I’ve been interested in Kusama’s films since I read a piece on Vox a few months ago (VICE did a piece also) discussing the critical reevaluationJennifer’s Body (2009) has undergone, shifting away from the expectations of male critics and audiences (and box office), towards a more feminist perspective.
Kusama achieves something similar within a different genre: taking tropes of male power fantasy – crime, heist, neo-noir, action drama – and morphing them into Nicole Kidman’s protagonist, Erin. Kidman has always given powerhouse performances, but here she’s a broken, bruised, damaged mom who has endured so much pain – unable to live outside of criminality; but never does she become rugged, masculine, functionally invulnerable.
In one scene, where a terminally ill man – perhaps someone who has become hurt by coming into her path? – forces Erin to perform masturbation on him (not unlike the coercive, needs driven scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)) in order to receive information – becoming more demanding (asking for her to unbutton her shirt, and spit on his penis) – as the scene progresses, ending as she wipes his semen across the bedspread. It’s in scenes like this we understand the paradigm shift this genre has undergone by placing a female director and lead within this story. There’s a different set of expectations both to audiences and the characters within the film’s world.
She’s a mom who wants the best for her 16 year old daughter, Shelby – not to be lured on by older men who don’t see themselves as statutory rapists, and pushes her into a world of violence and danger. A minor who doesn’t realise she’s vulnerable – and also still a minor – just a girl with gaps in her memory. Though the trope of seeing a teenager daughter in peril is well-worn, here it’s different, and delivers a grounded and fundamental core to the film’s narrative and Erin’s character.
She’s a lonely, silent driver – maybe a Travis Bickle, or the Driver, or Baby. The film is so incredibly well executed – shots of Los Angeles highways and murals, creating a snapshot of the location; drifting landscapes as the car moves across the highway; dollar bills smeared in purple; a close attention to detail whenever Erin uses weaponry, or a kid in the store notices the bleeding gunshot upon a woman’s leg. The fading irises upon Erin’s face within the car. Annapurna might have had a number of unfortunate commercial but I’m so glad for every film they fund and put out there.
The controversial success of Scarface (1983) had been a struggle for Brian De Palma, thanks to its excessive language and violence. Having worked with Columbia on Obsession (1976), De Palma found himself with a 3-picture deal never fulfilled, though he would later produce Casualties of War (1989) with Columbia. Body Double self-reflexively explores the medium of film and the male gaze. In the opening, we’re confronted with artifice: sunset backdrops, smoke machines, a melodramatic angel in a graveyard. The typography in the title card bears no relation to the film itself: vampiric red and white cast against a desert backdrop. Made up in white hair, make-up and black leather, claustrophobic actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is unrecognisable as the camera moves out, a fire breaking out on set. The director, Rubin (Dennis Franz), is a clear analogue to De Palma, wearing a jacket and bearded haircut emulating De Palma’s own aesthetic. Blow Out (1981)’s opening used a similar technique: we follow a pornographic sex party through the gaze of a slasher villain, moving into the cutting room as Jack Terry applies foley effects.
Borrowing a house from Sam (Gregg Henry), filmed from the Chemosphere on Hollywood Hills, Jake is an antecedent to Jeff in Rear Window (1954). In Rear Window, Jeff observed neighbours from his Greenwich Village apartment, constructing a narrative from what he could see with his eyes. The telescope acts as the lens of the camera: Jake watches Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) undressing, drinking wine and dancing, spreading her legs and ogling her breasts. Jake controls focus; the telescope is mobile, scanning across the widescreen apartment. Pino Donaggio’s score emphasises idolisation and fantasy, combining erotic synths with a female voice, playing as a music video we cannot look away from. Cinematographer Stephen H Burum allows voyeurism through design: looking through the window, our gaze is limited by blinds, a visual motif repeated in the red-tinged poster and the minimalistic black-and-white lines across the walls of the apartment.
Brought back into reality by Sam, Jake moves back into the video, watching The House is Burning by Vivabeat (1979) from bed, providing the answer to what Talking Heads asked with Burning Down the House (1983). We enter another music video as Jake drifts back to the telescope with erotic desire, joined by Donaggio’s score. De Palma introduces the Rear Window element in silence: a man breaks a safe, moving back to the girl crying. Unlike Hitchcock, De Palma uses the apartment as unifying pillars: Jake has no broken leg; he is free to move. De Palma reconfigures our gaze from the perspective of the Indian; we are ourselves being watched. Jake’s set-built apartment, in its black leather, red highlights and blue and pink neon lights is as artificial as the apartment in Rope (1948), raising a toast to the skyline. The bed is extravagant, spinning next to the TV and phone; plants are maintained as a superfluous addition; a fish tank in pillars. Los Angeles’ nighttime city – its joggers and satellite dishes – has a stillness.
