All posts by Samuel Gilman

(The Lack of) Race in La La Land


I’ll be honest: the first time I watched La La Land, I didn’t think about race at all. Not one bit. I was too engrossed in the plot of the film, in the conflict between ambition and love that drives the story. I was too distracted by the splendid patterns of colors dancing across the screen. I was too focused on the music and dancing for my mind to wander off and think about how Damian Chazelle chose to represent race and racial issues. I was so distracted from race that it seems Chazelle may have done it on purpose—that he purposefully chose to have the viewer focus on things other than race, that he chose to leave to race out of the film. On the surface, La La Land ignores issues of race—not once are racial issues explicitly spoken of or brought up in any way. At a time when more and more films have racial issues at the forefront, Chazelle put racial issues in the backseat and shone a spotlight on other aspects of modern life.

Or did he?


Due to historical notions of race, we often see race as an immutable trait each person possesses. I am white, for example, because I have (relatively) white skin. That I’m white, we often think, is a fact rooted in biology—rooted in my DNA. As Audrey and Brian Smedley argue, however, this is not the case. Race science, they claim, is bullshit. Rather than being biological, race is “…a folk idea, a culturally invented conception about human differences.” (Smedley). Our conceptions of race, they argue, are based not on scientific notions of the biological difference between two races, but on cultural understandings of the differences between people who look different. If this is the case, then we must be learning about these racial distinctions from our culture. Films (and books, music, etc.) must teach us about how we should understand race and racial differences. So even though La La Land appears to try so hard to ignore issues of race, maybe it is actually telling us something about those issues. Maybe its apparent ignorance is the message it is trying to send. Maybe I didn’t notice race in the film because it didn’t want me to.

Upon closer examination of the film, there is one specific area where race should play a significant role but doesn’t: Ryan Gosling and John Legend’s relationship with jazz as an art form. Gosling, a white man, wants to save jazz in its traditional form. “It’s dying,” he says, but “not on my watch.” On the other end of the spectrum sits Legend, who wants to push jazz forward and mix it with other kinds of music. “How are you going to save jazz if no one is listening?” he asks Gosling. “Jazz is dying because of people like you… You’re holding on to the past, while jazz is about the future.” What’s bizarre about this dichotomy is that the white man wants to preserve jazz (and all of its black roots), while the black man wants to push it forward. Usually we would suspect it to be the other way around. Greg Tate, a prominent black writer, noted that whites “…have always tried to erase the Black presence from whatever Black thing They took a shine too,” including jazz (Tate, 2-3). Usually, we would expect Gosling, not Legend, to want to push jazz forward (and thus erase the “Black presence” from it). La La Land flips the conventional racial script on its head—the white man is playing the black man’s role and vice versa. It undoes our usual racial conventions and produces an entirely new racial world as if to brag about how easy it was to do that.

While the battle between Gosling and Legend is the most prominent racial arena on the screen, race does appear in other parts of the film as well. The reason that we don’t notice it (or at least that I didn’t notice it) is because there is no racial struggle, no barrier to people of different races. In shot after shot after shot, we see whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and people of every other race coexisting in perfect harmony. Chazelle makes it apparent from the very beginning that different races can coexist—the opening number features people from every race dancing together atop unmoving cars on an L.A. highway. Later on the racial mixing continues at the Hollywood parties and at the jazz clubs—Chazelle even throws a mixed-race couple in for good measure (Gosling’s white sister has a black fiancé). Chazelle is not oblivious to the reality of modern life and the de facto segregation that exists in it; he actively chooses to show a world in which it doesn’t exist. Films can influence our perceptions of race, and Chazelle uses that to demonstrate to us that race really shouldn’t matter. La La Land removes (or flips, as in the case of Gosling and Legend) all of the usual racial barriers and differences, and I didn’t even notice, because I was too distracted by the rest of the film. Racial expectations can be changed because they are cultural, not biological, and the film expects us and wants us to subconsciously realize that. When you don’t think about race, as I didn’t, you realize that it shouldn’t matter.

There is one scene in the film that stands out for its purposeful removal of race. As Gosling and his love interest Emma Stone dance in the stars of a planetarium, they fade into silhouettes. However, “the bodies spinning obviously don’t belong to Gosling and Stone” (Decker). We can see that their identities get erased when they start dancing. We don’t know if they are black or white—they are silhouettes. Moreover, to Chazelle it shouldn’t matter what race they are, because race is just a cultural construct, one that can be undone, just as it was visually with two people fading into silhouettes on a screen. La La Land chooses to show race as unimportant because it wants viewers to realize that it is unimportant in the traditional sense. It doesn’t matter what race you are, or what race I am. Race is a set of ideas that we have created and that we can destroy. The film wants us to do just that. It uses the fact that race is cultural—the fact that our perceptions of race are shaped by culture—to show us that race is cultural and can thus be changed.


