Life in Technicolor: “La La Land” Rewrites the Musical Genre

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Contemporary cinema is all about nostalgia these days. But where most films recede into self-referential tedium, along comes a fresh, beautiful little marvel that not only provides an entertaining cinematic experience, but, I think, rewrites the concept of the musical entirely.

La La Land is the darling of the current awards season, and rightly so. The film has an interesting (if somewhat a bit predictable) storyline, excellent music, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in recent years. It is not just a musical love story, but a love letter to the idea of Los Angeles itself: the hope, the dream, the romance and the craziness that is the “city of stars.”

Approaching the film from a design perspective, this has to be one of the most gorgeously photographed pictures I’ve seen. Linus Sandgren, director of photography, did a knockout job in capturing not just the remarkable colour tone of the film, but setting that against the backdrop of Los Angeles made for a dynamic pairing. The use of primary colours and accents stood out for me in creating the hyper-reality that contributed to the dreamlike narrative. It’s certainly refreshing to see such attention to detail paid to subtle things like colour (especially after watching the washed-out tones of recent DC and Marvel superhero movies). That photo above captures this aptly: the costume designer expertly manipulated the perfect colour tone to complement both characters; the bright colours for Stone’s Mia and the stylish yet subtle hues for Gosling’s Seb perfectly complement each other whilst making the characters pop on-screen; it’s hyper-real cinema at its best.

The entire picture feels surreal; the breakouts into song and dance, coupled with these vibrant colour tones, truly transport the viewer to this alternate reality. They heighten the sensory experience of the city, and in this exaggeration emphasize the relationships between the characters and magnify an otherwise standard plotline.

Director Damien Chazelle did a good job in getting sterling performances from the leads. Gosling and Stone have undeniable chemistry (this isn’t their first on-screen pairing), and their voices aren’t that bad either. The songs, composed by Justin Hurwitz, are catchy. I loved the use of jazz as a metaphor for the entire film – being used both literally as a narrative device for Gosling’s character Sebastian, and more abstractly as that moment of magic, that tension and dynamism that is Los Angeles and the romance with this city; the romance that emerges from this city. The refrain that becomes the film’s theme is beautiful; it carries the gravitas of the narrative whilst imbuing a certain nostalgia, a subtle longing for that golden age of cinema (this is how you do nostalgia: with classy subtlety, rather than in-your-face rehashing).

Here’s that theme:

That same feeling is conveyed in one of my other favourite numbers, City of Stars:

John Legend’s character Keith captured it best when he said:

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

In a way this is what La La Land is about: using mechanisms of the past to proffer the idea of a bolder, new cinematic experience: one that uses the traditional tools of cinema (writing, music, cinematography) to create compelling new narratives and entertainment. As much as it is a love letter to the city it’s named after, La La Land is also a homage to Hollywood itself: capturing the frenzy, the absurdity and the magic of showbiz through the perspective of our heroes and their whirlwind romance.

In a world that’s getting darker each day, it’s refreshing to see a bit of technicolor injected into a movie experience that is true, unabashed escapism. La La Land transports you to a time when cinema meant something: losing yourself in the romance of the magic unfolding on the silver screen, getting catchy (but still good) songs stuck in your head, and reveling in the chaos of Hollywood and its bright colours, all in glorious Cinemascope.

As Seb says, “I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”

8/10

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The Next Frontier of Civilisation: Contemplating Mars

Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)
Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)

It sounds like science fiction: a one-way trip to the Red Planet, with the chance to be one of the first humans to venture forth into the vastness of deep space and establish the first Martian colony. A project called Mars One is attempting to turn that wisp into reality, and already over 70 000 people have signed up. But this entire project draws a deeper level of contemplation: of our future as a civilisation.

Renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan (one of my scientific heroes) wrote this in his bestselling novel Cosmos: 

Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred, and there are few notions more stirring than the idea of a neighbouring planet inhabited by intelligent beings. […] If the planet ever is terraformed, it will be done by human beings whose permanent residence and planetary affiliation is Mars. The Martians will be us.

–Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” (1980)

Our future lies in the stars, on the dusty surface of a distant neighbour we’ve gazed at for centuries, dreamt of visiting, wrote extensively about and let our imaginations run wild upon its rocky, crimson surface. Mars has a special place in my heart. I’ve written about it fictionally, and gave a presentation on it in Grade 10. Even before that, I had whimsical dreams of making a movie called Mission to Mars. But now, the dream of visiting this planet is becoming a lot more real each day. Scientists, engineers, economists, medical specialists, writers are all coming together to imagine just how we could take our civilisation to the next frontier: space.

The Problem Right Now

Earth is a beautiful planet. It has just the perfect blend of ingredients to allow you and I to exist. However, in our advancement as a species, we’ve created a few challenges: globalisation, industrialisation, and the growth of our species has resulted in depleting natural resources and, effectively, a dying planet. Call it what you want – global warming, climate change – our impact has rendered our planet unfit, unhealthy. And whilst urbanists and others try to find solutions to our crises, I do believe that the time to consider a second planet is now.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched. Because it is. But if we were to stop, and consider how rapidly our society has advanced in merely 150 years – from a society dreaming about soaring amongst the birds, to one that takes flight for granted, even complains about the Wi-Fi signal onboard. We’ve progressed. And I think, in that vain, contemplating the Red Planet is only natural; a logical progression from where we were, to where we are, to where we shall be.

Contemplating Mars is an exciting solution to some of our great challenges.

Why it’s compelling

Thinking about establishing permanent residence on an entirely new planet is a truly exhilarating thing. Imagine Mars as a blank canvas: with an already intelligent society descending upon it, we have the opportunity to intelligently design what could be a “civilisation 2.0,” a new take on society, politics, and urban living.

