Chazz Hands

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Alright, it’s been almost two months now since the Academy Awards disappointed me, yet again, and this time they even rubbed some salt into the wound. They straight up lied to me, got my hopes up, and then dashed them. Oh, you cruel elders. You outdo yourselves every year.

In case you somehow, inexplicably, missed what happened; the Academy read out the wrong winner for Best Picture (you know, the most important one!). Faye Dunaway and Warren Beaty announced La La Land as the winner, when in fact the card they were holding was meant for the Best Actress in a Leading Role (hence – Emma Stone, La La Land). Moonlight was the actual winner, and the error wasn’t corrected until three, yes three, producers had given their acceptance speeches, thanked their families, and wept tears of joy. The internet had a field day, of course, and Emma Stone’s reaction was easily the best one of the night.

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Compared to the troubles in Syria and the turmoil in the White House, it is of course an insignificant event. For the Oscars, however, it’s just about the worst mistake they could have made. They probably could have killed a nominee backstage and made less of a stir. It was definitely one of the most awkward live television moments I’ve ever witnessed. Naturally, I was cool as a cucumber the entire time.

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Shit no! I didn’t know whether to laugh, gasp or scream, so my mouth just hung open and I made gargling noises like that little girl from The Grudge.

Anyway, there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. Let’s instead bring it back to me. How did my predictions fare?

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I got about half of them right. 13 out of 26 ain’t terrible, but it’s not great. I could have just flipped a coin. If, however, you switched the television off right after La La Land was announced as Best Picture…then you could say that I got 14 out of 26, which is a majority, which is much more better awesome yay! Tell em’ Casey!

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That’s right, I predicted your win, didn’t I? And Emma’s. And there was one more biggie that I nailed. What was his name again?

Oh, that’s right…

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On February 26th, 2017, Damien Chazelle became the youngest person ever to win the Oscar for Best Director. He was 32 years and 38 days old. The next youngest is Norman Taurog, at 32 years and 260 days. Hey, a record is a record is a record.

Hence I figured: What better time to explore this premature champion’s blooming career than right after his greatest success?

If you remember, I made a rule about these 12 Auteurs. You can’t be recognised as an auteur unless you’ve made at least three films. Since auteurs are defined by the patterns you can spot across their careers, we need to have a pattern…and a career. One film is an incident, two films is a coincidence, three films is a pattern. That’s my rule.

Damien Chazelle just barely makes this cut. He’s only made two public features, but does technically have three films under his belt. The first one was a Sundance favourite that never got picked up for distribution. It’s called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

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It’s highly unlikely that anyone reading this will have seen it. I had to scour the internet to find it, but it did exist in a few dark corners.

It’s about a couple who split up and, over time, discover that they may have made a mistake. Both characters play instruments, and find that their mutual passion for music is something that’s hard to find elsewhere.

It’s a much more interesting watch in retrospect. Characters, storylines, and even several music pieces have been recycled in Chazelle’s later films. It’s shot on black and white and on the fly, with a documentary aesthetic, similar to the work of John Cassavetes. Everything is handheld, and the outdoor shots are consistently long-lensed. They have an almost paparazzi-like feeling to them, as if we’re secretly watching the story from a distance. Most of this is not stylistic, however, but rather practical. Shots are mostly tight on the actors faces, and I mean tight. That way Chazelle could shoot a sequence on the subway, for example, and not care about all the non-actors looking into the lens.

After Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench had a moderate splash on the festival circuit, Chazelle managed to carve out a short career as a screenwriter. He was able to pay his rent with for-hire scripts like The Last Exorcism Part II and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

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He’s described the former as embarrassing, but the latter was a surprising success. It showed that he was able to turn a cheap concept into a solid money-maker. He also wrote the screenplay for a film called Grand Piano, which is about pianist who’s targeted by a sniper during one of his performances, and who will shoot him if he plays the wrong note. All of these movies are essentially entertainment fluff. They’re what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas termed “high-concept films”. In other words, films that can be pitched in 25 words or less. It’s exactly the kind of thing that career writers churn out in order to pay their bills. They know it’s flimsy stuff, but it’s something a studio can easily flog.

