Of course, the dazzling La La Land is a film that many of you have most likely already seen. Its array of beautiful colors and stellar acting by the spectacular Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, supplemented with a gorgeous soundtrack spawning a blend of classic jazz with contemporary notes make for an award-buzzing piece of art that has grossed over $232 million and won over the hearts of millions of people.
It’s important to note that La La Land has actually been in the works for nearly a decade now. Director Damien Chazelle’s strong affinity for musical films led him to write the screenplay for La La Land when he was a student at Harvard University in 2010. He wrote the script as his senior thesis and after graduating, moved to Los Angeles and continued writing and modifying the script. For years, no studio was willing to finance his film, claiming that it was not a “familiar” storyline and would not appeal to people. After Chizelle wrote the successful Whiplash in 2014, he finally attracted several studios and was able to start making the film, over five years after he wrote the script.
It’s interesting to note the resistance by studios to invest in this film, with the primary reason being that jazz musicals are too archaic for the youth – one theme explored in La La Land itself. The notion that past traditions do not appeal to modern generations is one that La La Land very much challenges: we haven’t seen a musical film in a long time, with the main assumption being that it’s just died out, but the very fact that it has been gone for so long is the catalyst for its popularity. La La Land draws from older films a nostalgic sense. It’s reminiscent of a different time that is real, making for a film that’s easy to lose ourselves in. The distinction, though, that sets La La Land apart from other films that adopt this same mechanism is while it incorporates older elements, it retains a modern feeling that keeps each scene fresh. The dance numbers aren’t flawlessly planned to perfection. Ryan and Emma’s voices are not Broadway-groomed and making our ears swoon. Their characters are flawed in numerous ways. They behave selfishly at times. This creates a much more real film, with the flaws and unpolished dance numbers creating a feeling of uniqueness.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, serving lattes in between auditions. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist making his living by playing cocktail party gigs with dreams of opening his own club. Two aspiring dreamers, full of passion yet so far have been unsuccessful. They meet. They’re attracted to each other’s ideal visions. They fall in love. It’s the ultimate love story. It’s the typical love story.
Yet, the movie defies the stereotypical clichés of a romantic plotline, and is in fact partly what constitutes its mass appeal. Their first interaction is Sebastian rudely pushing past Mia. When they seem to keep running into each other and Sebastian wonders if it means something, Mia states, “Probably not,” with them proceeding to sing about how they could never fall for each other. Their love story becomes more real, deeper, and more relatable to the audience.
The movie isn’t so much about their love story but more so about their artistic passion. Mia and Sebastian show how easy it is to get derailed from their dreams, and how sometimes it takes another person to push you back on the tracks to find it again. That’s what they do to each other. Mia has to remind Sebastian of his dream when he begins to play music he dislikes in a band, while Sebastian practically forces Mia to attend the audition. Ultimately, in their final scene together as a couple, Sebastian acknowledges that when Mia gets the audition, she will have to give it all she’s got. It’s his simple way of reflecting the harshness of reality: how pursuing your dreams requires sacrifice. Mia and Sebastian simply cannot be together for them to climb the ladders towards success. There have been dozens of films like this that try to capture the allure of Hollywood, yet cynically remark upon its cruel, harsh reality. However, Chazelle’s film is exceptional. He’s showing how getting plucked out of the crowd for a life-changing opportunity means that your life will chance and you will lose friends, loved ones, relationships, and other things that you hold dear. Yet he doesn’t try to criticize this. The film celebrates holding onto your convictions with rigidness, made clear in Mia’s audition song that pays homage to “the fools who dream, as foolish as they may seem.” This harsh reality is something we’ve all dealt with, which is what has caused so many to love La La Land because Chazelle doesn’t try to make us to feel bad about it. It’s simply the reality and we have to work with it.
