Give Me Beauty or Give Me
Death: Understanding Trump’s
Nostalgia Through La La Land
– By Justine Poon|May 24, 2017
Photo credit: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/murrow/snow.htm
This is the text of a talk given in Canberra on 15 February 2017 for a ‘Philosophy in the Pub’ event at Smith’s Alternative.
The brief for tonight’s event was to talk about philosophy, and post-truth and populist politics. Well, what is there to say and what do I have to say? In terms of analysis I am almost paralysed by horror at what is happening, oscillating wildly between naïve hope and deep cynicism. Our history of violence, exclusion, division, and dehumanisation repeats itself and this time seems to have very little meaning beyond satisfying the ego of an overgrown toddler.
But are post-truth politics or appeals to populism even new? How many times has the wholesale exclusion of certain people been a rational, fact-based decision based on unbiased science and noble policy intentions? Can you actually call a group of people monsters and your own group unquestionably virtuous without that assertion being based on nothing but feelings and bullshit?
Of course not and many philosophers have engaged deeply with questions of how murderous and totalitarian politics can come about.
However, what might be useful is engaging with philosophy as a set of techniques and a way of thinking that diverts us away from our biases and despair. The situation may be banal and despairingly familiar but it is also present. There is a task at hand and that is thinking, despite the saturation of news, images, and distraction that try to get us to stop thinking.
So what I will do is to adopt a philosophical spirit – that is, to turn questions around and around as though they were objects and observing the different facets – to some topics that seem like diversions from the terror of our times but which will provide a way of looking at and thinking about the issues of post-truth and populist politics that perhaps gestures beyond despair. I want to talk about stories – different types of stories and how they function to efface our agency and the beauty and vitality of life, or to enhance and deepen our experience of living in the world surrounded by difference. And I wanted to use a diversionary tactic in looking at the way that narratives in film operate in order to open up analysis of how narratives of nostalgia are working in politics and what forms of narrative might be capable of resistance.
Diversions: La La Land and Jackie
La La Land and Jackie are films I’m sure many of you would have seen. They are both narratives of nostalgia but in very different ways.
Jackie’s story is one that tells us something about aesthetics and public storytelling – to be represented, you have to already be represent-able, that is you have to be a well-packaged narrative and a satisfying story that fits into a particular archetype. It is an off-kilter and elusive movie about the satisfying story of the Kennedy years in the White House and of the idealism, youthfulness and culture that ended up defining the short era. This story is so satisfying that it becomes a myth. The meta-story of the film could have run along the same lines and been something trite like: Jackie: Camelot’s First Lady, Her Inner Life and Secret Personality, which would have given the illusion of insight into her character, or, that most hackneyed of filmmaking terms, her “motivation.”
Thankfully, the film does something much more interesting than this.
In Jackie, the use of Mica Levi’s insistent, swirling, and disorientating score contributes a large part of the subversion of the Hollywood narrative that the film achieves and lifts it out of an idealised and corrosive nostalgia in the process. It is weird and unsettling, bringing the feeling of an unsettled psychological state to the fore, but through atmosphere, rather than through the vehicle of a character. The music is modern and urgent and living in a way that the music in La La Land is not.
The opening song of La La Land announces that these characters have no choice in the roles they are playing – they are archetypes and automatons for a dream that is being sold to us. The dream of La La Land is a death dream, a murderous dream and one that was told more honestly in Mulholland Drive over a decade ago. The performers in La La Land are meant to appear as earnest dreamers and the casting of the singularly charming Emma Stone certainly helps with both one’s enjoyment of the film and being drawn into the story. But death and ghostliness pervade every frame and by this, I mean a kind of necrosis – a foreclosure of possibility that seals their fates.
If you live a story of nostalgia, you become a ghost and are no longer living in the present. You commit yourself to the purity of an image and to achieving a stable, lasting resolution. The thread of the American dream, strongly linked to the Hollywood dream, where attractive, young, and white people can achieve everything they desire if they only stick to their dreams and never give up underlies the film. But what happens when the dream is achieved? Your face gets to be on a poster and your image outlasts you, perpetuating the cycle once again. The momentary second act troubles that the protagonists experience is that perhaps the world has moved on from their sincerity and commitment to the dream of nostalgia and they will have to find a different place within it than the one they had imagined. But then the narrative loops back and they find a way back into the glorious dream. In other words, they escape from life.
