How the "La La Land" vs "Moonlight" rivalry changed American pop culture

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Damien Chazelle. Writer-director, supposed cinematic prodigy, only 33, struck gold with the indisputably great "Whiplash," and then, 2 years later, "La La Land" happened. By all accounts the latter, a musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling was hailed as a triumph in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, on its way to becoming the front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars .... and then poof. A strange push-back on the film happened. The textbook definition of a successful backlash. 

"Moonlight" of course won the Oscar, but not without Chazelle taking a major hit. One of the most dumbfounding things to have happened in mainstream cinema these last few years was the "La La Land" backlash.

So what happened?

The film's 93 Metascore and 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes was based on a lot of pre-release, festival reviews which all but heralded the film as the next big thing and Chazelle as the second-coming messiah Hollywood had been waiting for. Hell, even the snobby New York Film Critics Circle gave "La La Land" its Best Picture prize. 

Ah yes, the sun was shining bright on the film before Chazelle and his film became major whipping boys of the industry. Accusations of "La La" being "too white," not understanding jazz, its leads not being able to sing and dance, Chazelle's style over substance direction, lead to it losing the Oscar. Simple as that, but how did so much criticism happen at such an alarming pace? Was it a hit-job? Not necessarily.

I am writing this because I am here to tell you that I, as well, have always struggled with La La Land's exquisite qualities in relation to it obvious flaws. "La La Land" is a film that enchants, envelops you with its beautiful frames and infectious cinematic aura but it also, on second viewing, feels rather thin and, pardon my arrogance, fluffy. However, I can't deny the dreamy high it gave me upon initial viewing.

The first time I saw "La La Land" was at the Toronto International Film Festival and this was after the extremely exuberant buzz the film garnered at Telluride and Venice the previous week. I was enchanted by the film, the brightly opening number's conclusion was met with a, very rare, burst of applause from the all-press screening I attended. Yes, those cranky old critics actually applauded a film after only 10 minutes. I had never seen anything like it. What's funny about that particular screening was that I still meet people, to this day, that attended it, who were praising Chazelle's film back then but are now a little more dismissive of Chazelle's intentions. 

It's all part of the powerful effect social media could have on a person. The mob mentality ruminating throughout the tangled social media web-sphere is contagious. It's come to the point where even film critics have sacrificed their own integrity-based individuality just for the sake of, you know, hanging out with the cool kids. 

Film criticism these days almost feels like high school, it seems to be taking place at the very core of social media's conversations. Imagine a film critic not liking "Moonlight" at the very thick of the 2017 Oscar race and, even worse, actually admitting it on Twitter, daring to say that, quite frankly, Barry Jenkins' supposed 'masterpiece' is actually just a small, well-made, but overpraised film. Yeah, looking back at that time, it really felt like you weren't allowed to say anything negative about "Moonlight." Of course, I did. I still think that Jenkins' film falls apart in its third section, which felt forced instead of effortless. "Moonlight" is, as I said stated back in 2016, "two-thirds of a great movie." Why can't I express that opinion to this day without being branded a 'racist' or 'bigot' online boggles my mind. 

My acknowledgments of the positives and the negatives of "Moonlight" weren't enough for many on Twitter. We live in an age when everything must be pure, you must adhere to the rules, a socially-relevant film deemed 'perfect' by the majority must be deemed perfect by the minority as well. And that's where the aforementioned lack of integrity comes in in regards to today's film criticism. The fear-mongering has actually made film critics I used to read and love dearly lose much credibility in my books. You can read the fear in their writing, the lack of authenticity in some reviews. 

"Moonlight" was, by all accounts, a film that was released at the right place and at the right time. Back in late 2016 and early 2017 social progressiveness was at an all-time peak, the notion to 'resist' was never higher due to newly elected President Trump, and, of course, the #OscarsSoWhite movement happened. It had created a monster the past few years in the form of a changed voting body within the Academy, one that seemed to be more politically conscious due to the current social media pressures. 

Of course, I can't deny that "Moonlight" is, to many, a film that they hold very dear to their hearts. After all, a 99 metascore clearly means I must be wrong in thinking Jenkins' film isn't a masterpiece, right? 

But what about poor "La La Land"? Did it deserve a better fate? Well, of course it did, Chazelle's film was a victim of bad timing. Its release coincided with an anger-filled political spectrum that would be unfavorable to La La's shiny aesthetics and free-wheelin' lets-go-where-life-takes-us melancholy. Of course, the film had its darker edges, it didn't even have a happy ending, but the fact that this was a love-letter to old-school Hollywood glamour, which is automatically connected to something very white, very masculine and very backwards, felt wrong to champion for many. After all, America's dark and discriminatory history was at the forefront of many pertinent conversation-starters by the time 'La La Land" and "Moonlight" hit screens nationwide.

Looking back at the political chaos that was happening between October 2016 until Oscar night March 2017 (at the thick of the Hilary vs Trump debate), it is safe to say that America was on the edge. People wanted to do anything to help, a resistance was born, a politically-conscious attitude was instilled, a film like "Moonlight" was the way to go.  We needed to know that progress could be made, in any way shape or form. And so, the little movie that could, a film so slight, a film that would probably not even have attention paid to it just 10 yeas ago, did the unthinkable and won a Prized Oscar. 

And it's continued on ever since. There has been an unspoken effort among pop culture critics to try and elevate the voices of the marginalized in works of art. However, The Guardian's Noah Gittell has stated that "As necessary as this effort is, it can make it more difficult for a film to transcend racial and gender boundaries because there is always a group that can claim that the film ignores them."

Film criticism is going through a very interesting time right now. Back in the ’90s, the field was such a different spectrum and now that political theory has snuck inany film you watch now "has" to be judged politically. Take for example the severe backlash I received when I gave 'Black Panther,' a film that perfectly fits as an example for my theory, a rotten review. I was one of only 13 critics, out of close to 400, to give Ryan Coogler's film a failing grade.

By the time the backlash happened, I had this to say:

"I will be accused of not supporting the "cause" of "Black Panther" by writing this mixed review, but that's far from the truth. I am just trying to state an opinion which might be unpopular but is the essence of what a film critic is supposed to do: Be as critically honest as possible."

"The peer pressure that film critics put upon each other to uniformly agree and unite on a film like "Black Panther" because it's the right thing to do is detrimental, hell, self-destructive, for the future of the journalistic field. Will I be ridiculed, attacked, for this review? You bet I will. Twitter and social media have no mercy on contrariness. My job isn't necessarily to steer you away from watching a movie like "Black Panther," but to actually help you make your own judgment."

And so, with all that being said, it is then understandable to note that the mass marketing behind films ever since "Moonlight" have been pushed forward by the media, and continued forward by film critics themselves, for a sort of "betterment of society." A noble cause no doubt. Of course, just criticizing one aspect of a film now means one can be wrongly seen as condemning this supposed "betterment of society"  It's a mob mentality that endangers freedom of opinion, something that seems to be more and more at risk these days. The herd mentality is unfortunate but shouldn't deter any critic from his or her own ethical duty.