Even though I didn’t see race the first time I watched it, other (more attentive) viewers did. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign forced viewers to grapple with notions of race in a way they hadn’t previously, and thus La La Land received some attention for the seemingly small matters of race that did show up in the film. One common theme running through many of the criticisms can be summarized by the headline of the review in LA Weekly. La La Land Is a Propaganda Film,” the headline claims, because Chazelle completely ignored the dimensions of race he should have focused on; he showed a world where the problems of marginalized nonwhite people are negated and white people are given advantages they do not deserve. The film was “a throwback to the 1950s without acknowledgment of how terrible the 1950s were for marginalized communities” (Wolfe). The issue I take with this view is that it operates on the understanding that Chazelle is “blind to the political power of film” (Wolfe), and is thus almost accidentally producing this world. Film criticism, though, generally rests on the assumption that filmmakers do know what they are doing—the whole purpose of analyzing films is to determine what the filmmakers want us to glean from them. If we are going to give Chazelle the benefit of the doubt (as we habitually do to every filmmaker) and assume that he knew the power of film, this leads us to the conclusion that he was purposefully showing us that race shouldn’t matter, because race is cultural. He’s not blind to the problems of marginalized communities, nor is he living in a post-racial fantasy land—he’s using the power of film to show that it is possible for us to fix those problems and reach that post-racial fantasy land should we forget our cultural notions of race. The racial world in La La Land is not a reflection of the real world, but a reflection of what Chazelle thinks the world can be.

All of this is not to say that La La Land is not racially problematic. It is.

Even though race shouldn’t matter, it still does, and it will for the foreseeable future. Audrey and Brian Smedley, the same writers who argued that race is cultural, still think it is important to address it: “although the term race is not useful as a biological construct, policymakers cannot avoid the fact that social race remains a significant predictor of which groups have greater access to societal goods and resources and which groups face barriers—both historically and in the contemporary context—to full inclusion.” (Smedley & Smedley). La La Land makes the mistake of assuming that just because race is cultural it doesn’t matter. It equates shouldn’t (as in race shouldn’t matter) with doesn’t (as in race doesn’t matter). Race is cultural and it does still matter, because we have assumed that it matters for so long that we have put roadblocks into society for nonwhite people. We can’t just forget our cultural notions of race to make racial divisions go away—it’s too late for that.

I’ll be honest again: I really enjoyed La La Land the first time I saw it, and I still do, even given its problematic racial conclusions. Just because films influence our racial understandings in a negative way does not mean they are inherently bad films. I can like La La Land and still comprehend that it has problems. If you liked La La Land too, that’s fine—you just need to be cognizant of how it is trying to get you to think about race and aware of whether you want to agree with it or not. You need to think this way with all films, because whether you realize it or not, they are influencing your perceptions of race, and those perceptions matter.


An earlier draft of this essay was read by Keith Penney.

I have written this essay in the style of Chuck Klosterman.


Works Cited

Decker, Todd. “Musical Fakery in ‘La La Land’: Ryan Gosling, Fred Astaire and Why Performance Still Matters.” The Center for the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis, 21 Feb. 2017, Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

La La Land. Directed by Damien Chapelle, Summit Entertainment, 2016.

Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smelly. “Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race.” American Psychologist, vol. 60, no. 1, Jan. 2005. APA PsycNET. Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

Tate, Greg, editor. Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture. Broadway Books, 2003.

Wolfe, April. “La La Land Is a Propaganda Film.” LA Weekly [Los Angeles], 23 Feb. 2017, Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.

What’s So Funny?

The Office, a mockumentary sitcom airing on NBC from 2005 to 2013, showcases and parodies the lives of normal white-collar workers in a midsize paper company. The show garnered critical praise and numerous awards, including an Emmy for best comedy series (NBC). Nearly everyone agrees that The Office is funny, but why? Why are we laughing at a show whose premise initially appears so mundane? What’s so funny?

To answer this question, let’s first consider the ideas of critical theorists—thinkers who reflect on society and culture—concerning laughter and comedy in general, and see if we can apply those theories to the show. In his essay “The Culture Industry,” Theodor Adorno, a prominent critical theorist, argues that the laughter that comes from consuming pop culture is devoid of happiness. In the context of the culture industry, he contends, we are laughing where there exists nothing to laugh about; the culture industry merely demonstrates to us how terrible our lives really are, and we laugh at our own misery. Thus, culture industry-fueled laughter for Adorno is inherently bad; it is a way of “cop[ing] with fear” by refusing to engage productively with the suffering that encompasses most of our lives and instead parodying it (Adorno, 112). According to other critical theorists and Adorno himself, however, not all laughter is “wrong;” the good laughter comes from reconciliation, from actually acknowledging our suffering and fighting it (Rada, 152). Adorno writes that this “reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power” (Adorno, 112). Laughter can actually help us escape our suffering rather than contribute to it.

