Lewis in LaLaLand: Joy and Longing in Film

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City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see
Who knows?
Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?

Young, hopeful, maybe even star-crossed, lovers, Sebastian and Mia, dance, sing and act their way through the recent blockbuster film, La La Land, but this question haunts them throughout.  It haunts them as they seek their place in the world; or, in a word, as they seek significance.  It is the world of Hollywood, where life seems to be, well, at least slightly larger than life.  The vivacious, “vervy”, but alas, sadly melancholic, musical score pulls us into their drama; but their drama is no different than that which any of us face.  To bring us all “up to speed” – to see how La La Land reflects the deep truths with which we all wrestle – we will relate the musings on life, love and the music of it all from Oxford and Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, as well as famous Christian writer, C.S. Lewis.

 

Lewis is perhaps most popularly known for his fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia, popular with children and families, though not limited to a juvenile audience.  But his numerous, wide-ranging writings have been read and discussed by academic, critical, theological and popular audiences.  We can draw on some of these in casting La La Land as part of a grand narrative which generations have faced. We can then see La La Land, and life in general, in a penetrating light, differently than reviewers have already (adeptly) described the film:

“a beautiful and hopeful film, coming at a time when there isn’t much beauty or hope in our movies” – San Francisco Chronicle, Mick La Salle Dec. 13, 2016[1]

Another Day of Sun opening score

“a fizzy fantasy and a hard-headed fable, a romantic comedy and a showbiz melodrama, a work of sublime artifice and touching authenticity… (But that would be to slight) Mr. Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.”

 

Sublime Artifice: “The artifice lies in the gorgeous colors, the suave camera movements and the elegant wide-screen compositions”[2] – A.O. Scott, NY Times, Dec. 8, 2016

The hopeful song and dance score, Another Day of Sun, opens the story, telling of a 17 year old girl who left her boyfriend behind “at a Greyhound station West of Santa Fe … without a nickel to my name” to find her life in Hollywood.  These opening lines foretell the larger story of the film, where aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and acting-hopeful barista Mia (Emma Stone) seek their own futures in Hollywood. The opening score blossoms (from a traffic jam on the highway) into a kaleidoscope of colors and characters, pretty girls, singing and dancing girls, normal girls, and the very normal and average (average is not bad!) boys (who also sing, dance and drum) who would like to be with such girls.  Individuals all; the makeshift drum, flute and bass band that suddenly and enthusiastically appears – a bunch of fun-loving guys who melt into the chorus and the dance – is as equally symbolic as the opening mini-story. Director Damien Chazelle appeals to his generation’s search to find their way in the world, with significance and a joy of life, that Lewis himself would laud.

Dirt Bikes, Hula Hoops, Skateboards and On-your-car-shoulder-spins are part of the fun

The word “life” had for me pretty much the same associations it had for Shelley in The Triumph of Life. I would not have understood what Goethe meant by des Lebens goldnes Baum.[3] Bergson showed me. He did not abolish my old loves, but he gave me a new one. From him I learned to relish energy, fertility and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow. (italics mine)[4]

“My Lord, did you say ‘a serious musician?’ Can I borrow your outfit? I have a party and want to go as a serious firefighter”  Also, surreal snowfall may be summoned for soirees in the land of Sol

Expectant hope drips from the song and dance of these young Hollywooders.  The beauty and colors (as reviewers note) – so evident in this opening scene and throughout the film – are in fact key facets of Lewis’ perspective as well.  In perhaps Lewis’s most famous talk, The Weight of Glory,[5] Lewis follows up the essay’s central theme of our ability to reflect, in fact to be invited into, the same glory which God bestows with the observation

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations,  cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a           gnat.[6]

The Melancholic Soul and The Great Dance

“But we’re only getting started!” Lewis might say: see how he arrays the timeless soul in its own panoply of color and significance in his sci-fi trilogy [7] when he observes in the heavens the cosmic structure

He thought he saw The Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining  undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle … he could see also wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells us – peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like – ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished.

Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colors from beyond our spectrum were the lines of personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendor as all of them from the previous class[8]

Some Even Greater Dances

Just as national or corporate interests, even politicians – “the system” to the generation of the 1960s – can fall on deaf ears today when they smack of hypocrisy and self-absorption, we can find the same elevation, almost a sanctification, of the individual above this din, in Lewis back in the 1930s and 1940s.

How to Get Found at a Movie Theater

As the expectant beat of Another Day of Sun fades into the story of Sebastian and Mia, we find the young couple discovering their passion for meaning: – Seb seems to find his soul in his love for jazz, and the jazz orchestra where ”each player is finding his own tune, competing with the others.”   Mia is less sure of herself, and in her aspirations to land an acting role she finds herself questioning if she is simply “good enough.”

Seb is accused, however, of being lost in the past in his taste for jazz.  Stuck on the jazz from the big names from the past, he is challenged to find – or create – meaning in the present.  Lewis faced this same dilemma – his tastes were nurtured with his own set of greats – “The Greats” in fact was his academic course of study as an undergraduate at Oxford.  The Golden Apple of the ancient myths, Romantic poets and writers like Shelley, Goethe and Coleridge – all formed Lewis’ own appetite.

