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La Land is a big, bombastic musical – but it's the smaller gestures that make it sing Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?


NewsHub“Is it nostalgic?” asks Mia, the aspiring actor played by Emma Stone in the musical La Land . “Are people gonna like it?” She’s agonising over the play she has written but this is surely the voice of the writer-director Damien Chazelle asking these questions of his movie. To which the answers would be: “Duh!” and “On the whole, yes.”
Nostalgia permeates La Land right from the opening announcement that it has been shot in CinemaScope, the widescreen format that was prevalent in the 1950s. When Mia returns home, strolling past street murals of Chaplin and Monroe, a giant poster of Ingrid Bergman gazes down from her bedroom wall. And when she goes on a date with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), it is to a picture palace with a light bulb-studded marquee.
Old Hollywood is as glorious and intimidating to these 21st-century lovers as it was in Pennies from Heaven when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters danced in front of the flickering image of Astaire and Rogers, before entering the cinema screen themselves. Something similar happens in La Land when Mia and Sebastian drive up to the Griffith Observatory after watching Rebel Without a Cause ; it’s as though the movie has spilled over into real life.
Sebastian is Mia’s partner in nostalgia. He’s a pig-headed pianist who rhapsodises about jazz and dreams of owning a club but earns a crust playing easy-listening standards. He and Mia are at the foothills of their ambitions, not always certain whether they should go on climbing or settle for life at a lower altitude. La Land asks the same question as Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash : how do you keep your dreams alive without letting them kill you?
When modern directors tackle the musical genre, there can be an element of hostility present, as though they are slaying a dragon – or, more likely, a sacred cow. La Land is not volatile like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York or Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s a middle-of-the-road confection, pretty rather than deep, which never quite makes its own mark. It takes its melancholic mood from Edward Hopper and its eye-popping colours from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The most original moments are minor ones: glitter thrown into a hairdryer creates a small silvery blizzard, a handbag matches a row of purple wheelie bins in a back alley.
What’s intriguing is that the film bestows on this stepping stone of a romance the sort of attention traditionally reserved for amour fou. It demonstrates, in a series of casually elegant dance duets beginning with a soft-shoe shuffle on a deserted back road in the Hollywood Hills, how Mia and Sebastian connect in their nostalgic reveries for the briefest of moments. Each time, they are dragged back to the present by the bleeps and blasts of the modern world – a ringtone, a smoke alarm, the chirp of an electronic fob.
The film is at its most convincing in those intimate exchanges between Gosling, with his melted eyes, and Stone, with her anime face. When it reaches for an ambitious, razzle-dazzle effect, such as in the over-complicated dance number in a traffic jam (shades of Fame ) and a poorly directed sequence in which the couple start flying like Goldie Hawn in Everyone Says I Love You , it comes across as merely ersatz. This is not, after all, a film of grand passions.
Nor is Chazelle at his most assured on a large canvas. He is an economical visual storyteller who can nail the small, telling moments. He explains in just two brief shots, for instance, exactly why Sebastian puts his ambitions on the back burner to tour with a band he hates. What Chazelle can’t always do is join up the dots to give the film momentum. After a lively scene introducing Sebastian’s sister (the excellent Rosemarie DeWitt), the picture rashly casts her aside, which is a mistake in such a long and underpopulated movie. It can’t rely, either, on the new compositions to whoosh it along, with the exception of a tentative piano number called “City of Stars”, which is first sung casually by Gosling as he strolls along a pier at night. The rest of the songs aren’t heartfelt so much as Heart FM; Magic rather than magical.
John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.
It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.
Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.
Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.
Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.
But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

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