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The Madness of Damien Chazelle: How the Director of La La Land can Save America

“You’re only given a little spark of madness; you mustn’t waste it.” — Robin Williams

Our country’s reaction to the deaths of so many icons in 2016 revealed not admiration for their achievements, but a pulsating cynicism. While they were alive, we found glee in any flaw a tabloid could uncover, and only in their deaths did we highlight their achievements. We saw death in their life, and life in their death. Like madness, cynicism is a matter of perspective.

During the cacophony of cynicism came one tiny spark of hope and optimism: La La Land, directed and written by Damien Chazelle. One’s reaction to this film can be as revealing as one’s reaction to the life and achievement of a celebrity. (If you have not seen La La or Whiplash go watch them now and follow our campaign at #lalaforbestpic on any social media platform)

Honestly, I used to find it odd the way many people idolize certain celebrities. Nonetheless, during the constant barrage of celebrity death in 2016 was one that affected me personally: Muhammad Ali. When I was 16 years old, I saw a clip of Ali fighting and I heard him gloating. I was enamored. I read every biography. I watched every fight. I took up boxing. Though I was no Ali, he inspired me to aspire. I saw the heights to which anyone could climb; he went from an unknown boy whose bike was stolen, to the boxer who “floats like a butterfly; stings like a bee!” And as a boy who loved words, I could not help but be infatuated with such a warrior poet.

In La La , the protagonist Mia, played by Emma Stone, sings a song to “The Fools Who Dream.” Though Mia is singing about her aunt, a failed actress, there is a line in the song which captures a poignant reality of the lives of many of these stars whose lights went out:

"She lived in her liquor and died with a flicker, but I'll always remember the flame."

I felt that this homage to the great ones, to the ones who stung like bees, was the best tribute to a man who boxed for far too long and destroyed his brains; to the cocaine addicts who spread joy; to the alcoholics who had once lifted the hearts of millions. They may have lived in their liquor, or the equivalent, but I’ll always remember the flame.

The growing cynicism in our culture reverses Mia’s homage. We forget the flame, and remember the flicker and the liquor. Worse, this cynicism darkens the hearts of so many young people right on the verge of the most important moment of their lives: tomorrow.

In the art of 31 year old Damien Chazelle, we see a flicker of optimism. We see a world where dreams can come true, for those willing to break their bones against the grindstone of training; and for those who have the courage to stand tall before the unflinching passion of an idealist.

In Chazelle’s work, we learn of the necessity of any dreamer to prove himself to an unwavering idealist. In Whiplash, the role of the idealist falls to a brutal dictator-like jazz teacher, Fletcher (J.K Simmons.) He yells, curses, slaps, threatens and pushes the character, Andrew (Miles Teller) to become great. Mia in La La has Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a man with such blind idealism that he wants to open a bar that serves beer and fried chicken in a world that is gluten free.

The only way to be affected by an idealist, is to admire one. In both movies admiration plays a strong role. Mia sings in admiration of her foolish aunt, “I trace it all back, to then / Her, and the snow, and the Seine/Smiling through it she said/She’d do it, again.” As Robert Greene, the author of Mastery puts it, “when you admire people, you become more susceptible to absorbing and imitating everything they do.” Even for me, never having met Ali, I admired him. I tried to move like him and even think like him.

In our increasingly cynical world, we require admiration more than ever; Horace said that “not to admire anything is the only way to feel consistently good about yourself.” Perhaps this is one reason that a generation praised for absolutely every action in childhood, finds it incredibly hard to admire anything other than themselves in adulthood. We want to continuously feel good about ourselves. To regain a flame of admiration requires a spark.

The art of Damien Chazelle is one such spark.

There is always some madness in love; but there is always some reason in madness — Nietzsche

In a Chazelle world, there are two single-minded individuals and when they intersect, sparks fly; sometimes from fireworks, sometimes from swords clashing. This intersection in Whiplash can best be represented by a clenched fist; in La La, by a parting kiss.

The nature of the clash in each film is a byproduct of a deeper question: why do they dream so intensely? What fuels Andrew to pursue his dream with such purpose? He surrenders a social life, romance, friends and even family all because “I want to be great… I want to be one of the greats.” Mia, too, has a single-minded determination. Throughout the movie, she is rejected numerous times for roles. Since she has lived in L.A. for six years, we can assume she has been rejected hundreds if not thousands of times. Yet she has not surrendered.

Most of us do not have this absorbing passion. For millennia, poets have been attempting to understand the causes of this special energy that resides in some above average livers of life. The romantic poet William Blake postulated the cause to be a complete inability to restrain their passion. “Those who restrain desire,” he said, “do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” His answer is that some people, like a powerful horse breaking free of its confines, merely cannot be bridled. It is nature.