Seb’s Music Makes Mia Dance

In his own desire to capture meaning from the past, Lewis ran into the same problem as Sebastian.  And it is this problem with which Lewis commences his own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, quoting the opening line of the poem by Wordsworth of the same titlesbj1

Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind

Wordsworth then proceeds to describe how fleeting and elusive was his joy, or source thereof

But how could I forget thee? …

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?  – That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

This same sadness, this melancholy and yearning for the return of a Golden Era sounds itself through many authors from many times. Virgil, the Roman poet commissioned to create an epic poem extolling Roman history the same way Homer had done for the Greeks with his Iliad and Odyssey, wrote The Aeneid (27 – 19 B.C.) with a tone that commentators have since described as “the Virgilian sadness.” It shyly shows itself when Aeneas scans the walls of the Temple of Juno, pondering the tragic events that led to his native Troy’s demise.  These events find their parallels in the woes exacted in the building of Rome, as Virgil interject

Was it thy pleasure, Jupiter, that peoples

Afterward to live in lasting peace

Should rend each other in so black a storm? [9]

Nearly two millennia later, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandius (1818) expresses a similar melancholy, in his poem written of ancient ruins

And on the pedestal these words appear:  
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

ozy

Lewis’s good friend, fellow Oxford Professor and author J.R.R. Tolkien, would echo this same sense of melancholic longing in his epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Strider describes the story of Beren and Tinuviel from the First Age: “it is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift your hearts.”[10]  The melancholy of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the longing for the glory of the original, True West, peers through the tone of Aragorn’s songs; and Aragorn’s fate at death shows this explicitly, as he exudes “an image of the Splendor of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed (from) before the breaking of the world.”[11]

“OK, everything your way, and nothing mine. That’s my final offer”  Seb and Mia have difficulty in dream-negotiating early in their careers

The melancholic note of La La Land builds throughout the story, as Seb’s jazz career and Mia’s acting aspirations build to a climax.  Mia’s audition song, The Fools Who Dream, praises her aunt who, in fact, followed Lewis’s own path.

She captured a feeling 
Sky with no ceiling
The sunset inside a frame

mia

Though Lewis might have said it was the feeling that captured him, “at once breaking and exulting his heart as never before.”  And the chorus

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

echoes what Lewis’s friend Tolkien would pen in his poem Mythopoeia (written to Lewis to convince him of the essentially poetic nature of the Christian faith, a point made with the title of their predecessor G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (1908) ):

Yes! `wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat

our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

or some things fair and others ugly deem ?

All wishes are not idle, not in vain

fulfilment we devise[12]

Contra Freud and those who would claim the idea of God merely a dream of wish-fulfilment, Tolkien teaches us that it is our wishes, seeded deep in our heart (“He has placed eternity in our hearts”), that beg the answer, but not devise the answer.  “We need an infinite God to satisfy the longings of our soul” it has been said, following such revered figures as Augustine (“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You” – Confessions) and Pascal (“there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart” – Pensees).

But Lewis himself would make perhaps the most incisive case that Christianity was in fact a form of fulfilling the innate human wish (or desire, the “argument from desire” all over again). Religious myths have abounded, Lewis argues in Myth Became Fact, expressing the desire for God to enter the world and redeem it. These have most often taken the form of a God who died then came back to life, bringing back health and life to the world.[13]  The mythic nature of Christ performing this role – buttressed by the fact that Christ actually, historically happened – provides a power to the Christian story that nearly transcends reason:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history… by becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths than they did from the religion they professed … We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome … for this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight. [14]

And the end of Mia’s ode

She lived in her liquor
And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

again hearkens to Lewis’s exultant respect for the individual – the enduring flame, not the withered flicker.  In considering heaven in his treatise on suffering, The Problem of Pain, Lewis offers this hope for the individual:

Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently” thus “each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can…”

Pantheism is a creed not so much false, but hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it was true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union rather than mere sameness. [15]

And following Mia’s

She told me A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

it is Lewis the novelist, author of fantasies and fictions ancient and future, who gives us such imagery as the

“Great voice … quite unlike any other voice I had heard so far… thunderous yet liquid voice… the waterfall itself was itself speaking; and (though it did not cease to look like a waterfall) that it was also a bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks and poured himself perpetually down with great joy[16]”

or speaks of Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden” and of being “intoxicated” and “lastingly satisfied” by religious authors such as Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil, John Donne, George Herbert, George MacDonald and GK Chesterton.[17]

And the full version of City of Stars, sung as it appears

That now our dreams
They’ve finally come true

at its heart, offers something very simple – love:

City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants
There in the bars
And through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants
It’s love
Yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else

piano2

But, the City of Stars drives a hard bargain – Seb and Mia long for both success and love, and it is the melancholic reflection on this that grips the viewer in the finale.  The melancholic theme of La La Land no longer shyly peers at us, it shouts, as Lewis would say of this life’s passing moments of Joy – “Look! Look! Here I am. What do I remind you of?”  La La Land is not just a tale of eager youths seeking to find their own way, their specific significance among the stars, but of the age-old quest for meaning and love.  Seb’s commitment to the soul of jazz, Mia’s proving that she is good enough, again mirror the driving force behind Lewis, his sehnsucht or search for meaning and lasting joy.

