This coming Sunday, NBC will air the 89th annual Academy Awards, a celebration of the finest films of the past year. This year, the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences appears poised to award the night’s highest honor, Best Picture, to Damien Chazelle’s modern original musical “La La Land.”
For those who haven’t seen it, “La La Land” follows the story of Mia and Sebastian, two struggling artists in modern-day Los Angeles, as they fall in love, chase their dreams and overcome hurdles in their careers and personal lives. Despite this seemingly trite description, “La La Land” is not without its serious moments; it artfully explores the ideas of failure, success, love, self-doubt and regret. The movie also excels in many technical aspects: The direction style is innovative, the editing is precise and effective and the score soars. The actors appear up for the game, learning tap dance and musical technique; Ryan Gosling famously devoted four months to mastering jazz piano. The film flows and the hard work of all parties involved is evident.
So, will it win? Whether these qualities make the film deserving of the Oscar, is your, and the Academy’s, choice to make. But I wonder whether this is the wrong question to ask.
The most common theme discussed in association with “La La Land” this awards’ season is that of nostalgia. More than anything, “La La Land” is an unabashed ode to the past. The world of “La La Land” is one of beauty. From the costumes to the cinematography, everything shines with an almost technicolor glow. The movie regularly pays homage to film classics like “Casablanca” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” transitioning flawlessly in the spontaneous way of musicals from speech to song. The land of “La La Land” is much more dazzling than our own, a world through rose-tinted glasses.
But, to many, given the current political and social climate, something feels wrong about “La La Land’s” escapism. The film’s biggest competitor, “Moonlight,” a story about a young, gay black man struggling to reconcile his sexuality and black identity, is as stirring and contemporary as “La La Land” is classically beautiful. It would be unfair to argue that besides “Moonlight,” “La La Land” lacks substance just because of its less outwardly tragic subject matter. But the juxtaposition of these two movies brings into question the privilege of nostalgia. In this country, who is allowed to look back on the past with fondness? Who gets to think of poodle skirts and “Singin’ in the Rain” when they look back on the 1950s rather than segregation or oppression? These questions force us to confront our own privilege as viewers. If “La La Land’s” version of the past provides us with an escape, what does embracing that past say about us? And accordingly, if the year’s Best Picture serves as a reflection of where we, as a society stand in a particular moment, what does “La La Land” say about 2017?
Every year, since I was born, my family has hosted an annual Oscar “party” complete with themed food and $10 ball gowns from Goodwill. The guests change with the years, but the tradition stands. As Sunday approaches, it feels strange not to be home. I’ve barely made it to the movie theater since I’ve been at school — constantly buying full-priced movie tickets can be tough on a student budget. This weekend, I crave the safety and tradition of my family room couch, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood from my home television screen and the punny genius of “Manchester by the Sea-food.”
In this longing, I am guilty of my own nostalgia. I know I have blurred the edges. Yes, the awards are self-congratulatory and the host’s jokes fall flat more often than not. Yes, given the number of movie stars who passed away in 2016, the “year of death,” someone important will inevitably be left out, and the Academy will have hell to pay the morning after. Yes, in the context of the greater world, award shows are superficial and silly. But I can’t help but feel an almost foolish sense of loss this year.
Last Saturday, on a midnight trip to Tomatillo, an unusually warm breeze blew the distinct smell of chlorine across my face and I thought of home. Any Northern California kid will tell you that our California is nothing like the palm trees and sand beaches of SoCal; if I were to put a swimming pool in my backyard, it would be full of pine needles in 12 hours. But perhaps, being so far from home, I’ve learned to generalize. I am not a swimmer, so chlorine isn’t part of my normal routine. Instead, when I catch a whiff, I find myself laughing by the pool with my cousins in San Diego for the summer. It’s striking the way scent can do that. Its effect is visceral, overwhelming, then gone.
I view the tendency toward nostalgia as a sort of flight response, within the context of fight-or-flight reflexes. I mean this without shame; to flee to safety is as natural as raising your fists, and oftentimes, the safer choice. To tend toward safety in times of turmoil is human, and, perhaps, allows us time to heal. But we must also acknowledge the privilege of this retreat. I know to deduce the mindset of an entire country based on the results of an arbitrary movie award is generous and maybe even dumb. Maybe when we look back 20 years from now, we will nod our heads in agreement over what was the best movie of 2016. But today, I am unsure.
Instead I wonder, this Sunday, what will we reward? The world as it is and the world as we wish it were.
Contact Ryan Howzell at firstname.lastname@example.org .