The Current Thirst for Escape: La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)
In an increasingly bewildering modern world, where any means of engagement with it likely leads to further bewilderment and short-term depression (possibly long-term too), the populist fervor for escape could not be greater. Whether that escape may be to sit by a babbling brook and read Fifty Shades of Grey, or to climb to the top of a peak and shout out ‘Elvis isn’t dead, he’s alive in all of us’, or just to sit back in a hammock, slip on the headphones and play ‘I Ran (So Far Away)’ by A Flock of Seagulls…and play it fucking loud. As long as it transports us away from the current status quo in world politics (and the irrational opinions people have about it), we might, just might, be alright at the end of it all.
The whole-scale embrace for Damien Chazelle’s recent release La La Land I think has something to do with this. In the opening sequence, there is an outbreak of dancing and singing by lovely-looking people who have been caught up in a traffic jam on the freeway somewhere in Los Angeles. I can tell you here that I was actually contemplating a walk out of the cinema at this moment but alas, I stayed and consequently marvelled at the multiple talents of Emma Stone and thrilled at the sometimes deep but most times wonderful narrative of love and life in an non-treacherous, alternative universe. Ignoring the slightly insulting music snobbery and the unnecessary, contrived sadness at the end, La La Land is a modern delight in filmmaking. It is exactly what it purports itself to be – a nostalgia for Hollywood and an escape to fantasy.
The Beginnings of Fantasy in Film: A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
If one is to think about it, the concept of going to the movies is all about escaping the real world, is it not? Ever since the early years of the 20th century when Georges Méliès first presented to France and the world 845 feet of film reel containing a theatrical piece called ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ (A Trip to the Moon), there has been a clamour of interest in the concept. Back then, with light and visual technology in an important evolutionary phase thanks to the innovations of the Lumière brothers, Méliès understood that dreams could soon be visualised on a medium that was much more spectacular than a live stage show for example. For him and other film pioneers, a world of untold possibilities and wonders was now within grasp – their boundless imaginations could now be presented to the masses as long as the funding and support was there. If only film could have kept along those paths though. A year later in the US, Edwin S. Porter and Edison Manufacturing Co. created a 12 minute film called The Great Train Robbery, which equally delighted and stunned audiences. It set an early marker for violence and exhilaration in the medium, thus leading the path of movies down a more divisive path. The disgraceful Birth of a Nation was only 12 years away and John Ford was to closely follow in the late 1910s and 20s expanding the Western genre and furthering the mythological stories of US history via violence and outrageous racial stereotyping. Still, the concept of escapism was maintained even here.
Indeed it is commonly offered to us in all genres: sci-fi, action-adventure, horror, rom-com, whatever you’re having really. Be it from the rainy climes of north-west Ireland to the Predator-stalked jungles of the Amazon, from a greasy inner-city bedsit to Middle-Earth or even from a desk in a closed-in office space to riding around the world on the back of Falkor the Luck Dragon (from The Neverending Story), as long as there is a portal from your reality to another fantasmic dimension, it works. It all depends on what you are into I guess. Italian Gallo horror may be the escape of some, the bottomless rubbish tip known as the Resident Evil franchise may be the escape of others, while the gloriously unlikable world of Twilight appears to be the worthy escape of a lot of people the world over (don’t ask me?). I am a bit more of a traditionalist, however – I like a bit of easy-skanking to get me through the wiles of life (I mean that figuratively of course). A good concert film, a meaningful animated piece or indeed a ROFL comedy usually does the trick. Here are a few of my faves:
The Magic of Nostalgia: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, Woody Allen)
‘It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice — there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia’ – Frank Zappa
Cinema is often driven by a hunger for nostalgia, an expression of the supposed glory days of our lives. When this is not so contrived by the filmmaker, the results can be glorious and memorable (think American Graffiti, Stand By Me or Almost Famous. For contrived, think The Artist). But take also for example Dazed and Confused from 1993. Here, Richard Linklater ably taps into his own youth as a teenager in middle-town America in the 1970s to form the basis for this ‘one day in the life’ stoner comedy. It was a time when the music was awesome, the drugs enlightened us, man and the kids stood up for their values etc, etc. The whole premise was to make one feel warm and fuzzy about a time passed but in actuality, things were never really like this, surely? Linklater runs with his own memory but changes it accordingly so as to reflect a suitably entertaining storyline. In this premise, even the potentially forgettable moments in one’s life such as a first kiss or the first time being stoned/drunk become this brilliant thing that is actually not so cringe-worthy at all. If Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out’ is the backing soundtrack to these moments, then fuck yeah, these were the coolest moments ever!
To find pure enchantment through nostalgia though, you cannot dig much deeper than The Purple Rose of Cairo (from that guy who looks like a sheep farmer but speaks like a lunatic asylum dweller). Not that I dislike Woody Allen’s films – on a whole, he has made few clangers and has created some of the most memorable moments in cinema history. Despite their flaws, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors are all masterpieces in their own right.