We could start society afresh: history has taught us of the social implications befalling the colonisation of distant lands. It usually leads to civil unrest, civil war, and the assertion of supremacy of one group upon a larger citizenship. These are issues we can avoid, for we now have the chance to strategically plan our new society, and to design all its constituent components. It’s a vision of utopia, yes – and here, literature warns us that utopian conceptions are prone to failure in the face of reality. But by designing everything – from the technology, to the social engineering – we have the opportunity to create something truly remarkable on an altogether fascinating planet. Whilst it may never be perfect, it will be as close to it as we could get.

The science and technology are not quite there yet: much still needs to be done to get our ideas and their execution up to the scratch of the “greatly advanced technology” Sagan talks of needed to accomplish such things as full-scale planetary terraformation. But if we can get more people invested in the notion that going to Mars is a very real possibility, and that we can establish our presence there in a very tangible way, I think the momentum will begin to increase, propelling this dream into reality.

The Mars One Project

Mars One is interesting. At first, its ideas will enthral you (I invite you to visit their website and see for yourself the promises they make). However, their mission should not be considered the final word on this idea. Mars One is still very much a project in its infancy; after all, creating a new colony is extremely expensive. They talk of outsourcing the tech aspects to more qualified private companies, like SpaceX for the launch vehicle. But SpaceX themselves have still got a lot of work to do; they’ve only recently (last year) managed to launch an unmanned craft to the International Space Station. Whether the Mars One project will prevail remains to be seen; 70 000 people think so, but reality in this case seems to be the big door at the end of their dreams.

This brings about another interesting node of thought: will the future of space travel, and thus, exploration, be a triumph of the private sector, or will government agencies continue to take us towards the stars? From the progress of pioneers like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, I think the days of the politically-sided government agency funding space are limited, and the age of commercial travel, and the innovation spawned from competition, will be one aspect that might get us to Mars quicker than bureaucratic methods.

One thing’s for certain, however: those who will eventually be jettisoned to our neighbour may risk the very real possibility of not returning to Earth. Their’s will be a one-way journey to a new future and all its possibilities. Only the most committed souls, those so devout to the advancement of science and the progress of our race, will make that difficult psychological and social cut. But they’ll be heroes, and will get to live the dream many of us have harboured for years.

In closing…

I’m not saying that we should ditch efforts to solve the problems facing us here on Earth; that we should run away (literally) from the challenges of this age. Urbanisation, depleting fossil fuels, and increasing populations are issues that really need more attention. But if, for a moment, we were to step back, and consider advancing our species, propagating ourselves into the stars, and all the opportunities (and inherent challenges) that face us in that grander scheme of things, I truly think we can begin to see innovation on an awe-inspiring scale. We can begin to inspire generations to embrace the concept of moving beyond Earth, of standing on the shoulders of giants like Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and those others so invested in humanity’s future. We can begin to see ourselves as not only the explorers, but the settlers too: the founders of a new era.

An Essay on Dubai

In mid-January I was fortunate to travel to Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. Travelling with an eye being trained in the professions of the built environment means that it’s virtually impossible not to notice the more intricate things that occur in cities. And as such, I have noticed things in both Kuala Lumpur and Dubai that have piqued my interest, spawned ideas and initiated further inquiry into why these cities have been designed the way they are, and how this is influencing, and is influenced by, the social strata inhabiting these magnificent metropolises. In particular, this piece will be concerning itself with Dubai.

Dubai has fascinated me for some time. I witnessed its rise over the years, both from transit stop-overs and through the news. In many ways, it represents a microcosm of today’s society: an urbanised, unremitting devotion to building things, and using building as a means of communicating power. It’s not something new to our societies; many empires, kingdoms and states have used infrastructure to convey prowess. But I don’t think many have done so on the scale that Dubai is doing today.

Continue reading “An Essay on Dubai”

Bikes, Trains and Busses: The Key to our Future Cities

Sustainability. It’s a word that’s been bandied about by many futurists, urbanists and thinkers. Yet it’s a concept that, for some reason, is seemingly difficult and time-consuming to implement. Granted, transitioning toward a sustainable urban environment is a challenge in infrastructure design, but it must remain a clear focus and a high-priority goal if we are to move our civilisation forward.

The planners of our future will need to stop talking about a “sustainable future”, and rather begin the implementation of it. I think that the biggest impedance comes from political pressure: the unfortunate reality is that it is the politicians that dictate the design of our environments, and the engineers and designers are merely the technicians that carry-out these ideals. If we truly want to progress toward that green light of our imagined future, we’ll need to move beyond political chatter and instigate real, determined thinking that can influence the change needed.

And the road to sustainable cities lies in our transportation grid. A sustainable city is one where there is a careful management of resources; a sensitive attitude toward the natural environment. Carbon is a key factor in this; it’s quite simple – reduction of carbon means a greener urban space. Thus the implementation of bikes, trains and busses through managed systems and programmes is a way that can improve the kinetic scope of cities, and thus lead to a sustainable growth in the urban fabric. It reduces the exponential growth of individual vehicles, streamlines traffic networks and allows for the creation of a more structured, organised city – a future urban space that can promote the thinking and ideas needed in a society that’s increasingly looking forward.

Technologically, by having regulated transportation programmes, there exists the possibility of computerised control that allows a far better managed, integrated transportation system. It means safer, more reliable public vehicles running on regulated schedules, increasing reliance on these systems and thus better adoption of them. Let’s face it: public transport isn’t a very attractive means of getting about. But if we were to design and engineer a system that fully integrates these key components, and make them an integral part of the city, we a sure to be on-track to attaining that “sustainable” future we’re so craving right now.