The ending is jarring, seeing Mia with a husband and kid. Both have achieved their dreams, but the audience is met with shock and horror at the notion that Mia and Sebastian are not together. Ultimately, what sets the film even more apart is the beautiful epilogue that shows what life could have been like had Mia and Sebastian stayed together. I remember I found myself overcome with emotion, and quite frankly indignation. “Of course they could have stayed together! Mia should have filmed her movie and then come back and been with Sebastian. How could it not have worked out?” Yet the epilogue, I realize, is conveying something completely different. It’s not trying to show what could have happened. In fact, it’s not supposed to convey reality at all. There’s a reason the ending is so bright and colorful with uplifting, almost fantasy-like music. The ending is showing what would happen in an ideal world, a world in which everything works out perfectly: Mia and Sebastian attract everyone with their passions, land to success without an issue, have no fights, are able to live and work together in harmony.
The ending makes it clear: Although the couple spends most of the movie together, the movie never really belonged to their love story. La La Land is fashioned after Old Hollywood musicals, most of which pair guys and girls off in the perfect way. Often times in those movies, the couple doesn’t achieve their ambitions but what is important is that they are still together, making the audience happy. Yet La La Land underscores that the movie is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance; rather, it’s about the shimmer of their dreams. The movie ending is in fact a happy one because they have accomplished their dreams. It’s fine that they don’t end up together, as made when they smile and nod at each other, having acknowledged each other’s success and happiness. The risky take of La La Land is that it asks its audience to understand that a happy ending doesn’t require its leads to still be in love. Sebastian and Mia live two parallel love stories: She has movies and he has jazz. They both end up with what they wanted in the end, ultimately with their own real loves. The movie lets the main characters essentially be selfish, but quietly. The movie tried to build up to this point, constantly hinting that they don’t belong together; they’re dazzling when they dance but not much else, often guilting each other into being more ambitious. The stunning epilogue in which Sebastian dreams his idealized life with Mia leaves his own life incomplete: he’s still without his jazz club, so the both of them could not have had it all together. It’s only in real life when Mia returns her taste in dark-haired, serious men (her husband looks awfully similar to the guy she was dating in the beginning - did anyone notice that?) that she can have everything she wants.
It’s questionable. Are they selfish? Should they have stayed together regardless of only achieving moderate success? Was their love really enough to overcome their own personal desires? The conclusion of La La Land seems sad, but it reflects people in real life and their real ambitions and dreams, and the compromises we have to make. Sebastian sums it up perfectly when describing jazz to Mia: “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.” That is essentially life, relationships, love - just about everything. The conclusion seems sad. But it’s real. And that’s what’s made this film so unique. It’s beautiful with a lovely soundtrack, great acting, and all the other traits of a fantastic film – but it’s ultimately its harrowing message of reality that people don’t like to hear that makes the film all the more rare and striking.
Written by Sarah Smati ('20)
As an independent film and lit junkie, I will be the first to rattle on about the exciting crossovers between books and cinema. That said, some directors do a better job than others of capturing narratives and developing characters in the same complex way that literature does. Enter, Mike Mills. Seriously, this man’s ability to meld autobiography, history and fiction into a seamless work of art will make skeptics sing his praises (ask my uncle). I would marry him were he not already married to another one of my favorite writers, Miranda July (can I ask to be their step-child)?
I was first introduced to Mike Mills through his film Beginners (2011), which is on Netflix right now (go watch it). Beginners, a semi-autobiographical work, traces two stories: the story of a struggling artist falling in love, and the story of a relationship between a dying father and son after the father comes out as gay. Mills’ own father came out as gay late in his life, and Mills saw this film as a way to better understand his father and to come to terms with his parents’ decision to marry. Like all good Indie movies, Beginners searches for intimate moments that capture both the difficultly of love and the promise of starting anew at any age. Oh, and there’s a dog that talks.
When I heard that Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women (2016), was generating Oscar buzz, I was thrilled. Rarely do Indie movies make it into the mainstream Hollywood scene, but Mills deserves it. Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is also autobiographical, but this time he paints a portrait of his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a coming of age story set in 1979 in California. When Dorothea decides that young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) needs the advice of young women to “help him become a man,” a funny, touching and occasionally gut-wrenching story ensures. The difficulty in knowing one’s parents, womanhood and feminism all feature alongside other fascinating characters played by Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Bill Crudup.