The dizzying enclosed atrium of the Rodeo Collection celebrates consumerism in its endless elevator and multiple entrances, facilitating Jake’s stalker gaze: he watches Gloria in the changing room mirror through the window, moving to the other side when noticed by a clerk. DePalma’s split focus dioptre emphasises this relationship with the gaze: positioning both Jake and the clerk in focus, De Palma allows us to use our eyes for ourselves and examine what we choose to see.
De Palma’s cinematic deconstruction is equally structural. De Palma creates a tragic ending for an archetypal hero: buried alive, soil falling into unending blackness. De Palma emphasises artificiality, creating stylised depth as only the frame can be seen from deep within. We move onto the set, dragged into the fantasy-yet-real world, descending waves of the smoke machines paralleling the waterfalls of the Los Angeles aqueduct system. Jake’s claustrophobia reflects the forgotten side of acting: sheer terror, running from one failed audition for the Shakespeare festival as Jake tries to find a way in, finding his “inner self”. In a tight, claustrophobic close-up, framed inside a rectangular compartment, De Palma moves back inside the film, as buzzers signal a new take and Rubin’s camera moves towards us. The film’s ‘reality’ is comprised of implausible tropes: the Indian a rubber mask, torn in half. The heroic actions of the dog, reprising his role from White Dog (1982), moves into melodramatic film logic as the man falls to his death in the reservoir.
De Palma moves out once more into an even more artificial world for the closing credits. As he tells in the featurette The Mystery, this scene had been the opening, but was moved to allow the thematic duality to develop more slowly. De Palma was inspired by the explicit shower scene in the opening to Dressed to Kill (1980), recalling the rapid cutting of the murder mid-way through Psycho (1960) whilst pushing extremes into full-frontal nudity and masturbation. Where Hitchcock showed through implication, De Palma showed, whilst evading pornography. We move through a window, surrounded by bats; Jake returns to his role as vampire. The scene is held as the body double, Mindy, is moved into position, sexuality dissipated by the mechanics of cinema: touched up by make-up assistants; sound equipment moving across; Mindy confesses she’s been on her period recently. Rubin and De Palma’s camera becomes so focused on the gaze it becomes parody: the camera focuses entirely on Mindy’s breasts; as blood runs down, kinkiness is replaced with sheer terror. The camera pans across the production crew: Rubin tries to think; the crew seem equally bored.
Jake embodies a trait familiar to many De Palma and Reagan-era protagonists: a sense of conspiracy. Going back to Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), De Palma creates constant pursuit, tied to the identity and fate of a woman. He drives, watched from across the street; in the elevator, tension heightens as people in gym clothes fill up next to him. De Palma hated the chase sequence’s tracking shots and clichés, but it underlines the question of who is following who? Jake is treated with continual doubt by Detective McLean (Guy Boyd), dubbing him “Hollywood’s busiest sex offender”, just as Kate contends with institutional sexism in Dressed to Kill, Jack’s audio tapes in Blow Out and Eriksson fights against a military allowing sexual abuse of Vietnamese women to occur in Casualties of War (1989). Jake’s paranoia is at home with John Nada’s uncovering of corporate messages through sunglasses in They Live (1988) and Bill Whitney uncovering his family’s high society lives in Beverly Hills through a cassette tape in Society (1989). Like Nada and Whitney, Scully’s reality blends with hallucinations. In the corridor by the beach, this is most clear: Jake is almost debilitated as it fills with light; chasing after Holly (Melanie Griffith) in a Ford Bronco, hit by the red lights of a police car, he witnesses her whacked by a crowbar. In flashbacks, reality unravels as he finds greater clarity, but there remains mystery.
De Palma isn’t just interested in the film industry: he’s interested in the porn industry. Like cinema, pornography seduces us with images on both an aesthetic and value-oriented level. Though porn carries shame, taboo and censorship, it’s normal. As De Palma comments of the anti-porn movement in a 1984 interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment (republished in Indicator’s booklet), “If you can’t prevent me from smoking cigarettes then you can’t prevent me from buying porn.” The lines between cinema and porn have always been blurred, from arthouse cinema, schlock and grindhouse, experimental artists like Andy Warhol and more recent films like Shortbus (2006) and Love (2015) that use unsimulated sex for narrative means. In Body Double, De Palma is interested in examining a Hollywood underworld existing in plain sight, like the Fleur-de-Lis escort service in L.A. Confidential (1997) and the death of Misty Mountains and the hunt for a film reel in The Nice Guys (2016). Hollywood has its share of secrets, from assaults to illicit affairs, queer relationships kept out of view. Here, porn actors have their own fight for union rights: an actor complains at the desk for being more than a “stunt cock”; the Adult Film Group proudly displays hits in a row of posters.
