City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see
Who knows?
Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?[1]

 

Young, hopeful, and maybe even star-crossed lovers, Sebastian and Mia dance, sing and act their way through the 2017 blockbuster film, La La Land, but these questions haunt them throughout the movie as they seek their place in the world. In a word, they seek significance, and they do so in the fantasy world of Hollywood where such stories are told in larger-than-life fashion. The vivacious and “vervy” but alas, melancholic musical score pulls us into their drama, but their drama is no different than that which any of us face. To see how La La Land reflects the deep truths with which we all wrestle, we will relate the musings on life, love, and the music of it all from Oxford and Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and famous Christian writer, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is perhaps most widely known for his fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia, which is popular with children and families but not limited to a juvenile audience. His numerous, wide-ranging writings have been read and discussed by academic, critical, theological, and popular audiences. We can draw on some of these in viewing La La Land as part of a grand narrative which generations have faced. As a result, we can then see La La Land, and life in general, in a penetrating light, a light that is different from the usual reviewer’s descriptions :

“… a beautiful and hopeful film, coming at a time when there isn’t much beauty or hope in our movies.”[2]

“… a fizzy fantasy and a hard-headed fable, a romantic comedy and a showbiz melodrama, a work of sublime artifice and touching authenticity… [3]

La La Land opens with the exuberant, hopeful song and dance score filmed on an LA freeway, Another Day of Sun,[4] The song tells  the story of a 17-year-old girl who left her boyfriend behind “at a Greyhound station West of Santa Fe … without a nickel to my name” to find her life in Hollywood. These opening lines foretell the larger story of the film, wherein aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and acting-hopeful barista Mia (Emma Stone) seek their own futures in Hollywood. The opening score blossoms from a traffic jam on the highway into a kaleidoscope of colors and characters: pretty girls, singing and dancing girls, normal girls, and the very normal and average boys who would like to be with such girls . The makeshift drum, flute, and bass band that suddenly and enthusiastically appears – a bunch of fun-loving guys who melt into the chorus and the dance – is as equally symbolic as the story told in the lyrics. Director Damien Chazelle appeals to his generation’s search for significance and a joy in life, which is something that Lewis himself would laud:

“The word “life” had for me pretty much the same associations it had for Shelley in The  Triumph of Life. I would not have understood what Goethe meant by des Lebens goldnes Baum.[5] Bergson showed me. He did not abolish my old loves, but he gave me a new one. From him I learned to relish energy, fertility and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow. (italics mine)[6]

Expectant hope drips from the song and dance of these aspiring, young Hollywooders. The beauty and colors (as reviewers note), so evident in this opening scene and throughout the film, are in fact key facets of Lewis’s perspective as well. In perhaps his most famous talk, The Weight of Glory,[7] Lewis follows up the essay’s central theme of our ability to reflect, in fact to be invited into, the same glory which God bestows, with the observation,

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”[8]

“But we’re only getting started!” Lewis might say, as he later arrays this timeless soul in its own panoply of color and significance. In the second book of his sci-fi trilogy, Perelandra,[9] Lewis describes the cosmic structures in the heavens:

“He thought he saw The Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle … he could see also wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells us – peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like – ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colors from beyond our spectrum were the lines of personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendor as all of them from the previous class.[10]

Just as national, political, or corporate interests so quickly lose their audiences today when they smack of hypocrisy and self-absorption, so too we see in Lewis the same elevation of the individual above this din of institutions and civilizations.

As the expectant beat of Another Day of Sun fades into the story of Sebastian and Mia, we find the young couple discovering their passion for meaning. Seb seems to find his soul in his love for jazz, where “each player is finding his own tune, competing with the others.” Mia is less sure of herself, and in her aspirations to land an acting role, she finds herself questioning whether she is simply “good enough.”

Seb is accused, however, of being lost in the past. Stuck on the jazz from the big names from days long ago, he is challenged to find, or create, meaning in the present. Lewis faced this same dilemma, as his tastes were nurtured with his own set of greats. “The Greats” constituted his academic course of study as an undergraduate at Oxford, and works like  The Golden Apple of the ancient myths, and Romantic poets and writers such as Shelley, Goethe and Coleridge all formed Lewis’ own appetite.