Now that Mike Mills has been catapulted onto the stage of mainstream Hollywood, I’m worried that his films will lose their credence and down-home charm. Part of what makes them so great is their loyalty to the small moments and interactions that make us who we are. They find the beauty and pain and never pretend to make ends need in the cloying way that these kind of slow movies sometimes do. In each of his works, one can see the touch of a artist trying to work through the material of his own life and, in doing so, discovering of stories that intimately connect us.
Written by Sophie N.
To be entirely honest, this is an authorial recommendation, and an obligation to yourself: One Must Read something by Haruki Murakami in their lifetime. His writing is the type that stays with you days afterward, reminding you of that one really vivid image or strange character or confusing plot point you think might just be allegorical. While I was in Germany this summer, I spent a non-negligible amount of time in English bookstores looking for cheap copies of Murakami. I finally picked up a copy of Kafka on the Shore for about 6 Euros. I could tell by the back cover and the weight of the book in my hand that this was something I wanted to get something out of - and I did. It took me the entirety of fall semester to get through this book, but I was rewarded for my time.
There are a few reasons why I want to push Murakami's books into your life. His work is decked out in both Western and Eastern philosophy, playing out in symbols and conceits that double as rich allusions and explanations of thought. There are so many thoughts from so many reference points that the result is immensely complex and beautiful: see a scene in Kafka on the Shore when a man dressed as Colonel Sanders brings a character to a traditional shrine, quotes some Hegel, and bamfs out. This sort of scene brings me to my second point: Murakami's work is magical realism, and everybody needs to experience some magical realism. Maybe it won’t be your thing; at first, the book wasn’t my thing, either. I wasn’t sure what I understood and what I didn’t, what I was supposed to be confused about and what the semester’s stress was keeping me from getting. About halfway through the book, though, I accepted the absurd happenings of the story; there are fluid and rigid rules to the universe that Murakami plays with, and it’s effective in creating a vivid world ripe with otherworldliness and distance. He manages to keep the reader in his characters heads, exploring the uneven world through their eyes. I really valued the way the story threads started out incredibly separated from one another and then blended together – even the blending is somewhat unexpected.
Long story short, there’s a reason that Murakami is widely regarded for being incredible. His work – even in the translation we English-speakers get – is captivatingly beautiful, sensual, and musical. It’s worth reading. Even if magical realism, converging pairs of strange characters, and layered allusions aren’t your thing, I still recommend stepping into the confused existences that Murakami manages to paint in Kafka on the Shore. Hopefully, you’ll be swept away into the world that isn’t so different from our own, but is just a version painted by brushstrokes of a vitally other existence.
Written by Erika S.
Another year and another semester have begun, bringing with them the usual battery of stress, mayhem, and occasional delight as we all transition into 2017. I personally believe that the best way to cushion such transitions is with a great book, and to that end I’d like to tell you guys about The Paper Menagerie.
Published in 2011 by author Ken Liu, this book generated a veritable storm of critical praise. It won two of the biggest awards in Science Fiction, the Hugo and the Nebula. I picked it up on a whim at my local bookstore this holiday (why is it that all of the really Earth-shattering books come to us by chance?) and it completely consumed my life in the best possible way.
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of fifteen short stories about life, science, and human connection. Like many great works of speculative fiction, it strikes out to the boundary dividing science and technology from spirituality and fantasy, blurring the distinctions to render a reality that is gritty, charming, often strange, and resoundingly human. Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a Sci-Fi fan, I can confidently say that there is something in these stories for you.