During this phase, Chazelle would worm his way out of writers block by scribbling away at his own personal script. It was a small story about a drummer. Once he finished it up, he put it away in a drawer for a while, but eventually threw it out on the market for sale, and it ended up featured on the Black List.

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No, I don’t mean he was blacklisted! He’s not a Commie! At least I don’t think so.

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The Black List is an annually published survey featuring the most coveted film scripts that remain un-produced. Usually this is because of their unusual nature. Studio heads may love the concept and the story, but struggle to see a marketing strategy. Either that, or it concerns a controversial topic, is too eccentric for its required budget, or can’t find a major star who wants to take on the main role, etc.

Previous notable Black List scripts include Black Snake Moan, Stardust, (500) Days of Summer, In Bruges, There Will Be Blood, Doubt, Never Let Me Go, Foxcatcher, The Beaver, The Revenant, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, John Wick, Spotlight, and Manchester By The Sea. The list is extensive, and I could go on, but you get the idea.

The list began in 2005 as a novelty article, but has since become a source of pride. If your film is on the Black List, it has in some sense “made it”. It’s only really a matter of time until someone strikes the right deal. This is exactly where Chazelle found himself, with dozens of studios vying for his attention. He refused to buckle, citing that the film was “too personal”, and that he wanted to direct it himself. Instead, he struck a deal with Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions to turn a small part of the feature into a short film. It was then screened at the Sundance Film festival as a proof-of-concept.

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 The original can sometimes be hard to find online. It’s being uploaded and removed constantly. Probably, the best place to currently see it is on Vimeo.

Armed with a script to showcase story and a short-film to showcase style, Chazelle shopped around Sundance for interested investors that would give him the funds for the feature while allowing him to maintain control of his work. Four months later, he had what he wanted. Thus, Whiplash was born.

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For those who haven’t seen Whiplash yet…please do! Right now! It’s a pretty simple setup:

Miles Teller plays an aspiring drummer named Andrew who will stop at nothing to be the greatest in his field. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself being taught by Terrence Fletcher, a violent grouchy teacher who torments his students and will accept nothing less than perfection. Is he doing Andrew a favour by pushing him to excel, or is he just a psychopathic bully?

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J. K. Simmons plays the role of Terrence Fletcher like he’s a a drill instructor, comparable to R. L. Ermey’s performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. It won Simmons the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 2015 Academy Awards, and he deserved it.

Simmons provided Fletcher with a necessary mercurial nature. You find yourself unsure, from moment to moment, about whether he’s going to compliment Andrew or snap his neck. More importantly, you believe that he would in fact be able to snap someone’s neck. He has an intimidating muscular-sinewy look that he strategically reveals whenever he takes his jacket off and shows his rolled up sleeves. It’s really intimidating.

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It’s hard to believe that Whiplash is a mere directorial debut, because it’s so confidently constructed. It has very few symptoms of being a novice’s work. It’s stripped down, focused, and has minimal production alterations. The shooting script (available online) is virtually indistinguishable from the finished film. That’s the mark of someone who knows what they want to make and is unflinchingly convinced that it’s going to work.

Chazelle didn’t win his Oscar for Whiplash, but I think he should have. The direction is its prime feature. Here’s what makes it exquisite:

For starters, Chazelle knows how to saturate the film with subconscious, but effective, psychological stimuli.

Pay attention to the room in which Fletcher tortures his players. It’s windowless, enhancing claustrophobia. The walls have a continuous square pattern that mimics the door.

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Eventually you lose track of where the door is, similar to a padded room in a psyche ward. It reinforces the notion that there’s no escape.

The walls are dark and unlit. The players, by contrast, are all lit harshly from above. It evokes the pressure of giving a performance under a spotlight, or answering tough questions in an interrogation room.

The colour correction is also important. The band scenes have a notable “golden wash”. It’s almost like the light that’s bouncing off the cymbals, trumpets, and saxophones is actually making the room glow. This choice, of basically bathing the whole frame in brass, is not only aesthetically gorgeous, but also has relevance to the theme. The movie is about focus, about dedication. There is nothing but the music, nothing but the instrument. It fills the room, it lights the room, it is the room.

