“I’m always gonna love you.”
“I’m always gonna love you, too.”
This was the moment that broke me. It wasn’t right. Nobody should ever- ever– tell you they love you and then leave you anyway. That’s not love.
Like all great art, La La Land reflected my life and infused it as well, and it’s impossible to share my thoughts about the movie without including the parallel story of what was happening in my life at each time I viewed the film. Three viewings, three totally different positions in life, and three unique lessons- who’d have thought I’d get so much from a modern-day musical? (Just kidding, nobody is surprised at all. But check it out anyway.)
The First Time
The first time I saw La La Land I was new to New York, pretty uncomfortable with my job, and trying to recover from the ends of some life-defining relationships. Things in real life were a bit tough and I was excited to see a good old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending.
Unfortunately, everything falls apart and Emma and Ryan don’t end up together. But not only do they not end up together- no, that would have been too easy. Instead we have to watch through their eyes every moment that might have gone differently and maybe could have saved it. It tore my heart out, because I can do that too. We all can tick off every single twitch that we believe caused somebody to leave when we think we might have had the power to get them to stay. Now I wanted the movie to end in the midst of this fantasy; I had no qualms suspending reality to ease the pain of loss.
But the movie doesn’t end a moment earlier to preserve our delicate emotions. It says, “Yep. That sucked and they know exactly why, but it doesn’t matter how much you can know or deduce or problem solve. Sometimes you just can’t fix it.”
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
La La Land dances back and forth between surreal romance and moments that are so real that they hurt. I’ve had that flashback. I’ve had that breakup. I want a movie to tell me I can go back and fix it, or to tell me that it didn’t matter because it wasn’t “the one” and when it is I will know and I will never let it go.
La La Land refuses to give me that peace. La La Land gave us romance and music and dance and art and what can only be described as the experience of falling in love through city and sound. And then it shows that love’s end. Not only does the love end, but we see very clearly that those who were once in it have a desire to somehow travel back and change the past in order to get their fairy tale ending.
Theirs isn’t the typical dramatic breakup, and yet it hurts so much more. It’s okay to be sad and angry when somebody does you wrong, but what about when somebody does you absolutely right? What about when somebody drives four hours and spends the night alone in a place he’s never been in order to force you to confront your dreams, and then afterward tells you that you should follow your dreams and not him, but that he’s still always going to love you? What are you supposed to be hurt about then?
In Ryan Gosling’s character I saw myself. I operated better in dreams than in reality and I would do anything for a person I cared about- especially pushing them toward their purpose. How could a person this passionate and giving deserve a love that doesn’t work out?
My bewildered lesson: just because something ends doesn’t mean that it wasn’t amazing.
The Second Time
The second time I watched La La Land I had just met somebody very special, somebody who made me not so bummed that my first love hadn’t worked out, somebody who got really really sad when I shared that I had wanted the fantasy ending to be real. This person was honest, supportive, kind- all the right things. Being with him made me realize what I’d been missing in the past.
This time around, I realized that Emma Stone’s character is kind of selfish. We spend most of the time centered on her, and when they break up it’s only after her play doesn’t go well. Having identified much more with Ryan to begin with, I started to feel a sense of vindication. Yes, she loves him, but she doesn’t always give him the treatment he deserves. Now I wasn’t so sad that the relationship didn’t work out. Instead, I saw it as a necessity for these two people to each follow their own path.
My liberated lesson: Emma Stone is selfish and Ryan Gosling is too good for her anyway.
The Third Time
The third time I saw La La Land, the somebody from before had become enormously important in my life. He had helped me to heal from past relationships and past losses. Also, we disagreed sometimes; we accidentally hurt each other by virtue of being two separate people meshing into one life together, and that’s how I learned that love doesn’t mean that everything goes perfectly. Love means that I will always forgive you.
That’s what Emma and Ryan mean when they say, “I’m always gonna love you.” They mean that, yeah, it hadn’t worked out. (The movie had been giving us clues the entire time: their relationship is best at night and in surreal places, and the first time they were together in daylight is when they break up.) But that doesn’t mean that their relationship wasn’t worth it.
If things had gone perfectly with all of our first loves we would have been spared from pain (that’s what I had at one point wanted). But being spared from that pain means that we wouldn’t be ready for life. As we learn in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain.”
My final lesson: Maybe the best thing our first love can do for us is push us to our dreams and then kiss us goodbye.
So, what did I learn from La La Land? First: ending is not a failure. Ending is a sign that something happened, and then we grew. At the end of the movie, something even bigger is happening for each of our beloved characters (yeah, I’m not so mad at Emma Stone anymore). That’s the second lesson: not fitting into a relationship doesn’t mean that either partner is a bad person. There’s still an opportunity for learning and growth, and that is never a waste.
The final lesson is about the strength it takes to recognize that a person belongs in the past tense and that this doesn’t mean we can’t have love for them in the present. This movie demonstrates all of the different roles love can play for us: Love pushes, love excites, love challenges. Most poignantly, love hurts. But, the most important lesson of all: love heals.