Past Lives is the superior version of La La Land. I get that people love La La Land but it has some awful writing. Let me explain.
The importance of the third act
I complain a lot about movies and TV shows that chicken out of actually giving us a third act. It was the biggest problem I saw in the four years I was head fiction editor of a monthly literary journal. Story after story would have great writing but only be a beginning and a middle that concluded before going into the third act. For example, a story where a 17-year-old has bad parents and is stuck at home but their birthday is the next day. That night, a huge fight erupts between the protagonist and their parents. It turns physical. Truths come out. It’s loud and dramatic. Then the clock strikes midnight. And the protagonist, now 18, walks out the door.
That’s a cool concept and ends on this emotional high. But the real story isn’t the character leaving. It’s what happens when they’re out the door. On their own. In the world. Everything with them and their parents is just introduction and inciting action. The better storyteller goes into what happens next. The juxtaposition between the character’s hope of what the rest of the world is versus the reality of it.
Please, be aware, this is not some Joseph Campbell Monomyth 101 nonsense where I now say the character must return home. The reason why the hero’s journey is so popular and “works” is because it demands contrast and forces even the dilettante to take their story beyond the first or second act. But, no, you don’t have to have the “return”. Writers just often need to go further than what they do.
I know people love Ex Machina but it’s another one that misses a true third act. The tension of the film is whether or not this highly advanced AI can pass the Turing test. There’s this whole dynamic between the genius creator (Oscar Isaac) and the programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who falls for the AI (Alicia Vikander). It turns out that the AI does have consciousness and intelligence but ends up outwitting both Gleeson and Isaac and freeing itself from this facility. Something that we’ve been told was incredibly dangerous. The movie ends with the AI walking the streets of some city, looking like a normal woman.
Hopefully, you know what my issue is here. If the story is about the dangers of AI and what would happen if an AI as smart as this one were to be free in the world, then, to me, that should be the story. What we have in Ex Machina is entertaining and interesting. Both critics and fans lauded it. But I’d contend that it’s ultimately a betrayal of its potential. Because the story isn’t about the AI escaping, it’s what happens when the AI escapes. How does it react to the world? Does it live a normal life? Can it live a normal life? If it can’t, what happens? Does it help? Does it hurt? What does it learn? What do we learn? That’s where all the narrative depth and weight and heft is. Except we don’t get any of that. Instead, we simply end with the tease that the AI is free and are left to our own conversation about what happens next.
To me, that’s bad writing. Even if it’s written well. It fails on the whole.
La La Land
When we zoom out and look at La La Land’s overall structure, it’s this:
- Intro to Seb and Mia. He wants to be a musician and own a club. She wants to be an actor. They’re both struggling.
- Unite Seb and Mia and see the results. They comfort one another. Not only that, each motivates the other to do more, achieve more, go out on a limb. Mia puts everything into a one-woman play. Seb, wanting to provide, joins a more mainstream band that goes against his artistic sensibilities but pays well and brings him acclaim.
- Break-up Seb and Mia. Their relationship fails because their careers are taking off.
- Fast forward 5 years. Mia’s famous. Seb’s successful. There’s one last shared exchange of what could have been. Both are grateful for what was.
Another way of looking at it is this:
- Two people are at the bottom of their career tracks.
- Their career prospects improve but at personal costs.
- They now have their dream jobs. .
The issue with La La Land is weighting. It’s a 128-minute film. Mia and Seb don’t go on their first date until the 40-minute mark. About 51 minutes in, Mia leaves her boyfriend to go see a movie with Seb. At 58-minutes, they kiss, the shot dissolves, we transition to the relationship chapter. The break-up scene starts around 1:29:00. Then we get a coda to this chapter where Mia finally has the audition she’s been waiting for and crushes it. “Here’s to the ones who dream…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make.”
The entire coda involves getting Mia to the audition, the audition, and the conversation after the audition. It concludes at 1:43:30. Then “Winter” starts. This final section is only 16 minutes. 50% of that is the fantasy sequence about the life Mia and Seb could have lived.
