I left my phone in the car today. I saw La La Land without it, and sure, I wouldn’t have pulled my phone out during the movie, but halfway down the escalators, after the “That felt like something from the fifties,” and the “When was the last time someone tap-danced in a movie?” I would have checked the time—a lull in conversation, anyway—and yes, yes, the sincerity was important, and the poignancy was beautiful, and Joyce wants to revise the bulletin, and I need to RSVP for that New Year’s party, and this new match on Bumble isn’t pretty enough to make up for how boring she sounds, and I can’t smile naturally in a single goddamn photo to save my dating life, and I’m boring, too, aren’t I?

Instead, I lingered with La La Land. The long-take musical survived the first conversational lull, and then another. By the time we reached the lobby, appreciation for the bright, primary colors, close-ups, and hand-holding had become a yearning for the romanticism and passion. Mia, waitress, wants to be an actor; Sebastian, broke musician, wants to own a jazz club. But La La Land’s biggest tension happens outside the screen: an unspoken, unreferenced standoff between itself and the twenty-first century. I kept waiting for Sebastian to trip mid-dance, or for the six-minute, hyper-stylized love-stare to just end already so we could get on with it, or for good taste, or basic realism, or fashionable irony to interrupt this idealism and give us the straight facts, kid, or at the very least, a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

When Mia says maybe she’s not good enough,” I said, halfway across the rainy parking lot— “when she says it’s been six years of auditions, and maybe you change your dreams and grow up…” Confessions and vulnerabilities come out of me like infected splinters. I prepared myself, but not too much. “I’m right there with her.”

David asked, I clarified, he asked more. (Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world, Steinbeck writes, is the man who helps others to talk.) My book about hitchhiking hadn’t been picked up. My short stories had earned rejection letters. “What about the anthology?” David asked. Triple-digit sales, but barely. The dream of writing, of fame and book reviews and speaking gigs, of publishing farther than a few low-tier journals and a blog I help run—

“And that’s the problem,” I said. “That dream’s not about writing at all.”

Every sixth of the month I refresh Google Analytics in bed, at work, in the car, and at the gym, tracking and predicting and complaining about readership I can no longer influence. Maybe “addiction” is reductionistic, but it’s accurate. Every Facebook blip releases a hit of dopamine. Every vibrating text. Another video I watched today, this one fourteen minutes long and hosted on YouTube, claimed Millennials suffer from technological saturation, impatience, and special-snowflake syndrome. We have an entire population growing up and going through life and just never really finding joy. They’ll never really find deep, deep fulfillment in work or life. They’ll just waft through life. It’s fine. How’s your job? It’s fine; same as yesterday. How’s your relationship? It’s fine. I’ve said that, haven’t I? Every day? I don’t know if I’ll really find joy again. Not like childhood. Never like that imagined famous-writer future.

I thought I’d be there by now.
Where?
I don’t know, somewhere better
What do you want?
I thought I thought I thought
I knew what I wanted [1]

Now the year has ended, and I can only look back and reflect on how I didn’t appreciate it enough. It will forever look like an empty, wasted year. Year piled on wasted year. I just want to feel some fullness, some goodness. I want to love the day. I’m not okay. [2]

It is hard to get up in the morning and get to work. It is hard, sometimes, to get home. The traffic is bad and the radio is playing the same song and there’s no food in the fridge and I’m not sure I’m doing a good job at any of this; I’m not sure I like myself anymore, some days, but I cannot say that “I could never,” because here I am. Here we are. And we are all doing what we have to, because we can’t do anything else. [3]

“I had all these ideals in college,” I confessed two days before La La Land, talking with post calvin friends in a coffeeshop somewhere between my bland Seattle duplex and their home in Boston’s suburbs. “I guess I’ve got a better worldview now—”

“Better?”

“I know how life works. More of how it works.”

“I don’t think my worldview now is better than the one I had. More informed, maybe, but better?”

This is the unspoken tension of La La Land. I wanted Sebastian to get his jazz club, yes, and I hoped Mia’s career would take off, but the naive optimism of the story itself—I rooted most for that. And yet I refused to submerge myself in this new, fantastic world. As a lone piano brings a new emotion into the world, I kept looking for a body double. “Which keys are yours?” Sebastian asks in another scene, and because money matters, Emma Stone says, “Prius!” and Ryan Gosling and I stared at a valet board of identical, product-placed Toyota fobs.

To return to Steinbeck, who understood un-killable monsters and the grapes of wrath, “Once the first innocence goes, you can’t stop.” I need Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Give me suicidal Star Wars and a schizophrenic Max. I want to see grit. The world is bought, and I am insignificant. Tell me again. Tell me again. I browse Reddit, check my phone, and skim depressing headlines that reinforce this rich v. poor view of the world I’ve developed lately. Is this sad? It makes me sad, both doing it and how it sounds.

The closest La La Land comes to denouncing the culture that made this movie necessary happens halfway through the film. “What will people think?” Mia asks, resisting Sebastian’s encouragement to write and perform her own one-woman play. “Who cares?” he says. “Fuck ‘em.”

Mia takes his advice. The play happens. It flops. The threadbare audience mocks the performance, and Mia doesn’t make enough to pay back the theatre. She flees Los Angeles. “Maybe I’m not good enough!” she cries, and when Sebastian rejects that reason, another tumbles out: “Maybe it just hurts a little too much.”

That’s it, isn’t it? The pain of incubated dreams dying upon their first, or tenth, or hundredth breath of polluted, real-world air. Purpose, fullness, “I could never”s. All dead. It’s easier—and not just easier, but more effective, more stylish, more sustainable—to focus on the pollution and live amid the grit, to adopt the bitter and omnipresent disaffection for which an entire population has become known. It’s safer this way; I can’t be duped if I don’t believe in anything.

But invincibility comes with its own lonelinesses. Tell me what you pay attention to, wrote Jose Ortega y Gassett, and I will tell you who you are. I haven’t liked who I am for a long time.

Is naivety really the worst character flaw?

La La Land dances through Los Angeles, clothed in tap shoes and choreographed whimsy. It holds its heart in its hands, and it is good, friend, because it is lovely, and because it is our heart. Of course the world suffers. It glows, too.

“I’m going to read the news less,” I told David. We had left the theater miles behind us. “And I’m going to leave my phone when I go places.” I wanted to tell him I was going to show sincerity, linger with what I like, and accept La La Land’s invitation to unabashed happiness. I wanted to tell him I believed Sebastian when he says, “This is the dream! It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!” And yet.

I told David I would change my attentions. From Facebook likes and imagined fan clubs—to Markus, who read Salt and Undertakings the same day he and his family, too, made that same walk and felt the same feelings, and to Elaine’s Here In the Parentheses, which brought half a dozen vaginal conversations to Seattle. From all the money I don’t have—to my father, who taught me how to saw with a dado blade last weekend, and to Monday reading nights that fill my bland duplex with friends and candlelight. From hate crimes and corruption—to lingering conversations after a weeknight movie, and to a church service on the winter solstice, alight with wine and Spanish poetry. Why does grit have to overpower glow?

It’s naive, sure, and it’s romantic and sentimental. And I need it.

Fuck ‘em. This is La La Land.

 

 

 

[1] Nothing Wasted, by Bart Tocci

[2] Naked, by Will Montei

[3] I Could Never, by Katie Van Zanen

Josh deLacy

NPR called Josh deLacy (’13) “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he hitchhiked 7,000 miles across the United States, and a few dozen surprised drivers told him he didn’t smell bad. Since that experience, he found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. Josh deLacy’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives. His website: joshdelacy.com

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