Fifteen years ago in an “Introduction to History of Christianity I” course at the University of Virginia, Robert Louis Wilken exhorted his students to consider a modified version of a popular aphorism: whenever you open one door in life, you will inevitably close others. Every choice in life should be weighed not only by what joys will follow, but also by what will be cast aside.
Such a choice is the central theme of “La La Land,” that ubiquitously lauded story of two aspiring artists in late 1990s Los Angeles, which carted home seven Golden Globe awards and more recently secured a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Pity that for all of its well-deserved accolades, the movie’s main characters choose wrong. While billed as a romance, it is in fact a paean to the insecurities, cynicism, and skepticism of the millennial generation.
An Opening of Doors
We first meet Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and aspiring actress, discouraged by her failure to secure an acting gig despite countless auditions. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meanwhile is the typical starving artist who dreams of owning a jazz club. The two have multiple, seemingly pre-ordained encounters.
Prior to one such meeting, Mia sings what she’s after, “someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know. The one to finally lift you off the ground.” That person turns out to be Sebastian, with whom she shares not only quixotic dreams, but a fiery romantic chemistry. Their romance is the very catalyst by which the two find a reinvigorated sense of calling, as they become each other’s biggest cheerleaders. Sebastian exhorts Mia to write and star in her own solo production. Mia inspires Sebastian to play jazz with a renewed sense of intensity and confidence.
Their divergent career goals inevitably cause friction. Sebastian, compelled by a sense of duty to Mia, accepts a lucrative offer to join a jazz band that plays music he doesn’t like. He grows to resent her for a decision that has stymied his own aspirations. He fails to make it to her debut performance, which garners only a dozen attendees. She, rightly, feels betrayed by him. Their budding love on the fritz and Mia, disheartened, she determines to give up and leave California.
Shortly thereafter, however, Sebastian is contacted by a Hollywood producer looking for Mia. Inspired by his enduring commitment to Mia, he immediately drives to her parents’ home and convinces her to return to Los Angeles for another chance at stardom. Mia knocks it out of the park. Once more together, she asks Sebastian what he will do if she secures the role.
Sebastian urges her to pursue her dream, which will mean she moves to Paris. Awed by his unswerving commitment to her happiness, she declares: “I’ll always love you.” Yet from that moment, their lives separate. Five years later both of their vocational goals have been fulfilled. He owns the jazz club, with the logo and name she suggested. She is the world-famous actress. But she is now married and with a little daughter. When, in another twist of fate, the two former lovers happen upon one another, she ponders an alternative reality with Sebastian. It is, however, too late. They once again depart, yet satisfied with their choices.
A Poisoned Love
Here is the fatal flaw of this otherwise perfectly-cast, well-scripted, and beautifully-performed film. It presumes that love can serve as an inspiration for our dreams, but that when those dreams appear irreconcilable with those of our romantic interests, love becomes an obstruction to personal fulfillment. Love turns to poison as we come to resent those who hinder our self-actualization. What we must find, we are told, is a “love” that will tidily bend to our dreams and career aspirations, as Mia has done with her husband. That “someone in the crowd” helps you with where you want to go, and then you keep going.
Such a conclusion is perhaps not surprising in our age of hyper-careerism among the meritocratic elite. Moreover, this is complicated by a pervasive cynicism toward the institution of marriage that emanates from the epidemic of divorce and its effects on the millennial generation. Even so, this is backwards. Yes, romantic love by its very virtue of melding the desires and needs of two people will create obstructions, and ultimately loss. But that is the true mark of love. Love is not defined by some detached opportunity cost calculation based on the effect on one’s life goals, career progression, or 401K. Such considerations are the dull marks of an anti-romanticism that rejects the possibility that love might be the means through which we are changed, sanctified, elevated to new passions and a life we never could have imagined.
This is not to suggest that Eros is a sufficient telos for man. But there is a reason why so much of the language employed by Scripture to describe the agape love of God is thoroughly romantic (i.e., eros). God is the bridegroom, his people the bride, precisely because in this symbolism are present the most important qualities of life: passion, sacrifice, self-gift, faithfulness. As C.S. Lewis observes in The Four Loves, “Eros wants the beloved… Eros never hesitates to say ‘Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.”
Love is powerful precisely because it doesn’t choose the saner or safer route. It suffers and it sacrifices. This is the Gospel itself, where a God who has been ignored, rejected, and trivialized by His own chooses to give Himself in human flesh for the world. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ “yes” to love is the antidote to the “no” of the Garden of Eden. Love is victorious precisely in the moment of total self-gift. That initial offering in turn spawns millions, nay billions, of beautiful, unanticipated new horizons.
“La La Land” has been rightly praised for its authenticity and passion. Yet at its crescendo, when we most need to be reminded that “love wins,” that love is sacrificed on the altar of a pedestrian careerism. It claims to be the land of dreams. In truth, it is far too calculated, defined not by radical self-giving, but as Evelyn Waugh derisively calls it, “quantitative judgments.” The problem with “La La Land” is that its horizon is too narrow. It asks us to believe that jazz clubs and acting careers can play substitute to love. Yet love is not the launching pad to self-actualization, but that metaphysical power that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” A career will not abide. Love will.