Thus we have arrived at two different overarching types of laughter: the good and the bad, the wrong and the right. Where, then, does The Office fit into this spectrum? Are we laughing because The Office demonstrates to us how bad our lives really are? Or are we laughing because it helps us reconcile with and escape this suffering? Thus the question is not only why we are laughing, but also what the laughter accomplishes for us. Does it bring us more suffering or turn our suffering into happiness?

Because The Office was such a successful show, a few observers have tried to uncover where that success came from—meaning they explored the question we are now exploring. These observers mostly converged on the same one theory, though they expressed it differently. This is the theory that people like the show and find it funny because it makes them glad their lives are better than those of the characters in the show. By displaying a terrible work environment, this theory argues, the show brightened the lives of the viewers who realized their lives in comparison really weren’t that bad after all (Craft). Another phrasing of this theory is that the show is “cringe-worthy comedy,” which boils down to the same thing; people are laughing at how bad the character’s lives are because it makes them feel better about their own—they are laughing at other people’s misery (Carter). In Adornian terms, this theory exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of laughter; we are not laughing at our own suffering, but we are also not confronting and overcoming our own suffering. In any case, the theory, though popular, remains utterly unconvincing, given that we relate to some of the characters on the screen, which any Office fan will confirm. We cannot laugh at the relative misery of people while also relating to them, or at least not while still thinking ourselves better off than them.

So if the pervading theory explaining the humor of The Office fails to truly explain why so many people find it funny, then what is the right answer? To explore this, we must first determine which character or characters on the show viewers relate to the most. Because viewers are not laughing at the characters as in the pervading theory, they must be laughing with some of them. After all, the premise of this comedy—the modern American workspace—is far from foreign to most viewers. The most likely candidates that we as viewers would relate to are Jim and Pam, the two most normal and initially likeable of the major characters. Jim, the bored, sarcastic salesman, functions as the closest thing we have to a protagonist, with Pam, the likeable receptionist, a close second. As co-protagonists, Pam and Jim function as our stand-ins in the show as viewers. If we are laughing at how terrible their lives are, then we are just laughing about our own lives as well. So what are Jim and Pam’s lives like? Are they really terrible?

The most prominent of the other office employees—Dwight and Michael—both initially appear to be terrible coworkers, yet, despite their shortcomings, we end up becoming sympathetic to them. Dwight, Jim’s eccentric fellow salesman, bullies and belittles his fellow coworkers; at many points, he actively tries to sabotage Jim’s life by getting him in trouble or fired. Though less bluntly mean-spirited, Michael is a terrible boss, endlessly annoying his workers and making everyone thoroughly uncomfortable. To the viewers seeing through the eyes of Jim and Pam, Dwight and Michael represent their own evil coworkers and their own dumb bosses. The fact that these viewers are laughing, then, would seem to suggest—at first glance—that they are laughing at how depressing their own lives are. In this view, if we find Dwight and Michael funny—and we most certainly do—then our laughter truly is “wrong”—there is nothing to laugh about. However, there is another, more convincing view to be taken in light of more evidence. As the series progresses even just beyond the first few episodes and we as viewers—alongside Jim and Pam—learn more about Dwight and Michael, they become increasingly sympathetic characters. We do not hate them, but instead learn to love them despite their shortcomings. Yes, we laugh at those shortcomings, but only because they have become endearing, not because we are laughing at our own suffering, for we have begun to realize we aren’t only suffering. Hold on to you reservations, as I will explain this more later.

The second aspect in which this show seemingly parodies our lives—the tedious office work—also turns a negative into a positive. Jim especially struggles with the mundaneness of the work he has to do and the pointlessness of it all. When we laugh at Jim’s struggle with his dull work, in the “wrong” laughter viewpoint we are parodying ourselves by laughing at our own suffering, but in reality that’s not what we are laughing at. His need to play pranks on Dwight and his other coworkers can be taken as a depressing take on the banality of office life—that it is so boring that you must find absurd ways to amuse yourself to receive any enjoyment—and that is partially true. Yes, parts of work are terrible, but that does not mean it’s terrible in its entirety. Jim has found a way to amuse himself even in this supposedly mundane environment. By laughing along with—not at—him in his attempts to have fun, we are reminded of the things in our lives that give us pleasure, reminded of our versions of his silly pranks. Adorno in “The Culture Industry” argues that laughter is the enemy of happiness because we are laughing at our own suffering, but by laughing at The Office, we are helping to alleviate that suffering—and not by the plain act of laughing itself. By reminding ourselves that our lives are not all bad, by urging ourselves to think about the good aspects of our lives rather than dwell on the bad, we reconcile with and confront the suffering in our lives.

