An exploration of LA through the prism of La La Land, The Neon Demon and Tangerine
There are places that have a certain personality to them, even if you’ve never been there. Where does this impression of familiarity come from? Culture. The films, songs, poems, photos of a place build up something intangible yet immutable. You only have to look at the stereotype of Paris as the city of Love and the disappointment felt by some tourists when they discover that Paris is, in fact, a city ‘comme les autres’.For me, as a cinema student, one of the largest and richest mythologies in my mind has been built up around LA (it’s close-run with New York but I have actually been to New York so it’s hard to detach myth from memory). LA I have never been to, not even as a child too young to remember. I don’t think I even know anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time there. Everything I know about LA has been passed down to me through cultural artefacts and, as it is the home of Hollywood, largely through the films produced there. I became acutely aware of this imaginary LA over the past year as I seemed to see more films rooted in the city. La La Land (Damien Chazelle 2016), The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn 2016) and Tangerine (Sean Baker 2015).
So what have the movies told me about their hometown?
Spoilers. For everything. Consider yourself warned.
Tangerine is the story of downtown LA on Christmas eve. We couldn’t be further away from the glitz and glamour normally associated with the City of Angels. “LA is a beautifully wrapped lie.” proclaims one character. If so, what is the lie, and where is the beauty?
La La Land takes us to the heart of the LA lie, the conceit even. The title itself calls to mind the idea of LA as the Dream Factory – a place where hundreds upon hundreds of anonymised workers can make production line dreams and sell them to a production line audience. The rip-roaring success of La La Land only really serves to underline this point. The machine’s still running, even if it has become self-aware.
The Neon Demon brings us closer to a balanced picture. The city is huge and intimidating and this young innocent model seems determined to rise up the ranks from her grimy motel room. From Sunset Boulevard to those dancers in the opening number of La La Land these characters come to LA with big dreams and “without a nickel to their name”.
In these three recent films the characters deal seem to be striving towards goals that recede away from them, never quite becoming who they’re trying to be, or maybe worse, making huge sacrifices in order to progress. This is not only lauded as the way to make it to the top, but those who don’t make these sacrifices are punished. Jesse (Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon), the naturally beautiful model who realises that she doesn’t have to diet and undergo plastic surgery to make it big is promptly killed by those who have worked harder, longer and suffered more. Similarly in La La Land, removed from their upbeat earworm backing track, the lyrics to Another Day of Sun tell a similar story of glorified hardship.
“Climb these hills/ I’m reaching for the heights/ And chasing all the lights that shine/ And when they let you down/ You’ll get up off the ground”
The whole film begins with a young woman gleefully singing:
“I think about that day/ I left him at a Greyhound station/ West of Santa Fé/ We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true/ Still I did what I had to do”
Her smile as she recounts her sacrifice foreshadows what will eventually happen to our protagonists who will mutually decide to give each other up for their individual dreams. The heartrending epilogue as Seb (Ryan Gosling) plays out his fantasy of being with Mia (Emma Stone) confirms our suspicions – had he followed his heart his dream would never have come true. Mia herself is ground down like the runway models by a world where rejection from casting directors is not only omnipresent but entirely indifferent. She goes through the same gruelling experiences as Jesse, surrounded by identical actresses for every role. Jesse is picked for her outstanding physical presence, Mia permanently left to fall by the wayside. The difference between them is desperation. Mia wants every part she applies for, the rejection “just hurts too much” every time. Jesse seems to be there by accident, she knows she has no real talent. “But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty”. Her meteoric ascent is due mainly to this innocent nonchalance that is so refreshing compared to her desperate and bloodthirsty competition. Mia, in her own way, also has to lose all of her confidence, resilience and her relationship to get to a state of innocence and spontaneity that eventually brings her success.
Tangerine plays out like the gritty b-side to La La Land. The lowest point for Seb in La La Land is arguably his getting fired on Christmas eve from an uptight upmarket cocktail bar. Whereas the character that populate Tangerine spend their Christmas eve in seedier and seedier joints, a motel full of prostitutes, a donut shop cum drug dealer headquarters. Here there are no grand dreams of fortune and fame, the characters are simply trying to play the roles laid out for them by society. This is underlined by two central characters being transwomen and prostitutes, a line of work that demands a very performative femininity of them both. One of them, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), wants to make it as a singer but seems to accept that there’s no real future for her. The other, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), spends the film trying to gain and fill the role of Chester’s (James Ransone) fiancée. The action kicks off from Sin-Dee’s rage at being cheated on with a cis woman, a role she cannot by definition fill. Not to say that she seems to want to. Often during the film she refers to herself as “a girl like me” while gesturing towards her crotch. Her status as a transwoman is accepted and embodied without any suggestion of contradiction. In this way the film offers a wide perspective of different roles offered to women. Two trans prostitutes playing up their femininity, a cis prostitute in a line of work that is by its very nature performative, a mother-in-law trying to be an authoritative matriarch and form her family into the ideal and lastly the wife of a man who frequents these trans prostitutes. The film ends in a confrontation between all of these characters where Yeva, the young wife and mother, admits that she has been turning a blind eye to her husband’s nighttime activities. The ideal life she wants to pretend she has comes at the price of pretending nothing is going wrong.