But with Cairo, there is something beyond special that is captured. I remember being cynical for a long time watching this, unconvinced that this was ever going to develop from it’s silly premise into a satisfactory story (woman goes to the cinema to escape her troubled marriage and is transported, literally, into the screen and into the world of the film being shown). But it did manage to work it’s magic on me half way through, and this has remained with me since, so if ever there is a certain type of nostalgic escape needed, I can always rely on a re-watch of this. There is a lovely sense of warmth to the film and in a similar way that La La Land sometimes captures, a pure love of cinema emanates from Allen’s direction. With Allen not appearing in the movie for once, there is no manic energy floating around and Mia Farrow instead presents us with a delightful delicateness to the proceedings.
Enraptured by the Music: The Last Waltz (1978, Martin Scorsese)
On his WTF podcast recently, Marc Maron interviewed Robbie Robertson from The Band. In his introduction, Maron emotionally described the nostalgic feeling he got when he re-watched The Last Waltz the night before in his prep for the interview – ‘I got choked up man…it was a more focused time…more intimate’ (his disdain for current events couldn’t have been more obvious). It certainly does appear to have been a better time, whether real or not – Scorsese managed to capture the ultimate magical night of music in San Francisco in late 1976 (it was a celebratory gig to mark the break-up of The Band). Some of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century, at their peak and with a wonderful sense of camaraderie, give their all to proceedings: Dylan, Young (complete with cocaine running from his nose), Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou-Harris, Neil Diamond and Van the Man to name but a few. Throughout the heady days of my twenties, The Last Waltz was the film to someways remedy a hangover – I would seek it out anytime I needed reassurance that the sky was not going to fall in on me. Music and film combined so brilliantly together – how could it not cheer one up? In essence, the authentic talent of the musicians as they sing and play their way through the set is what makes the film catch my heart every time.
Levon Helm pushes every bit of raw emotion and life experience into the lines ‘Like my father before me / I will work the land / And like my brother above me / Who took a rebel stand’ in their unforgettable rendition of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Rick Dano pulsates with heart-rendering emotion in the greatest of all rock love songs in ‘It Makes No Difference’. Then you have Van Morrison literally high kicking himself into the history books with his show-stopping, legendary performance of ‘Caravan’ – absolute, unadulterated awesomeness.
If ever there was a film to offer an escape to a better place, I guarantee that The Last Waltz is it. I would almost go as far to say that it is Scorsese’s finest film (ironic given that he was at the most troubled stage of his career then – cocaine addicted, struggling with his marriage and about to release his biggest financial flop in New York, New York). Sometimes music brings the best out in people.
Where Can I Buy Tickets for the Cat-Bus?: My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayou Miyazaki)
If music brings the best out in people, then I think cartoons brings the giddy child out in people. At what age does someone grow out of liking Looney Tunes for example? No age, that’s when! With an endless supply of animated films released to theatres on a weekly basis now, it is hard to keep up with what is good and what isn’t. The thing I find though is that if it is good, then it is most likely re-watchable. This, for the simple reason that, although they are made with children audiences in mind, they are also a necessary form of escape for adults too, particularly parents. It is not to hard to understand why. As a non-parent, I do not find it hard to watch or re-watch films like Toy Story, Up and WALL-E either because I can relate to the content through the form of nostalgia presented, mostly for my own imagination as a youth. Oh innocence, why have you forsaken me?!
Even though these films I have mentioned are all awesome in their own right, I do have a particular preference for the Japanese animator Hayou Miyazaki and his scope for escapism. Indeed the man has dealt with deep and challenging material in his films too (Princess Mononoke, The Wind Rises) but never was the whimsical embrace of youth, adventure and imagination more prominent than in his fourth feature, My Neighbour Totoro. What a beautiful film! A cynic in me could point to the merchandise factor in creating cuddly, furry and friendly anthropomorphic characters, but balls to that, these creations are un-bettered in the history of animation. They are completely, for want of a better phrase, out-there and Miyazaki makes no apologies for their non-backstories – they are simply a product of his (or the two young girls) imagination. In the same way as the Minions in Despicable Me, there is also a subtle hint of ‘what-the-fuck’ to the whole thing (perfect for kids) but essentially all they really do in the end is make you smile from ear to ear. To revel in the world that Miyazaki creates, unquestioning the legitimacy of the reality, is exactly his purpose.
I was in my early-twenties when I first witnessed this film and I am unashamed to say that when the opening sequence plays, it made me giddy with a child-like excitement. When the bus, shaped as a giant wide-eyed and smiling ginger cat, zooms in from the darkness to pick the two girls up, I was filled with a warm delight that never changes upon repeated viewings. Yes, I giggle as one might when they were 5 years old. But so what! I am in another world, far away from the one I currently inhabit. So, to inappropriately quote Metallica, nothing else matters.
There are so many other films that I am sure people can escape this world with. Everyone has their favourites. These are just a few of mine. The main thing is that yes, films can be great and of course, they are more than an acceptable way of reviving your mind from the ills of reality. Or alternatively you could just find a place on the planet that doesn’t have wi-fi signal and stay there for the rest of your life. Either way, I enthuse you all to not lose hope in these trying times and keep smiling like you’re still young. Totoro’s deep sigh demands it.
‘People talk about escapism as if it’s a bad thing… Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality’ – Neil Gaiman