Recently, several Christian friends challenged Kate and me to watch a film they deemed culturally important -- a film illustrating several important points of contact between the gospel and mankind's universal quest to find happiness, meaning, and love in life. Made in the image of God, we cannot pretend indifference to these things. Though we tend to forget (often deliberately) that in God's world such things can only be found God's way, not ours -- that His gifts are best enjoyed with Him and for Him, not without Him and against Him. Go wrong here, and we will spend forever baying with Sir Mick Jagger, "I can't get no satisfaction!"
The movie in question is La La Land. I feel sure you have heard of it? Before I discuss it with you, this morning, let me give a couple of disclaimers. First, the movie does contain several lines of objectionable dialogue, so I couldn't recommend it for young children. Second, if you plan to see this movie, but as yet have not, this article contains SPOILERS! So don't say I didn't warn you!
La La Land is a spellbinding extravaganza, a marriage of old-Hollywood music and dance joined to new-Hollywood cinematography. It tells the age-old story of boy meets girl coupled with the larger question of what it really takes to find satisfaction in life. More to the point, when we can't have both, is satisfaction better defined by who we love or by what we do?
Ryan Gosling plays the boy and Emma Stone, the girl in question. Ryan's character, Sebastian, lives to revive the bygone era of Jazz. His dream is to restore an old Jazz club to its former glory and introduce a rising generation to the music that's new every time it's played. Stone's character, Mia, entertains a more modern dream. Captivated by the allure of the big screen, she longs to make it as an actress.
The movie is predictably predictable with a refreshingly blunt twist in the tail at the end -- a twist that surely resonates with the good, the beautiful, and the true. The question is this: In life, when you can't have it both ways, which matters most: Fulfilling your dreams of worldly success, or fulfilling your heart's desire for love?
As the movie begins, neither knows the other, and neither of them is doing very well. Mia is trapped in the endless loop of dead-end auditions. In a delightfully cliched, but hilarious sequence, we see Emma Stone acting her heart out before bored directors, all of whom want someone prettier, thinner, funnier, different than her. Similarly, Sebastian is trapped in his own version of the same nightmare, playing the tackiest of classic, bouncy Christmas tunes in a restaurant full of ear-less eaters, deaf to his musical genius.
In predictable romcom fashion, the two protagonists meet early on in the movie, twice in fact. As is almost always the case in these kinds of movies, any initial spark of attraction is shrouded with undeniable hostility. For any familiar with the trailer, the second meeting is particularly jarring (see below), because in the second meeting Sebastian breezes rudely past Mia as she waits to congratulate his piano playing. In the trailer, taking an identical scene from the end of the movie, he walks right into her waiting lips. So when you watch the move itself, and not for the last time, the audience is left thinking, "Well, that wasn't supposed to happen!"
In predictable romcom fashion, united by the angst of unrealized dreams, in time, however, our unlikely heroes do indeed fall in love.
No surprises there. So far so good!
As you might expect, it's a rather long, but shaggy-dog story. Sebastian gives up his dream of playing old style Count Bassie Jazz, settling instead for the compromised fusion of Jazz and Rock, all peddled by a deceitful friend who betrayed him in the past. But at least the job pays the bills!
Mia gives up acting other people's scripts, choosing instead to write her own one-person show. Desperate for popular acclaim, she rents a dying theater in a dying part of town, all in an effort to reach, one last time, for her dying dream. At last, opening night arrives. Nervous, she walks out on stage to see only a handful of theater-goers scattered bear the back of the auditorium. Worst of all, Seb is not one of them. Near the front, lonely in a crowd of empty seats, his reserved seat amplifies Mia's failure. He wasn't rude, of course, just stupid. A typical male, our hero forgot he had a photo shoot for his new band scheduled that night. Predictably, he tries to do both, racing to make it before the end, and predictably, he arrives after it's all been said and done.
Mia is not happy. The relationship is over. In fact, as far as she is concerned, everything is over. Dejected, she retreats back home to Nowheresville, where she began to dream as a child.
But we all know, this is not the end.
Some time later, Sebastian's cell phone rings. Predictably he is lying in bed asleep. Predictably, he wakes to fumble with his phone. Predictably the voice at the end of the line is a casting director -- one of the few who bothered to attend Mia's failed opening night-- who is trying desperately to contact the next big star in order to offer Mia her first big break.
Sebastian jumps into his car and drives to the rescue. At first, Mia isn't having any of it. No, there have been just too many failed auditions, too many dashed hopes, too many disappointments. Better not to try again at all than to try again and fail! Eventually, who could have predicted it, after a few cliffhanger will she/won't she moments, Sebastian wins her round, and they drive back to the big smoke.
From the outset, we just know this audition is going to be different. This time Mia is the one walking past the herd of "also-rans," all walking away from the audition room in despair. This time it seems she is the one, and she is! Her future is made -- in Paris, where the filming will take place.