The cinematography, however, is the more impressive indication of a workman who knows how to use his tools. Whiplash uses wide shots, mid shots, and closeups almost scientifically. When Fletcher allows for a casual and relaxed atmosphere, we are able to breathe within the open air of a wide shot.

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When he sources a problem and begins to get agitated, we cut to a mid shot. It’s filmed on a long lens, maintaining physical distance while accentuating a sense of uncomfortable emotional closeness. Like Andrew, we now feel that someone is carefully watching us from a distance, like a predator waiting for its moment to strike.

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Then, finally, when Fletcher snaps and begins to abuse Andrew, the two characters are brought uncomfortably close together. The shot tightens extremely, and is now excruciating to watch. He’s too close. He is in our face, our eyes, our ears.

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In addition to framing, Chazelle makes excellent use of camera movement.

One of my biggest gripes with modern cinema is the incorrect use of camera movement. Filmmakers will opt to shoot an entire film handheld because they think that gives the project a sense of immediacy. “It adds a documentary-like realism” is the kind of mis-educated thinking i hear banded about by terrible filmmakers. There’s so much of this ill informed tripe snugly wedged under my skin, that I can’t even tell you.

Handheld camera provides one thing, and one thing only: instability. It emphasises the unpredictable nature of the plot, and of the characters future actions. It does so most effectively when contrasted with locked-off shots featured during the calmer parts of the drama. This isn’t rocket science, it’s filmmaking 101, but it seems to elude people all the time.

Well, it didn’t elude Damien Chazelle. It’s clear that he knows the power of decoupling the camera strategically. When Fletcher is relatively calm, so is the camera. There is mounting tension in the framing and in his frustrated behaviour, but we have yet to see an explosion of violence from him. Thus, the camera does not move.

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Once Andrew commits the ultimate sin, responding to a question with “I don’t know”, Fletcher reaches the end of his tether. He suddenly lunges at Andrew, and the terror of this is accentuated by having the camera unhook from its support and struggle to reframe the shot. It’s almost as if the cameraman gets frightened, flinches, and has to remind himself that it’s only a performance.

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Notice the framing leaves a noticeable void in front of Andrew’s face, visually representing his inability to find the right answer. That space is then filled by Fletcher, showing that he now has to spoon feed Andrew because he’s “too stupid” to figure things out for himself. He also pushes him up against the right side of the shot. It’s a masterful use of the frame.

I know these things seem like minor details, but what you’re watching is in fact the entire concept of directing a movie scene correctly. Chazelle wants to put you in Andrew’s place, to make a war of words as gripping as an actual war, and is using every tried-and-true technique to do so. This is what it looks like when a filmmaker knows their shit!

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The importance of camera movement goes even further. It’s used to compliment the music through sweeping dolly tracks and whip pans.

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The wind instruments, in particular, are given the smooth professional treatment, appropriate to their nature.

While the drums are photographed more erratically, the camera darting quickly between individual surfaces almost too fast for your eye to comprehend.

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And last but not least, we have editing.

Tom Cross won the oscar in 2015 for his editing on Whiplash, and when you see the film you’ll understand why. The pacing is hugely up-tempo, and yet it’s as even and dependable as a metronome. The meticulous cuts serve to synchronise your inner rhythm with the music while never letting you lose sight of what you’re looking at.

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All of this is combined to give us the impression of intricate, but impressive, clockwork. If you haven’t appreciated orchestral cohesion prior to watching Whiplash, you certainly will afterwards.

Do not overlook this film, it’s a hell of a moviegoing experience. The final sequence is more gripping and tense than any chase or bomb diffusing scene that I can remember.

Whiplash hit everyone by surprise in 2014. It walked away with stellar reviews, a large profit, and a slew of Oscar wins, turning Chazelle into everyones new favourite prodigy. He was so young, so talented, and yet seemed to come out of nowhere. Where had he been hiding?

Of course then the question shifted from “why should you be allowed to make this?” to “how much money do you want to come work for us?”. Studios jumped at the chance to get their hands into his drawers.

