Maya and Mia At La La Land
Author: Jenny Oyallon-Koloski
Format: Video Essay
Duration: 9′ 2″
Published: December 2019
‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’ applies videographic research methods, continuity editing principles, Soviet theories of montage, and Maya Deren’s parametric frameworks from At Land (1944) to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), re-editing the films’ narratives to present an evolving relationship between their leading women that emphasises the filmmakers’ stylistic compatibility and rigour.
My exploration of At Land and La La Land together in ‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’ began from a videographic analysis of the latter film, where I observed the pattern of long dolly shots moving in parallel with Emma Stone’s character, some of which repeated her movements within the same setting. This pattern of staging and camera movement made me realise that certain sequences could be edited to create the impression of her moving continuously through an abstracted version of the film’s diegesis by adopting the parametric constraints Maya Deren used in At Land.
I began this work by asking myself how I could employ the formal parameters of these films to draw attention to their stylistic structures. What would we learn about these filmmakers’ craft by combining their aesthetics through an application of their creative intentions and the films’ observable formal patterns? The nature of image juxtaposition, as Soviet film theorists argued, also suggests that new meaning would arise from such an exercise. Therefore, I also asked myself what new narrative would emerge through the juxtaposition of these images, and how could that structure draw attention to the aesthetic parallels between the films?
Finally, I chose to pursue these research questions videographically from start to finish, rather than in written form, to better understand what knowledge we could gain of these films and their formal correspondences by working in their same medium. As a result, I sought to understand how this format could lend itself to a study of figure movement and the cinematic choreography of bodies on film.
This highly poetic piece developed intuitively from an analysis of the staging, cinematographic, and performative correspondences between Deren’s and Chazelle’s films as I observed the ways that the former’s performative minimalism complemented Emma Stone’s expressive range. These films’ formal compatibility is in part the result of their creators’ similar interest in cinematic experimentation.
Damien Chazelle considers the musical genre and experimental cinema to share formal ties; to him the avant-garde nature of a Maya Deren film echoes the experimental qualities of an Astaire/Rogers duet or a Busby Berkeley number (Fitzmaurice 2016) through their mutual commitment to ‘transgressing the rules of realism’ (Chazelle 2018: 14, translation mine). For Chazelle, emotion motivates that shift in the musical, but the formal opportunities resulting from the genre’s fluctuation between realism and fantasy are also a powerful creative tool (Chazelle 2018). Deren is similarly interested in exploring fundamental formal structures of cinema in her films and writing. She echoes the writings of Eisenstein and Pudovkin in her articulation of editing as the source of meaning, arguing
‘If the function of the camera can be spoken of as the seeing, registering eye, then the function of cutting can be said to be that of the thinking, understanding mind. By this I am saying that the meaning, the emotional value of individual impressions, the connection between individually observed facts, is, in the making of the film, the creative responsibility of cutting’ (Deren 1947: 139, 140).
In the creation of At Land, she articulates a desire to create a ‘purely cinematic coherence and integrity’ through her imagined ‘relativistic universe’ (Deren 1946: 205).
Both films are also concerned with dance and the movement of the human body. Deren’s aesthetic interest in dance and her relationship to dance culture, the work of Katherine Dunham in particular, is well-established (Franko 2001, Sullivan 2001). Deren’s writing and scholarly research on her incorporation of choreographed figure movement into her work focuses predominantly on Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), given their explicit incorporation of dancers and danced content (Deren ‘Choreography’ 1946, Deren ‘Ritual’ 1946, Franko 2001). Yet the figure movement in At Land, like La La Land, is also meticulously choreographed and deserves further study. By using a videographic method to observe the choreography of figure movement—by Deren in At Land and by Chazelle and choreographer Mandy Moore in La La Land—the complexity of Deren’s and Stone’s performances become apparent through the filmic, rather than written, medium. Maria Pramaggiore argues that At Land explores the film’s ‘capacity to differentiate between and to blend same and different, with particular emphasis on bodies, movement, and space’ (2001: 239). Putting the film in conversation with Chazelle’s work heightens the nuances of physicality in both.
One intent of this videographic piece is an enactment of what Catherine Grant calls ‘practice-research’ in which the performance of form—here, continuity editing—is essential to the research process as well as the dissemination of research findings (2016). My research practice spirals around the myriad functions of figure movement in narrative cinema, in musical form in particular. A key facet of this work is the precise written description of the moving body, which I enact primarily by drawing on the detailed movement taxonomy at the core of Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies. LBMS provides a foundation and vocabulary for thorough, pattern-based micro and macro analysis of human movement and its expressivity. The taxonomy at the core of this system provides both quantitative and qualitative structures to analyse movement and seeks to be descriptive, rather than relying on prescriptive templates; because this work is not tied to a particular dance or movement tradition, it is particularly effective for comparisons of different types and traditions of human movement.
