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Babylon, the next film from Damien Chazelle, has an introduction that is about as scatological as it is possible to get for a costly and lavish epic about Hollywood in the 1920s. In the first scene of the film, a harried gofer named Manny Torres (played by Diego Calva) tries to transport an elephant into the Hollywood Hills for a big-shot producer’s party. This task is a farce that ends with the elephant pooping on the camera lens, which in a sense is pooping on the viewers themselves. We then cut to a laughing Hollywood star who is being urinated on as part of some private sexcapade while the party continues on the floors below. Chazelle depicts this sweaty, drug-fueled orgy as a bravura unbroken take in the film.
The scenario, which is rich in both magnificent and terrible vistas, drags on for far longer than is appropriate. This then sets the stage perfectly for Chazelle’s subsequent poison-pen letter to Hollywood’s silent era, which is an extravaganza of debauchery, general misery, and overflowing movie magic that ignites the industry and invites the audience to dance around the bonfire. The film runs for more than three hours. It is an audacious move for a major studio to put out in this day and age, when enormous expenditures tend to be poured on superheroes, and Babylon’s acerbic indulgence will undoubtedly deter many moviegoers from going to see it at the theatre. However, Chazelle is trying to make a point with all of the excess by arguing that the pleasure of watching movies has always been inextricably linked to exploitation, abuse, and off-screen villainy.
On the surface, Babylon appears to be the flip-side tale of La La Land, the director’s Oscar-winning musical about the filmmaking industry, which adopted a far gaudier approach. However, upon further inspection, this is not the case. In it, individuals sung heartwarming melodies paying tribute to “the fools who dream,” and those who worked hard enough for stardom were rewarded with it, even when it came at the expense of their romantic relationships. But La La Land was a movie with a sour aftertaste; Chazelle seemed to be criticising his own nostalgia while at the same time letting it play out on-screen to the satisfaction of spectators. Since the events of Babylon, his feelings for the industry of fame-seeking in which he works have only become colder, but he hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for film in any way, shape, or form. The consequent violent contrast that results from these two ideas is intriguing to observe.
Babylon is a massive ensemble piece, yet it primarily focuses on three different characters. There’s Manny, a Mexican American assistant who works his way up through the ranks of a made-up film studio to become a film executive just as the movies are making the transition from silent to talkies. Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie, is a newcomer who is looking to break into the business, and Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, is an established superstar who can’t get out of bed before downing a few cocktails. He meets both of them at the frantic party that kicks off the first act of the movie. Babylon follows each person’s rise and fall as their arcs intertwine and come apart, but it also delves into other tales of an industry stumbling toward a veneer of respectability during one of its most volatile eras. The show takes place in Babylon, a city in ancient Babylonia that was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Chazelle is adamant in his assertion that the 1920s Hollywood film industry was completely lawless. Filmmakers were still inventing basic storytelling themes on the fly at this point, and the rules for on-screen decency and morality were only a few years away. Films were being funded by unscrupulous figures. At one point in the movie, director Damien Chazelle virtuously shoots a succession of enormous film productions that are all taking place simultaneously in the same California hills. This is a conceit that was possible back in the day when movies didn’t have to worry about recording sound. While one director is coordinating the participation of thousands of extras for a massive battle sequence set in the middle ages (which is reminiscent of the famous epic film Intolerance, which was released in 1916), other productions are taking place on small sets that have been hastily constructed. The camera, which is operated by Chazelle, moves around from setting to setting, taking in the untamed beauty of it all.
Even though Chazelle has only been in the industry for a very short time, he has already arranged quite a few spectacular set pieces throughout his career. This particular scene may very well be the most impressive one of all. He wants the audience to consider the sheer audacity of early filmmaking, and he takes particular pleasure in the contrast between an epic battle that is being staged for one film and an emotional barroom scene that is being produced for another film. In the latter scene, Nellie, a last-minute replacement, proves herself to be the saucy new star the studio has been looking for. He wants the audience to think about this. As soon as the scene was through, I was prepared to declare Babylon a masterpiece; yet, the movie wasn’t even close to being finished when the sequence concluded.
What follows is a bewildering series of concentric spirals for the ensemble, which quickly begin to make one feel practically sick to their stomachs. Jack’s image begins to fade with age, alcoholism, and changing trends. Manny’s desire to rise to the top compels him to make a set of decisions that are morally compromised. Nellie’s initial triumphant success begins to falter because of her scandalous off-screen behaviour. Jack’s image begins to fade with age, alcoholism, and changing trends. The screenplay written by Chazelle unfortunately gives less attention to other people whose stories have their roots in the history of cinema, despite the fact that these characters are just as compelling. Lady Fay Zhu is a cabaret singer and an actress with a gift for painting silent-film title cards, and Jovan Adepo is a trumpeter named Sidney Palmer who briefly enjoys fame during the early years of films with sound. Li Jun Li plays the role of Lady Fay Zhu. Jovan Adepo plays the role of Sidney Palmer.
Nearly all of these characters have historical counterparts, and many of them incorporate well-known elements of Hollywood lore. For example, Nellie is obviously based on the flapper queen Clara Bow, Jack is based on the tragic silent film star John Gilbert, Fay Zhu owes a great deal to Anna May Wong, and so on and so forth. But Chazelle amps up the volume with each portrayal, blending fact and fiction and giving his dialogue more current snap and crackle to highlight the ways in which the industry has not altered despite having been around for almost a century. Although I was moved and agitated by the cavalcades of failure that Babylon depicts, the film almost deliberately becomes a drag, wringing out every last golden drop of nostalgia until everyone, on-screen and off, is miserable and exhausted. Although I was moved and agitated by the depictions of Babylon’s failures, I found the film to be a drag.
But before sending ticket purchasers out the door, Chazelle provides an epilogue that is so ludicrous and bold, so both cornball and avant-garde, that I wasn’t sure whether to tip my hat or throw fruit at the screen in response to it. I won’t go into too much detail, but it does have a montage that has the purpose of highlighting Chazelle’s primary point regarding the environment in which he is working. Although Hollywood may be a foetid pit of exploitation that has sucked the souls of many people dry over the years, he seems to be implying that this is all done in the name of producing the highest quality entertainment that money can buy. I’m not sure whether I agree or if I was simply beaten into submission after more than three hours, but Babylon is the kind of grandiose folly that at least gives the viewer a huge old mess to chew on. I’m not sure if I agree or if I was simply crushed into submission after more than three hours.
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