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No! I mean his desk drawers. As in where he keeps his scripts. Urgh!

The point is, he now had no trouble getting his next project off the ground. It turns out that what Chazelle had always wanted to do was remake the classic guy’s n’ gals musical, so he did.

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I first heard about La La Land two years ago, around the time that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling became attached to star. It was simply described as “Damien Chazelle’s follow up to Whiplash, a modern day musical set in Los Angeles”. It sounded interesting, and I suppose I expected a visually competent musical homage. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I got, however.

Again, if you haven’t seen La La Land yet, what in the hell are you doing? Is it something productive? I hope for your sake that it is, because I’m now going to explain to you what you’ve missed.

There’s been a lot of backlash to La La Land after it came out. It had a great initial response, but then the response to the response started mounting and people were shamed out of liking it. The main criticisms were things like “it’s just another movie where Hollywood loves itself”, and “Ryan Gosling tries to save jazz even though he’s white, so it’s racist”. I understand that everyone is entitled to an opinion, but the simple truth is this: If you didn’t like La La Land, then you’re just wrong. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to put it. If you think the film is racist or a Hollywood circle-jerk, then you’re a nitwit.

Here’s what La La Land is: the best film of 2016!

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That’s the truth and I’m sticking to it! Let me explain to all those unconvinced (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, apparently), why this simple song and dance tribute is such a towering achievement.

But before I do, the plot. La La Land is about two young Hollywood dreamers chasing their ideal careers. Emma Stone plays Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress bouncing from audition to audition, hoping to catch a lucky break. During her tumultuous wrestle with the Hollywood soul-crushing machine, she meets Sebastian Wilder, an idealistic down-on-his-luck pianist. While Mia is hopeful and flexible, Sebastian is cynical and uncompromising. He sees no value in changing your art to fit neatly into someone else’s idea of what you should be. His ultimate goal is to run his own Jazz club, despite the fact that hardly anyone cares about jazz. Mia and Sebastian bicker with one another, and yet all the while share a similar goal. They eventually fall in love, and attempt to help each other achieve their dreams.

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Now, from that description, it might not seem like a particularly deep picture. Alright, perhaps it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a great wheel rehabilitation.

La La Land is a classic fairytale musical appropriated for a pessimistic age. It is, in fact, not full of sugar, spice, and everything nice. It’s deliberately altering the formula and putting a new twist on it.

I’m afraid I’m going to spoil the film during this recommendation, so please go and see it if you haven’t already.

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We begin with the title: La La Land. It has not one, not two, but three meaning. The first is clearly referencing the letters L and A, as in the L. A., Los Angeles. No surprise there, but then we get to the fact that it’s a musical, meaning that it’s full of songs. That would be the other meaning of “La La”. Finally, and most importantly, the film is about chasing your dreams. In fact, it’s about possibly chasing your dreams foolishly. When someone is said to be in a state of delusion, they are described as “living in La La Land”. So, right from the start we have a perfect title. It covers both the superficial and the significant.

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We then move on to the opening scene, which is a dance number staged during a traffic jam on the freeway.

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Forget the fact that it’s an absolutely delightful opening number, and that it’s choreographed and shot all in one take, it’s crucially an opening that cuts right to the heart of the story.

The song is called “Another day of Sun”. It’s about dreams and aspirations, about the unending magic of a Hollywood day. And yet, where is everybody going? Nowhere. They’re stuck in traffic. They’re stuck in life.

Now take a look at the costumes. Although they seem like simple fabrics, it’s the colour scheme that’s important. They tend to consist of solid colours. The dresses, in particular, are missing any kind of pattern or individual variation.

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This is not how someone in the real world dresses. It is, however, completely appropriate to characters living in a fantasy world. It’s paying homage to the style of a 60’s musical, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

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Chazelle has been very open about the fact that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is his favourite musical. The influences are sometimes subtle, but at other times glaringly obvious. The costumes and saturated colours are the first clues.

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It has an intentional pop art sensibility to it. It’s supposed to feel like the fashion equivalent of tupperware, because it’s not real, not tactile. It’s a fantasy.