To further elucidate this idea, I want to examine it in the context of a classic Office scene: identity theft, one of Jim’s pranks on Dwight. Jim comes in for the workday dressed in the same manner as Dwight and then begins impersonating his speech and actions just to mess with him, and it is hilarious. Why is it so funny? Because the scene is reminding us of those small pleasures we take in life, reminding us that even in the tedious suffering of work we can have a little fun. We recognize that work is suffering, but we also recognize that overcoming that suffering is possible.

In light of this, The Office suggests that the argument that laughter is a means of cheating happiness is incorrect. We are, as that argument puts forth, still laughing at our own suffering, but in a way that recognizes that suffering and chooses to overcome it. Laughter is not a consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living, but instead helps you come to terms with the fact that, although your life is not perfect, it is worth living. Laughter in The Office helps to illuminate the good parts of your life and thus makes you a happier person.

This essay was read by Alejandro Zuleta

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Carter, Bill. “One Last Cringe for ‘The Office’ Finale.” The New York Times, 1 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic, 16 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

“The Office.” NBC, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Rada, Michelle. “The Illusionless: Adorno and the Afterlife of Laughter in How It Is.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 2015, pp. 149-67. Project MUSE, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.


Purposeful Comedy

On the surface, Harold Ramis’s film Caddyshack appears to be an irreverent summer comedy. The cast includes mostly stand-up comedians, the jokes are juvenile, and it lacks a cohesive plot. It’s funny, most viewers and reviewers agree, but not anything more than that. Gene Siskel, in his review of the movie in the Chicago Tribune, calls it a “most disposable motion picture, the kind of film that drive-ins were designed to play” (Siskel). Maybe, though, Caddyshack is more than just a stupid comedy. Critical thinkers have argued that all stories—including comedies—present a real social crisis and proceed to offer a solution to that conflict. What real social conflict, then, does Caddyshack present? What solution does it offer? Or does a story not necessarily have to do these two things, and Caddyshack really is nothing more than a dumb comedy

To think more carefully about this,we must focus not on the comedic aspect of the movie but instead on its characters and plot. The film centers on Bushwood, an exclusive country club. A variety of characters populate the story: Danny, a caddy, Maggie, his girlfriend, Ty, a relatively young member, Carl, the hapless groundskeeper, and Lacey, an attractive young woman. However, what drives the story is the conflict between the two most important characters: Judge Smails, a proper, long-time club member and self-proclaimed gentleman, and Al Czervik, an brazen, obnoxious nouveau-riche newcomer to the club. The Judge resents any change to the atmosphere and decorum of his beloved club, and Czervik’s boisterous personality and lewd jokes certainly threaten to disrupt that atmosphere. To anyone who reflects on the film even briefly, it becomes clear that the conflict between these two represents a conflict between the traditional, conservative values of the judge and the progressivism of Czervik. So, upon even a cursory inspection of the plot, the film shows itself to be more than just an irreverent comedy. We need to dive deeper into the film, however, to explore the real social conflict it presents to us. What traditional values, exactly, does the Judge represent? What does Czervik represent?

To answer these questions, we must focus on another aspect of the film: its fascination with sex. Three distinct sexual encounters take place on screen—Danny and Maggie, Ty and Lacey, and Danny and Lacy—but more than that, sex is constantly on our minds as viewers. The movie bombards us with sexual metaphors and imagery to ensure it. Carl lusts after the female golfers while stroking a golf ball-cleaning machine. He later drags a hose along the golf course with the end sticking out between his legs. Danny—and all of the other young men—lust after Lacey. The very act of golfing—a bunch of men swinging sticks—is just another sexual metaphor. The movie never lets us forget that its true focus is sex.

So let’s bring these two ideas together and see if that makes sense. Let’s suppose that Judge Smails represents traditional sexual values, and that Czervik represents sexual progressivism, and see what kinds of specific evidence we can come up with to support that theory.

