The World’s Shadow advises: “Compare” (.i.e. Yourself With Others), “Covet” (What Others Are & What Others Have), “Compete” (Outshine others and Get Ahead of Them). The Scriptures counter that with “Appreciate” (Who God Made in You), “Accelerate” (To be the best you can be) and “Affirm” (All that is good in you and others to Give God Glory!”) That’s the heart of Today’s Homily on Isaiah 55 and Matthew 20.
Homily for 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!” I’ve always loved those lines from Jeremiah, finding comfort in them whenever I feel let down, overwhelmed, or just plain sad about my life or what’s going on in the world. What good has all my preaching accomplished–who remembers homilies, anyway? To what effect all these Eucharists? People still hate one another, misinterpret Scripture to bully people, justify their prejudices, and, particularly this week, ask why God does not intervene in Nature’s devastations in Texas and elsewhere.
As we pray Psalm 63 this morning, aren’t we thirsting for God to show up? Wouldn’t it have been inspiring had God whisked Hurricane Harvey out to sea in the same way Jesus calmed the storms 2,000 years ago? Of course, the Holy Spirit will inspire people to respond to Hurricane Relief. In solidarity with those who lost homes and livelihood, Catholic Charities and other noble organizations will solicit contributions from us all. Indeed, with eyes of faith, we expect the milk of human kindness to be in strong evidence once again. God is and will always be part of these grace-filled endeavors. Still, we may be haunted by the age-old mystery as to why God allows tragedies to play themselves out as readily as God enhances goodness to breed goodness, grace to build upon grace.
What hope do we have other than to trust in this mystery? Jeremiah, despite his desire to run from God and live without faith, without prayer and rituals, acknowledged that, ultimately, God’s Spirit became “like fire burning” in his heart, his faith in God somehow “imprisoned” in his bones. Jeremiah’s faith in God conquered his disillusionment and fear. How?
Jesus tells us by “picking up our cross,” he strengthens us to live within faith’s paradox, to embrace mystery, to trust in eternal truths. Because our past informs our present, we know that we have, we can and we will overcome hatred, prejudice and even natural disasters because of faith’s common denominator: we are all children of God on a journey unto eternity. Of course, like Saint Peter on that day, we would have preferred an invincible Messiah who would establish a suffering-free universe. Yet, from the beginning death was part of God’s plan—our human bodies as we experience them were destined to be but a prologue to a transcendent way of life with body and soul beyond the grave (yes) but not without some dying and rising from day to day to day. Along with hundreds of events from the past, Houston invites us, once again, to review our attachments to material things and to scrutinize the degree to which we honor our relationships with God and others and live each day as if it were our last.
What are our expectations of life? Why are our capacities for mystery so limited? In part, because we’ve kept our faith rooted in what we learned as children—neglecting to nurture it into adulthood. We continue to change with the times regarding science, medicine and technology, even morality and ethics, but not in fundamental aspects of faith. Meanwhile, change has occurred in the ways the Church interprets the Bible and appropriates the Sacraments.
Considering the floods in Houston and environs –and with more on the horizon—who among us has not thought of Genesis and Noah and the Flood? Does God still punish us with natural disasters? What other insights from childhood continue to echo in our adult brains? But here’s an example of how biblical scholarship has changed: We now understand that the ancient biblical writers used a tragic event – a flood – into a lesson on morality and faith, revealing, at the same time, a very narrow, limited understanding of God. Believing as the ancients did that to be all-powerful was to be responsible for all activity on earth, they understood everything that happens as either a reward or punishment from God. Thus, the story of a flood-to-end-all-floods was presented as God’s weariness with the sins of humanity. Perhaps fed-up themselves with the evil within human nature, the biblical writers projected their disgust as coming from God as they tried to make sense of a catastrophic phenomenon. As centuries passed, however, their own experiences of God, coupled with burgeoning revelations from JOB and the prophets and ongoing prayer empowered the faithful to conclude that God’s all-powerful dimension comprises a greater mystery: God lets Nature evolve and interact with itself (ant that includes humanity) within its own limitations, just as God permits humanity’s free will to make of ourselves and our world what we will—guiding and supporting always, but interfering only rarely. Therefore, today, we acknowledge our childhood understanding of Noah and the Ark is found wanting. And yet, the story remains part of the inerrant dynamic of the Bible–not for what it says about God, but for what it reveals about the power of faith (Noah and his family) and a deeper truth that God supports the faithful through the tragedies of life, promising hope and redemption symbolized by a rainbow. Today, considering Hurricane Harvey, that rainbow symbolizes a whole lot more. The value of our homes and personal luxuries pale in the presence of a helping hand—no matter the color of the skin, the ethnicity it represents, its age or size, its nation of origin. The Good News is that God works primarily (although NOT exclusively) through US. We are not alone unless we choose to be. We never need be afraid.
