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Symbolism of Place in Oscar Films


Manchester By The Sea & La La Land

John Fraim

Two films nominated for Academy Awards in 2017 use the symbolism of place in a unique manner that promises perhaps a new return to more films about magic places. In Manchester By The Sea place is a small town in New Hampshire on the east coast. In La La Land, place is one of the world’s greatest cities, Los Angeles.

The films express two different types of symbolism of place. One, the symbolism of small town America. Subtle scenes, almost like the camera is an intruder into moments too personal in particular lives. Less dialogue and longer scenes that hold much longer than usual shots sending picture postcards from one of the most gorgeous places in America. The film is aware of the power of place symbolism in making this film. A montage of postcard scenes flow through the film providing a sense of this fishing town of Manchester, New Hampshire. The town is filled with real people of this place. Their issues, the issues of real people in this part of America. A certain place, a certain people. It gets into this magic place by subtle filmmaking. Almost like shooting a documentary or reality type of film.

The brilliance of this film is that in providing more images and fewer words, the film lets the reader fill in their own words for the words left out in this film. It is structured around a new use of the flash-back technique that is so effective that one is not sure for the first minutes where their position is in viewing this story. Is it being told in the present tense? There are hints that it is not being all told in this tense and these hints are woven into the film.

Yet the confusion of the perspective of the audience in the first minutes of this film is such a brilliant artistic device. Just as McLuhan suggested in the 60s, there could be cool “participative” media and hot “non-participatory” media.

This is a great “cool” technique as it allows for more participation in the film experience by the audience. Telling them less about the story while at the same time giving them incentives to find out more about the story by filling parts of the story in for themselves, in their own minds. The long takes of the camera on particular scenes, the quiet montage of particular aspects of the story.

It attempts to place the audience in this little town with the Hero. It attempts to create the mood and atmosphere and zeitgeist of this place in the world and it attempts to place the audience in this place and let them begin reacting to it. Just as the Hero reacts to it. The brilliance of place symbolism has not been evoked in films since Fargo. It is again evoked in Manchester.

The film La La Land is like a big brass high school band in the Rose Bowl Parade, coming down Colorado Boulevard at five miles per hour. A fast walk. 180 strong. Starting out on that place everyone in LA knows very well. The off ramp. That in-between land between two different freeways in Los Angeles. A grand intersection between North and South with East and West. The opening scene is amazing with the downtown in the background ten miles away on a clear morning in LA. A dance scene that is perhaps the most bizarre thing that might happen in early traffic of LA. But surprising non-linear (synchronicity type) things happen when mixed with our linear anticipations of Western culture. The film continues to work via disruption of place contexts throughout the film. A late night dance in a position hovering over LA spread out below like a vast jeweled sea. An amazing dance sequence within the Heroine’s apartment with her room mates. The belief that dance is everywhere or anywhere.

In many ways, the film is a progression of great places of Los Angeles. From the famous Lighthouse jazz club in Redondo Beach. To scenes at the Griffith Park Observatory. All types of shots from famous LA places.  In a sense it was a production about Lost Angeles that very well should have been financed by the Tourist and Visitors Bureau of LA.

Unlike the long silent scenes of Manchester By The Sea leaving itself open for interpretation by audience/readers for the screenplay.

Yes, there are hard times in La La Land.

But the hard times are not hard times in the world as much as hard times for two young, idealistic young people in LA. One is trying to be a jazz musician. The other trying to be an actress.Both members of that familiar millennial generation of many children today.

Lots of similar millennial LA stories are out there right now. No doubt about it.

But maybe not enough to make this such a big favorite in the Oscars? A film that gives praise to that Hollywood form called the musical. This seems to be the grand symbolism this film represents. A homage film to a past great Hollywood film genre. It is up against a number of other grand contenders. But Manchester is it’s great contender form the standpoint of a symbolism of place.

Now, a week before the Oscars, it seems that Hollywood has two interesting statements about place in these two films. The vote of the Academy for Manchester will be a vote for one type of symbol of place in America at this time as place was such a dominating factor in this film. Yet the same symbolism of place was at work with La La Land. Both about places in a particular time. One place that was too painful to return to and inhabit. The other, contrary to all reports, modern LA can be a romantic musical reminiscent of the great Hollywood musicals. So, the vote for La La Land will really be a vote for that great (little used today) genre of the Hollywood dance musical film.

(John Fraim’s latest project is Symbolism of Stories: Sequence, Duality & Correspondence in Drama)



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