Every generation has its directors. The ’70s got Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. The ’80s had John Hughes, Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis. ’90s kids got Quentin Tarantino, both Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes) and David Fincher. The turn of the century found many of these masters making some of their best work, while a new generation of filmmakers also began to create. Growing up in the 21st century, while we are privileged to stream the work of classic directors, there are plenty of voices that are unique to our time, our generation.
In the following columns, I will briefly study one contemporary director who is actively defining our cinematic era. Most of these filmmakers began working in the 2010s, only some of them started in the aughts. Still, the names I will study are shaping our current movie culture. They inspire the filmmakers and critics among us, so I think it’s worth spending a little time getting to know them.
In 2009, Damien Chazelle premiered his debut film at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was originally Chazelle’s undergraduate thesis film, but he paused his Harvard education to complete it. The film was a critical darling, mainly because it is such a blatant homage to past masters like John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard — and critics love when they can flex their knowledge and point this stuff out.
Even in this short debut, the young Chazelle announced his ambitions to the world. He immediately sought to blend two seemingly unblendable genres: the realist drama and the musical. “Guy and Madeline” owes its look and themes to both MGM musicals and black-and-white street films. It’s as if Chazelle couldn’t pick a side. Musicals are marked by a spontaneous song break from the narrative, so how do you fit that into a realist sensibility? In his subsequent musical pictures, Chazelle makes music indispensable to his plot, but every compromise comes with some sort of loss.
“Whiplash” (2013) and “La La Land” (2016) brought Chazelle to the fore. Both are about musical obsession — the former is harsher, of course. “Whiplash” finds Chazelle still showing off. The obvious time-signature editing, the camera whizzing across the stage during every musical number — it was all there in “Guy and Madeline” — but give a director a higher budget and he will make sure you see what he’s doing with it.
Yet, Chazelle was never going to stay solely in the foul-mouthed world of “Whiplash” and its love-hate relationship with jazz. “La La Land” allowed him to explore the more joyful side of musical filmmaking. It’s probably the film he’ll be most known for and it’s also the one that’s most open to critique.
“La La Land” is a remake. Actually, a remake of two films: Scorsese’s “New York, New York” (1977) and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). The ambitious Chazelle again crams his cinematic obsessions into one vehicle; the full-blown musical form takes up so much oxygen, it leaves little room for the titular characters to have a full life of their own.
In “La La Land,” Chazelle forces his characters into a musical. Unlike the leads in Scorsese’s and Demy’s films, Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are not musical characters; they’re too awkward and their personalities are not big enough. Chazelle tries to transplant some of the realistic, mumblecore aesthetic of “Guy and Madeline” to “La La Land,” but it doesn’t translate. Even in his student film, Chazelle made easier transitions between plot and song.
In “La La Land,” the awkward, quirky Mia and Seb are forced into song and dance. They share a painfully awkward exchange as they walk up the hill before “A Lovely Night.” So why do they suddenly burst into a tap dance? Yes, the whole point of a musical is that real life doesn’t just break out into song, but “La La Land” makes a clear point to erase the line between fantasy and reality (Mia actually changes into tap shoes right before the song). It is asking us to be on board with spontaneous songs, but the musical numbers exist primarily for our fun, not the characters’ expression. It’s delightful, of course, but it’s borderline gratuitous.
Again, Chazelle is showing off. His hand is very present in the narrative — he clearly orchestrates everything from John Legend’s timely entrance to the number of people that attend Mia’s one-woman show. This is not a bad thing. It’s just that I’d like to see what would happen if he would’ve loosened his grip on Mia and Seb.
Every generation of directors pays tribute to the past masters; Chazelle is so overt about his influences, I see him as a younger, brighter Tarantino. Yet, while Tarantino’s films show his cinephilia to be quite mature, Chazelle’s films prove his obsession needs to gestate a little. This is why his 2018 film “First Man” is better than “La La Land;” its committed aesthetic bolsters its characters, never smothering their personalities. In “First Man,” Chazelle lets his characters speak more than him.
The defining mark of Chazelle’s films is obsession. His characters are all obsessed with success, with living up to some standard of greatness. This is also why “First Man” is so interesting: Instead of showing someone vying for notoriety, Chazelle shows, in his rendition of Neil Armstrong (Gosling), someone already in the spotlight; he takes us behind closed doors to experience what the history books could never show. Andrew (Miles Teller) in “Whiplash,” Mia and Seb all shoot for the moon and their stories end with them at the top. “First Man” takes us to the moon with Neil and brings us back. We close on a quiet scene — as all Chazelle’s movies do — with two people exchanging a look.
After conquering the moon, conquering his obsession, the astronaut has a tender moment with his wife. Reaching the top wouldn’t matter if he didn’t come back to Earth a different, better person. Here, more than in his previous films, the ending is earned. Less definite, but more graceful.
I personally hope Chazelle’s future pictures will focus less on the exhilarating ride to the moon and more on the way back.
Isa Uggetti is a junior writing about film. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” typically runs every other Monday.