In his own desire to capture meaning from the past, Lewis ran into the same problem as Sebastian. And it is this problem with which Lewis commences his own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as he quotes the opening line of a poem by Wordsworth:

“Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind.”[11]

Wordsworth proceeds to describe how fleeting and elusive was his joy, or source thereof:

“But how could I forget thee? …

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss?  – That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.”[12]

 

This same sadness, this melancholy yearning for the return of a Golden Age sounds itself through many authors from many times. Virgil, the Roman poet commissioned to create an epic poem extolling Roman history the same way Homer had done for the Greeks with his Iliad and Odyssey, wrote The Aeneid with a tone that commentators have since described as “the Virgilian sadness.”[13] It shyly shows itself when Aeneas scans the walls of the Temple of Juno, pondering the tragic events that led to his native Troy’s demise. These events are paralleled in the woes exacted in the building of Rome, as Virgil interjects

 

Was it thy pleasure, Jupiter, that peoples

Afterward to live in lasting peace

Should rend each other in so lack a storm?[14]

 

Nearly two millennia later, Percy Bysshe Shelley expresses a similar melancholy in his poem, Ozymandias, written of ancient ruins:

 

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
            ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
            Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
            Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
            Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
            The lone and level sands stretch far away”[15]

 

Lewis’s good friend, fellow Oxford Professor and author, J.R.R. Tolkien, would echo this same sense of melancholic longing in his epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Strider describes the story of Beren and Tinuviel from the First Age, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift your hearts.”[16] The melancholy of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the longing for the glory of the original “True West,” peers through the tone of Aragorn’s songs. Aragorn’s fate at death shows this explicitly as he exudes “an image of the Splendor of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed (from) before the breaking of the world.”[17]

Similarly, the melancholic note of La La Land builds throughout the story, as Seb’s jazz career and Mia’s acting aspirations comes to a climax. Mia’s audition song, The Fools Who Dream,[18] praises her aunt who took Lewis’s own path.

 

“She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
The sunset inside a frame”

 

Although Lewis might have said it was the feeling that captured him, “at once breaking and exulting his heart as never before,” the chorus lyrics,

 

“Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make”

 

echo what Lewis’ friend Tolkien would pen in his poem dedicated to Lewis, Mythopoiea:

 

“Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat

our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

or some things fair and others ugly deem ?

All wishes are not idle, not in vain

fulfilment we devise.[19]

 

But where Mia’s song savors our dreams with “foolish as they may seem,” Tolkien points us toward their origin and ultimately their fulfilment.  Contra Freud and those who would claim that the idea of God is merely a dream or wish-fulfilment, Tolkien teaches us that it is our wishes, seeded deep in our heart, that beg the question. This follows Solomon who knew “He has placed eternity in our hearts.”[20] Writer and speaker Cameron McAllister has stated the situation as follows: “We need an infinite God to satisfy the longings of our soul.”[21] He echoes such revered figures as Augustine who famously prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You,”[22] and Pascal who wrote of a God-shaped vacuum.[23]

But Lewis himself would make the most incisive case that Christianity was the fulfilled innate human wish or desire; this is in fact his “argument from desire” which he built on the crumbling edifice of Wordsworth’s despairing yearning for joy.  Religious myths have abounded, as Lewis argued in Myth Became Fact, which expresses our desire for God to enter the world and redeem it. These stories have most often taken the form of a God who died and then returned to life, bringing back health and life to the world.[24] The mythic nature of Christ performing this role, buttressed by the fact that Christ is actually a historical person, provides a power to the Christian story that nearly transcends reason:

“Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history… by becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths than they did from the religion they professed … We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome … for this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight.”[25]

Mia’s ode,

 

She lived in her liquor
And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

 

again hearkens to Lewis’ exultant respect for the individual as the enduring flame, not the withered flicker. In considering heaven in his treatise on suffering, The Problem of Pain, Lewis offers this hope for the individual:

“Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently” thus “each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can… Pantheism is a creed not so much false, but hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it was true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union rather than mere sameness.”[26]

Following Mia’s

She told me:

“A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us”

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays,

Lewis the novelist, author of fantasies and fictions both ancient and future, gives us such imagery such as the

“Great voice … quite unlike any other voice I had heard so far… thunderous yet liquid voice… the waterfall itself was itself speaking; and (though it did not cease to look like a waterfall) that it was also a bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks and poured himself perpetually down with great joy.[27]