Although the collection as a whole is basically flawless, I had some stand-out favorites. There is pure hard-boiled goodness with a sharp techno-thriller twist in “The Regular”, which chronicles the efforts of a world-weary private investigator with a haunted past who will stop at nothing to bring justice to the victim of a brutal but publicly ignored murder. “State Change” switches gears to magic realism, portraying a society in which human beings carry their souls with them through life as physical objects that must be guarded and protected; in this harrowing world, a timid young woman seeks out warmth and companionship while straining to preserve her ice-cube soul. And in “The Waves," the ultimate fate of the human race is laid out poetically in an epic saga of deep-space exploration that challenges the meaning of human identity and love in the face of cosmic eternity.
It’s a truly beautiful collection that celebrates culture, history, science, and pretty much everything that makes life meaningful. If you do decide to pick up a copy of this wonderful book (I would offer up mine, but it’s already out on loan) feel free to hunt me down and tell me your favorites, too.
Written by Cara B.
I came across the poets Nesbit and Gibley (who describe themselves as “two old men who write poetry, short stories and other things”) while scrolling through my WordPress Recommendations. One of their poems, titled We Are Fragile Things, had gone viral. Intrigued, I explored the rest of their site. The poems below are just a few examples of the poignant poetry the pair have written (check out https://nesbitandgibley.com/ for more).
Poem #1: We Are Fragile Things
We Are Fragile Things acknowledges the great achievements of humans (“They’ve explored the deepest trenches, / Climbed the highest mountains, / Even travelled to the moon and back”) but notes that “we can be fragile things.” The use of “we” implicates us, as readers, as the humans the poem is talking about. We struggle with “death and accident,” but “we can be mended, / Healed by truth and trust.”
The last sentence of the poem is: “We are fragile things / Broken by loss and fixed with love.” The change from “we can be fragile things” to “we are fragile things” demonstrates that we cannot escape the struggles that life presents to us. We can, however, be “fixed with love” and the companionship of those around us.
We Are Fragile Things – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/09/23/we-are-fragile-things/
Poem #2: To Lighten The Load of Her Heavy Mind
The poem introduces a girl’s mental turmoil with the quote: “‘It’s not the world I endure, but myself.’” We quickly learn that her greatest enemy is herself; the girl struggles “to venture out for the newspaper” because even simple acts like that one apply “gravity / and pressure” to the girl’s “shoulders, / [and] to her beautiful mind.” The italicizing of “pressure” emphasizes the persistent burden to appear normal for other people, a new kind of struggle that the girl is “not quite used to.” Nevertheless, the poem reassures her—and us—that having a bad day is “not the end of the world.” In fact, it is perfectly normal.
To Lighten The Load of Her Heavy Mind – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/08/to-lighten-the-load-of-her-heavy-mind/
Poem #3: Wireless
Many of us are glued to our phones and our laptops. But the poem reminds us that we can—if we wanted to—leave “the mean glare of a white screen” and “fully embrace the magnificence of being human.” As humans, “we’re wonderfully wireless,” able to forge meaningful relationships without the use of man-made gadgets.
Wireless – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/01/wireless/
Poem #4: Milk
What happens when someone constant in your life passes away?
This poem brings an unexpected twist to that question by detailing the impact of a community milkman’s death on the residents, despite them “not knowing his name.” The loss of the milkman’s presence is seen in the doorsteps that remain “empty bottled,” but as the same time, life continues to go on. The repetition of “will” in the subsequent lines (“The trees will shed their leaves,” “the traffic lights will blink,” and “the sun will rise at dawn again”) also suggest that there is a constancy to look forward to. The poem ends on a hopeful note, saying that “tomorrow, there’ll be milk on our doorstep.”
Milk – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/11/milk/
Poem #5: We’ve Only Fleeting Minutes
The length of the poem (it’s only 6 lines) reflects its message—that we should live in the moment. Confronted with our fast-paced lives, we may think of pictures as the only way to “capture the moment before it ends.” But, as the speaker of the poem points out, we should let the moment end, for “that’s the beauty” of it all.
We’ve Only Fleeting Minutes – https://nesbitandgibley.com/2016/11/03/weve-only-fleeting-minutes/
Written by Evelyn Syau (’20)
In these times of stress and fatigue, I have found it exceedingly difficult to read for my own enjoyment. The things that inclined me to be an English major in the first place - those long nights wrapped up in the pages of another world - no longer seem open to me. There is simply too much to do. That essay, lab, or internship is just more important.