Edgar Allan Poe has a similar view to Chazelle’s. From “Alone” by Poe:

From childhood’s hour I have not been As others were — I have not seen As others saw — I could not bring My passions from a common spring —  From the same source I have not taken My sorrow — I could not awaken My heart to joy at the same tone —  And all I lov’d — I lov’d alone.

This view is reflected in both Whiplash and La La. Andrew and Mia and Sebastian and Fletcher are all outsiders. Andrew is disliked by his family and his classmates. Though Mia’s superficial friends seem to like her, in the “Someone In The Crowd” sequence, she is clearly isolated and disconnected from her friends; Sebastian gets fired and even the waitress ridicules him when he begins to play Christmas music. Fletcher is tolerated but silently despised by his fellow teachers; the principal was itching to find students to get Fletcher fired. As he puts it “They just didn’t get what I was doing there.”

They are the loners, whose passions do not come from a common spring. Again, the audition song provides a clue to Chazelle’s view: “I trace it all back to then / her and the snow and the Seine.”

While the primary protagonist of each film has a clear track from childhood joy to adult passion, their unwavering Knights do not. Mia can trace her passion for acting to her aunt and the library where they had watched old movies. Andrew’s passion is less prevalent, but still present. After he is expelled from school, he watches a home video of himself as a child playing the drums. The immensity of what he has lost brings him to tears. For the idealistic Fletcher, there is no youthful joy. He is simply pursuing the dream of having one student become the next Charlie Parker. We are never clear as to the root of his desire. For him, every action is designed to push a student beyond what’s normally expected in the mad hope that he will push one to greatness. Despite pushing a student, Sean Casey, to suicide, Fletcher does not cease his methods. This is irrational passion in the extreme. Though Sebastian does not have this cruel streak in him, he, nevertheless, ignores all of reality to pursue his dream of opening a jazz club and reviving traditional jazz. As the character Keith, played by John Legend, points out, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.” Keith is right. Sebastian hears and sees what he wants to and not what is occurring around him. Both Fletcher and Sebastian are irrationally passionate. They pursue their dreams in a “Damn the torpedoes” sort of way. There are no reasons for their dreams. Unlike Mia and Andrew, for Sebastian and Fletcher, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.”

Another Poe poem may shed light on the seeming enigma that is these two blind idealists. They are the gallant knight in the poem “Eldorado” — irrationally and blindly pursuing the magic lost kingdom of gold. Of course, Chazelle has one critical alteration to Poe’s Knight: Fletcher and Sebastian, with heavy costs, do enter Eldorado. (I suggest reading the poem aloud)

Both Whiplash and La La illustrate the consequences of the irrational pursuit of an ideal. Sebastian ends up alone and Fletcher is responsible for a suicide. There are numerous real life examples of this error. Greg Mortenson was a man passionate about spreading literacy in the Middle East. He believed that the Kyrgyz, a tribe in Afghanistan, desired a school to be built for their children. But the Kyrgyz were goat herders and the parents valued goats more than books. Mortenson raised western money and built a beautiful school for the children. No children came. Greg held tight to his fantasy, which ruined and defamed him. Yet his ideal of teaching children to read was a noble one. He was simply too preoccupied with his own conception of how this should be accomplished that he missed how it could be accomplished. After Greg left Afghanistan, another organization simply sent tutors out into the fields where the children herded goats and taught them to read.

Mia from La La and Andrew from Whiplash reflect dreamers in the real world. For example, a young boy living in Salt Lake City in the fifties first heard the words “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are,” while sitting too close to his television. Every Sunday at 7:00PM the boy would watch Walt Disney’s show “The Wonderful World of Magic.” And every week the magician who created Fantasia and Mickey Mouse would demystify how it was all done. The boy fell in love. He later fell in love with the science behind making magic. In the seventies the boy explored science and art by creating a digital image of his hand on a computer — the very first one. In the eighties he teamed up with a Disney animator who had been recently fired. And in 1995 they released the first feature length film done completely on a computer: Toy Story. The young boy was Ed Catmull, founder and President of Pixar Animations, and the ex-Disney animator, John Lasseter. Catmull, like Mia, could “trace it all back to then.”

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people — Isaac Newton

The characters in a Chazelle film are all players in the poem The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. At some moments they are the archer and at others the receiver.