La La Land is a good argument that the aspiration for a pure past is a dream of death, and that even so Hollywood will keep selling the corpse, painted with a new layer of technicolour – the primary colours a cheery/garish symbolism of their inflexibility/necrosis towards mixing, adaptation, and change. Emma Stone’s character dreams of the golden age of cinema, the wall of her bedroom plastered with an old Ingrid Bergman film poster, and Ryan Gosling’s character has hubristic intentions of bringing jazz back to its roots and is resistant to change and adaptation – an attitude that his rival points out contradicts the spirit of jazz in the first place. Mulholland Drive is like the black mirror to La La Land, and an infinitely more affecting and honest film, which takes you into the dream and then kills it, rather than being an advertisement for all that death.
If we look at the structure of this narrative and how it deals with nostalgia more broadly, we can see how uncompromising attitudes towards reclaiming the past are only beautiful and heartening from the perspective of those who are allowed to achieve the dream. Nostalgia is exclusive to those who can see themselves succeeding by repeating the patterns of the past. I won’t go too much into the racial politics of the movie but suffice to say that we can already see the demonstration of who nostalgia is good for and who it isn’t good for. In uncompromisingly ignoring the reality of all the different bodies that exist with us, Trump’s desire for an uncompromising return to an uncomplicated past where America is Great Again executes itself through discriminatory measures aimed at excluding those who do not fit the nostalgic narrative. This is precisely nostalgia’s death character – there are roles to play, roles to fulfil and then there are those who ruin the scenery. The masks of the set roles of the Romantic Heroine or the Noble Hero may be suffocating for those allowed to wear them, but for those who do not appear in the story at all, it can be murder when these nostalgic dreams lay the ground for legal and governmental action.
Jackie, in contrast, shows that to come alive on film is to always remain somewhat elusive. It is a story about nostalgia and how it is constructed, but is itself fairly indifferent towards nostalgia.
The woman must remain elusive in order to resist being captured into someone else’s story. In the film, Jackie bluntly asks her priest what people see when they look at her now. Her tone is cold and angry in her question as well as in her response to his response that people see her dignity and they may still feel desire towards her as a beautiful, still young woman. The journalist character claims that for 3 days after the assassination of John F Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy was the mother of the nation that the country needed. However, we do not see much of this in the film – only the trepidation and the sheer fear of most of the men in not knowing what to do with this widow who is no longer the First Lady. Her former role of being a reliable trophy wife was shattered and she becomes something else – a figure of haunting redundancy to the new administration, but also someone whose vitality cannot be denied to those who are watching the film. Her pain and suffering are undeniable, and ironically give the character life in a way that scenes of her fulfilling her former role do not. The film shows one image – the ordained role of devoted wife and object of beauty – melting away almost instantly into nothing, whilst showing how this presents a mixed blessing in freeing her up to construct her narrative the way that she wants it.
Jackie, the character, unsettles the men around her and Jackie the film doesn’t give us final or definitive answers as to whether this is a good story or a bad story, a good life or a bad life. What it does is to constantly open up what that particular moment of grief and loss might look like.
In an analysis of the differences between Japanese fairytales and what are generally presumed to be the given archetypal stories in Western culture, Marie Matsuki Mockett talks about how Japanese fairytales often have no clear ending or reward for the protagonist, only a melancholy sense of beauty left after an encounter with the world of sprits that is inevitably lost. This is in contrast to Western narratives where the hero gets a reward at the end, such as a marriage, a victory, or a fundamental realisation. The Reward is often identity – finding a lasting and stable place of Belonging; gaining the true measure of the self. The audience’s reward is a satisfying identification with a character who they feel they know.
Jackie ultimately leaves us with an unsettled “beautiful image” – that of a person which the film refuses to pin down and that of a film that resists becoming possessed by nostalgia for the period. In remaining elusive, the film becomes alive in making us present to both beauty and terror. La La Land give the characters over to myth – they succeed, but only because they aspired to be exactly as things were in their imagined past, which is an option that very few people in the world actually have.
