Breaking the Atmosphere of Cynicism

The Importance of Damien Chazelle Being Earnest

On October 12, filmmaker Damien Chazelle released his third major motion picture release, the intimate space biopic First Man (starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Clare Foy, in another Oscar worthy performance, as Janet Armstrong). With First Man, Chazelle found himself at a crossroads – continue to work with what's working (movies immersed in the culture of music) or to push himself topically and stylistically into uncharted space. He chose the latter, and this departure from the musical realm provided us as viewers with an intimate story about two infinitely vast topics – outer space and a man’s inner life.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

During the 141 minute journey to the moon, Chazelle channels Kubrick, Spielberg, Howard, and Malick all in order to paint an unconventional story about a very private and somewhat reclusive American legend. The choice to render a story about space travel so intimately has been the topic of much discussion in analysis of the film. But something I think that has gone unmentioned is that by mixing together a hodge-podge of directorial references, Chazelle magically avoids a voiceless grey and creates something colorful and completely new. By doing so he solidified himself as the first great “post-postmodern director” and added pressure to film critics to start formally describing his style as Chazelleian.

Chazelle is a derivative director. Reading this, you may think I'm insulting the director, because for many, being derivative is anathema, and always a bad thing. However, if we’re being honest it's impossible to not be derivative, because no art is ever created in a vacuum, and all creators, whether unintentional or not are imitating and stealing from the other creative endeavors that whir past our senses. I believe Chazelle has not only realized this but he's embraced the notion that all film makers (past, present, and future) work in the shadows of those that created before them or alongside them. And he doesn't live in fear of it. He acknowledges it, pays homage to it, and somehow creates something totally new and original from source material. I think most people would agree, we did not need another movie about space, but by zooming in on Armstrong and his inner-life through this process we were given a totally new movie about space, because it's actually just a movie about a emotionally reticent man.

Watching First Man, I felt hope for the coming generation of young filmmakers that will soon be filling the voids that legends like Scorsese and Spielberg will be leaving behind, because I saw in the movie a 33 year old director rejecting cynicism and embracing sincerity as he told a story about a complicated mission in a complicated country during one of the most tumultuous decades we have in our history. This is why I describe Chazelle as a "post-postmodernist," because, while he gladly references and re-mixes movie-making technologies (mixing super 16mm with IMAX) and story-telling motifs (e.g. all of La La Land) he is not cynical or patronizing when he does it – he does it with full earnestness. This is nothing short of miraculous, because cynicism has become the de facto millieu from which much creative work is made and critiqued.

My hope is that more movie-makers and storytellers will move towards a post-post-modern way of thinking and embrace earnestness. Not that we can't be critical or should embrace being na├»ve, but rather, reject the exhaustion and hopelessness that cynicism brings with it. It’s a creative suppressant and I think this next generation of young filmmakers need to ardently fight against if we're going to continue to see innovation in the field. It’s an idea as ludicrous as landing on the moon – just the kind of idea I can see us accomplishing.

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