In terms of addressing sexuality Tangerine’s “I’ve never had a pimp that didn’t fuck me” is a far cry from La La Land‘s technicolor universe where our leading couple kiss, I believe, twice, once in a dream sequence. La La Land, a film which Damien Chazelle openly refers to as his love letter to Hollywood seems to take place in a parallel aseptic and asexual universe where the only real forces at play are art and love. It’s the Hollywood universe par excellence full of the influence of historic American censors, and a puritanical work ethic. The musical form replaces the need for any visual or verbal representation of sex between the characters. Every emotional and, for metaphor’s sake, physical climax is replaced by a dance. This dynamic is particularly evident in the Planetarium sequence where a journey into a physical relic of Hollywood history leads to a kiss. However this kiss is delayed by the intervention of Hollywood magic. Instead of consummating their desire physically they are thrown by Hollywood convention into a metaphorical dance and only then share a kiss which is no sooner seen than vignetted and removed from view. However there is another logic for this lack of physicality in La La Land. If the film is a love letter then who can blame Chazelle for leaving out the poverty, misery and grime. Everything we see here is LA through rose-tinted glasses. His love for the city, the dreamers, the jazz and the industry makes us love it just as much. “People love what other people are passionate about.”
What of Refn in all this? Anyone familiar with Refn’s work will not be shocked to find that he doesn’t shy away from these darker themes despite presenting a film focused on the fashion industry – the only industry arguably more superficial and false than Hollywood itself. It’s also not the first time Refn has shown us the underbelly of LA. Drive is to LA what Taxi Driver is to New York. Here however the point of view is much more feminine than that shown in Drive. The women in The Neon Demon are slap in the middle of an industry which, unlike Hollywood, is not driven by passion and hope. There are no stories to tell, just bodies to sell. Jesse arrives in LA the picture of innocence and is quickly inducted into the adult world. Bodies are product in this world, as they were for the pimp in Tangerine. In Tangerine a woman with a vagina is referred to as ‘fish’. For the fashion models bodies are judged on their age as “sour milk” or “fresh meat”. Death, sexuality and food are linked in an uneasy triangle which can be seen as four women discuss lipstick.
“Red rum – that what it’s called. They say women are more likely to buy a lipstick if it’s based on food or sex.”
When Jesse is eventually killed it’s not really certain whether it was a woman scorned or a jealous rival that brought about her downfall and it doesn’t seem to matter since both are so linked in her story. The only thing that was certain was that she was going to die. As soon as the film shows you a swimming pool in an LA mansion you can’t help but feel that someone’s ending up face down in it. Jesse is inducted into sexuality, almost raped and then killed all by women. This sits in stark contrast to the repeated suggestions of a male threat to her wellbeing. The men in the film fall into two categories: they are either generalised predators who will be easily distracted by the next female they find. These is, of course, disturbing, but not nearly as much as the second group of oddly emasculated photographers and fashion designers who are searching for something so specific that, finding Jesse, they immediately proceed to fetishise her image while posing no direct threat to her body. The gold photoshoot sequence shows this best. The experience is unnerving and sexually charged but ultimately there is nothing aggressive or predatory in something so entirely aestheticised. This aesthetic runs through the film, elevating scenes of necrophilia, murder and cannibalism into an eloquent treatise on female sexuality and corporality as product. A commodity that’s somehow unique to each individual and infinitely replaceable and perishable: “That’s LA, they worship everything and value nothing.”
“LA is a beautifully wrapped lie.” says a disenchanted character.
“Agree to disagree” comes back the reply.
So what here isn’t sordid or untrue? If La La Land is the beautiful wrapping, a film made of years of stories and traditions of stories overlapping and inter-referencing each other to the point of creating a secondary city, where is the reality it’s covering? Certainly it won’t be found in a film set on the Warner Brothers lot, where they manufacture the roles everyone else feels they have to play. It’s not to be found in the high-fashion fever dream either.
In the middle of Tangerine is an odd interlude. Sin Dee has spent hours dragging Dinah by the hair round downtown LA screaming at her for sleeping with her man. As they listen to Alexandra’s show they sneak off to smoke crack together. Suddenly the two women who have been ostensibly competing to be seen as Chester’s girl for the whole film are in a moment of complicity and extreme tenderness. The music softens and we’re left with an oddly beautiful moment of two women coming together. This is echoed in the film’s final sequence. After even Alexandra and Sin Dee fall out the film seems set to end on the bleak note of nobody being able to fulfil the role they so badly want to. It is here that Sin Dee is attacked for being a transwoman. The personal drama fades away and Alexandra comes directly to her aid to restore her femininity and confidence at the expense of her own, literally giving Sin Dee her hair. the gesture is poignant and loving despite the maelstrom of awful sordid circumstances that led up to it.
“Agree to disagree.”
These tender moments are what brings the portrayal of LA out of the sordid mess or the over-glamourised. While The Neon Demon offers no redemption, painting the whole city as desperate, soulless and exploitative, La La Land and Tangerine offer up two, very different, but equally strong truths. Truths between people. Both films finish on two people who acknowledge a relationship beyond circumstance and hurt.
The characters in these films aren’t just the victims of their environment. They make choices, real decisions that would be difficult for anyone. Obviously, their surroundings, a city that gives way into arid desert and brush doesn’t help. LA is an oasis where everyone fights one another to drink, we only have to look at the traffic jams leading into LA in La La Land compared to the great ease with which Mia flees the city into small-town oblivion. The difference between the lives loves and dreams of the people in LA is the competition. Any role you could fill could be filled by anyone else. You will age and lose opportunities, your idols will get ‘samba tapas’ed’ and people cheat on each other. The cut-throat environment means that only the strongest and truest things survive, love and passion.
Maybe LA is just the same as everywhere else then, it just happens to be the prism we’ve been offered.