For a time, at least, it seems the two lovers must part company. No doubt, there are many jazz clubs in Paris, but Seb's dream is in Hollywood, not Paris, and dreams must be followed. Right? But this little brief separation is a small price to pay in comparison with the dream! So, confident of their forever love, they part company -- but only for a season.
Fast forward 5 years and, we meet Mia, the superstar. Now she has it all. It's the life we all knew she would one day live. The fame we all knew she would one day enjoy. On the way home from the set on the film lot, she stops at the coffee shop where she used to eke out a living. The barristas, all aspiring actress, gawk at her the way she used to gawk at the stars who came in to buy coffee when she lived on the bottom rung. The irony sweetens her coffee, and she is loving it. She returns home to the gorgeous townhouse-of-our-dreams. She opens the door, a little girl greets her mommy. How delightful! Out of the bedroom, walks her husband. He is the handsome epitomy of every other girl's dream. But, he is not Sebastian. I know, I checked twice, maybe three times! A friend perhaps, or the butler? -- I hoped. No, she just kissed him, he's her husband.
Now she has it all, but not with Sebastian. Someone else has taken his place. This is not the way I dreamt -- sorry, I am forgetting myself here -- this is not the way Catherine dreamt the movie would end! Most surprisingly of all, she seems to be happy with her new life. The betrayal of it!
That night, she heads out on a date with her no name, pretty-faced husband. Stuck in Hollywood's endless traffic, on a whim, in an effort to find any restaurant anywhere, they take the nearest exit off the freeway. After a delightful meal, they head out for a stroll through the town. Hearing Jazz music wafting across the evening air, they follow the sounds to a new club. Guess whose club they happen to enter? The sign says it all -- the sign she helped him design all those years ago, "Seb's" - Seb's with a quarter note apostrophe between the "b" and the "s."
Full of life, Seb is on stage enjoying his dream, welcoming a new generation of adoring Jazz devotees. Then, across the room, watching him, he sees her. Their eyes lock. They both wake up from their dream. As his monolog drifts into an awkward silence, he seems to shrink. With nothing more to say, Seb makes his way gingerly to the piano, and sits down. With the awkwardness of a soul that has forgotten how to sing, he begins to play their song (really the anthem of the movie). But he plays it slowly, with only one hand, mostly with only one finger, and always in a minor key. The song is an audible metaphor of many a life -- the emptiest of lives, in which all the dreams come true without love.
The tension is unbearable. Mia has nowhere to go but out, and nothing to do but leave. With her beau in tow, she turns back for one last wistful look at what might have been. Again, their eyes meet...
In a moment of devastating clarity, Seb reviews their relationship. If only he hadn't walked past her in that first meeting? If only he had walked into her waiting arms (like the scene in the trailer). Could this be another metaphor? -- of a man so disappointed with what he didn't have that he walked right past what really mattered. In his mind's eye we see what might have been, what he wished he had done, and how we all wished the film had ended.
In the final analysis, it was inevitable, I suppose. Two people chasing two autonomous dreams is no way to build one marriage.
There is a lesson here for us all. We all have ideas of what it will take to really make our lives sing. Often these dreams find their roots in more material things, bigger achievements, and better accolades. Such things promise us life if only we can catch them. The problem should be obvious: more, bigger, and better are always receding targets. Always just out of reach, they can never be enjoyed in the present.
Worst of all, those who spend their lives chasing bigger, better, and more out there in the world tend to miss what really matters in life: LOVE. The cost is appalling. But like most of our worst debts, the full price is only felt at the end, when we look back at what might have been.
Have you forgotten what really matters? Has your quest for more blinded you to who you are? We are made in the image of God --- the God who is love is the God who made life. In the eternity before the beginning, before He did anything outside of the Trinity, God simply and only loved -- the Father loving His Son. The Son loving His Father. The Spirit of love proceeding from the Father and the Son to the Father and the Son. The love of God precedes His work. So it should be with us.
Should this not be self-evident? Our first duty and the first commandments are to love -- love to God and love to neighbor. Love is the path to life. We will never find the one without the other.
Draw near to Christ, the lover of your soul. The One who loved you and gave Himself up for you. The one who longs to commune with you, to fill you with His fullness. Draw near to Him, and He will draw near to you! He has come that you might have life and have it abundance. So desirous was He of this, that He came to die in the far place so that He might hold you close forever.
"Be imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love just a Christ also has loved you and gave Himself up for you." (Eph 5:1). Live to love and to be loved. Give your life away to others. Don't forget to treasure your spouse. Don't despise the patter of tiny feet in the living room, the inconvenient rowdiness of a home too loud for comfort, the request of a child, "Daddy, I know you are busy, but would you please play with me?" Don't ignore your friends. Don't forget the "undesireables" "beneath you" who yearn inconveniently for your friendship.
Just like with God, it is such community that gives warmth and meaning to our creative labors. As Jack reminded the men in the Fall conference, it is the essence of manliness. Remember: as you act like men, "Let all that you do be done in love." (1Cor 16:14)