Today we acknowledge that the Scriptures are both past, present and FUTURE ORIENTED. They inform us about the past as they illuminate HERE and NOW and beckon us onto the FUTURE. So, too, our current events. It’s clear that the earth has entered a warming phase with erratic temperatures and winds, caused, in part, through ice melts from the poles. No one refutes that any longer. What still is debated, however, is the extent the human footprint accelerates this phenomenon. But who could argue this: From the beginning, the Holy Spirit has nurtured Wisdom in human hearts and that centuries ago, the Spirit moved humanity to acknowledge a universal, common sense adage “An Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure.” As Catholics and others throughout the nation this weekend (and in the months to come) contribute and volunteer to Catholic Charities’ appeals to rebuild homes and refortify Texas Gulf cities and surroundings, we must prayerfully consider the bigger picture, engage in more preventative endeavors, more precautions, more safety measures, more environmentally sound uses of power and fuel, however costly—locally and nationally–these may be. The future of Texas as well as our children’s future and the entire earth’s future depend upon it. Whatever our political sensibilities we must defer to the Cross of Jesus Christ that insists we, too, sacrifice for a greater good. And then, because of God’s design, goodness will increase.
Today’s Eucharist is a preventative measure, too. Assuring Christ’s presence within us, around us, our Eucharist cultivates true faith–adult faith, inviting us to attend to our relationships with God and others with patience, awe and reverence and, yes, even patience with God until, ultimately, all shall be on earth as it is in heaven.
Reading 1 Jer 20:7-9
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage is my message;
the word of the LORD has brought me
derision and reproach all the day.
I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.
Responsorial Psalm Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
- (2b) My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
for your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you;
your right hand upholds me.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Reading 2 Rom 12:1-2
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Alleluia cf. Eph 1:17-18
- Alleluia, alleluia.
May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
enlighten the eyes of our hearts,
that we may know what is the hope
that belongs to our call.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mt 16:21-27
Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2 July 2017
Reading 1 2 Kgs 4:8-11, 14-16a
Responsorial Psalm Ps 89:2-3, 16-17, 18-19
Reading 2 Rom 6:3-4, 8-11
Gospel Mt 10:37-42
Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
What would you say to the priest who announced from the pulpit, that he, personally, needs you to come to mass? What would you say if he told you his life dependent on you, your active participation at Mass AND that you would wound him greatly if ever you should miss Mass, regular confession or one of his many religious education seminars?
What would you say if that same priest saw you on the street and burst into to tears, telling you how happy he is to know that you are alive and asking, “What on earth could have happened to prevent you from hearing last Sunday’s sermon?”
And what would you say if that priest called you on the phone to say, “Congratulations on your new car,” AND “Oh, how I would like a new car and, that, if you were a true Catholic, you would buy one for me at your next available opportunity?”
I think you would say, “Send for the ambulance! This priest is MAD! The man has lost his marbles!”
Even without such drastic, inappropriate behavior, human relationships can easily become disordered, unbalanced, yes, even crazy. Sometimes unawares we move from genuine enjoyment of another, from acceptance of another’s abilities and failings, to neediness, manipulation, jealousy and resentments.
For example: A marriage filled with reciprocity and mutuality can suddenly dissolve into insecurities that make unreasonable demands, devolve into disrespect for changes that occur naturally over time; alterations in likes and dislikes, comforts and discomforts. A model couple in their youth becomes a monstrosity when the two don’t mature together, with one or the other or both insisting their relationship remain as if they were still high school sweethearts, having never advanced in education or career paths or developed new interests.
Similarly, what happens in our family dynamics when parents of adult children (or adult children toward their parents) insist on weekly phone calls or birthday presents or visits to such a degree as to convey that their love for their children / parents is contingent on these and these alone? Suddenly, spontaneity, mutual respect, generosity of spirit–fly out the window. Through these and perhaps more subtle examples than that of our crazy priest, we know something is wrong when one family member or friend becomes needy, suspicious, demanding and greedy and the other feels resentments without any idea as to what to do with them.