First, however, we must determine exactly what “traditional” and “progressive” sexual values were at the time. In the 1960s and 70s, young baby boomers carried out what has been called a sexual revolution, attempting to change traditional values towards “women’s sexuality, homosexuality, and freedom of sexual expression” (Escoffier, 1). One of the principle ideas they fought for was the end of sexual repression, which they believed “distorted psychological development and led to authoritarian behavior” (Escoffier, 2). Thus, sexual repression—not talking about sex and not having sex—constitutes a traditional value while the fight to end sexual repression is a progressive one. So let’s see if Judge Smails represents sexual repression and Czervik the fight against it.

In the film, Judge Smails does focus deliberately on repressing sexuality and any mention of sex at all. During the dinner scene at the club, he balks at Czervik’s sexual jokes, aghast that anyone would say such a thing in civilized, proper society. To a gentleman like Smails, sexuality is not something to be talked about; it is something to be hidden away, never discussed publicly: repressed. Later, when the Judge sees Danny in bed with his niece Lacey, he fills with rage at the display of pre-marital sex, violently attacking Danny as he flees. With this action, the Judge reveals his hatred for sexuality and his desire for sexual repression; why else would he become so enraged at Danny?

The Judge’s focus on sexual repression also manifests itself metaphorically with the gopher. Judge Smails assigns Carl the task of killing a gopher that has invaded the course. Through Carl, Judge Smails literally tries to stamp out a “varmint” that has invaded his proper country club, just as he tries to stamp out any mention of sex from proper conversation and sexuality itself. It is also worth noting that this gopher came over from the property of one of Czervik’s construction sites; Judge Smails is trying to stamp out the sexual permissiveness of Czervik.

For his part, Czervik certainly represents a more permissive sexual culture, one in which sexuality is not something to be repressed, but instead celebrated. He cracks sexual jokes regularly, talking about sex in a way the conservative Judge Smails refuses to. With the final line of the film, Czervik proclaims “We’re all going to get laid!” This statement contrasts noticeably with the Judge’s anger over Danny and Lacey, demonstrating Czervik’s openness to sexuality where the Judge has none.

So the film does present us with a real social conflict—the conflict between sexual repression and liberty. What, then, is the solution that it offers? Just by looking at which of the characters is more likeable, that solution is not obvious. Judge Smails is conceited and mean, while Czervik is brash and obnoxious. Neither one presents a particularly appealing model to emulate. In the final showdown between the two—a golf match with $80,000 riding on it—Czervik defeats the Judge, potentially indicating the film’s preference for Czervik’s sexual liberty, but his victory does not alter his obnoxious arrogance.

Instead of using Czervik to provide us the ultimate embodiment of sexual liberty, however, the film gives us Ty and Danny, both significantly more likeable than either Czervik or Judge Smails. Those two side with Czervik in his golf match against Judge Smails—they side with the sexually liberating man rather than the repressive one. In the end, it is actually the team of Danny and Ty who win the match on Czervik’s behalf—not Czervik himself. The Judge’s metaphorical sexual repression inadvertently causes their victory; Carl sets off a series of explosions in an effort to destroy the gopher that cause Danny’s final putt to drop into the hole and destroy golf course. By trying to repress sexuality, Judge Smails actually provides for the victory of sexual liberation and the destruction of his traditional club. Thus, as the solution to the conflict, the filmmakers present the rejection of sexual repression and the acceptance of sexual liberty.

To recap: an inane comedy made a bold cultural and political statement without you consciously realizing it. The film, however, exerts a subtle influence over its viewers, compelling them to accept its views as they root for the Danny and Ty to triumph over the Judge.

This is where the historical context for the film becomes important. The sexual revolution happened largely in the 1960s and 70s, yet Caddyshack was not released until 1980. So was the film merely affirming people’s new views about sexuality, or was it trying to change the opinions of those who still held out for traditional beliefs? I would suggest that it was trying to change the views of those still hesitant about the new ideals. The film revolves around golf, a famously traditional and conservative sport played predominantly by older men, and thus could have attracted an older, more conservative audience, an audience that had not quite readily accepted these new values. It then proceeded to demonstrate to these people how they did not want to be like Judge Smails and allowed them to revel in the fact that they could change their views on sexuality without becoming Czervik by demonstrating that they could instead becoming Ty. Ty still represents these new values, yet he is much more acceptable to these audiences than is the obnoxious Czervik. In this way Caddyshack, a stupid comedy, could have changed the views of its audience on a major cultural issue without them necessarily even realizing it.

Works Cited

Caddyshack. Directed by Harold Ramis, Warner Bros., 1980. Amazon, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.

Escoffier, Jeffrey. “The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980.” glbtq. glbtq Archives, 2004, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.

Siskel, Gene. “‘Caddyshack’ right on course as a low-budget laugher.” Chicago Tribune [Chicago], 29 July 1980, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.