The imagery speaks of Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden” and of being “intoxicated” and “lastingly satisfied” by religious authors such as Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil, John Donne, George Herbert, George MacDonald, and GK Chesterton.[28]

At its heart, the full version of City of Stars, which promises “that now our dreams /
They’ve finally come true,” offers something very simple – love:

 

City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants
There in the bars
And through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants
It’s love
Yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else

But, the City of Stars drives a hard bargain: Seb and Mia long for both success and love, and it is the melancholic reflection on this deep desire that grips the viewer in the finale. The melancholic theme of La La Land no longer shyly peers at us — it shouts, ‘Look! Look! Here I am!’ Such fleeting moments of Joy arrested Lewis’s attention and haunted him with their lingering question, “What do I remind you of?”[29] La La Land is not just a tale of eager youths seeking to find their own way, their specific significance among the stars, but of the age-old quest for meaning and love. Seb’s commitment to the soul of jazz and Mia’s proving that she is good enough mirror the driving force behind Lewis’s longing, his sehnsucht or search for meaning and lasting joy.

Lewis’s problem was how to escape the despair of fleeting joys. He describes his own fleeting glimpses of enjoyment, or simply, Joy, that moved him, but that he could not quite own. He describes reminiscences of a make-believe childhood garden, the melancholic feeling from “the Idea of Autumn” which he found in Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin books, and an “almost sickening intensity” of desire for some cool, remote northern quality evoked by the lines “I heard a voice that cried / Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead.”[30] As an academic, however, Lewis learned to cast these aside as mere whims, fanciful products of childhood imagination. But when he came to realize they would not desist,[31] he admitted their reality, and “the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exulted as it had never been since the old days.”[32]

Lewis came to find that the memories and experiences he sought to grasp were merely fleeting glimpses, “the mental track left by the passage of Joy – not the wave but the waves’ imprint upon the sand.”[33] These idolatrous images and sensations, mistaken for Joy itself, “soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate.” They cried to Lewis, “It is not I. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”[34]

Lewis pries open the truth from them at last: “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you” Lewis began, “the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” Wordsworth’s solution  thus falls short:

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But this is all a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would have found … only the memory. The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. The beauty, the memory of our past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only a scent of flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.[35]

Lewis’s solution in the “myth become fact” of Christianity, the journey of desire to lasting Joy, is considered one of his unique contributions to our modern understanding of the Christian faith, although as we have seen, he follows the likes of Augustine and Pascal, not to mention the Psalmist and many, many others. We settle for joys that are far too fleeting and weak, Lewis reminds us, in the opening of his Weight of Glory address,

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half–hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”[36]

Joy or, as Lewis would like to put the matter, Joy Himself, is unshyly proclaimed over and over again in Lewis’ writings. Continuing from his own story of the stars, we find the way home as he points towards some great truths in the constellation of colorful, eternal individuals:

“But not all the chords were individuals: some were universal truths.”[37]

Lewis hearkens to the One Who declared “I am the Truth,”[38] and the One Who declared “I am the Light of the world.”[39] A City of Stars pales embarrassingly. Where the opening chorus of La La Land finds its hope in the rise of another day of sun,

And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun

Lewis finds a deeper meaning in earth’s own star, the sun:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[40]

And as Mia and Seb seek their own place and meaning in the City of Stars, Lewis points us towards a deeper meaning than can be offered by such glittering lights. As Lewis intones in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, even the physical stars are but symbols, pointers to a realm of greater meaning. Aslan responds to Eustace Scrubb’s declaration that, “in our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” with “even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”[41]

Lewis’ friend and writing companion, J.R.R. Tolkien, also finds greater meaning and music lurking in the stars:

 

He sees no stars who does not see them first

of living silver made that sudden burst

to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,

whose very echo after-music long

has since pursued. There is no firmament,

only a void, unless a jewelled tent

myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,

unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.[42]

 

Tolkien’s “ancient song whose very after music long has since pursued” both echoes Lewis’s mention of “The Great Dance”[43] and also places La La Land’s musical, colorful, melancholic, and celestial yearning in the greater context of meaning offered by faith. As Lewis noted, “Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.”[44] La La Land thus follows Lewis and many others in the Christian faith, even if only in posing the question of the search for beauty and significance.