And that sums up Mia’s perspective. When the film opens, she sees the world optimistically, in striking technicolor. As time goes by, the colour drains from her world. The cold emptiness of doubt sets in, and the costumes take on a more bleak and grounded look.

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Production design, however, is not the only thing that wavers and alters during the course of the film. The musical numbers, although numerous in the first half of the film, are drastically reduced in the second half. This is a noticeably uneven structure, and it’s deliberate. Reality isn’t a musical, so the more reality creeps its way onto the screen, the less the characters are able to break into song and dance about how wonderful their lives are.

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In fact, one of the genius things about La La Land is the specific nature of what it is. It isn’t a traditional musical, and it isn’t an indie romance, it’s both. The film switches back and forth between two completely different eras. When Mia and Sebastian are mumbling their way through a modern day romantic comedy, the cinematography is understandably modern. The camera is close, typically settling for a mid shot or a close up, and is lensed at 35 or 50 mm.

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This is what’s known as standard coverage, a “shot, reverse shot” with a wide thrown in for safety. It makes sure that the editor always has something to cut to when necessary, but it also helps invite the audience into the character’s relationship. The wider angle of the lens makes us feel like we’re taking part in the dialogue.

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When cutting back and forth in a dialogue scene, the actors are either framed in the centre or on opposite ends of the screen, to maintain what is known as “line of sight” between the two main sets of eyes. Mia is on the left of the screen, looking to the right, and Sebastian is on the right of the screen, looking to the left (or vice versa).

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It’s all very standard stuff that you see in literally ever modern movie. However, when a musical number starts, it all changes.

The camera pulls way back, and we now have the entire scene encapsulated in one shot, framed formally with even spacing. This is something that you’ll recognise from any of your favourite classic musicals.

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It used to be done this way because cameras used to be the size of plane engines. The studio had to get the most out of a day of shooting, so they minimised the amount of necessary shots and instead resorted to choreographing the camera and the blocking together. However, it does have some other neat benefits.

It allows the audience to effectively direct the scene themselves. You get to choose which part of the action you want to watch at any given moment. Also, it’s frankly more impressive, since the choreography cannot be hidden with snappy editing. There is no editing! The performers have to have perfect timing, or the whole thing falls apart.

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And on the subject of impressive sequences, we come to the ending. Now, if you’ve seen La La Land, you will know that in the final act Sebastian and Mia go their separate ways only to be reunited five years later when their lives have grown apart. Mia is a successful actress with a husband and a daughter, and Sebastian now owns his own Jazz club, which appears to be very successful. Mia, one night, finds herself accidentally walking into his club, and the two exchange looks of emotional recognition. Sebastian then sits down at his piano and proceeds to play Mia a song he’s written about “what could have been” had they managed to keep their relationship intact. We get to see this piece brought to life through a fantasy musical sequence which then turns into a medley.

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If you pay close attention to the final montage, however, you’ll notice something buried beneath the paint and costumes. Mia is shown achieving all of her dreams, but Sebastian doesn’t achieve his. We see him sitting in the audience of her one-woman show, driving her to her audition, following her to Paris, and starting a family with her. The final sequence is not a fantasy vision of what could have happened if they’d stayed together whilst achieving their dreams. Instead, it’s Sebastian’s way of telling Mia about his regrets. He’s saying that if he could rewind the clock five years, he would give up all of his dreams and achievements for her. That’s how much he’s been missing her all of this time. Considering what we know about Sebastian, and how dedicated of an artist he is, this is without a doubt the biggest expression of love that he can ever give.

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And there you have it. La La Land is not a schmaltzy love fest about how magical and important Hollywood is. It’s the exact opposite. It’s about how much it can tear your life apart. That’s what makes it so good! It takes Golden Era romanticism and deconstructs it. What Chazelle is saying is “look, you might be able to achieve your dreams, but not necessarily all of them, and certainly not without sacrifice.”. He even puts the theme of the film in the mouth of his own alter-ego character.

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It was right there, in the middle of the movie, and people still didn’t get it.

