I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.
Addicted to Love is not a film anybody likes or cares about, or even remembers. It’s one of those films disappeared in the sands of time, managing to have literally zero cultural impact. There’s so much media today – peak TV, a boom of indie films scrabbling for a smaller piece of the pie, three hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – that we’ve created a modern inverse of the lost films of early cinema. Those films quite literally ceased to exist, either due to studios dumping them to make space or accidental destruction by fire (nitrate film, which was standard before the 1950s, can spontaneously combust if stored improperly). The Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s film preservation non-profit, estimates that ninety percent of films made in the US before 1929 are lost.
This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, Paramore and demanding the time and space to deal with emotions that we’re shamed for expressing.
My Chemical Romance existed to save lives.
It’s hard to talk about with the uninitiated. It’s not unlike talking about faith to unbelievers: when you have to describe it out loud, you can hear how bizarre it is. A believer can hold their faith and their knowledge of their faith’s absurdity together without contradiction, but an unbeliever cannot understand that. CS Lewis wrote about faith as completely derived from reason, and sure, he was a lot more educated about theology than me, but that’s nonsense. Faith isn’t rational, and it wouldn’t matter if it was. “No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ,” Nicole Cliffe (from The Toast, now sadly defunct) wrote about her conversion, “I had to be tapped on the shoulder.”
Death in popular culture is meaningless. There’s too much death and not enough. More than ever, TV shows and films are obsessed with the omnipresence of death, but blind to death having any meaning. “Why is no-one allowed die?” (e.g. the Marvel films) or “Why must everyone be killed off for shock value?” (e.g. Game of Thrones) seem like not only distinct but contradictory problems, but they’re two sides of the same coin: anybody might die – but probably not anybody you care about, and if it is, they’ll come back to life in the end.
“They say you gotta want it more,” a young man sings in ‘Another Day of Sun’, La La Land’s opening number, “So I bang on every door.”
He came to LA with dreams of making it in the entertainment business, but his problem is not that he doesn’t want it enough. He wants it desperately, single-mindedly. He’s dancing in the middle of a traffic jam, singing about wanting it – as desperately as the dozens of other people singing the same song.
‘Another Day of Sun’ sounds bright and happy, but lyrically, it’s about constant rejection, about running out of money, about leaving loved ones to pursue unrealised dreams – and about a pressure to blame yourself. They say you gotta want it more.
The chorus initially sounds like an ode to perseverance:
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun
But it’s more melancholy with every repetition, as getting knocked to the ground emerges as a habit. “It’s another day of sun” is a joke about LA not having seasons, but it’s also a comment on how that lack of weather can feel oppressive. It’s an environment that refuses to bend, immune to your feelings. There’s weariness to it: constant sunshine, constant disappointment.
La La Land is not a film about how you should pursue your dreams.
Hollywood is in a prolonged state of crisis. Everybody knows this. Studios pump out a seemingly endless supply of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, reboots, and films otherwise based on any and all previously existing intellectual property, all of which invariably cost upwards of 100 million dollars. We call them tentpole films, because they’re supposed to be sure-fire bets that can make enough money to finance smaller, riskier projects across the studio’s slate, like tentpoles upholding a tent. The problem is that there is no tent. There’s just masses and masses of poles, sticking upright in a field, and we’re all so used to getting wet that we’re more likely to ask for the poles to be more interesting than ask for some tarp.
It’s 2017, and silent films are dying.
Silent films started dying in 1927, of course, when The Jazz Singer mainstreamed the use of synchronised dialogue – although it itself was a sound-silent hybrid, mostly using sound in the sections to do with musical performance. By the 1930s, basically all films were talkies, and apart from occasional blips – Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie or best picture winner The Artist – we’ve never looked back. Silent films have been dead for almost a hundred years, and there’s no good mourning them now.
But there’s the second death – the death that occurs when something once vibrant and alive is forgotten by everyone living. That time will come for everything and everyone, but there’s an artificial acceleration when an art form has fallen out of use. Charles Dickens is as popular and well-known as ever, but he mightn’t be if everyone had stopped writing or reading novels for a hundred years. He mightn’t have been had it not been possible to publish his serials in the form of the novel, instead of leaving them scattered across the volumes of history. Silent films are still films, but they’re different in a pretty fundamental way, in a way that seems impossibly big if you’ve never seen one.
So I’m really worried – unreasonably worried – that people are going to forget Charlie Chaplin.