LA LA LAND and BIOETHICS: Aspiration, Casuistry and Musical Mimetics

La La Land Opening Night Mill Valley Film Festival 2016
Mark Fiskin(CFI/MVFF), Damien Chazelle (director), 
Justin Hurwitz (composer), Emma Stone (actor) 
The opening and closing films of the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival were both romances, different from one another as night and day. The starting film was about elusive love. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, LA LA LAND is a romantic musical whose comedic elements facilitate the dramatic. It feels like a cross between Preston Sturges' Sullivan’s Travels and Singing in the Rain. LA LA LAND’s enduring impression is a sensibility for people defined by creative aspirations.

The title, LA LA LAND, is a double entendre. The more concrete allusion calls up the musical note ‘La,’ as in the Rogers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, “La is just to follow so.” What marks the feature as a high concept film is the other meaning— the rarely attainable, though ubiquitous, high hopes for creative success in the unreal Los Angeles — while moving into the developmental stage of adult intimacy.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone act (and dance) in subtle ways. Their performances are beyond being the coat hangers for music, choreography, and the exquisite mostly on location scenery. Complexity of the main characters is clarified by the arrival of the co-star, John Legend, at the mid-point of the film. He draws the arrow telling Gosling’s character, a musician, that there is only one path to follow. That way pushes him away from his lover, Stone, a writer.

The opening scene of La La Land is set squarely in one of the plagues of Los Angeles life. The setting, time, and characters shout that you are entering a cross cultural zone, where fantasy is allowed. Replete with classic musical film homages, Justin Hurwitz’s score shares the passion of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, rather than the showmanship of an Arthur Freed musical. We quickly learn the rival gangs are the tensions between the creative aspirations in the heads of each star, fighting for attention and love.

Hurwitz’s uses the advantage of Jazz, Blues and Rock & Roll, having been racially integrated after the glory days of the classic 1940s and 50s musicals, to broaden the range of emotions. The love theme of La La Land represents the magical inner voice of the protagonist’s relationship. When you hear this film’s music forty years from now, be forewarned, if it made you cry this year, it will then. 
How does a Romantic Musical help Bioethics?

LA LA LAND shows tension between the ‘competing goods’ of the noble aspirations of intimacy and creativity. The film is a captivating metaphor, showing a version of goal attainment reached through an unexpected narrative path. Other creative intents are not unlike those of a surgeon in training, or a doctoral student dreaming to cure global warming, in conflict with raising their families. The shared challenge is not aiming for competence but greatness.

Casuistry can exist beyond ‘the word.’ When visuals are added to written narratives additional neuropsychological features join ‘the case’ presented. Even a single photograph is a visual narrative. Music, as in LA LA Land, is interpreted even more subjectively than visual cues. “Research into the bodily basis of musical meaning has focused on conceptual metaphor and image theory but the processes whereby embodied experience becomes relevant to music conceptualization remains largely unexplained.” 

We do not know exactly why the blues is cathartic, for some and not others though we know it is so. Related are examples where sound, say of a bottle of soap falling, has been known to result in smelling soap for some people sans attendant visual stimulus. It is clear that the sound of music has a narrative language specific to its own form. 

The core of the “musical mimetic hypothesis” suggests we understand sounds in comparison to sounds we have made ourselves, and this process of comparison involves tacit imitation, or mimetic participation, which in turn draws on the prior embodied experience of sound production.  That is second hearing draws a reaction to the first hearing of the primary sound and stimulates a similar feeling and physical response. Each note delves into the influence that note has had in one’s life. If this is true, clearly the Casuistic case for LA LA LAND is maximized by the music itself.

LA LA LAND is a choreography of the mind, expressed by over a hundred dancers, actors and musicians along with nearly as many crew. It takes a lot of nerve and talent to wield  such a team. Luckily for the audience composer Hurwitz choreographer Mandy Moore (Silver Lining's Playbook), cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), and writer-director Damien Chazelle are chutzpah endowed. LA LA LAND is a film to watch and hear. It opens in theaters December 16, 2016.

Casuistry uses cases or narratives to illustrate ethical conflicts and their resolutions. Despite the potential abuse of Casuistry, Medicine and Law are both fields where cases are applied to ethical decision making. Religious books, literature, drama and film can also be used in Casuistic analysis of moral dilemmas. At its core, Casuistry requires solving a second unrelated case by using the logic of the original narrative — so stories need not be medical or science based to argue Bioethics. 

Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Berkeley, U California Press (1990)


Cox, Arnie, The mimetic Hypothesis and Embodied Musical Meaning, Musicae Scientiae Fall 2001 5: 195-212,http://msx.sagepub.com/content/5/2/195.abstract  Accessed November 3, 2016