La La Land released in 2016 was a musical comedy romance filmed against a backdrop of violence that was both implicit in the film itself and in the directorial history that preceded it. The film shot into the headlines, first in the flash of hype which successfully publicised its launch, and made out that it was a more substantial reflection of Hollywood life than the light froth it turned out to be, and then in the embarrassed mistaken announcement of best picture award at the Oscars through which it almost eclipsed the success of the black and queer film Moonlight. Just as much as Moonlight was about the weight of history, about the multiple forms of oppression that condition contemporary politics, so La La Land was about the erasure of history and its replacement with a glossy surface and the pretence that an image of success should be enough to win out in the end, even if that was a bitter-sweet image of success haunted by the regret of its two main characters at their actual failure to make it into the big time.
The film traces the interwoven wannabe-celebrity life trajectories of Emma Stone as ‘Mia Dolan’, and Ryan Gosling as ‘Sebastian Wilder’. They meet and fight and part and meet again in a sequence of elaborate dance numbers that conjure up the heyday of the entertainment industry they themselves want to break into. There are a number of faux-reflexive reminders that they really are actors, including their own film date when they see Rebel Without a Cause before going to the planetarium which also features in that classic film. Emma wants to be an actress, which entails a running pretend in-joke for the audience as she struggles at auditions and then fails with her own one-woman show. Ryan, meanwhile, wants to perform at his own jazz club, for which he is eventually rewarded with a cringe-making final scene in which he hosts and stars at the piano as a nice white guy surrounded by black musicians as his employees (and that involves a darker joke in which Ryan replicates the recuperation of jazz by white mass culture and sidelining of its history).
The opening scene has Mia and Sebastian enacting a first missed encounter during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles highway, during which the first big stage number ‘Another Day of Sun’ sees drivers leaping from their cars and dancing across the bonnets and roofs as they sing of their aspiration to make it in Hollywood and of unfulfilled dreams. One cannot watch this six-minute single take – fake, it turns out, for it was stitched together from three separate shots with some clever cuts – without thinking that these poor saps pouring their hearts into the opening number are the self-same characters they are performing, a very postmodern replication of what is represented that most Marxists hate. Class is pretty much missing from the film, replaced with aspiration, a self-admiring film about two narcissists who we are supposed to sob over when they are unable to get it together. As well as this implicit symbolic violence in the texture of the film, there is the violent quasi-prequel in the director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash two years earlier which stages sadistic coaching of a jazz student in which the message is no pain no gain, lots of pain and humiliation.
The big oft-repeated accusation in the mainstream media against revolutionary Marxists is that they live in some kind of La La Land, doomed to hope for somewhere over the rainbow where their dream of another world beyond capitalism might come about, and it is unfortunately true that some left groups do actually already seem to live there. Some groups really do fit the bill, hallucinating into existence a version of the world as they would like it to be so their own version of Marxism can be made to appear foolproof. Meet the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), formed out of the ruins of what was once one of the largest Trotskyist groups in Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) led by Gerry Healy – a plum part for Ryan Gosling coming up – who danced on the international stage of far-left politics until the mid-1980s with his best friend Vanessa Redgrave, who will one day perhaps be played by Emma Stone. They have gone their different ways now – Gerry to the great Fourth International in the sky, and Vanessa in other political and artistic directions (with fanfare launches of the now defunct ‘Marxist Party’ and then the ‘Peace and Progress Party’).
Those were the days. Those old WRP years were years of steady industrial implantation from its formation as ‘The Club’ in 1947 which was encouraged by the Fourth International (FI) to split from the Revolutionary Communist Party (then the British section of the FI) and work inside the Labour Party. The Club recruited leading Communist Party activists after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then announced a jazzier new name, the ‘Socialist Labour League’ in 1959 before its final incarnation as the WRP in 1973. By that time the WRP had broken from the Fourth International to become a key player in its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ (ICFI) in 1953, and it then refused to take part in the reunification of the FI in 1963. It was from that experience that it hallucinated into existence its favourite bugbear ‘Pabloism’ (the argument named after Michel Pablo, that the FI should participate in larger organisations in order to win activists to a revolutionary programme).
That old WRP is not to be confused, SEP and WSWS supporters will remind you, with the treacherous splitters of the present-day so-called fake rival WRP which still publishes the old WRP newspaper ‘News Line’ (founded in 1976 as successor to ‘Workers Press’). The SEP insists that it and it alone is the ICFI, as do the current WRP. The disintegration of the WRP was a tragic, slow-burning spectacle staged for the rest of the left through the 1970s and then dramatically fast in 1985. Fantasy displaced reality as the WRP turned into a kind of cult, and Gerry Healy began to give lectures on ‘dialectics’ during which a correct Marxist account of the world was advanced to explain, for example, that there could not possibly have been a revolution in Cuba because there was no revolutionary party there.
The rest of the British far left knew there were serious problems, that the glittery promises of the WRP to its actor members that they would have their own clubs were empty. Corin Redgrave had bought them White Meadows Villa in Derbyshire in 1975 for ‘training’, but finance also came from the brutal regimes in Iraq and Libya in return for favourable coverage in its press. 1976 saw the launch of the WRP ‘Security and the Fourth International’ investigation and a campaign which saw a stepping up of violence against other groups that were viewed as complicit in the death of Trotsky. This crazy conspiracy theory carries on today in the fevered imagination of the Socialist Equality Party and in WSWS accusations against rival groups.
The WRP industrial base was bit by bit eclipsed by the influx of revolutionary luvvies attracted by the passion for Gerry Healy by Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin who at one point made serious inroads into the actors union ‘Equity’. Equity members who joined the WRP would then get a taste of the humiliation that had been metered out to other petty bourgeois types, well, actually to anyone who disagreed with Gerry, and some of them seemed to enjoy it. It might be a public tongue-lashing or, if you were lucky, you might even be slapped by the great man. The all-singing all-dancing dream crashed as the violence came to a head in revelations that Gerry Healy had sexually abused young women in the organisation during what the British tabloid press called the ‘Red in the Bed’ events.
They were all already heading for La La Land, whether that included buying Trotsky’s death-mask and displaying it at rallies, or using Richard Burton’s photo as Trotsky in public literature in place of a picture of the real thing. Today the SEP and WSWS lurches from fantasy to fantasy, including bizarre reflexively ironic attacks on postmodernism, which they now seem to hate almost as much as Pabloism. They were once a serious industrial force and did good anti-racist work which won black youth to their party, but now all the SEP and WSWS really seems to rebel against is the rest of the left, and reality has been left far behind.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.