So, I want to use this writing space to bring up a piece by one of my favorite novelists: Isabel Allende’s “This I Believe” personal essay for NPR, called, “In Giving I Connect with Others.” In her essay, Allende details how her daughter’s untimely death led her to a revelation on how to live her life. Like many of us at Rice, Allende “lived with passion and in a hurry, trying to accomplish too many things.” However, when her daughter Paula died, everything stopped for her. Through a harrowing grieving process encompassing two years in which she reflected on her daughter’s life, Allende discovered a personal mantra to live by: You only become rich through spending yourself.
I think it is easy for us to get lost in the routine drama of life. When something like losing a loved one happens, it’s like getting a bucket of icy water to the face. All of a sudden, we see the bigger picture.
While Rice champions a culture of care, individual acts of kindness can still be forgotten in times of monumental stress. I have been guilty of this myself; when a friend was in need, I still chose to pursue my academics rather than support her. At a higher level institution like Rice, it is expected that people would need to spend more time focusing on academics. However, I think it is equally important to keep in mind that GPA and leadership positions are only a few small facets of life. When we focus in on things like grades, it is easy to become blind to the bigger workings of life and the people around us. Allende’s essay reaffirmed a tenet I always kept in the back of my mind: human relationships are the most important thing in this world. That’s probably a drastic and somewhat naïve thing to say, but it is something I see confirmed again and again in daily situations.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: while life is definitely stressful (especially with finals coming up), it may be beneficial to step back and see all the wonderful humans we have around us—and to be grateful for the relationships supporting us.
Also, if you want to read Isabel Allende’s personal essay, here it is: http://www.npr.org/2005/04/04/4568464/in-giving-i-connect-with-others
I highly recommend it ☺
Written by Jennifer F.
For the entirety of this semester, I have been trying to read one book (an ambitious goal for an English undergrad, I know). The book sits on my desk with a bookmark a laughable third of the way through. While I’ve finished more books this semester than I ever have, I can’t get through this one. The wrinkles around the crushed base of its spine look like a furrowed brow.
The book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I honestly can’t really offer a good summary (the Wikipedia page makes a good effort: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Leaves), but the bare bones of the story involve a mysterious death, Russian-nesting-doll-like layers of stories and their narrators, a lost documentary about a hallway, and a house that defies the laws of physics.
It belongs to a class of books termed “ergodic literature”. This format requires extra work on the part of the reader. You have to search through the piece to read it properly, perhaps skipping forward or backward, or turning the book around to see the words. In House of Leaves, this ergodic element comes in the form of misplaced text and footnotes. So many footnotes. Sideways footnotes, hidden footnotes, footnotes in different languages. Footnotes with their own footnotes, footnotes left by different narrators. Footnotes that spiral outwards from the center of the page, footnotes that are poems and pictures, footnotes that cite books that don’t exist.
That is what’s amazing about this book: it can’t be reduced. It is dependent on the format that it takes. The experience of reading it is so integral to what the book actually is that you can’t separate the two. It defies Cliffs Notes and eBook format. In an age that prizes convenience and digital, there is something so fascinating about forcibly returning to the analog. It feels like a new genre, yet it takes an almost old-fashioned approach.
I’m wading through the book at a snail’s pace. The plot and the format require it. It’s confusing and challenging and convoluted, but incredibly immersive. It makes me think about the physicality of reading. Searching through the footnotes makes me feel like part of the story. I am confused along with the characters. I explore the mystery with them. When they do research in the story, I do research, too. The confusing layers of narrators couple with this ergodic effect to blur the lines between the reader and the story to create something that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Reading in small chunks is new for me. I’m a self-professed speed reader. I can honestly say that I have never been so defeated by a book. But I really, really have enjoyed it. While reading slowly originated in my frustration, it has morphed into a kind of purposeful rationing. I like this story and I don’t want it to be over. I’m saving it, savoring it.
