The two movies that squared off against each other for February’s Oscar for Best Picture could not be more different. The first contender, Moonlight, is a moving, grimly realistic film directed by Barry Jenkins about a young man’s struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his identity as he comes of age in a difficult, drug-infested region of Miami. The second contender, La La Land, is a bittersweet, delightfully fantastic musical directed by Damien Chazelle about two young artists (Emma Stone, playing an actress, and Ryan Gosling, playing a pianist) struggling to realise their dreams in a city (Hollywood) that crushes more dreams than it fulfils. La La Land, filled with catchy music, exhilarating dance numbers, and a gorgeous colour palette, is a charming, at times enchanting diversion that is an homage to the good old-fashioned Singin’ in the Rain-style escapist Hollywood musical. Moonlight is almost the dictionary-definition—if such a thing exists in the movie dictionary (perhaps there’s an entry for this term in Roger Ebert’s old Little Movie Glossary)—of an ‘anti-escapist’ film: it is completely authentic in every way imaginable. La La Land, in what immediately became the most famous moment in the history of the Academy Awards, was mistakenly announced as the 2017 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, but it was Moonlight that actually walked home with this most coveted of all movie industry awards.
La La Land (spoiler alert) ends with a whimsically conceived ‘alternate ending’ in which everything works out perfectly for Sebastian and Mia—but of course, in the ‘real life’ of the movie, it doesn’t: Sebastian and Mia don’t live happily ever after together. Life, as the film knows so well—and so beautifully and touchingly depicts—inevitably disappoints. Even if it seems as if things do turn out happily ever after in La La Land —Mia lands her dream career and a loving family; Sebastian gets his dream job—the alternate ending reveals that they both would have been much happier if they had stayed together and had worked toward their respective dream careers while supporting one another. But it didn’t happen—they drifted apart. The real did not live up to their ideal.
This is why La La Land is one of the greatest films of recent memory: it humanely affirms the universal human element of inevitable sorrow and disappointment that is at the heart of all our enterprises. Beneath the perfunctorily cheerful, contented exterior that society usually compels us to don like a too-tight-fitting clown mask is an interior welter of melancholy and sadness. Lift up these masks and you can glimpse the silent, secret mourning that — save for a few rare individuals — we each engage in on account of the loss of our dreams, our vanished hopes, and our unfulfilled desires. We are each capable of so much, and each of us desires to do so much, but the harsh limits of life ineluctably constrict our possibilities. The sages of the Talmud understood this well, acknowledging that ‘no person dies having fulfilled half his desires.’ One may have desired to be an art gallery owner living in a three-car-garage house San Francisco; when one instead ends up a schoolteacher living in a three-bedroom apartment in New York with a compatible spouse, even though it seems like everything has ‘worked out’ for this person on the surface, deep down lies a reservoir of suppressed sadness on account of not having achieved one’s desires. Our personal happily-ever-after ending hasn’t been fulfilled, and we silently mourn, in the recesses of our minds, over our unfulfilled desires — silently and privately, because it is not considered socially acceptable to be sad when it appears to others as if one is fulfilled. And yet we are not fulfilled — most of us who appear to have stable jobs and steady relationships actually carry a real sense of melancholy with us which we’re afraid of expressing because it won’t be validated as a ‘worthy’ type of sadness to have. Henry David Thoreau aptly encapsulated this acute psychological predicament when he famously wrote, ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them’ — our desperation is ‘quiet,’ because to others it would seem petty to talk about one’s sadness over not having become that star sports announcer or best-selling cookbook author one dreamed of when one has a stable job as regional sales manager for a national department store chain. Sadness is permitted for those who have suffered major, Manchester By the Sea-scale tragedies, society tells us, not for those have endured minor La La Land type sorrows.
What is worse is that because of our infinite imaginative capacities it is so easy for us to visualise the ideal alternative to our present lives — the dream job, the perfect partner, the romantic reunion with the high school sweetheart. Whatever it is we desire, our minds concoct lush, vibrant fantasies for ourselves, much like the alternate ending constructed for Mia and Sebastian in La La Land. That our real lives almost never measure up to our ideal lives — and the silent sadness on account of these unfulfilled hopes that we are so skilled at suppressing — is as much a part of real life as is anything else.
We hope and dream for something wonderful, and this dream is so tantalisingly real that, like Mia and Sebastian, we can picture it happening in all its technicolor vividness, only to have this beautiful dream crushed, shattered by the cruel imperfections of mortal life.
And then, at the Oscars, life imitated art in the most surreal of ways imaginable: La La Land was announced as Best Picture Winner. Everything works out perfectly: the beautiful dream is made real, the impossible hope comes to fruition, the — no…of course the beautiful dream wasn’t real. It never was. It was always too fantastical to be true. The ending in which La La Land wins Best Picture was the too-perfect ‘alternate ending.’ In reality, things don’t work out: dreams are shattered; hopes are crushed; earthly imperfections overtake imagined wonders.
But we smile, if we can, at those (like the Moonlight cast and crew) for whom it does somehow miraculously work out, and take solace in the fact that we have art — our hopes, our yearnings, and our impossible, unrealisable dreams that, as Henry James wrote, complete (but do not represent) our incomplete lives — for just such moments.