When we insist that love must be justified, proved and actualized to our personal satisfactions, as if to say: “If you love me, you will agree with me;” “If you love me, you will always take my side, right or wrong,” — What kind of love are we falling into these days? Thankfully, there is an antidote to this fallible human condition of ours—The antidote, of course, is Jesus. Jesus who tells us we must love HIM first, honor God first above all, including family members and friends. Only then, with the Holy Spirit at the center of our lives, can we love one another modestly, with generosity and patience, free from the fears, demands and insecurities to which human love is prone.
The Cross we pick up as disciples insists we love others beyond our wants and needs–not to our neglect (Only God can be the True All-Giving Tree if you might be thinking of that popular children’s book) but to our mutual benefit that puts the relationship above all else. Whether relations among spouses, friends or business associates, faith invites us to cultivate the kind of give-and-take that will keep our families, friendships and businesses healthy and holy. Just as the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – is in perfect balance, all relationships that aspire to holiness require the time and effort to find a balance between what I need, what you need and what we both enjoy together and not without considerable sacrifice either –just as the Sacrifice of Christ offered freely to the World for the Father’s glory remains part of our redemption.
Counseling couples and families in crises I urge them to clarify each decision they make. Each need to state clearly any one of the following:
- I choose this because it is clear to me that we both want / like this choice equally. 2. I go along with this choice as a gift to you because it’s not my personal preference, but I give it freely and with joy. 3. I go along with this choice as a sacrifice because I’m against it but I can live with it for your sake. 4. I cannot go along with this and I need for us to look at alternatives / a compromise. There needs to be a balanced use of all four of these tools in every kind of relationship. That’s the human cross, the recognition of our fallibilities as we try to help relationships mirror the perfection of Father, Son and Spirit as much as possible.
We find an example of Healthy and Holy relationship mirrored in the spirit of outrageous hospitality that the woman of Shunem offers the prophet Elisha–a spirit of complete enjoyment of the other, generously giving without asking anything in return except for the sheer pleasure of his company. She makes no conditions. Her house is opened. In fact, she’ll expand it. Ultimately, this kind of unconditional love is rewarded: for the one who receives such generous love (if he/she like Elisha keeps God at the center of his /her life as Elisha does), is bound to offer reciprocity—in this case the promise of a much longed-for child. And even if they don’t bestow upon us something miraculous, or anything at all, the rewards are still ours: peace of mind, contentment in Christ’s love, and, yes, belief, that there are, indeed, the rewards of heaven. The truth is that in God’s time, wonderful surprises abound when two or more love one another as God loves us, when we see what God sees in others. “Go ahead, mother, go to your office and practice your violin, write the next great American novel! I’m happy to fix my supper myself for all the meals you’ve offered me in time.” In brief, we learn to say to others: “Be who God wants you to be; not what I need you to be.” This healthy, holy dynamic is meant to engage every Christian within and beyond family, Church and Nation. In Christ and through Christ we are invited to take any and every opportunity to cultivate mutual respect, joy in diversity and reconciliation-as needed- in every encounter, in all situations.
Our misguided priest thought his life and ministry was about him and him alone. He represents the shadow within all of us that must come into the light of Jesus. Thankfully, in Word and Sacrament, Jesus offers his hospitality to us—unconditionally, freely. His is the Glory of the Cross expanding from the family to the stranger, the immigrant, to a holy world view. Thank you, Jesus, for the faith that draws us to you. May we experience your nurturing, unconditional love in this Mass today and come to appreciate the extent of your patience with us until we fully place YOUR LOVE FOR US at the center of our lives, in the heart of our families, at the table with friends and strangers, alike. Yes, Jesus, today we understand: Eucharist is more than something we share in Church.
Photos of Young Adults smiling, cheering in cap and gown. A great day for them and for their families. Celebration! Degrees earned, lessons learned, friendships fostered others abandoned for good or ill -yet, hopefully insights gained about self, others, the reality of relationships. There is a lot to cheer about. And there’s Hope and excitement: What’s next? What’s new? Onward and Forward to the challenges ahead—ready or not!
Have they, do we, acknowledge what all events like these encompass? Or do we just go through the motions, eager to enjoy the dinners planned for the evening or anxiously anticipate getting back to work, or addressing the problems at home in the days ahead?
In these, and in each of our lives’ celebrations, faith demands that we ask: Where is God in all of this? To what extend are we, are they, our families and friends conscious of the spiritual potentials in these and other events that comprise the moments of our lives? To what extent can we / might we surrender to the moment, be attentive to the present and allow the events of the past these events evoke bring us Wisdom, give us humility and insights into who we are and who we want to be in the days and years ahead?
