La La Land and Manchester By The Sea have both recently been released to almost universal critical acclaim and yet with a mainstream general audience things may be a bit mixed. It’s curious as to why this is the case. La La Land is a beautiful Technicolor love letter to the golden age of cinema while Manchester By The Sea is a sombre slice of life at the titular location almost masterfully constructed. Critics love them both, but why is it surprising when you hear that people didn’t quite love them and find them five-star worthy?
Of course there are a multitude of reasons: Taste; mood; context and medium of watching the film…but I’d like to consider the resonance of a film. Sometimes movies don’t click with people. Sometimes the themes don’t quite resonate and they don’t quite pack a punch.
It’s less important in, say, an action film, or a comedy film. (Though a lot of humour is found in jokes being “true” to life) In drama, however, or less conventional films, resonance can make or break a person’s reading of them.
The resonance of a film is generally in the terms of being relevant to memories or experiences of an audience. Annie Hall, (500) Days of Summer, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all unconventional and work with audiences, but their power is in those who have suffered relationships and break ups that resonate and sympathise with the stories and characters on screen.
This resonance doesn’t even start at the final product, those previously mentioned movies in some cases channel the real life of the writers and directors. That’s what adds to the quality of the product and how real things feel.
Even the masters channel like this. Spielberg, a child of divorce, clearly channels some of his work with those emotions and moments. You can look to E.T. for an obvious and overt channelling of absent father themes, for example.
So why does this help theorise the difference between critics versus audience and audience versus audience on supposedly universally acclaimed films such as La La Land and Manchester By The Sea? Well, to steal from the trope of the Vietnam veteran: “You weren’t there, man, you weren’t there.”
La La Land is a prime example of critics versus audience. Or even industry versus audience. Which in turn helps explain how big the film will continue to win at film awards.
Hollywood fucking loves movies about Hollywood and making movies. That’s the number one lesson about Oscar betting you can learn. A filmmaker’s film will win over universally loved by audiences. While not 100% true, you can look to something like 2011’s The Artist and think “Huh? Oh!! That movie!” Because that’s exactly my point. The Artist is a masterful film about silent cinema brilliantly done but it’s since forgotten beyond Oscar success. Even the director - Michel Hazanavicius – hasn’t done much in Hollywood if at all since, let alone star Jean Dujardin only appearing in bit parts in American films in recent years.
La La Land doesn’t look to be as forgettable, not in the least, however it is a film about acting and it’s a film about jazz, and generally that’s a recipe for success in the world of powerful white creative voting on an artificially objective “best” film.
Though it’s not just the various groups of voters that work in the exact world of filmmaking that love it, but the previously mentioned critics. Critics love La La Land because it resonates with the world they love and the world they live in. La La Land is constructed and composed wonderfully with its colourful throwbacks to the world of classic cinema and the tale of a small town girl trying to make it in Hollywood and a jazz musician trying to get out of the rut he’s in. All that combined with catchy music and choreography leads into Oscar betting tip number two: People fucking love musicals.
La La Land is a technical wonder with a tale about Hollywood and jazz and love, which are all things critics love. As we look to the audience reception, however, how come people aren’t as absolutely 100% in love with La La Land? In part it’s purely the resonance.
The film, as it is, doesn’t quite have the click to it unlick action or comedy or similar. There isn’t that gratification or catharsis, and as a drama the themes are less relevant to some audience members that those who appreciate craft like film buffs and professionals. The themes are less universal with a mainstream audience, which can explain how the movie doesn’t quite blow them away. Consider the reception from friends who are creatives/actors/artists versus friends disconnected to anything like that.
Not everyone in the general mainstream audience is a creative or likes jazz, or wants to make it in Hollywood. Not to mention the fact that not every casual moviegoer actually loves musicals. As such, is it surprising that many love La La Land, but some just don’t get it?
The critical and the professional world definitely do, but this is their wheelhouse. They have the bias that clouds judgement. Raving reviews where everything resonates with the reviewer. In the real world however…some people just really hate musicals. Those first amazing minutes are the make or break for audiences and for some; those minutes are a few minutes too much. It’s a nice clever barometer, as it’s a sign of things to come, and for the limitless configurations of audience, people aren’t gonna agree.
Manchester by the Sea is on a different side of dissonance between reception. It’s a critical darling but it’s not biased by the world of being a film about film. It’s masterfully constructed – and for which critics love it in part – but the real variety is the spectrum of audience opinion between itself. Once again, it’s in part to do with resonance.
The film is about a guy whose brother dies at the top of the movie and he has to go back home and look after this nephew at the titular Manchester by the Sea. It’s a slower paced and sombre film – a completely different beat and tone to La La Land – but it’s equally as well written, directed, and edited.
The problem here is just the levels of resonance and connection with the audience. No longer do we look at the excited bias of Hollywood, we instead look to see how a mainstream audience finds the Amazon Studios co-distributed film compared to one another.
Once again, there are many factors here that may influence a reading of the film. The pace can be a problem with some, that’s for sure. It’s a 2+ hour movie full of heart and drama, and while humour is there there’s also a lot of drawn out inter-personal conflict. Manchester by the Sea lives and dies with its characters and if those characters don’t click, then audience members are lost.
Resonance here is generally in the way of relating to situations or not. Manchester by the Sea can be liked, loved, or hated, but those who love it will probably be the ones having the emotional reactions to it. If you can relate to a death in the family and the process of transitioning back to “normal” as best you can despite the dynamics being shaken up. If you can relate to being a teenager who doesn’t quite know what they’re gonna do at a pivotal point in life. If you’ve suffered such an emotional blow that’s pushed you one way in life, and returning back home is actually not what you want.
Manchester by the Sea is unconventional in its narrative. Not in the Quentin Tarantino sense, but just in the fact that our characters don’t change much and their change at all doesn’t really break the bank. It wonderfully jumps back to memories at the perfect relevant time to the current timeline. It sails as peacefully as it can with judders like the boat constantly mentioned and implemented in the film’s plot. With some, this won’t click.
Some people just head into a film expecting the things they aren’t going to get. And some people think they’ll get one thing and yet the themes don’t resonate in ways they wished. Some would call that “disappointment”, but really it’s just dissonance in resonance.
La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are both impressively made movies. They both tell stories that many will relate to and they do it in two completely different but effective paces and styles. Critics across the board love them, but the harsh reality of film criticism is that critics understand why a movie works for them.
But in the bigger picture mainstream audiences aren’t critics and critics aren’t the mainstream. It’s one thing to say how effective a movie is at being a movie. But it’s another to say how affective a movie is to an independently thinking audience member.
This is the crisis of being a cinephile that writes their opinions of films on the Internet. That’s not going to stop me though. Because I love films and you probably love them too.
Differently. But in the same way.