These structures of narrative are being enacted now in politics. Nostalgia is not the only story being spun but it is one of the more powerful ones. Its power lies in drawing people over to a story of how the past was better, which becomes much more important than facts and much more important than the lives of others, because if the past was better then it is imperative that we return to it at once.
Why talk about narratives? Do narratives matter in an age of post-truth politics?
We’ve seen laws made based on that dangerous and heady combination of nostalgia, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur before, even in very recent times. What the contrast between these two film narratives show is that trading on nostalgia is an empty exercise that tries to pin people down into known and pre-determined orders and has no space for those who do not fit the narrowly prescribed roles.
How law and narrative interact is that law can become a means of giving force to particular narratives. Stories take on a life in the law. In the legal realm, language is material, metaphors become real, and the construction of subjects and objects in language create the entities that law then plays with. Language matters because it simultaneously conveys an understanding of what the conditions of the world are and creates that world. To dwell on symbolism, representation, and the crimes of language to the exclusion of other outrages against the material conditions of life may be counterproductive in other areas of activism, but in legal analysis, it is vital to understanding the full extent of law’s domain, and how it is that things are ordered within that domain.
It can be death by a thousand definitions when those with power dehumanise, devalue, and cast suspicion on you. What matters is not even whether most people believe the politicians when they say that “x-people will steal your jobs and are illiterate and criminal and etc”, but that they are creating and broadcasting particular assumptions about the world, which they can then use to build policy and legal changes consistent with that world view. Facts, in the structure of nostalgic narrative, don’t stand in the way of a good story.
The Trump immigration executive orders emphasises danger, security, and the President as the figure who can ultimately protect citizens of the United States from foreign nationals who come in, intending to commit terror. In a traditional story, if there is only one hero, then everyone who goes against them is the villain. In this case, the narrative emphasises the President’s role as one of strength and protection of the nation, and from this basis, the orders to ban immigrants coming in from particular countries is laid down.
“Make America Great Again” is a slogan for the nostalgic bent of this administration, headed by the strong man who will allegedly uncompromisingly move towards this goal, no matter what that means for the other lives and stories who are inconveniently in the way.
This is La La Land – if you replaced the bristly Ryan Gosling trying to save jazz with a plucky, old billionaire who is convinced that the old way and his way of doing things is better. He convinces the nation (Emma Stone) so successfully that she ends up being the one to hold him to the dream when he falters by considering other, more conciliatory ways of doing things. Of course, I am being facetious here, but the broader point is that putting a deconstructive lens to the narratives we are given help us to think through them when they are trying to distract and seduce us.
Australia has its own examples. From the way in which a mythic idea of sovereign borders has been built up into the ground from which all immigration law must be made, to Peter Dutton’s comments last year about immigrants being illiterate and innumerate and stealing our jobs at the same time, this rhetoric is impervious to fact but consistent narratively.
And this brings me to a final thought, which is about what kinds of representations and narratives should we be seeking? Do they matter at all?
There is a kind of cliché that narratives and stories can help us to understand and build empathy and that that will be enough to cure all human conflicts and tensions. This both overstates the work of narrative and understates the many other things it does other than instigate a perfectly moral universe. For one thing, they can also instigate a scene of violence that masquerades as a scene of nostalgic perfection. For another thing, reducing narrative to empathetic function misses a lot of their potential to unsettle the stories that we already live with in day to day life.
I contrasted the La La Land and Jackie because they both ostensibly marketed nostalgia. But what was more interesting about Jackie was that in representing the construction of nostalgia, it resisted the foreclosure of that narrative. That is, it resisted limiting the potential meaning of the movie down to one overarching, fateful narrative about Jackie Kennedy. The elusiveness of the film and the way it kept unfolding different angles on grief, show one possible way that narrative can itself critique the drive towards totalising narratives that are resolved and satisfying.
The opposite of a heroic nostalgia story isn’t another story making someone else the hero and someone else the villain. To challenge the murderous impulse of nostalgia in politics, we need different forms of story altogether.
Justine Poon is doing an interdisciplinary PhD at the ANU College of Law and manages the Law Reform and Social Justice program. She writes things and occasionally makes films.