Silence the oft-forgotten, or oft-misused, which is often worse, weapon of the director. Silences, pauses and dialogue-less moments are some of the most powerful in film across all genres. In horror it can produce a sense of eeriness (such as the ball roll in ‘The Shining‘); in Sci-Fi films it emphasise the big things such as the emptiness of space or man-kind’s evolution (as seen in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) and it can create a bittersweet atmosphere (as in ‘Up’). In ‘La La Land’ silence is used often but aptly and takes some major forms. For the first half of the movie there are bathetic silences – silences that are punctured by bathos – which also serve to build the characters; I will deal with these first. In the second half the silences serve a reflective but hopeful purpose.
‘La La Land’ has excellent writing. Dialogue flows freely and unrestrained showing communication between two realistic characters. ‘La La Land’ also has wonderful music – it is, after all, a musical. The brilliance of the writing and the score empahsises the silences, when they occur. We are expecting a loud movie – musicals normally are. The first scene aids us down that route of thinking: The opening scene, from the snippets of radio to the song ‘Another Day in the Sun’ to Seb’s horn, is loud; no part of it is quiet, much less silent. On first viewing, the opening scene sets our expectations: This film will be a loud, brash musical – hopefully with some of the nuance of all good films. This means that when there is silence it looms out at us; strikes us, it is a gaping chasm into which the audience can fall. A silence that is too long is dangerous; it can bore the audience, stop them thinking about the movie – ‘La La Land’ avoids this. The silences, the audience understands, are meant to draw our attention, to this scene, or to the one immediately after.
The first notable silence in the film is in Lipton’s, where Mia stumbles upon Seb playing piano. This is the first real meeting between the two; a scene that sets up their love, or so we assume. As Seb plays, the room darkens. Seb and Mia are the only two who remain, Seb in the spotlight playing piano, Mia on the side entranced; there is nothing but Seb, Mia and the piano; ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ floats softly, magically though the air to Mia. In the darkness with the other customers silent, she is alone; alone with Seb and the piano. It is mesmeric – the silence and the piano. Seb goes off and has a conversation with his boss, J.K. Simmons’s character; he is fired. For Seb, the silence is over, his moment in the sun, playing what he wants, is over – it is a bathetic anticlimax: He was warned to stick to the set list. He didn’t. For Mia, however, its not over. She is still silent, struck by Seb’s playing – finally, just as Seb is fired, she musters up the courage to talk to him: ‘I just heard you playing, it was beaut-‘. Seb ignores her; wounded, he leaves without even acknowledging her. The spell of silence, which for Seb was already broken, has now been broken for Mia; her romantic fairy tale bubble is burst. Damien Chazelle uses the silence here to inform us that this wont be easy; love never is. He is telling us, for the first time, that ‘La La Land’ is no pastiche of Golden Era musicals – it has its very real moments; this is one of them and silence is used to convey it.
The second notable silence occurs in the ‘Lovely Night’ scene – towards the end of the dance routine our ‘heroes’ face each other; contrary to the song they have just been singing the connection is obvious; there is definitely a spark and the audience knows it. On my first visit to watch ‘La La Land’ at this moment someone a row or two ahead said, audibly, “Just kiss her!” but there is no romantic realisation; there is only silence. Slightly awkward silence. Silence and inaction- a space that is begging to be filled by some romantic gesture. Instead, the phone rings. It is Greg, Mia’s boyfriend, calling to see where she is. The silence, that slightly awkward but expectant silence, is ended; ended by a phone call of all things! This is bathos at its finest. Twice we have had silences that have raised the expectation and romantic tension of the scene only to be brought to anticlimax by the mundane, first Seb’s boss and now a phone call. The brilliance of these scenes lies in their construction. Neither of these bathetic come downs, whether its J.K Simmons firing Seb or the call from Greg, are implausible or unexpected – Seb was warned not to diverge from the set list and it is quite natural for an anxious boyfriend to call his partner. The silences in these scenes, and the bathos they create, keeps the characters, and audience, on tenterhooks; we are tantalised by what might be.
