Babylon is a huge missed opportunity.
The award-winning writer and director Damien Chazelle set out to create a film celebrating 1920s
and the crazy, addicted, and inspired people who made movies during the jazz age. He wanted to dramatize how sometimes the creation of something holy, like a beautiful work of art, including cinema, often requires some hard, grubby work. Movies — shocker! — are often made by people of poor morals.
Yet, in Babylon, Chazelle argues that the creation of great film requires an engagement, literally, with human excrement, pornography, and the demonic. This is a frustrating swing and a miss from Chazelle, who gave us great films such as Whiplash and
La La Land
. Carl Jung once noted that the creative process often involves mining the subconscious “shadow,” where our anger, passion, sexual desire, and memories reside. Yet Jung drew a sharp line between that and what Babylon offers, which is graphic orgies, violence, and elephant dung in your face. Hollywood’s problem these days, along with poor screenwriting and woke movies that cram liberalism down your throat, is that it has lost its ability and desire to create a spiritual vision.
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Babylon follows the stories of three people at the end of the silent film era. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican American who gets into the business as a laborer and works his way up to studio executive. He falls in love with Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a gifted actress who will have trouble surviving when the sound era begins. Then there is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent film star who is an alcoholic and about to leave his third wife. There’s also a jazz trumpet player named Sidney (Jovan Adepo) and a gay cabaret singer named Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li).
In a way, all these characters are religious pilgrims. Film is their god and Hollywood their church. Film critic Josh Larsen has observed in his book, Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, that human beings are, by nature, praying creatures and that this prayer extends to making and watching movies. Using the theory of common grace, which is “this notion that an agnostic artist, by God’s favor, can capture the glory of his creation,” Larsen argues that artists and filmmakers are constantly offering gestures of prayer in their art, even without knowing it or naming it. “Prayer can be an unconscious act, one guided by the Holy Spirit as much as our own script,” Larson writes, citing Romans 8:26. “Even the howl of an atheist,” he adds, “is directed at the God they don’t acknowledge.”
The characters in Babylon acknowledge God in the wonderful scenes in which they nail a take and see all their hard work come to fruition. Of course, Hollywood has never been home to the most saintly people, yet Chazelle is arguing that their process necessarily involves pornography, scatology, and, literally, the demonic. This is certainly not true of Steven Spielberg or Terrence Malick or the great silent era masterpiece such as 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film Chazelle has praised in interviews and even honors with a brief clip in Babylon.
Great films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc engage in what Larsen sees as the nine expressions of prayer that are found in movies — prayers of praise (creation), prayers of yearning, lament, and anger (fall), followed by prayers of confession, reconciliation, obedience, and meditation/contemplation (redemption), and ending with prayers of joy (restoration). Larsen starts with Avatar, the James Cameron blockbuster. Pandora, the eye-popping world director Cameron has created, is teeming with life — as Larson observes, “Life on this alien world gallops and grows, swoops and streams … feathery, spiral plants as tall as cars instantly shrink at the slightest touch. Bioluminescent seeds drift in the air and gently settle on branches, looking like landlocked jellyfish. Even the ground is alive.”
Teeming is the word Larsen uses to describe this world. It is the same word that is used in different variations in both Genesis and the Psalms to describe the vast life force of the sea. Quoting Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann — “Praise is not only a human requirement and a human need, it is a human delight” — Larsen convincingly argues that Avatar is not liberal propaganda but a holy work of pop art. (Larsen also examines The Tree of Life, Malick’s 2011 spiritual meditation on the creation of the world.)
Larsen also examines Breathless, the seminal 1960 film by Jean-Luc Godard that was a seminal film of the French New Wave of cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Breathless, a crime drama featuring quick jump cuts and shot on a handheld camera, seems the opposite of the CGI extravaganza Avatar. Yet in Breathless, Larson also sees the delight of creation: “If there is a common feature to most of the film in French New Wave — a frame that keeps this oddly reconfigured puzzle together — it is playfulness.” The French New Wave was not a rupture from previous cinema but a happy evolution of what came before.
Again and again, Larsen touches on the theme of praise not as rote and memorized prayers — although, as a Christian, Larsen sees the value of those expressions — but as happiness, joy, and delight. These are three things that the best films, movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Breathless, Star Wars, E.T., Smokey and the Bandit, The Thin Red Line, and one of this year’s best films, Benediction, have. As Larsen observes, in both churches and movie theaters, we “set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration … to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.”
There are some wonderful moments when Babylon connects with that sense of the divine. Yet, as is the case with Hollywood in general in 2023, it abandons its holy vision to rub our faces in the dirt.
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Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of the book
The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi
. He is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators, and A Tremor of Bliss.
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