Lewis’s problem was how to escape the despair of fleeting joys.  He describes his own fleeting glimpses of enjoyment, or simply, Joy, that moved him, but he could not quite own: reminiscences of a make-believe childhood garden, the melancholic feeling from “the Idea of Autumn” he found in Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin books, and an “almost sickening intensity” of desire for some cool, remote northern quality evoked by the lines “I heard a voice that cried / Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead.”[18]  As an academic, however, Lewis learned to cast these aside as mere whims, fanciful products of childhood imagination. But as he came to realize they would not desist [19] – he admitted their reality, and “the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exulted as it had never been since the old days.”[20]

sbj.jpg

Lewis came to find that these memories or experiences he sought to grasp were merely fleeting glimpses, “the mental track left by the passage of Joy – not the wave but the waves imprint upon the sand.”[21]  Idolatrous images and sensations, mistaken for Joy itself, which “soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate … It is not I. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”[22] they cried out to Lewis.

Lewis pries open the truth from them at last:

I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you” Lewis began, “the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.”  Wordsworth’s   thus falls short: “Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But this is all a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would have found … only the memory. The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

The beauty, the memory of our past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only a scent of flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited[23]

Seb and Mia’s Country of Dreams – Paris!

Lewis’s solution in the “myth become fact” of Christianity, the journey of desire to lasting Joy, is considered one of his unique contributions to our modern understanding of the Christian faith (though as we have seen, he follows the likes of Augustine and Pascal, not to mention say the Psalmist and many, many others).  We settle for joys that are far too fleeting and weak, Lewis reminds us, in the opening of his Weight of Glory address:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half–hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. [24]

These joys – Joys or, as Lewis would like to put the matter, Joy Himself – are unshyly proclaimed over and over again in Lewis’s writings.  But continuing from his own story of the Stars, we find the way home:

But not all the chords were individuals: some were universal truths

But one can hardly ignore the One Who declared “I am the Truth.”

Or the One Who declared “I am the Light of the world” – a City of Stars in fact pales embarrassingly.  While the opening chorus finds its hope in the rise of another day of sun,

And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun

Lewis states

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.[25]

And that everything else contains the poetry, the drama, the music and the dance which makes La La Land so touching. As Lewis prefaced the above statement,

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.

And G.K. Chesterton, a great influence on Lewis, found in the sun the play if not playfulness of God Himself:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon…  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy … The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.[26]

So, finally, one cannot ignore the One Who declared “I am the Life.”

La La Land shows the struggle, and often heartache, at finding one’s way in life;

But Lewis shows us the One who can be found once we allow our hearts to wander back “into the land of longing” where we finally find what, or Who, we have been seeking all along.

csl stone

C.S. Lewis’s Commemoration at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey

Dedicated 2013, on the 50th Anniversary of his death

(see also C.S. Lewis at Poet’s Corner, ed. Michael Ward, Peter S. Williams)

[1] http://www.metacritic.com/critic/mick-lasalle?filter=movies

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/movies/la-la-land-review-ryan-gosling-emma-stone.html?_r=0

[3] Translated “the life of the Golden Apple.”  Golden apples were considered a source of immortality and perpetual youth for the gods in Norse mythology, similar to the role of ambrosia in Greek myths.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1986), 160.

[5] Lewis was in fact such a popular speaker for non-academic audiences that it bothered his academic colleagues; a series of popular radio talks during World War II were put into book format as Mere Christianity. The Weight of Glory was originally delivered as a sermon, but can be found in essay format in compilations such as The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1980).

[6] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 19.

[7] Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1944) and That Hideous Strength (1945). Otherwise known as The Space Trilogy, Lewis distanced the series from that unfortunate moniker early in the first book: “space … the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness … the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead;” he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.” (OSP, 34).

[8] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), 1987.

[9] Virgil, Aeneid, XII.684-6.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, I.11 “A Knife in the Dark,” 258.

[11] J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King, Appendix A.I.

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm  (1931).

[13] Lewis gives as examples the Norse Balder and Egyptian Osiris; the Fisher King of Arthurian legend also comes to mind, who guards the Holy Grail but, as he is injured, the land suffers along with him until he receives a cure.

[14] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 66,67.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 150,151.

[16] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 49.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 171.

[18] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 19-20.

[19]  Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, Ch. XIV, that it came through a re-reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytus, a gut-wrenching tale of love, family and honor, besotted of course with interference from prying gods.

[20] Ibid., 173.

[21] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 175.

[22] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 176.

[23] C.S. Lewis,  “Weight of Glory” in  The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 7.

[24] Ibid., 4.

[25] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” In The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 92

[26] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1959),  60.

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