However, while written movement analysis research benefits from the precision of language, it must also let go of the temporal unfolding that defines the object of study, an approach to knowledge that Henri Bergson articulates as intellectual rather than intuitive (2007). In the latter, by contrast, movement is perceived as a continuity, endless in its fluctuations. What appeals to me methodologically about videographic analysis is the ability to articulate research findings in motion, using the flow of time as a tool rather than an obstacle. Through the performative application of continuity editing principles, which filmmakers use to establish spatiotemporal relationships and indicate spatial contiguity between shots, I can use the same stylistic tools as the objects I am studying to guide the viewer’s attention to my analytical and poetic discoveries.
I articulate the movement and editing patterns I observe in La La Land and At Land through a poetic refraction of those parametric structures, using what Christian Keathley describes as a more expressive approach to film criticism. By engaging poetically with the audiovisual medium, Keathley argues, practitioners can produce scholarly knowledge that would not necessarily emerge from a more explanatory videographic mode (2012: 179). Rather than a written reconstruction of the parametric structures guiding these films, this piece uses the idea of refraction as a formal guide, obliquely deflecting off of the originals’ narrative arcs while retaining essential aspects of the characters’ construction. Deren’s quote included at the start of my piece points to some of her choices in shaping the mise-en-scène: the fluctuation of setting, the contraction and expansion of spaces, and a continuity of performance. The re-editing of At Land with content from La La Land draws attention to the parallel formal choices of these filmmakers through the utilisation of the same continuity editing patterns observed in Deren’s film. In order to minimise discontinuity, At Land’s frames were cropped to match the aspect ratio of La La Land, but the images’ visual qualities are otherwise unmodified.
By using axes of action, eye-line matches, shot-reverse shots, matches on action, and point-of-view perspectives, these fundamental principles evoke spatial contiguity despite the disparate visual aesthetics of the two films. Moreover, Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, and editor Tom Cross create frequent edit points in La La Land using graphic matches. New shots frequently begin with the person of interest in the same portion of the frame as the person of interest in the former shot, a pattern that often activates the centre of the frame. This pattern, in addition to the filmmakers’ use of screen exits and entrances, allowed me to bring Deren’s parameter of spatially discontinuous matches on action into the space of Chazelle’s aesthetic, most observable when Mia begins turning her head on stage and finishes the motion in the club.
The most radical choice, given the musical content, was to eschew sound entirely. While song is arguably the dominant storytelling element in the genre, I wanted to demonstrate the communicative power of the body. Beyond the obvious fair use advantages, the absence of sound focuses our attention on visual elements of style, while the nature of online distribution permits the viewer to add their own soundtrack if they so desire. This videographic method merges At Land’s and La La Land’s parametric structures to change the meaning and spatial contiguity of the original shots, creating new patterns of continuity that draw our attention to figure movement and performance.
‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’ demonstrates the formal rigour of these films’ construction through stylistic parallels. Both employ similar parameters, in the frequent follow shots of Deren and Stone moving alone through diegetic spaces, in particular. Additional shared formal choices strengthen the feeling of a contiguous setting. In one moment, the characters stand in place making prolonged eye contact before Deren continues moving through doorways; the presence of side lighting on both actors suggests a common light source thanks to the similar directionality of the key light.
What also emerges from the juxtaposition is the complementarity of the two actors’ performances. Many of the close-ups of Deren in my edit retain the shot in its entirety, drawing attention to Chazelle and Deren’s divergent aesthetics regarding shot length. Deren’s facial performance is frequently neutral in these shots, with her eyes providing the dominant movement in the frame. Her choices in these short close-ups permits the construction of eye-line matches in At Land and my refraction of it, but her predominantly neutral expressions also heighten the contrast with Stone’s. Chazelle frequently holds the shot on her to allow us to see shifts in performance, as we can observe early in my piece after Mia ‘catches’ Maya watching her while she is driving in her car, and in her reaction after the man (Ryan Gosling) brushes past her. These divergent performance choices are observable in the original films, but they become more apparent through contrast.