Stanza 1, The fighter:

An archer shoots a message into the world, but is unable to see where it will land. Replace “I” with “Fletcher,” and “Arrow” with “Chair,” and his motivations and wild actions become clearer. Year after year Fletcher searches for one student with enough internal strength and motivation to withstand the torrent of abuse he will fling the student’s way. When he spots this “something extra” he uses every manipulation, every shock tactic he can think of, to move his victim into practicing harder, to “earn the fucking part.” After every one of Fletcher’s abuses, for instance, Andrew further isolates himself from the world to concentrate on his work. He ignores his family. He removes his bed to fit a drum set in his room, so that he can practice more. He breaks up with his girlfriend. He practices until his hands become so bloody he must numb them in ice in order to continue.

Fletcher tells a story to explain his methods and his inspiration. Before Charlie Parker became a famous jazz musician, he was just a kid trying to earn a living in music. One day during jazz tryouts a young Charlie Parker played a Saxophone solo. He messed it up. The conductor, Joe Jones, threw a cymbal at his head. Embarrassed, Parker went home and cried. But the next day, he woke up and practiced for hours. He continued to practice every day for a year straight; upon returning to the stage “he played the greatest mother fucking solo the world has ever seen.”

Fletcher views himself as a Joe Jones. He believes that if he does not push students beyond what is typically expected of them, he is depriving the world of the next great musician. In Fletcher’s worldview there is no line that can’t be crossed. He throws chairs, slaps, yells and psychologically tortures students in order to send a message that “good” is not acceptable. Fletcher is like the archer who shoots his arrow but he is unable to follow it in its flight, because there is no knowing which student will be the one to persevere.

Similarly, Steve Jobs was known to throw epithets, if not chairs and arrows, at his employees. In 1998, Jobs wanted to open an online store, so customers would not be forced to buy Apple products next to the “shit” displayed at Best Buy and other stores. The man assigned to the task of designing the online store was a young engineer named Eddy Cue. While he was presenting his initial store design to Jobs and the other Apple Executives, Jobs yelled to stop the presentation and announced to everyone “these suck.” Cue, embarrassed, returned to the drawing board with a fervor. Six months later they launched the website. On the day of the launch, Cue walked into Jobs’ office and announced proudly “in six hours we’ve done over a million in sales” Jobs replied, “That’s great… imagine what we could do with real stores.”

Stanza 2, The Singer:

In La La, Sebastian’s song draws Mia to him. After she has left the party in the musical sequence “Someone in the Crowd,” her car is towed and she walks through L.A.. She hears Sebastian’s song and enters the restaurant where he is working. He is playing the same song — what will become their theme song — that she hears later, when she is sitting with her boyfriend, Greg, and realizes she would rather be with Sebastian watching a movie.

At one point in La La, Sebastian returns home from a tour where he is playing music he detests. Mia picks a fight when she questions him about how long he will be touring with this band. During their fight scene, Mia is not angry with Sebastian for working in a successful band, she is not upset that he will be touring for a long time; she is devastated that he has surrendered his song. She asks him if he likes the music he is playing for the aptly named band “The Messengers,” to which he replies it doesn’t matter. “No one even likes jazz… not even you.” But Mia points out that passion is infectious. She enjoys jazz now, because Sebastian’s passion made her see jazz as more than elevator music.

Whether by nature, nurture or something else, this passion bursts forth from the few above average livers of life. To whatever degree a person is an artist is the degree to which she must sing her song for all to hear. Few make this truth clearer than Dalia Moukarker, the Palestinian flutist.

Dalia had a dream, “music for me is my voice,” she said, “it helps me to speak. I must let it out.” But, living on the border of Palestine and Israel made it nearly impossible for her to play. She was poor and relegated to practicing on an out-of-tune, broken instrument. There were no teachers near her in Palestine; it was frequently impossible to cross the border into Israel to see the only teacher nearby. The few times she managed to see her teacher, he told her that she played with the energy of freedom; her playing held the rare quality he had seen maybe five or six times in half a century.

The source of her perseverance through this originated from the music of a famous swiss flutist, Emmanuel Pahud. All her life, Dalia had surrounded herself with photos and posters of the flutist. After years of practice, Dalia won a seat at a class conducted by Pahud himself. This led to a song that reached all the way to the heart of a professor in America, who then sent Dalia two new flutes; She then attracted the notice of a foundation that spreads peace in the Middle East through music, they began to fund her lessons; ultimately, she was one of only four flutists accepted into a top music conservatory in Germany.

Her voice was heard.

The characters in a Chazelle movie are messengers of hope in a cynical world. Sebastian provides that spark of hope at the precise moment Mia requires it. Fletcher, too, provides a different type of hope. His is more akin to adding gasoline to a spark.

The Longfellow poem ends as does Chazelle’s movies, with a solid thunk!