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Now, I have to admit to something. I have an extra love for La La Land because, as I was watching it, I saw an enormous amount of similarities to my all-time favourite romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love.

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The parallels are uncanny. Both films feature main characters who play piano and struggle to adapt to the changing world around them. They both express their love through their music, and they even wear recurring blue suits at various points in the film, which is a very odd coincidence.

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They both fall in love with a feisty charismatic woman who wears solid colours, often red, purple, or white. Initially they resist the chemistry, but eventually the act of falling in love changes their perspective on life, and helps them improve it.

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Both films are set in L.A. and make good use of the city’s purple sunset.

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Both films are shot on Kodak Color Negative stock, using anamorphic lenses, traditionally known as “Cinemascope”.  This is an outdated format, common in 50’s and 60’s musicals. It compresses the image, blows out the highlights, intensifies the colours, and adds those flat blue horizontal lens flares that are so recognisable.

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Certain shots are even framed and staged in exactly the same way. It’s eerie!

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So what’s going on here? Well, it’s not a situation where one is stealing from the other. Instead, they’re both getting their influences from the same place. Damien Chazelle and Paul Thomas Anderson have both vocalised their adoration of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures. Clearly, there is also an adoration for French New Wave films, like Jean Luc Godard’s A Woman is a Woman.

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The film language used in these movies is simply being appreciated twice.

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But I’m not complaining. I love Punch-Drunk Love and I love La La Land. Now I have the perfect Valentines day double bill! And so do you.

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I know this is turning into an excruciatingly long post. Don’t worry, I’ll wrap it up soon. I just have to say a couple of things about Chazelle himself. Do I sound obsessive now?

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The question is simple: What denotes a Damien Chazelle film? What crops up time and time again?

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Alright, that’s true. Jazz! Damien Chazelle has become known as the jazz filmmaker. Every film he has made so far has been about the love for jazz and the need to keep it alive. However, that’s a plot point, it’s not a theme. His recurring theme seems to be dedication to craft. He loves to discuss drive and passion, for better or worse. His stories are intensely autobiographical. Andrew from Whiplash and Sebastian from La La Land are both, really, Damien.

Chazelle originally wanted to be a jazz musician, and became frustrated when he realised that his skills were not good enough for a career in music. He later turned to his other passion, filmmaking, but his love of music bleeds into his writing till this day.

Chazelle is also a hopeless romantic trapped within the body of a fatalistic millennial. His movies always aim for a happy ending, but end up going out with a strange quasi-bang. Andrew’s final drum solo is not only a fulfilment of the achievement he’s been working for, it’s also a cheap act of revenge. La La Land shows us the fairytale ending that we all want, and then snatches it all away. It’s almost like Chazelle just wants to see the priceless looks on our faces when the third act goes pear-shaped.

Technologically and stylistically speaking, Chazelle is a traditionalist with a post modern streak in him. He likes to plan and storyboard everything, which is evident in his coverage. He hardly ever shoots anything that he doesn’t intend to use. He loves to utilise rare techniques that border on the experimental. The most noticeable of these are his extended whip-pan sequences.

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These are used to imbue his films with kinetic energy. It’s an obvious signature, so look for it in his future projects, because it’s bound to pop up again.

It’s hard to predict where Damien Chazelle will go after being rewarded with the ultimate prize of his career at such a young age. By contrast, Steven Spielberg didn’t win an Oscar until he was 46, and Martin Scorsese didn’t get one until he was 63! Hopefully early success won’t dull his devotion. I want to see a good 30 years of work from this guy, at least. It’s good to know that we’re merely experiencing the “dawn of Damien”, and there’s heaps of time left for him to outdo himself.

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Chazelle’s next project is called First Man. It’s a biopic about the life of Astronaut Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling has been attached to play the main role. Presumably it’ll look something like this:

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No, I’m kidding of course! I’m sure it’ll be a straight-down-the-line drama with minimal jazz and dance intrusion. I’m certainly interested to see how it’ll turn out. For now, I’m going to enjoy La La Land again when it comes out on BluRay at the end of the month. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you know what you’re doing in late April, don’t you? That’s right.

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– Rant Over!

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