy playing onstage. All they have left to give one another is a smile.
Life in La La Land is perilous. Its dark side is the waking moment — these real life surroundings appear tragic by comparison. Girl’s gentlemanly, kind husband is at best an annoying third wheel and at worst a villain in the shadow of the love that could have been.
In imaginary worlds, the ego gets exactly what it wants. It stumbles into perfect conditions with perfect outcomes. The hope that these fantasies might come true gives us an easy way to escape a world that isn’t giving the ego exactly what it wants. Though the imperfect world isn’t going away any time soon, nor will our disappointment with it. Using daydreams as an escape just perpetuates the disappointment. Doing so is like torturing yourself with fun make up on.
Have these profound reflections brought about an end to all this daydreaming? Unfortunately no. It’s an impulsive habit. By the time I notice I’m doing it, I’m already in up to my ankles. I walk away disappointed that I’ve forgotten myself once again, and take the next few moments to refocus on the task at hand. It works for a while, but just give it some time. We’ll be lost in another daydream again soon.
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