How do filmmakers establish the world of their film: the time, the place, the characters? How can they use the opening minutes of a movie to propose narrative developments and create enigmas, inaugurate their style, even introduce themes and ideology? In ESTABLISHING SHOTS we’ll be looking at how a range of filmmakers use opening scenes to construct their cinematic worlds.
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)
The exuberant and technically dazzling opening to La La Land not only sets the tone for the whole film, it is also emblematic of the film’s portrayal of Los Angeles - a portrayal that has been controversial for some critics and viewers.
The film opens with the wide, blue Californian sky and then moves down to a congested freeway slip road, panning along the jammed traffic to show a diverse range of commuters. The opening ‘Cinemascope’ fanfare becomes diegetic radio music that fades in and out as we pass by each car and passenger, shifting genres: from classical, hip-hop, rock, until we rest on a female driver listening to a jazzy samba track. This establishes the location: the melange of music and range of ethnicities suggest the cultural diversity of the population (something that becomes more contentious later). Plus, the clogged freeways and distant smoggy mountains are instantly recognisable as the LA cityscape.
The woman bursts into song - and the soundtrack moves from ambient noise into the first musical number. This shift from diegetic to non-diegetic music also introduces us to Chazelle’s concept of making “an old-fashioned musical, but grounding it in reality where things don’t always work out.” LA is often portrayed as a city of wannabes, where every waitress or pool cleaner is an aspirational actor or has a screenplay to sell. The opening song, “Another Day of Sun,’ establishes this: the lyrics deal with characters leaving behind the safety of ‘normal’ lives and loves, sacrificing stability for a chance to live their dreams of fame and success. “I left him at a Greyhound station,” sings the first woman: “he was sweet and true/ But still I did what I had to do.” The gridlock location could symbolise how many of these dreams are stymied. Yet despite melancholy lyrics, the exuberance and dynamism of the ensuing dance routine reflects the intense ambition and hopefulness of the dreamers. The sheer joy of their aspirations transforms a maddening traffic jam into a street party. Yet at the end they all return to their cars and honking their horns, back to their frustrated reality, going nowhere.
Chazelle has described La La Land as a ‘love song to LA’, and the mise-en-scene announces his intention to celebrate the ‘unpretty’ aspects of the city. Choked freeways are one of the things many Angelinos would pick out as the worst thing about LA. Yet in this sequence Chazelle uses primary-coloured costumes and car paint to transform the commute into a motorway carnival (complete with steel band!)
The cinematography in the scene introduces the ‘single take’ approach that all the nearly all the musical sections of the movie use. The camerawork recalls that of the vintage Hollywood musicals that inspired Chazelle. Films like Top Hat (1935) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) use extended takes to both capture the thrill of live theatrical performance, and make the camera itself into an additional performer, moving in time, ‘dancing’ with the stars. The cinematography in La La Land’s opening does similar. It emulates or even anticipates the movements of the dancers, gliding back and forth and around them, immersing the viewer in the action. The camera moves also replicates the rhythm of the song: it halts and starts moving again, changing trajectory on the beat. This punctuates the fluid shot in the way a cut usually would. The ‘single take’, however, is an illusion: after much experimentation with cranes and steadicams, and struggles with the shadows cast by the bright morning sunshine, Chazelle and cinema-tographer Linus Sandgren realised an unbroken shot was impossible. Instead they use whip-pans to blur and mask the cut, maintaining the dynamism created by single take. (This ‘cheat’ to simulate a filmmaking style from an idealised past could also be seen as a deliberate comment on the way the later narrative - and especially Ryan Gosling’s Seb - treats nostalgia.)
In the dance numbers, the kinetic and rhythmic use of camera movement - and apparent absence of cutting - creates a fluidity which contrasts with the more rapid, edgier editing style of the dramatic scenes. The gliding, dreamlike quality of the song and dance sequences were intended, says Chazelle, to feel like “an exhaled breath”. This counters the tension of the dramatic scenes, where the aggravations of reality (artistic disappointments, emotional resentments) become almost claustrophobic. Again, this reflects one of the film’s core themes: the friction between dreams and actuality, aspirations and frustration.