In truth, Graduations, like Confirmations, Weddings, Job promotions / transfers, moving into new apartments/ new homes/ new neighborhoods have the potential to echo the realities of that first Pentecost – a culmination of life experiences with Jesus that give an ordinary celebration profound effects as it did centuries ago for Peter, John, James, the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of James) and other disciples—deepening our understanding of who we were, who we are and what we are becoming. Yes, they have the potential, but what do we do to bring their potentials to fulfillment?
On that first Christian Pentecost, the disciples were gathering for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost: The Second Harvest Festival 50 days after the Barley Harvest Festival of Passover–a day of Thanksgiving, rest and celebration. It may or may not, at that time, have merged the festival with the commemoration of Moses presenting the people with Ten Commandment from Mount Sinai—perhaps a different Feast Day that was combined with that one. Nevertheless, the disciples had gathered to pray and focus on Thanksgiving –for the simple gifts of life and nourishment, and, for them, gratitude for the Resurrected Jesus and his pledge to be with them always and strengthen them with the Holy Spirit.
On that day, as in other days, the disciples hoped for further clarification of Jesus’ story and how they would / could / should understand His Story as foundational to their own. They didn’t have a guarantee that this would be the day; Jesus hadn’t told them the date. They had to be present to the Feast they came to celebrate and simply be conscious that God’s Spirit is alive in all good things, and in all times and places. Do we enter our celebrations—Graduations and otherwise–in the same way?
Whether conscious of it or not, our graduates have benefited from the Gifts of the Holy Spirit since birth. They, like us, were endowed with the Spirit at Baptism and strengthened in the Spirit through Confirmation and every reception of the Eucharist in between and beyond. Yes, Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Awe of God, Wonder in God’s Creation, Courage, Fortitude, Aptitude for Mercy, Justice with Compassion.
The lesson here: How much more could they, could we engage in life’s challenges and struggles if we more consciously and deliberately attend to the Holy Spirit? All we must do is connect our stresses with those of Jesus and the disciples, relate our vacillating between fear and hope with Israelites in the desert, the peoples of the Scriptures and the Saints who’ve come after, continually learning from them, and, like them, acknowledging our conscious dependence upon God.
On this Pentecost, we can take comfort that God’s grace is active in us and our world whether we pay attention to the Spirit or not. Despite ourselves. Jesus walks with us whether we know it or not. But Scripture, Prayer and Sacrament connect us to the bigger picture, the better picture: our lives are not our own but belong to God and for the service of God. In Churches and in Homes we are the people called to a great awakening in our consciousness for charity toward ourselves and others in all things, to make this a better world, more caring world, a world where others see that discipleship in Jesus does and can make a difference—for everyone. All for the greater glory of God.
by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
Ash Wednesday is the second most popular church day throughout the year–second only to Christmas. “Why?” Because this day, these rituals expose what everyone knows yet tries to avoid or pretends to forget: Death is inevitable. Death comes for all — no matter our faith, our politics, our ethnicity or culture. Death reminds us of our common humanity.
Ultimately, acknowledging DEATH is the FREEDOM to put our lives, our worries, our anxieties, our prejudices, our fears into proper perspective. To live our lives well, with dignity, morality and charity, we need to be reminded of DEATH. Yes, we need to be conscious of DEATH to be more fully alive.
In its opposition to LIFE, to joyful existence, to loving fully, SIN is also death. It is as universally ubiquitous as death — no matter our faith, our politics, our ethnicity or culture, SIN is in evidence. And thus, SIN ALSO reminds us of our common humanity.
Acknowledging SIN is also freedom. When we admit, we are wrong we free ourselves from pride, from having to make excuses, from pretending we’re perfect when we know we are not. Sin exposes our delusions that we are above and beyond the common folk, that we are somehow superior specimens in contrast took our competitors, our classmates, our friends—or, dare we acknowledge, the many ways we may be better than some of our family members. Yes, sin makes evident we are more like everybody else – a truth we don’t often like to admit.
Yet, we know that Confessing our sins Is Freedom. The truth we all are sinners frees us from oppressive guilts and insecurities that chip away at our self-esteem– no matter the pride or false bravado we project to others. Identifying our sins frees us from the burdens of hypocrisies, and offers HOPE for change, for growth, for transformation. Blessed are the meek and humble, indeed, for when we get honest, we get humble and it is humility that strengthens our belief in the God of Jesus Christ, that His Holy Spirit is within us and present and at work in our world.
