A critique of La La Land and Casablanca.

Why are these movies important, and what do they tell us about film?

Humans love to tell stories, and this has enabled visual storytelling to become a hallmark of modern-day society.

Film is an incredibly illustrative medium. Using various elements of film and distinctive techniques, this is a medium that can evoke a range of emotion in its viewers. It’s a medium that enables audiences to be transported to far away galaxies, and moments later find themselves in the living room of an 80-year-old widow. All this and more is achieved through clever decisions made by cast, crew, director and editor. The purpose of this critique is to compare and contrast two Hollywood films through the lenses of narrative and production context in an effort to discover how these two screen texts successfully generate meaning for their audiences. Casablanca is a film about love and sacrifice that still brings audiences to tears almost 80 years after its original release. It will be analysed along with La La Land, a dreamlike homage to old-age Hollywood and the romantic hit musicals of the 40s and 50s, set in modern-day, traffic-filled and dream-powered Los Angeles.

Both La La Land and Casablanca present their narratives by utilising a non-linear scene structure. The two chosen films, though both embracing this non-linear structure, approach their scene orientation differently. Both films employ the narrative device of a ‘flashback’ to share with their audiences’ past events that impact those occurring during the film. The use of a flashback, instead of displaying the events in sequential order, allows for the creation of different scene perception comparative to what might have otherwise been felt. La La Land is a film about the trials of falling in love and pursuing your passions and the order in which its story events are told mimic that of an exciting but overall tumultuous relationship.

Editor Tom Cross spoke on his choices regarding the order of scenes, stating that he wanted to “editorially express the fever pitch of being in love.” (Desowitz, 2016) Russell Kilbourn, associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, writes in his article ‘Memory and the Flashback in Cinema’ that the “repertoire of techniques that have developed historically for cinematic narration include… the manipulation of time, or story chronology, through such devices as the flashback.” (Kilbourn, 2013) This is expanded on further by Marc Furstenau, an associate professor of film studies, “The flashback in classical ‘Hollywood’ film style… functions primarily to maintain temporal, spatial, and narrative coherence.” (Furstenau, 2012)

In the case of Casablanca, we have yet another film about a man and a woman in love- this time contrasted against a world at war and surrounded by people who’ve had to abandon their home countries in the interest of freedom and safety. The film would be considered a linearly constructed film if not for a single flashback, designed to showcase to the audience Ilsa and Rick’s love affair in Paris. The Hollywood Reporter’s original 1942 film review reads, “the girl and Rick met and loved in Paris, details of their romance being projected in flashback.” (Hollywood Reporter, 1942) It’s a clever way to sneak in a romance that until this point in the film, the audience isn’t aware of. This contrasts with La La Land’s approach to telling its own story, where there are montages, flashbacks and imagined futures all in a non-linear jumble.

The narrative in both of these films echo each other, some going as far as considering La La Land to be a Casablanca remake (Desowitz, 2017), yet their approach to generating meaning for their audiences are entirely different. Both films addressed in this critique embrace the use of flashback and non-linear storytelling to share information with their audiences without losing narrative coherence.

La La Land and Casablanca are both films about romance and sacrifice, but the production context for each of these films is unique. La La Land’s director-writer Damian Chazelle is quoted as saying that La La Land is a movie about movies, and a movie about the arts. (Robinson, 2016) He wanted to take his love of film, of Hollywood and all the good and bad intrinsically linked within it, and create a cohesive, technicolour dreamworld. He wanted to explore and subvert those oft seen expectations of what it’s like to be young and in love and trying to build a career in the mildly intoxicating, glittery and complicated world of Los Angeles. The film is finely tuned to remind us of the delights of the past and the fruitful opportunities of the present. (Bugeja, 2016)

Chazelle faced numerous challenges surrounding the creation of this film. He wrote the script in 2010 in concert with his composer and producers in a sort of ping pong fashion, each of them bouncing ideas back and forth and writing their contributions off of each other’s work. He then had to put the project aside to work on his breakout film Whiplash while he waited for someone to see La La Land’s potential and pick it up. The complications didn’t stop at pre-production, however. Many shots in this film, especially those of the important musical numbers, are single long shots. These presented their own troubles, but as a further complication, many of these scenes relied on “specific times of day, sunsets, or certain daylight hours, or magic hour.” (Robinson, 2016) This put pressure on the cast and crew to ensure choreography was learned before arriving onsite because they had severe practical limitations regarding leeway while shooting.

In a musical, everything is intrinsically linked. Instead of simply writing a script and shooting a movie, one has to consider choreography, musical score, costuming and location as elements that are equally important and that all affect each other. Chazelle has said he and his cast and crew struggled because a change in one department would ‘ripple down to all other departments.’ (Robinson, 2016) Chazelle worried that this could straight-jacket both himself and his actors and prevent them from suggesting changes. This was a battle fought throughout the creation of La La Land, to allow for creative freedom and the potential for change without losing sight of what they were trying to create.

