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Damien Chazelle: The surprise among the familiar

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

In many ways Guy and Madeline On a Park Bench (2008), the first film directed by Damien Chazelle, makes for a surprising viewing experience, but if we watch it after going through Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), the result is an even more impressive revelation: Chazelle is a sort of smuggler.

In his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995, dir. Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson), the Italian-American master discusses several kinds of filmmakers who worked in his country before him. For example, the smuggler category includes Alfred Hitchcock, who added a complex cinematic language to popular films which also hid within themselves a more defying morality than the audience would have thought. We could set Chazelle among this sort of directors, considering that his first feature film is radical in its style and narrative, and that his later films would be generous with the mass audiences without having to forfeit his vast formal skills.

In great measure, Guy and Madeline On a Park Bench contains every important element in Chazelle’s career: music —jazz, specifically—, a story of lovers facing a crisis and nostalgia for abandoned modes of art. This fixation on the past is reflected on an almost documentary style, very similar to John Cassavetes first films. The camera is always handheld, the color is absent and imperfect faces without makeup fill the screen. If the characters didn’t break into the songs of Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Chazelle, one might think that what we’re watching is Cassavetes’ Shadows (1958).

The twist that came along with Chazelle’s next film, Whiplash —based on his eponymous short film—, brought him an enormous success. The film won two awards at Sundance and later on it was nominated for five Academy Awards, of which it won three. With a more precise style than his debut, Chazelle created in Whiplash a rare thriller in which the most explicitly violent image is a car crash. For the rest of the duration the edginess is created through images of the main character trying to reach perfection as a drummer. Meanwhile, the editing speed synchronizes with the rhythm and manipulates the audience with a dexterity comparable to Brian De Palma’s. It’s also worth noting that the film, besides, reflects the director’s life, since he tried to be a drummer during high school and had a teacher on whom J.K. Simmons’ famous character is based.

Besides being a musician, Chazelle wanted to be a filmmaker since a very young age. After finishing high school —and with it, his dreams of becoming a drummer—, Chazelle enrolled in Harvard and met Justin Hurwitz, who would compose the music for all his films and with whom he started to plan his most successful project up to date: La La Land. Nominated to 14 Academy Awards, among which it won for Best Director, the film was also immensely well received by audiences and critics alike for dealing with the sacrifices of fame, much like Whiplash did. But, like Chazelle’s other films, La La Land is also a contraband product which adds an original audiovisual eloquence, rare in the musical genre. The sole opening scene shows Chazelle’s complex cinematic imagination. In the midst of a L.A. traffic jam, a group of drivers come out of their cars to dance and sing about their dreams of fame, but what matters the most is how those four minutes appear to be a single tracking shot that floats among the characters while introducing new ones in a sequence that might as well be a short narrative in itself.

What to expect, then, from First Man (2018)? The usual, said in the best possible sense: a story about sacrifice whose style seeks new possibilities within a trivialized genre: space travel. If the reaction of international film critics works as a sort of barometer, it seems that Chazelle has once more a surprise among the familiar: an aesthetic contraband that spectators will receive as a gift.