One of the first shots in Babylon is of an elephant’s anus, just as the beast lets loose a torrent of faeces – ordure that, in a confusing touch of simulated vérité, remains smeared on the lens even after the cut.
Take heed: This shot is a portent of the spectacle to come.
That it brings to mind a similarly graphic shot from last year’s Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s punishing study of Marilyn Monroe, is fitting: Damien Chazelle’s latest is also ‘a love letter to Hollywood’ as written with a poison pen; a showbiz saga that fails to recognise the masturbatory element of its performative self-flagellation.
Certainly it has more in common with Blonde’s noxious vision than it does with La La Land (2016), Chazelle’s old school musical paean to LA’s starry-eyed dreamers, or Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, the film that Babylon – its three-plus hours rammed with allusions to Hollywood history and lore – takes as its primary touchstone.
Like that film, Babylon unfolds at the crossroads of silent and sound cinema, as the effects of the pivot to talkies (precipitated by The Jazz Singer, released in 1927) reverberate through the industry, with careers being launched and terminated on a dime.
Unlike Singin’ in the Rain, Babylon seizes on the storied decadence of its jazz age setting. The film kicks off with a bacchanal at a movie mogul’s mansion that seems to have been put together by Jay Gatsby’s party-planning team (and I mean Luhrmann’s Gatsby, not Fitzgerald’s) alongside the cult leaders from Eyes Wide Shut.
The ballroom is a heaving pit of flesh, dotted with bare breasts and jewelled headdresses and live chickens and, for good measure, a dwarf on a big penis-shaped pogo stick.
This could – should – be fun, at least in the moment, but there is an air of desperation to Chazelle’s shock tactics, and the spectacle is too carefully composed to convey any real sense of abandon. Surely only a square would have their orgy choreographed by someone from Dancing with the Stars.
The film ultimately offers something like a square’s take on Hollywood as seen through the eyes of Kenneth Anger – set down in his notorious work of yellow journalism, Hollywood Babylon (published in France in 1959 but banned in the United States for a decade).
Where Anger wove scraps of lurid fiction into his accounts of movie star scandals, however, Chazelle peoples his Sin City (mostly) with fictive, composite creations, whose arcs riff on those of various Golden Age luminaries without claiming to mirror them.
Amongst the party’s Boschian morass are Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a movie star around whom guests cluster like metal shavings to a magnet (modelled primarily on John Gilbert), and Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy (see: Clara Bow), a wannabe starlet from Jersey, not on the guest list but still gunning to steal a little bit of the spotlight, and a lot of cocaine.
Swathed in an extremely brief and badly draped scarlet dress paired with kitten-heeled ankle boots, Nellie more so than any of the myriad characters the film throws at us looks to have stumbled in from a completely different film – maybe a Kylie Minogue music video. (I submit the outfit she later wears to the cinema, a sequinned bralette and short shorts combo, as further evidence.)
Her entree is facilitated by lowly employee of the house Manny Torres, played by Mexican actor Diego Calva (in his first English-language role), who is immediately besotted with her drunken chutzpah. Nellie (or is it the plate of coke they plough into?) unlocks in him a desire to be part of something “bigger”, something “more important than life”.
Safe to say they’ve ruled the seminary out, so that leaves the movies.
Babylon is at great pains to demonstrate the danger in affording such almighty importance to the seventh art, however.
Film production in the silent era is revealed to be a cruel – and, for some Babylon viewers, likely exasperating – farce: The ‘set’ is a hodgepodge of plywood facades rudely erected in the desert, overrun by armies of costumed extras – apparently, “junkies from Skid Row” – who decry poor working conditions, while a German-accented director (played by Spike Jonze, one of a squillion semi-cameos) shouts profanity-rich directives at his underlings, and there are no operational cameras to be found.
When an extra gets run-through with a spear, the man’s death is casually chalked up to a “drinking problem”. This, Chazelle appears to tut, is what happens when movies are deemed “more important than life”.
Things only get worse when the 30s come along, bringing with them not just the disruption of sound but also puritanical moral regulations, applicable to the stars on screen and off. Pushed underground, the behind-the-scenes hedonism becomes sleazier, and much more dangerous.
Via countless smash cuts and whip pans (recall that Chazelle’s breakout feature was titled Whiplash), the writer-director weaves together the Tinseltown travails of Jack, Nellie, and Manny, as well as sexy sapphic actor Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and trumpet player Sid Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Each must choose to either sell out – first themselves, and then others – or get out.
In Chazelle’s telling, the film industry is so addicted to itself, so without dignity or self-awareness, that it hews close to human trafficking.
In Babylon’s final act, Manny is whisked off to a terrifying venue out in the desert (anyone for “The Asshole of Los Angeles”? No?) by a big-time gangster who wants to get into the biz (Tobey Maguire, channelling a ventriloquist’s dummy for some reason). There, he gleefully shows Manny a man munching on live rats for spare change. “They found him in a forest in Oregon,” coos the kingpin. “He will do AN-EE-THING for cash. He’s perfect for movies!”
Which begs the question: Is a movie – a $US78 million movie – the best medium through which to convey such a damning message? (Nathanael West, author of seminal 1939 Hollywood-as-hellscape novel The Day of the Locust, to which Babylon is indebted, might’ve had a few notes.)
In any case, surely this blackened cynicism is suspect coming from the maker of La La Land, with its tableaux of young lovers soft-shoeing through the Hollywood Hills at magic hour: Has Chazelle dramatically changed his tune about his own industry, or is he just trying on different attitudes for size?
Admittedly, Babylon is not all fire and brimstone. Chazelle allows for the existence of moments of something like grace, however corny: when the chaos of the desert film set coalesces at last, suddenly, just as the light is giving out, in the form of one perfect shot, with Jack Conrad taking his paramour into his arms; or when Manny goes to the cinema, decades on from his Hollywood misadventures, only for the screen to be taken over by a rapid-fire montage of shining moments from the entirety of the medium’s life span, from Eadweard Muybridge right through to Avatar.
Never mind the breathtaking presumption of such a conceit, or of the decision to incorporate the work of filmmakers who had absolutely nothing to do with the machinations of the Dream Factory; never mind the jarring juxtaposition of James Cameron’s Pandora and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona – this is what we’re fighting for, Chazelle seems to be saying, this crazy little thing called cinema that, goddammit, is bigger and more important than us.
Perhaps Chazelle is saying that he believes in something like the God of cinema but not the church.
After being bludgeoned with hours of debasement, however, the few-and-far-between moments of seeming sweetness are as cheap glacé cherries atop a Fatty Arbuckle-sized helping of elephant dung. Or, even worse, they work to eulogise a mode of filmmaking – auteur-driven, generously budgeted, non-franchise, non-streaming – and so inadvertently assist in its being lowered into the ground.
Babylon is in cinemas now.
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