Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“La La Land” is the only recent movie I have seen to which I can relate to so completely. My husband and I finally got around to it the other night on our anniversary. We had gone out for a nice Italian dinner, perused a used bookstore, came home to kids ready for bed (thank you, babysitter), put them to bed, and streamed the movie on my husband’s laptop—the strange mix of modern times and traditional ways did not strike us as funny at all. Of course we would stream a movie on our date night since we do not have a television. Of course we would first take time to Instagram a picture of the gorgeous 90-year-old 31-volume set of Robert Louis Stevenson we had found at the bookstore lamenting, yet thankful, that the books had been passed over so many times to have been marked down three times. We felt that we had to liberate them from the dusty top shelf and bring them to a place where they would be truly appreciated.
I wondered as we drove home what our society had come to that it did not see the value in so brilliant a writer as Stevenson or even the set of Charles Dickens that we left waiting for another sympathetic buyer. And then we turned on “La La Land”—a film about people of my generation seeking their dreams and discovering that they cannot perhaps have it all after all, a film indicative of our generation discovering that all the liberation that happened in the sixties and seventies did not give us anything solid to stand on. In fact the film downright promotes all that my adult life has been focused on—discovering the beauty of our past traditions and bringing them back as fully as possible into our modern lives. I am fully aware that we cannot have the fifties again—nor do I want the fifties again. We can’t go back, but we can recover the beauty that was lost, because the artifacts of it are still there to be found.
The leading man in “La La Land,” Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), is an aspiring jazz musician who wants to open his own club where they play authentic jazz like that of its beginnings in New Orleans. He is invited to tour with a modern quasi-jazz group, considering it only to have a regular gig for the sake of his love interest, Mia (Emma Stone). As he internally struggles to join this group, the leader of the group, Keith (John Legend), tells him that his dreams are futile—he will not be able to make the old style jazz loved again:
How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You're holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.
I feel that I have heard this again and again from the world—specifically about my love of Church traditions—in fact it is something we have even heard from the Pope who said last November, “I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the preconciliar liturgy but who want it.” I think that we are trying to understand it ourselves.
The generations before us threw open so many options for us. Everyone can go to college, We have conveniences at the touch of a button and knowledge at our fingertips. A woman can have any career she wants with contraception on demand with abortion as a back up. We can do anything we want unless it does not harm anyone else. Yet, a relative of mine sees my sister and I as having thrown away all that feminism did for us by looking at all of our options and choosing to be stay at home mothers supported by our working husband despite our graduate degrees.
Further, the Catholic liturgy has been stripped so far down that we can do whatever we want with it: Jazz Mass, Polka Mass, Rock Mass, Clown Mass, continual-jokes-by-the-celebrant Mass, piano-and-guitar Mass. And those who gave these options to us wonder why we long for the preconciliar liturgy and choose to go to a Mass in Latin celebrated ad orientem with Gregorian chant.
I first realized that I could not have it all when I was a junior in high school. My memory of reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin is tied with the discussion we had in class, at my all-girls Catholic school, about if it was possible to have a career and be a mother—a discussion which has never ended in any of our lives I am sure. We were told from our childhoods by our parents, teachers, PBS shows, cartoons, commercials, that we “could be anything we wanted to be” and that “we could have it all.” But “La La Land”, with its bittersweet ending, shows that “having it all” cannot happen in reality. The musicals of the forties and fifties had storybook endings of the guy and girl achieving their dream and getting each other. Perhaps they just ended too soon.
“La La Land” could have ended with the dream come true and the hope of being together, but it showed the reality of the sacrifice of some hopes for others and that sacrifice as being worth it. The promise of fulfilled dreams and having it all has left our generation searching—and some of us have found that what we are lacking is the very thing which those before us discarded. We have also learned that having it all is not going to fulfill us—what we want is the good and the beautiful.
While we were taught that our happiness is something we can make for ourselves, some of us are finding that happiness is not something we can make for ourselves, but is something that is given to us from elsewhere. Mia had to be discovered—someone called her to the life of movie acting—she could not make it there on her own. Sebastian devoted himself to the love of the beauty of traditional jazz, and through his love of it brought others to it. They both found that they could not quite have it all, and that sacrifices are a part of living a good life.
Humans are meant for something beyond themselves. We are created for happiness with God, and “La La Land” gives us a taste of the emptiness of life without receiving the beauty that is in God. And while ultimately all of humanity cannot be happy without God, and “La La Land” does not take us all the way there, it is nice to see that those in the secular society of my generation are still on the search. It is nice to see that I am not alone in my dissatisfaction with the loss of the traditions, but also not alone in my discovery of the good and beautiful of times past—which is, in itself, timeless.