La La Land’s opening also establishes a number of ideological factors in the film. Similar to Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash (2014), La La Land represents artists as individuals who struggle to reconcile their creativity and ambition with everyday life. In both films, the main characters have to sacrifice their relationships in an attempt to achieve their dreams. At the end of La La Land, we see that Seb and Mia have achieved their artistic goals, but lost each other in the process. This is foreshadowed in the opening song: abandoned romance framed by an optimistic hymn to potential stardom. (Nearer the film’s end, Mia’s audition song about her aunt also puts the emphasis on pursuing dreams rather than settling for a ‘normal’ life.) The mass public dance routine on car roofs and bonnets also echoes the famous scene in Alan Parker’s Fame (1980) - a similar blend of musical and gritty realism.
The sun-drenched positivity with which Los Angeles is depicted has incited criticism from some who have attacked the film’s ‘white-washed’ portrayal of the city and its history. The location for the opening scene is not far from the place where in 1991 five LAPD officers were filmed beating black motorist Rodney King. The subsequent acquittal of the officers was the spark for the 1992 LA riots that decimated large sections of the city. Yet La La Land seems ignorant of these events and of a history turbulent with racial tension. Considering Seb’s obsession with traditional jazz, it is also controversial that there is no mention of the 1940s ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ where huge gangs of white serviceman attacked black and Latino jazz fans for the clothes they wore (the baggy style ‘zoot suits’ were seen as a wasteful use of fabric that could be used to make military uniforms). Furthermore, after the diversity of the characters in the film’s opening, the narrative marginalises non-white communities: performers and audiences in the jazz clubs Seb adores may be mixed, but there's still only one black speaking (or even singing) role.
Seb - and the filmmakers - are obsessed with a very selective vision of the past. La La Land appears to be stridently apolitical and escapist, yet - in a year when the Trump presidential campaign espoused a similar return to a (nonexistent) ‘golden age’ - the escapism itself takes on a political dimension . Geoff Nelson at pastemagazine.com criticised this pining for a 'lost American greatness’. He wrote: “the past represents liberation for one group, a horror show for another.” The ‘Fred and Ginger’ films of the 1930s (whose style Chazelle is mimicking) may be from a world of more traditional glamour and romance, but they also hide and distract from the racial discrimination, gender inequality and homophobia of this historical period. Chazelle defended his choices by pointing out that LA constantly erases and reframes its own past - especially in film - and that his movie reflects the city’s ahistorical nature. A closer examination also reveals La La Land does have an ambivalence towards nostalgia: Seb achieves his dream of opening a club that will preserve the pre-1960s jazz he adores, but he ends up frozen in this imagined past. He repeats, in a loop, his selective version of history; the same way he repetitively rewinds and listens to slivers of piano when we first see him in the traffic jam. He also loses Mia, who, by contrast, is keen to embrace the future and live free from these constraints (the movie that makes her name is an unconventional indie film, with “no script and no stars”).
Ultimately, the opening sequence perfectly captures this strange clash of past and present, of dreams and reality, aspiration and frustration. The sun may be shining, the music, dancing and cinematography exuberant - but there is a melancholic undertone that adds complexity, and effectively establishes the bittersweet nature of the entire film.
On cinematography: http://www.indiewire.com/2017/02/la-la-land-cinematography-director-of-photography-linus-sandgren-1201776704/
On music: http://deadline.com/2017/02/la-la-land-justin-hurwitz-oscars-best-original-score-bafta-interview-news-1201910726/
On the ‘dangers of nostalgia’:
Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
Fame (Alan Parker, 1980)
On the ‘myths’ of Los Angeles: Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Anderson, 2003)