Babylon Seeks Your Disgust And Your Delight
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a shit-spewing Hollywood takedown and a Fellini-esque whirligig circus desperate to love the movies. It’s the undertaker calling to say cinema is dead, and by-gods you’ll never guess what I’ve done to the body – if the call was coming from inside the bowels of the studio system. Babylon starts as a bombastic portrait of hedonism-as-inspiration in the peak of the silent film era, circa the late 1920s; transitions into a searing indictment of the exploitation of the early sound era; and finishes with a confused, madcap dash to find some sort of present-day meaning in the mess. It’s bloated and it bloviates; it seeks both your disgust and your delight. It’s brilliant.
The film opens on a bacchanal of seemingly epic proportions, though Chazelle’s slick expository dialogue makes it clear that this party is run-of-the-mill for early Hollywood. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is the Brad Pitt of the late 1920s, and his party has it all: drugs and alcohol; sex and dancing; one elephant and one Nelly LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Nelly is a wannabe starlet who stumbles her way into the party and into Manny Torres, a Hollywood newbie who does the shit work in hopes of getting a job on set one day. The rager flips their fortunes: Nelly’s dancing wins her a part after an actress overdoses upstairs, and Manny takes charge of Jack Conrad’s ride home, earning him an assistant gig with the biggest film star in America. Such was the chaos of the silent era.
And this is Chazelle’s thesis statement for the period: it was depraved and cruel and unsafe, and its artistic output was wild and fierce and beautiful. It accepted anyone and everyone, even as it judged them and exploited them and risked their lives for a dollar. It hurt people and it amazed people. It was spectacle.
Chazelle conveys this in an enervating extended sequence, intercutting between Nelly’s first scene as a bar-room seductress, Jack’s role in a massive Roman epic, and Manny’s fix-it-all omnipresence around the fictional Kinescope Studios. Chazelle’s style emphasizes how the art of silent film bred a unique group creativity: since nobody had to worry about sound, one studio could be filled with a half-dozen productions. His camera swings through the performers, freaks, and hangers-on alike, shifting back-and-forth with ease from views of his own camera to those of the directors on set, mirroring the elision between art and artist. An extra dies from a spear wound; moments later, each of the three stories end in transcendent moments. The show must go on.
And, unfortunately (as Chazelle seems to think), the show did go on. Or, as Al Jolson famously intoned in the sound-breaking The Jazz Singer: “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
And in Hollywood, it was bring in the noise, take out the funk. In another show-stopping sequence, Chazelle sums up the introduction of the sound era with the mercilessly painstaking efforts of one small unit to capture a one-person, 30-second scene starring Nelly. Sound engineers rose to fascistic heights; star performers fret and sweat over audience response to the sound of their voice; and in a fit of painful irony, a cone of silence descended over the chaos of the studio atmosphere. With the rise of “quiet on set” came an unprecedented creative stagnation, sapping inspiration and improvisation from a previously maverick industry and art form – and, as was the case for the cameraman shoved into a hot box to prevent the noise of the camera from interfering with the shot, literally choking it to death.
And with a buttoning up of the form, the industry followed suit. Though Chazelle and editor Tom Cross add verve to the opening “Hello, College” scene of the sound era, the filmmaking slows down as it shifts its gaze toward the negative half of the director’s love / hate relationship with Hollywood: the business. As Hollywood cloaked itself in a veneer of respectability – I’d be interested to see if Chazelle’s initial cut includes any of the outside pressures from “moral” political actors – it commodified its exploitation. You either wore the hat or you didn’t. Nelly could remain a star if she rid herself of the wild child persona. Sydney Palmer, a Black jazz musician thrust into the spotlight with the coming of sound, rose to stardom and was pushed almost immediately to debase himself before the camera. These sequences of artistic and moral compromise are drained of the energy, saturation, and compositional acuity of the silent era scenes – there’s no doubt how we’re supposed to feel about this “progress.”
Babylon’s narrative and its filmmaking both emphasize the hypocrisy of this new Hollywood. The wealthy elite force Manny – an immigrant dreamer who sat side-by-side with Nelly as nobodies – to impose these injustices. He does so apologetically to Sydney, but then willingly leaps at the chance to reinvent Nelly, going so far as to dress her up and parade her around William Randolph Hearst and his wealthy sycophants. His journey is the beating, then corrupted, then broken heart of Babylon.
And in a hellish third act sequence, Chazelle visualizes the way Hollywood pushed its exploitation further underground. The go-for-broke descent into madness may not work for everyone, but there’s no denying the impact of the hard cut from one of the most despicable sights in Los Angeles to the gilded corridors of power. The juxtaposition is clear: the real horrors are right in front of your eyes.
Chazelle is a confused optimist at his core, and can’t help a final flourish that brings our attention back to the heart of the movies: the people and the images. The most beautiful moment of Babylon comes when it slows down. Manny and Nelly stop at a dive joint to fill up on gas before fleeing the city. Manny proposes; Nelly says yes. It’s love on the deck of the sinking Titanic, but love nonetheless. As the two dance slowly, Nelly’s head tilted back, a local cinematographer with a low-fi camera and a tripod identifies her as the star from the pictures. He turns on his camera, and Chazelle shifts to his footage. The shot is low quality. It’s angled upwards at a couple completely unaware that they’re being captured on film. This is the power of the camera: to capture the people and the images that matter.
Chazelle caps the film with a controversial swing for the fences that I won’t spoil, but suffice to say I think his message is clear. The moving picture still has power – for better and for worse. But nearly 100 years later, industrial and societal forces are combining to rob it of its potency and its magic. History is repeating itself. So Damien Chazelle is walking right into the heart of Hearst Castle and puking all over the carpet.