And finally, we consider our closest star, the sun, for which expectant young Hollywood hopefuls rely on “another day of” in the opening score, as a symbol of the life and light offered by the Christian faith. G.K. Chesterton, a great influence on Lewis, found in the sun the playfulness of God Himself: “It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. … It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy … The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”[45]

But it is not just the “Sun” but the “Son” – Christ – where our ultimate meaning can be found. The One Who declared “I am the way, the truth and the life,” offers to the melancholic Sebs and Mias of today what he did to Lewis, allowing our hearts to wander back “into the land of longing”[46] where we finally find what, or Who, we have been seeking all along.


[1] Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, “City of Stars” lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Hurwitz, music by Justin Hurwitz on La La Land: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Interscope Records, 2016. CD.

[2] http://www.metacritic.com/critic/mick-lasalle?filter=movies

[3] A.O. Scott, NY Times, Dec. 8, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/movies/la-la-land-review-ryan-gosling-emma-stone.html?_r=0

[4] Another Day of Sun, music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul,  on La La Land: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Interscope Records, 2016. CD.

[5] Translated “the life of the Golden Apple.”  Golden apples were considered a source of immortality and perpetual youth for the gods in Norse mythology, similar to the role of ambrosia in Greek myths.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1986), 160.

[7] Lewis was in fact such a popular speaker for non-academic audiences that it bothered his academic colleagues. A series of popular radio talks during World War II were put into book format as Mere Christianity. The Weight of Glory was originally delivered as a sermon but can be found as an essay in compilations such as The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1980).

[8] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 19.

[9] Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1944) and That Hideous Strength (1945). Otherwise known as The Space Trilogy, Lewis distanced the series from that unfortunate moniker early in the first book: “space … the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness … the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead;” he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.” (OSP, 34).

[10] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), 187.

[11] William Wordsworth,  “Surprised by Joy” in Poems (1815). Online https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Louis Markos, Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007),  214.

[14] Virgil, Aeneid, XII.684-6.

[15] Percy Bysshe Shelley,  Ozymandias (1818). Online https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias.

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, I.11 “A Knife in the Dark,” 258.

[17] J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King, Appendix A.I.

[18] Emma Stone, “Audition (The Fools who Dream)” lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, music by Justin Hurwitz, on La La Land: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Interscope Records, 2016. CD.

[19] J.R.R. Tolkien, http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm  (1931).

[20] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[21] https://rzim.org/bio/cameron-mcallister/

[22] Augustine, Confessions I.1  397 A.D.

[23] Pascal wrote,  “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”  Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York; Penguin Books, 1966), 75.

[24] Lewis gives as examples the Norse Balder and Egyptian Osiris. The Fisher King of Arthurian legend also comes to mind, who guards the Holy Grail but, as he is injured, the land suffers along with him until he receives a cure.

[25] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in  God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: eerdmans, 2001), 66-67.

[26] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962),150-151.

[27] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 49.

[28] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 171.

[29] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 176.

[30] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 19-20.

[31]  Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, Ch. XIV, that it came through a re-reading of Euripides’ play Hippolytus, a gut-wrenching tale of love, family and honor, besotted of course with interference from prying gods.

[32] Ibid., 173.

[33] C.S. Lewis,  Surprised by Joy, 175.

[34] Ibid., 176.

[35] C.S. Lewis, “Weight of Glory” in Weight of Glory and other Addresses (New York: Collier, 1980),  7.

[36] Ibid., 3.

[37] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra  187.

[38] John 14:6.

[39] John 8:12.

[40] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” In The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 92.

[41] C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1980), 209. This is the third book in Lewis’ seven-book fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The significance of the themes of the sun, planets and stars in the series has been written on by Oxford Professor Michael Ward in Planet Narnia (Oxford University Press, 2008), The Narnia Code (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008) and www.planetnarnia.com.

[42] J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia, 1931. Composed to Lewis after a famous discussion they had one evening along Oxford’s Addison’s Walk. Full text may be found at http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm, though more about this dialogue, including pictures of the walk, can be found at the author’s site:   https://narnianfrodo.com/2017/12/06/lewis-104-tolkien-101-ive-seen-trees-from-both-sides-now/ .

[43] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), 187 as discussed above at footnote 10. Elizabethan author Sir John Davies’ Orchestra (1572) is similar and discussions on its significance can be found in E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (Vintage Books, New York, 1959) and Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry (Ashgate Publishing, Burlington VT, 2014).

[44] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” In The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: MacMillan, 1980), 92.

[45] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1959),  60.

[46] see footnote 32.

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