Another example of the bathetic silence is seen in the Rialto scene. The silence builds the anticipation as Mia and Seb make to kiss. Then, at the critical moment once again, the silence is popped; the film fails and the lights come on. Bathos appears again. But bathos is traditionally a comic device, and that is not how it is used here. Barring this last example none of the bathetic silences are funny – the last scene is only funny because we have seen Mia leave Greg, cementing her decision to be with Seb. The bathetic silence is not creating humour here, it is developing character and motifs. Seb is moody, emotional, romantic – when he is fired for playing his Jazz, he is upset, not for losing the job, but because it is an insult to his music; no one wants to listen. The silence is broken in the Lipton scene by Seb’s moody exit and is being used to show us his character: he is no bad man, he is just a Jazz romantic. In the ‘Lovely Night’ scene, the bathetic silence emphasises to us the distance between Mia’s life as a barista-cum-actress and her inner “child-prodigy playwright” who still loves singing and dancing.
In the first half, the silences are coupled with darkness through the dimming of lights at Lipton’s; the fading sunlight and the darkened movie theatre. This darkness detaches the characters from other, normal people; they are the only two present at any given silent moment, their love melts away the surroundings and the people with them. The coupling of darkness and silence emphasises their isolation from normality; the silences in the first half mark them out as different, and it is due to that exceptionalism that they will make it in the end.
Following the Planetarium scene, silence changes in the film. Silences are no longer bathetic but meaningful and varied. For example, the silences during the summer montage are classic ‘lovey-dovey’ musical scenes. But following that, between Seb and Mia, after meeting Keith or during the montage of their now disjointed lives (when Seb comes home late and leaves early), the silences convey separation. Seb and Mia are being separated by, simply put, Keith: Seb’s decision to talk to Keith and join the band is separating him from Mia; it is no longer Mia and Seb versus the world – the silence in these scenes, such as the fall montage, is deafening.
Following this is the conflict point of the movie, the surprise dinner Seb makes for Mia, which seriously strains their relationship. The silence here is painful, not aided by the last image of Seb standing dazed and angry. It is silent but for the fire alarm; the imagery of their relationship going up in flames is poignant, if not a little ‘in your face’. The next silence is Seb’s realisation that this band is not what he wants; as he stands, playing keyboard for the photo op. he is asked, by the photographer, to play something; he plays ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’, just the opening notes, but we reflect on this silence with him – he has realised this isn’t where he wants to be; he rushes to the theatre. The silence offers us, and Seb, a moment of reflection; he doesn’t want to be here, pulling funny faces at a camera, he wants to be in the audience of Mia’s play, that much he knows. Following this scene is another reflectional silence, this time for Mia, as she comes home to her parents. The montage of her at home is silent; she reflects on the failures that she had in Hollywood – she is finished. The imagery for both reflective silences is one of change: Seb is in a studio, around him are pictures of Jazz legends; whilst reflecting the surrounding imagery make it implicit that he can make it as a club owner. For Mia, she is in her bedroom surrounded by acting paraphernalia; there is a moment that we hover over an acting award – we now know she can make it.
The silence here is different from the first half of the film; the characters are reflecting on a nadir in their life, for the first time they have lost sight of their goals. The silence here, as before, invites us to look at our surroundings, at what is going on, and we see hints that its all going to work out in the end. The silence has transformed as the characters have; Seb and Mia were romantics; they were artistes with a dream. Now, they are realistic and pragmatic; they’ve lost sight of their dream. The silences reflect this and thus, instead of drawing us into the darkness that implied their exceptionalism and their extreme love, it draws us to focus on the surroundings, which contain positive reminders of our character’s dedication and skill.
This leads us on to the final scene, and the final silence. The last scene is emotional, its painful, bittersweet, hopeful, all, or none, of the above, depending on your outlook. However, its power is in the silence. The final scene works so wonderfully because there is so little dialogue, and most of it is simply pragmatic to progress the story; most importantly there is no verbal communication between Seb and Mia. Seb and Mia have both made it, that much we know, and yet it is obvious they still hold some love for each other. As the first notes play we once again are transported to Lipton’s and the old silence comes back. The silence is fitting for the alternate story and is fitting to show the feelings Seb and Mia still have for each other. As Mia leaves, she turns and meets Seb’s eyes and they share a knowing nod.The last silence is a knowing one – they lost their relationship but achieved their dreams, and that’s alright.
‘La La Land’ tells us that sometimes you cannot have the best of both worlds, that sometimes following your dreams means sacrificing something important; it is through the silences that this is conveyed.