Stanza 3, The Friend:

There is no great genius without some touch of madness — Aristotle

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do — Apple

In Chazelle’s movies it is possible to move from a childish dream of becoming “one of the greats” to actually performing “the greatest mother fucking solo the world has ever seen;” from a mad hope of becoming a famous actress to the audition of a lifetime.

Of course one must travel through the crucible of pain in order to arrive at such a destination. Andrew would not have been near prepared enough to play his astounding solo performance were his hands not toughened with calluses; Mia would have surrendered were it not for the passion of a Troubadourian Knight. They earned the strength to make their leaps.

These mad ones are the reason America has reached its current heights in art, science, technology, business. The mad ones push the human race onward and upward.

For a thousand years people have dreamed of flight. By the late 1800s, a heavier-than-air flying machine was seen as an impossible fantasy. Were someone today to claim she was building a space ship that traveled faster than light, we would call her a fool. This same feeling of absurdity is captured in a popular poem at the turn of the 20th century: “Darius Green and his Flying Machine,” which tells the story of a silly boy who jumped off roofs while sitting in a chair hoping to fly. Everyone knew it was impossible.

Until two mad brothers showed the world it was possible.

Lightning in the sky had been known to be a force utterly separated from forces on the ground, until a madman ran out in a lightning storm with a kite and a key; the very idea of capturing that electric power for human use was “ignus fatuus” — fairy tale — until a mad scientist turned on a lightbulb; women did not posses the proper technical mind needed to fly a plane, until a crazy woman flew across the Atlantic ocean, alone.

We need these madmen to demarcate our conception of the possible, by going beyond what is believed to be possible. As William Blake put it, “you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” It is the example of these mad ones that shows us what is more than enough.

Some mad ones show us what is enough and sometimes they are struck by lightning, or lambasted as frauds, or worse. Whether they succeed or fail, it is in the leaping that they show us the boundary — the current line of human possibility.

There were many deaths over the millennia as men attempted to fly; many who tried to tame lightning found themselves at the end of an awesome power that destroyed them; many who sailed into the distance, never to return. It is by their example that we are given new vision from which to see the boundaries of our world.

“The real voyage of discovery,” Proust said, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”

The Madness of Damien Chazelle is his audacity to offer to a cynical world new colors with which to see. He shows us with every character that those crazy enough to pursue an impossible ideal do more than change the world; they inspire the rest of us. Their lives, actions and examples are the new colors by which we can see.

This is the antidote to cynicism: admiration.

Admiration leads to passion within an individual. The more each one of us can replace cynicism — the focus on flaws and wrong-doing — with admiration — the focus on skill and right-action — the more each one of us will become a more passionate dreamer. Every new dreamer our society produces replaces an old cynic. The more our society dreams, the more we push all of humanity forward. If America is to lead and inspire the world in the 21st century, it will not be with the deadliest weapons, it will not come from the most distracting entertainment, or even from the best designed and most efficiently manufactured products; it will be because here more than anywhere else on earth, the Andrews, Mias, Dalias, Earharts, Edisons, Jobs’, Wright Brothers, and Chazelles are free to pursue whatever madness takes ahold of them.

Replacing cynicism with admiration in 2016 was thought to be impossible until a madman showed us what that looks like. Moving forward will not be easy, but Chazelle has provided us with a guide.

I’d like to conclude with an imaginary interaction between a cynic and Damien Chazelle. Some critics have written articles that La La is in fact a very cynical movie, and they cite as their evidence the scene where a woman asks if the food she ordered has gluten. When she learns that it does, she disgustedly demands a refund.

Cynic: You, Chazelle are the cynic.

Chazelle: And why do you think that?

Cynic: For you ridicule the unique beliefs of people and places, as you do when you ridicule the woman who wants a refund, because her food is not gluten-free.

Chazelle: Is cynicism the equivalent of criticism then?

Cynic: You create worlds unlike the real world, just so you can attack someone’s lifestyle. I call that cynicism.

Chazelle: So this is the meaning of my work in your view. What of their endings?

Cynic: Irrelevant. Life’s not like that.

Chazelle: And that is why they need us.

The Fools Who Dream

I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once, Barefoot…

She smiled, Leapt, without looking And tumbled into the Seine! The water was freezing she spent a month sneezing but said she would do it, again

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

She captured a feeling

Sky with no ceiling Sunset inside a frame She lived in her liquor and died with a flicker; I’ll always remember the flame

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

She told me: A bit of madness is key to give us new color 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.

And here’s to the fools who dream Crazy as they may seem Here’s to the hearts that break Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back, to then Her, and the snow, and the Seine. Smiling through it she said She’d do it, again