That is the reason we arrived here today. Drawn to the Church, to renew our commitment to Catholic Christianity in part for the ways it acknowledges the power of signs and symbols. So, we put ashes on our foreheads, publicly witnessing to THESE FACTS:
1. Death is reality
2. We are sinners,
3. And that all are dependent on the MERCY OF GOD in whom we live and move and have our being.
In addition to these ashes on our foreheads, we return to the Mass which includes the Confession of sin and the Hope and Realities of the WORD and EUCHARIST. We return to fortify our relationship with Jesus as our Christ and to improve our relationship with others. That is perfect freedom. This is HOPE INCARNATE.
Our RECOMMITMENT TO THESE TRUTHS of OUR Christian Faith invite people of all religions to consider and articulate how their respective faiths and lives witness to a Merciful God. When this happens, we shed light on to the same realities that death exposes: our common humanity and the need for God.
If asked today by others ” Why are wearing ashes on your forehead?” answer plainly and with confidence: “there’s value in admitting our wrongs and believing in the Loving and Merciful God Jesus revealed.” This can –and should — and WILL– make a difference. It will change the ways we see ourselves and the ways we treat others daily. This entire Lenten season strives to imprint this truth on our bodies and souls: LORD, JESUS CHRIST, SON OF THE LIVING GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US SINNERS. Making this our continual prayer Is our Freedom and our Hope.
Here’s an example of the difference CHRISTIAN Faith can make in our lives:
I invite you to imagine you are back in grade school– 3rd or 4th grades– you are 8, 9 or 10. You’ve had a bad day and, on that day, your faith was no consolation to you. You forgot Jesus was with you, that you could turn to GOD for consolation. So instead, you turned to another kid on the playground, the one with a dirty shirt, who rarely combed his or her hair, and you picked on him. You teased her unmercifully. Name calling, ethnic slurs and brutality ensue and you left the playground angrier than before.
On arriving home, your parent or guardian asked “What was the matter?” You tell what you did. Now that parent or guardian may or may not have been present to Jesus at that moment. If not, if he/she forgot that we are all sinners AND temples of the Holy Spirit equally. So, that parent or guardian screamed, “Go to your room and get out of my sight. I’m disgusted with you.” And, if that was their response, in retrospect, we can forgive them for it. After all, we were not in touch with Christ ourselves on that day. But if they were –ah what a difference!
If in a more prayerful mood, our parent or guardian would ask what caused us to act that way. They would have reminded us that we all make bad choices, hurt ourselves and others but in faith we can turn to God whose mercy inspires us to admit our wrongs and do something about them. They may have invited us to pray over what happened and discuss how we could put things right. They would have invited us to look at the choices before us – we could perpetuate the hurt, the guilt, or make changes for the better. Perhaps the love and mercy they showed us motivated us to phone that other kid and say we were sorry and say that we wanted to make it up to him. Perhaps we went to his or her house and apologized in person, inviting them to play a game with us or we offered to help with homework. If that was in your childhood experiences, that would have been an experience of GOD.
If this or something like it happened to you as a young person, I am here to assure you that that day was one of the best days of your young life. If it didn’t happen, if your parent or guardian condemned you and did not help you so something about it, if you kept your wrongdoing to yourself and perpetuated it because you felt guilty and ashamed, if you indulged your anger even further, FEAR NOT. For today, with Ashes on your forehead, you can change what you would do TODAY—you can act differently NOW—with anyone you may have hurt or who has hurt you. You can appropriate the gifts of your Confirmation now: the courage to speak the truth with mercy, with patience and kindness for yourselves and for others because we are all going to die. You can DIE to the Past and be present to God in Jesus Christ right NOW and let God’s tender mercy fill you with grace. That is the Freedom of Ash Wednesday; the Courage of Ash Wednesday; the Truth of Ash Wednesday and what this season of LENT encourages us to embrace.
Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND
Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND? Yes and No. YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy. YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures. YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.) Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical. But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So. If you answered YES to all the above: GO! If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home. But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.
LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake. These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural. Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes: Don’t leave everything to the professionals! Sing a little, dance a little. Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.” (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)
The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter. Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset. (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.) Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.” (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?) But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes. Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more. The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable. I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent. (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)
LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture. As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.
Questions for Discussion:
- Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
- Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
- Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
- Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it? Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
- No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.” Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND? Sebastian or Mia? Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?