Reading in a new way and challenging myself has made me fall more in love with books all over again. A lot of times, I think we tend to limit ourselves when it comes to literature. We say “I like this kind of book” or “I read in this way” and then self-confirm by seeking out only what we know. But the experience of reading outside of your comfort zone is too good to pass up.
So if you feel stuck in a rut with your reading or writing, try something different! Try a new format. Read a different genre, or read in a different way. Think about the process and purpose of reading in a new way. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, pick up an ergodic novel. You won’t regret it.
Written by Megan G.
Now that autumn is upon us, what better time to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and some great speculative fiction? If you ever find yourself searching for a great new read, keep an eye out for the following titles:
A Tale of Love, Pain, and Sacrifice
What if you had the power to take away people’s pain and absorb it as your own? What if someone else could remove all your physical and emotional pain? Would you let them? What if you could live free of pain for the rest of your life?
It’s not often in which I come across a book that actually impacts me, a book that I’m unable to put down and even afterwards, I find myself overcome with emotion for days on end. Such a book that I had the privilege of reading is called Bruiser, a beautiful tale spun by the masterful storyteller Neal Shushterman. I came across it by complete chance after exploring the bookcases of my high school library in search of a new read and noticing its acqua-colored spine protruding from the shelves. This dark and twisting yet emotionally gripping story is chronicled from four characters’ perspectives: Tennyson, the athletic high school jock who is blinded by his arrogance; his twin sister, Brontë, who lets her sensitivity and romantic character influence her decisions; Bruiser, the loner at school whose large size and intimidating demeanor have led to his reputation as the school bully, a circle of rumors to constantly surround him, and a “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” vote by his peers; and finally his younger brother, Cody, who lives freely in a world of innocence. When Brontë decides to spend time with Bruiser and eventually date him, much to the school’s shock and Tennyson’s fury, she and Tennyson begin to learn more and more about Bruiser, ultimately shattering their preconceived judgments of him in ways that will haunt them. After discovering Bruiser’s horrifying secret and why he is known as “Bruiser” rather than his real name, Tennyson and Brontë, along with Bruiser himself and Cody, undergo a profound journey that none of them anticipated, one that will change the course of their lives forever.
This heartwarming yet thought-provoking book explores love, courage, pain, and trust. It is a journey of change, self-awareness, and above all self-sacrifice, in which the characters ponder questions about sacrifice and friendship. Shushterman forces his readers to think deeply about life, relationships, and how far one would be willing to go for love. What I found fascinating was how the characters’ distinct narrations effectively work together to create a believable, powerfully deep tale that make the characters come alive: Tennyson’s humorous and cocky attitude that changes as he transforms from cruel to caring, Brontë’s insistence that Bruiser is misunderstood and her naive desire to love and protect him that is tested by the harsh realities of life, and Cody’s exuberant words that offer a nostalgic reminder to the readers of their long-lost childhood innocence. But the ultimate power lies in Bruiser’s perspective, narrated in the form of free verse. The use of poetry adds a unique voice to the story, an artistic retelling of the world’s cruelties through a broken teenager’s lens. The poetry causes his sufferings and his attempts to comprehend why people treat each other the way they do to be incredibly relatable. It somehow makes the impossible seem believable.
Bruiser seems like a simple story of high school drama in the beginning, yet it almost immediately darkens and develops into so much more. It is a tale of what it means to have hope in a world that requires us to be constantly selfless. It is a story about the will to love, to break our boundaries and let love in, to learn what it means to love selflessly and to do what is right despite the consequences. The book also explores other issues - alcohol, divorce, and so many family and social issues that affect people, especially children, on a daily basis. Bruiser is painful to read at times yet upon finishing it, you will be left overcome with emotion and a rethinking of your entire life. While it will undeniably leave a bruise on your heart, it will be a marking of self-awareness, rediscovery, and a desire to reevaluate the world in a way that you’ll want to preserve forever.
Written by Sarah S.