The juxtaposition of these films videographically allows us to observe these stylistic choices with the addition of a new narrative arc that pulls Mia into progressively more surreal environments and allows an affectionate relationship to emerge between the two protagonists. What also becomes apparent through this contrast is the nuances of each’s character’s construction, which carry over into this piece. Throughout most of La La Land Mia struggles to advance in her career, and that frustration, interspersed with moments of lightness, carries through as she finds herself moving in circles rather than progressing. In contrast, Maya is in a constant state of motion and easily distracted. Pramaggiore argues that Deren’s formal construction of At Land ‘circumvents coupling, complicates identification, and suspends narrative time. Her protagonist is in process’ (2001: 252), in contrast to Mia, who is stuck. The latter’s frustration from La La Land’s plot transfers to this new one, in which Maya appears supportive of and invested in her new companion only to quickly take interest in something else: series of doors, rocks, other women’s hair. The blending of these films emphasises the formal construction of each character while narratively maintaining their complementary identities.
Videographic criticism is a powerful medium through which to disseminate knowledge about audiovisual work. By researching and communicating findings about moving images through their own form, this innovative approach encourages the pursuit of new research questions and makes the resulting findings accessible to both public and academic audiences. I created this video essay alongside my students’ work in a videographic criticism class I taught at the University of Illinois in 2018, where the full project was screened for the first time.
Bergson, H. (2007) The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Andison, M.L., trans. Mineola: Dover.
Bordwell, D. (1985) ‘Narration and Space,’ In: Narration and the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 99–146.
Chazelle, D. (2018) ‘De la vie réelle à la vie rêvé’ In Binh, N. T., ed. Comédies musicales: La joie de vivre du cinema. Paris: Éditions de la Martinière. 14–19.
Deren, M. ( 2005) ‘Choreography for the Camera’ In: McPherson, B., ed. Essential Deren. Kingston: McPherson & Company, pp. 220–224.
Deren, M. ( 2005) ‘Creative Cutting’. In: McPherson, B., ed. Essential Deren. Kingston: McPherson & Company, pp. 139–151.
Deren, M. ( 2005) ‘Magic is New’ In: McPherson, B., ed. Essential Deren. Kingston: McPherson & Company, pp. 197–206.
Deren, M. ( 2005) ‘Ritual in Transfigured Time’ In: McPherson, B., ed. Essential Deren. Kingston: McPherson & Company, pp. 225–228.
Eisenstein, S. ( 1977) Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ledya, J., ed. & trans. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.
Franko, M. ‘Aesthetic Agencies in Flux: Talley Beatty, Maya Deren, and the Modern Dance Tradition in Study in Choreography for Camera’ In: Nichols, B., ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 131–149.
Fitzmaurice, L. (2016). ‘Damien Chazelle Talks About His Spectacular Musical “La La Land”’. Vice [online]. Available from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/z4nqe4/damien-chazelle-interview [accessed 8 September 2019].
Grant, C. (Autumn 2016). ‘The audiovisual essay as performative research’. NECSUS [online]. Available from: https://necsus-ejms.org/the-audiovisual-essay-as-performative-research/ [Accessed 8 September 2019].
Keathley, C. (2012) ‘La caméra-stylo: Notes on video criticism and cinephilia’ In: Ed. Clayton, A. and Klevan, A. eds. The Language and Style of Film Criticism. New York: Routledge, pp. 176–191.
Laban, R. v.. (2011a) Choreutics. Alton: Dance Books.
Laban, R. v.. (2011b) The Mastery of Movement. Alton: Dance Books.
Pramaggiore, M. (2001) ‘Seeing Double(s): Reading Deren Bisexually’ In: Nichols, B., ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 237–260.
Pudovkin, V. ( 2016) ‘On Editing’ In: Braudy, L. and Marshall C., eds. Film Theory & Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 6–11.
Studd, K. and Cox, L. (2013) EveryBody is a Body. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing.
Sullivan, M. (2001) ‘Maya Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Ritual and Myth in Haiti’ In: Nichols, B., ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 207–234.
At Land (Maya Deren, 1944, USA)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016, USA)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (Maya Deren, 1946, USA)
Study in Choreography for Camera (Maya Deren, 1945, USA)
 For more information about Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies, see Laban’s Choreutics and Mastery of Movement and Studd and Cox’s EveryBody is a Body.
 For a scholarly discussion of continuity editing principles in classical and more experimental cinema, see David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work and statement for DVD and/or web publication with no alterations
This most interesting and intellectually grounded piece of practice research embeds videographic methods within its analytical and evaluative processes. Through the strategy of re-editing and juxtaposing the narrative flow of Deren’s At Land (1944) with Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), Jenny Oyallon-Koloski presents a compelling moving image critique of the female protagonists’ on-screen interrelationship and draws attention to the film-makers’ aesthetic dynamics and the works’ stylistic equivalences.