De Palma’s exploration of the porn industry is shaped by the emergence of VHS, beyond the limitations of physical film; Jake asks behind the counter in Tower Records for a porn tape. From his apartment, De Palma creates a frame within a frame: he watches Linda in close-up, rubbing her breasts and taking off her bra. Linda takes sexual satisfaction from her openness to voyeurism: she confesses to being an exhibitionist (or expositionist), saying how “excited” she gets when she knows “they’re all out there watching me”. Like the hallucinatory BDSM broadcast on CIVIC-TV in Videodrome (1983), De Palma questions the sexual images reaching our own living rooms. Jake reacts passively, desensitised, drinking alcohol to get through it. De Palma places us within the curved edges and scan-lines, watching a commercial for the voyeuristic Holly Does Hollywood. We follow through in a one-take shot, scanning across the set. A window is closed, to avoid an onlooker; crewmembers hang around with sound equipment; make-up is applied. Holly Body dances to music entirely in her element, a tattoo on her butt, as though no camera is watching. Her body is detached, evoking “Hollywood Boulevard”. The pull quotes are equally revealing, with positive reviews from Hustler; Eros Magazine declares it as “The GONE WITH THE WIND of Adult Films”. Holly Does Hollywood isn’t just porn; in its hyperbolic façade, it seeks to be cinema. De Palma revels in stretching the limit of film titles: Deep Ghost, The Mating Game, One Night at a Time, Bold Obsession, Star Whores. De Palma used real porn actors, adding a layer of authenticity. As he comments in the featurette The Seduction, he dissuaded women from auditioning from the film to avoid affecting their career; Melanie Griffith tested out with a porno queen, capturing the right movements on screen.
De Palma makes his self-reflexivity most explicit when he takes us within a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video for Relax. Every time Relax is played on the radio, it bemuses me, a sexualised piece of excesses and orgasms. The MTV Generation reshaped youth culture ever since Video Killed the Radio Star (1979) was broadcast in 1981, creating a new medium for the industry beyond concert films and promo videos. We’re walked inside the set of the grand staircase of a house, miming along. The aesthetic epitomises the 80s: on multiple levels, there’s punk couples dancing; leather costumes; people fucking; drinking at the bar. Jake is dressed as a total dork; his expression of total shock. Crew are caught behind in the mirror as Jake watches Holly enter; the crew comments that it isn’t Last Tango in Paris (1972). De Palma cuts out of the video to reality, before returning to the orgasmic climax. In the underworld, Jake takes on a false identity as porn producer, grooming his hair and wearing a leather jacket, taking Holly back.
De Palma’s films repeatedly explore female sexuality, from the problematic, phallic disempowerment of murderous trans woman Bobbi and Kate’s experience sexually assaulted on the subway in Dressed to Kill, to Eriksson’s rejection of masculine peer pressure and the dehumanisation of women in Casualties of War. Through the industry, De Palma offers another lens into how we view female sexuality. Speaking in the featurette The Controversy, De Palma brushes off complaints of sexism; Shelton argues she had agency, and that she couldn’t judge it from “what I believe moralistically in my own life”. The Indian’s penetrating drill has a phallic quality of male domination, an aspect De Palma comments in the Film Comment interview as a twist on the murder mystery in a world of “electrical instruments”. Body Double becomes almost a slasher: he strangles her with the phone line, Jake on the other end. De Palma uses awkward humour, the plug coming out of the socket, utilising comedic gore, the drill dripping with blood through the ceiling.
Jake is introduced in romantic devotion, driving in happiness; at home, pictures proudly frame his love for Carol (Barbara Crampton) and their dog. De Palma is frank, creating a tragic punchline: he walks in on her fucking another man. But from the moment we’re introduced to Jake drinking shots at the bar, he remains unlikable and distasteful. His pursuit of Gloria carries unrelenting creepiness: he recovers her underwear from the trash, following to the beach and erotically embracing to Donaggio’s romantic score. Rehearsing to the telephone later on, he won’t leave her alone, telling her he’s the “guy that almost fucked you at the beach today.” De Palma is interested in sexual duality between Gloria and Holly, blurring their identities into one: as he places his hands on Holly’s butt, De Palma intercuts with Jake with Gloria on the beach. De Palma embraces Hitchcock as a cinematic language. Commenting in The Seduction, De Palma wanted to create a “meditation” on the “elusive, beautiful, evocative woman character” of Vertigo. The artificiality of the 360-degree rear projection soundstage spin feels most clearly Hitchcock, rotating against a plate of the background on a soundstage.
Though Body Double is far from the height of De Palma’s career, it’s a strong effort crossing between genres and styles with multiple themes to explore.
Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlightand Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.
Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.
In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.
Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.
La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.
The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.
In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.
Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.
JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).
Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.
Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.
Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.
Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining”. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.
Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.
Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams”, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.
In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.
Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.
Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:
Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?
Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.
The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.
Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.