On Tuesday December 20th, BPSI screened LA LA LAND at the Coolidge Corner Theater, as part of it’s monthly Off the Couch series. The following was adapted from remarks delivered following the screening.
Benjamin Herbstman, MD, MHS
Thank you for joining us tonight for this achingly beautiful film, and thanks for sticking around for the discussion. I’d like to take about 10 minutes to talk about how film, psychoanalytically-informed therapy, and love engage and even facilitate one’s capacity to dream, and then I’ll open up the discussion to questions and comments from all of you.
Dreaming is something that analysts since Freud have spent a good amount of time thinking about. As many of you know, Freud thought of dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. One can even think of psychoanalytic treatment as an effort between analyst and patient to open up a shared dream space to better access and understand the unconscious content of a patient’s mind. Normally, one thinks of dreaming as an activity that happens when one is asleep, however, it can help to expand the definition to something that can be an activity that occurs when one is awake. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to dream” as:
To indulge in fantasies or reveries; to daydream about something. Now chiefly: to have a vision of the future; to hope or long for something.
In a way, engaging in a psychoanalytic treatment and watching a film are both activities of shared dreaming. In psychoanalysis, a patient provides their thoughts, associations, daydreams, and emotions to the analyst, who in turn uses his or her own thoughts, associations, daydreams, and emotions to better understand the patient’s mind. In film, a director acts as patient providing the content, and we, the audience, act as analyst, using our own ideas, associations, and emotional responses to better understand the director’s ideas and intentions.
When watching this film, I found myself wondering what sort of dream we all were having. At first, the film starts out as an exuberant, sunny, musical rendition in traffic – an homage to Los Angeles, classical Hollywood musicals from the 1940s and 50s, and perhaps even the 7 minute long, uninterrupted, traffic jam scene from Jean Luc Godard’s film The Weekend. We first follow Mia, the struggling actress, in her Toyota Prius, a car about as ubiquitous and clichéd as LA traffic and actors working in the food service industry. Then, Damien Chazelle, the director, takes us back in time to that traffic sequence, but now we follow Sebastian’s timeline and narrative. Chazelle tells us, these two lives came in contact for a moment, but these are divergent lives that are far from dreaming together. Eventually, however, their lives intersect and intertwine into a shared life, a shared dream, and a timeline that moves forward together just as effortlessly as they dance or weightlessly fly together in Griffith’s Observatory. That flight sequence where they float and dance through the stars – perhaps visually representing how new love does not follow basic laws of gravity or even sanity – brings the film into a different level of magical realism. It called to mind Oscar Wilde’s line, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” and in this moment these two characters are beyond that – they have become part of the stars.
But their floating is short-lived, and the struggles of trying to make it as a musician and actress in LA quickly pull them back to earth with a bumpy landing. Both Mia and Sebastian endure intense pain when trying to make their respective dreams a reality, and both lose hope at various points along the way. In these moments of pain, when both let go of their individual dreams, the one supports but also confronts the other in a way that facilitates the capacities of both to dream again. When Sebastian’s decisions and compromises turn his love of jazz into an electronic perversion, Mia instantly recognizes it and finds a way to tell him that this is far from his musical dream. He bristles over her feedback and insults her, but he attacks her because he recognizes the underlying truth of her remarks. Sebastian similarly helps Mia dream when the pain of her casting rejections becomes too much for her to bear, and she collapses and returns back home. His honking, cajoling, and dreaming for her at that moment allows her to endure a little more, return to LA, and dream again. Another way of thinking about it is that each functioned for the other at times to allow them – as Mia says in her audition song – to look “at the mess they make” without resorting to avoidance, a common defense mechanism. Psychoanalytically-informed therapy similarly provides a framework to help individuals face intensely painful experiences or emotions without resorting to avoidance. In essence, treatment affords a forum to allow all of us to look at our own compromises made out of imperfect information, self-limitation, unconscious repetition, fear, and missed connections.
In the end, this film is also about the fragility of shared dreams. Mia and Sebastian’s paths converge in the middle of the film but diverge again as she heads to Paris to launch a successful career. Their paths cross again five years later for a moment in Sebastian’s nightclub. In that moment, Chazelle plays with time again – he takes us back into the bar where Mia hears Sebastian play for the first time, and he provides an alternative narrative where there are no missed connections. They are in sync in every moment, no missteps, no misattunement – she enters, he kisses her. She performs her play, he is not only present but is her loudest cheerleader. They are connected, loving, supportive – in essence, they are idealized versions of themselves, and it is an idealized relationship. There is no reason to look at the mess they make because there is no mess.
I wonder if you had a response similar to mine when I first watched that sequence in which they ended up together: perhaps this was not a fantasy but actually what occurred. Perhaps they had found a way to not have ruptures that only partially got repaired. Perhaps they found a way to love in a more perfectly attuned way, and this version of reality where they are in the bar together, she curled up next to him, is what actually occurred. But this, of course, is the ever-wished-for-narrative rather than the messiness that is life.
When the song ends, Mia is there with her husband and Sebastian is sitting at the piano. She decides not to stick around for more, acknowledging that their lives have diverged and they are no longer dreaming together. They then share a final moment before she leaves – she turns and looks at him with love and perhaps even longing, and he returns the look. The aching beauty of the film and that moment is that they seem to hold the love and sadness at the same time – something that is characterized in psychoanalysis as the “depressive position” (which is very different from the “depressing” position). They both seem to say that they love each other and yet mourn the way their lives diverged – their efforts to stay connected and dream together were simply not enough. Perhaps they also are saying that although their lives have diverged, the fact that they have loved and changed each other’s lives for the better is “good enough.” And sometimes the best we can do is internalize those we love and are loved by and carry them with us regardless of whether and how the road diverges.