The author reveals the staging, cinematographic, and performative correspondences between the two works through intercutting between Deren’s and Stone’s performances within their respective mise-en-scènes. ‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’ is a competently edited and post-produced piece of moving image that manifests both its research process and outcomes. The inclusion of an unfolding quotation from each of the film-makers at the start of the video presents the poetics of its research parameters and contextualises the piece from the outset. Oyallon-Koloski’s skilful intercutting of carefully selected sequences establishes a dream-like contiguous environment inhabited by both protagonists, who – released from the bounds of their separate existence – seem to respond to and affect one another as they slip between the elided borders of time and space. The ‘other’ reality created demonstrates the effectiveness and potency of the videographic research method: ‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’ is a compelling piece of moving image in its own right in addition to its successful embodiment of the research process; further, through this venture, Oyallon-Koloski has created a refracted moving image text – the practice outcome – that provides rich material for further study and investigation.
Oyallon-Koloski’s research questions seek to discover the new meanings produced by the interplay between the protagonists’ performances and their interwoven narratives, drawing on continuity editing principles, Soviet theories of montage, and Deren’s parametric frameworks. The exposition navigates through the practice research process to articulate the evolution of speculative enquiry that flowed from the film-making research methods, followed by a detailed examination of the practice outcome underpinned by its critical frameworks. The writing is cogent and fulfils the project aims, forming a counterpoint to the practice and providing a nuanced and persuasive argument that draws out the research dimensions of the refracted video, ‘Maya and Mia At La La Land’, and makes them explicit.
Some closing thoughts
An additional strength of this submission is that it elicits additional questions and suggests interesting themes for further critical investigation – for example, the effects and affects of silence in cinema, and body performance on screen. The breadth and depth of the research statement is limited by the parameters of publication: I understand that these are necessary, but I encourage Oyallon-Koloski to continue to extend her methodological expertise in videographic research methods, particularly in relation to avant-garde moving image and musical film. An excellent and most interesting submission.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
In this collision of two seemingly, radically disparate works – Maya Deren’s At Land (1944), a seminal exploration of continuity and disjunction across time and space, and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a modern pop musical, Jenny Oyallon-Koloski draws rich visual parallels to illuminate the contours of bodily movement in cinema. Noting Chazelle’s observation that musicals bear a stronger relationship to the avant-garde than might be apparent on first blush, Oyallon-Koloski (re)constructs a world in which La La Land’s Mia traverses contemporary Los Angeles languidly alongside Deren’s mid-century Long Island coastline – a kind of mashed-up pas de deux.
Using what the author terms “poetic refraction,” this work prismatically blends a diverse variety of editing techniques, contrasting the continuity strategies of eyeline match and match-on-action with the dialectical montage principles of Soviet montage. This video’s strongest moments occur when these approaches converge. In a sequence about halfway through, the motif entering, exiting and closing doors repeats, emphasising both the passing of feminine bodies through transitional spaces, but signalling a broader, potential life change for these characters. Later, as a mobile camera follows Deren as she belly-crawls across a dinner table full of men, ignoring their bemused reactions, a dolly shot leads Mia through a crowd of self-absorbed couples who similarly ignore the star. In one scene, Deren powerfully defies the patriarchy; in the other, Mia meekly is unable to find her place within heteronormativity. Yet as the two films converge once again, we see Deren, in close-up, coyly eying the world around her, followed by Mia, also in-close-up, scanning a dining room until her eyes land on a destination. At this moment, both women break into smiles, seemingly free of whatever constraints pinned them down before. These moments of intellectual montage yield rich results that reveal the prescribed nature of feminine representation onscreen, even across 70 years, and the ways that the avant-garde can explode it.
Although I would argue that ‘Maya and Mia at La La Land’ as an end product might be more successful with tighter intercutting of the films so as to draw more vivid parallels between the two, Oyallon-Koloski theorises her process with careful attention to the role that deformative practice can play in examining cinematic texts. Building upon an instinctive observation of similarity in form between these two films, the author uses “research-practice,” that is, re-editing and juxtaposing the source texts, as a means of revealing new insights about cinematic form and, particularly, the intertextual connections between contrasting forms. To this end, this work of videographic criticism sheds light on the possibilities of using the avant-garde as a lens for understanding popular film.
I would suggest a couple things: that the author define what she means by “poetic refraction” and that she better define “the detailed movement taxonomy at the core of Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies” for a reader uninitiated with this field.
All reviews refer to original research statement which has been edited in response.