That means 8 minutes of La La Land is about the lives Mia and Seb have now that they’re successful. All we really see of that is Mia getting coffee, briefly at home with her husband and child, then at the club. For Seb, it’s only him at the club. Are they happy? Unhappy? Clearly they appreciate one another and what they could have had together. But are they satisfied with where they’re at? Who is Mia’s husband? How is her career going? Does she like her roles? Dislike her roles? Is it everything she thought it would be? Less than? Would she give it all up to go back and be with Seb and have that life with him? What about Seb? Does he have anyone? Is it just the club? Does he not date because he’s a “real musician” or because he’s heartbroken over Mia and can never love anyone else? Has he tried to date others? Is he okay with not dating? Is the club everything he hoped it would be?
I can hear you saying, “Chris, not everything has to be tied up so neatly!” Yes. Agreed. Except. We spent 1 hour and 43 minutes with these characters yearning to be at this point in their careers. This is everything they dreamed of. We got to know them at their lowest. Who they were. What they wanted. What their lives were like. The intro is 58 minutes! Then the relationship and build to the breakthrough is 45 minutes! But the actual conclusion, when you remove the fluff of the extended fantasy sequence, is only 8 minutes.
You don’t have to explain everything or put a bow on it but when the point of the story is to explore the Hollywood dream and the journey and cost of realizing that dream, the ultimate question becomes—is it worth it? That’s the story. The build is just the build. And it’s charming and emotional and great. But the actual story is what happens when they’re famous. Damien Chazelle avoided that completely.
What makes La La Land feel special is Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone putting on career-defining performances and oozing screen presence and charisma. People fall in love with their characters and that relationship. And there’s that degree of seeing yourself in them. Most people can relate to them being dreamers and having relationship woes. It speaks to something we’ve all experienced in some way, shape, or form. That’s powerful. But the overall story is poorly executed because La La Land fails to explore the third act with the same care and craft as the first two.
Which is a mistake Chazelle corrected with Babylon. It’s essentially the same story about dreaming and Hollywood and the way in which people can help one another at crucial times in life. Except it’s 189 minutes (vs 128). So we get the full arc and payoff and consideration that La La Land chickened out on. It’s just not as charming. But you know what is charming?
There’s a version of Past Lives that goes the route of La La Land. The first quarter of the film is Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) as kids. Then it’s Nora adjusting to life in Canada. Then it’s Nora in college and the reconnection with Hae Sung. Lastly, it’s her introduction to Arthur and the development of their relationship. At some point, Nora would send Hae Sung a postcard or something and not realize it has her address on it. Then, in the film’s final seconds, there’s a knock at the door. Nora opens it and it’s Hae Sung. The end.
Could that still be a charming, lovely, emotional, thought-provoking story? Definitely. But would it also be unfinished and cheating itself and everyone else out of the actual conclusion to the story? 10,000,000%
What did Celine Song do, instead? She went into the third act!
Past Lives has the initial introduction to Nora and Hae Sung as kids. Then their reconnection in college. Once that ends, we have the whole stretch with Arthur and getting to know what Nora’s relationship is like with him. Finally? We get a solid 30 minutes of Hae Sung in New York, spending time with Nora. We see Nora have this chance to imagine a future with him. The what-could-have-been. We get how this affects Arthur. And that allows us to compare how Nora’s relationship with Arthur is to how she spends time, as a thirty-something, with Hae Sung. Is what they had or have any more powerful than what Nora has with Arthur? Or just different? And what does it mean for Arthur and Hae Sung to meet? The scene between them at the bar when Nora’s off somewhere is such a powerful thing. It embodies so much about Nora, seeing these men she loves and how they represent different sides of her and how one life must be the priority over the other. You can’t have it both ways. But one isn’t inherently better or worse. And there’s something cathartic about that. Not just for the characters but for the viewer as well. It’s okay to cherish what you have and not obsess over other lives.
By taking us to this point of resolution and closure that the characters experience, the viewer gets to feel that as well. You come away with a sense of an answer. It may feel right to you. It may feel wrong to you. But it’s something you can think through and react to and use as a reference point in your own life. That’s the thing that makes narrative so important to society and why it’s been a part of every civilization that’s ever existed on Earth. We tell stories not just to entertain but to instruct. And when a story avoids the third act, when it ends prematurely because it’s the easy thing to do, it’s a shame. Because it means the author couldn’t get to the heart of the matter.
Thankfully, Celine Song can and did. And in only 106 minutes.
Other films that do this well?
- No Country For Old Men
- Top Gun: Maverick
- Uncut Gems
- Jurassic Park
- Perfect Blue