Editing La La Land took around a year post-shooting and was completed with director and composer by the editor’s side. A ‘temp score’ was never used in order to ensure the musical backdrop to the film lent itself to the dreamy and romantic shots. (Robinson, 2016) Musical numbers and various scenes were repeatedly shifted, dropped and re-added in the editing process in order to create the vision in Chazelle’s head- one of a mènage à trois between his two star crossed lovers and the congested, dirty, unabashedly romantic city of Los Angeles.

Comparatively, the production context of Casablanca is complicated in entirely different ways to that of La La Land. As Roger Ebert put it in his 1996 review of the film, “No one making “Casablanca” thought they were making a great movie.” (Ebert, 1996) The movie had an undeniably fantastic cast, but no one thought it would have the enduring success and connection with audiences through the ages that it has had. “The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set.” (Ebert, 1996) The film follows two lovers torn apart by war, then thrown together and faced with a dilemma of their love versus the greater good.

It’s no wonder the film has managed to resonate with so many, despite being created during an era of great complications the world over- it has something for everyone to relate to. The film, made about and by refugees, takes a clear anti-Nazi stance. This was a position anathema to many other studios at the time, and it deftly addressed political issues relevant to the time without featuring them so directly as to garner abject criticism. (Bart, 2017) As Variety’s 1942 Casablanca review reads, “Film [Casablanca] is splendid anti-Axis propaganda, particularly inasmuch as the propaganda is strictly a by-product of the principal action and contributes to it instead of getting in the way.” (Variety, 1942) Casablanca addressed current issues of the time in which it was made whilst ensuring its political commentary didn’t get in the way of its story.

In conclusion, both Casablanca and La La Land are romantic dramas exploring the themes of love and sacrifice. Casablanca addresses issues such as the refugee crisis of the 1940s, as well as crime, love and loss in Nazi-era Casablanca. It evolved from a haphazardly rewritten screenplay into a film featuring actors from across the globe that resonates with audiences worldwide nearly 80 years later. It utilises a non-linear structure to detail it’s narrative and generate meaning for its audience. Similarly, La La Land has an equally interesting, though not as politically charged, element of production context. It also explores the format of a non-linear sequence of events through the use of montages, flashbacks and time skips. Both films have been undeniably successful and remain favourites for moviegoers and critics alike.

Reference List:

Bart, P. (2017). ‘Casablanca’, The Classic Love Story & Refugee Saga, Takes On New Meaning In Era Of Travel Bans. Deadline. Retrieved 23 April 2020, from https://deadline.com/2017/03/casablanca-movie-new-meaning-donald-trump-travel-ban-1202044848/.

Bugeja, N. (2016). La La Land: yesterday and today. Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Retrieved 23 April 2020, from https://www.acmi.net.au/ideas/read/la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-analysis/.

Desowitz, B. (2016). Oscars 2017: Editors on Bold Storytelling in ‘La La Land,’ ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and More. IndieWire. Retrieved 22 April 2020, from https://www.indiewire.com/2016/12/la-la-land-manchester-by-the-sea-editors-oscars-2017-1201758758/.

Desowitz, B. (2017). ‘La La Land’: How Damien Chazelle Captured the Bittersweet Romance of ‘Casablanca’. IndieWire. Retrieved 22 April 2020, from https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/la-la-land-damien-chazelle-romance-casablanca-1201774474/.

Ebert, R. (1996). Casablanca movie review & film summary (1942) | Roger Ebert. Rogerebert.com. Retrieved 23 April 2020, from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-casablanca-1942.

Furstenau, M. (2012). Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema (review). University of Toronto Quarterly. 81. 764–765. 10.1353/utq.2012.0056.

Kilbourn, R. (2013). Memory and the Flashback in Cinema. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 April 2020, from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0182.xml.

Robinson, T. (2016). Writer-director Damien Chazelle explains how his movie La La Land subverts the things he loves most. The Verge. Retrieved 23 April 2020, from https://www.theverge.com/2016/12/7/13862752/la-la-land-damien-chazelle-interview-ryan-gosling-emma-stone.

The Hollywood Reporter. (1942) ‘Casablanca’: THR’s 1942 Review. The Hollywood Reporter. (1942). Retrieved 22 April 2020, from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/casablanca-review-1942-movie-752498.

Variety. (1942). Casablanca. Retrieved 23 April 2020, from https://variety.com/1942/film/reviews/casablanca-2-1200413952/.

A comprehensive sample of work from a local Queensland communications student.