TV, TV! I’m almost one review away from a meme-worthy pile on the conference for Microsoft’s Xbox One, whereby the word TV was said a lot. In all seriousness, it’s honestly great to be back reviewing movies. And I could not think of a better one to start the year with. While January is a quiet month across the pond, in the UK, it’s the time when all the Oscar-type movies release and vie for attention. With this in mind, I sense a bit of a theme with this year’s crop, which is a celebration of movies as a whole (between The Fabelmans, Empire of Light and Babylon) So, I’m curious how Damien Chazelle’s latest contends with this overarching theme. Have you seen Babylon? Let me know in the comments below.
So far, Damien Chazelle’s films have excelled at juxtaposing the ambitions of his main characters with the personal toil it takes on them, whether it’s Andrew’s internal life in the pursuit of musical perfection in Whiplash or the central couple’s relationship in La La Land, that’s sacrificed on the altar of their ambitions. Babylon is an enrapturing follow-up to themes that Chazelle has explored in his other movies, existing as the cinematic equivalent of a Jackson Pollak painting. It has the veneer of being unruly and erratic, but it’s a film that viscerally celebrates the era of early Hollywood while denigrating its larger-than-life excesses.
Set in the years between the peak of Silent Cinema (the 1920s) to the advent of the sound and musical era, Babylon depicts two people’s ever-changing fortune in the industry. The first is Manuel Torres (aka Manny) (Diego Calva). He’s a Mexican film assistant who yearns to have a large footprint in the industry. The second is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who aspires to be a star on the silent screen. Through various trials and tribulations, the pair experience the highs and lows of being in the Hollywood machine.
In contrast to Chazelle’s other movies, Babylon is an effort that demands your attention in rather showy and bombastic ways. This comes in the form of many parties that are depicted throughout the runtime. In one breath, they can be seen as juxtapositions between an era in its infancy (Hollywood) and the last days of Rome in their sheer acts of surreal debauchery. But I found them quite interesting. In particular, the opening one (before we’re treated to the title) feels like a truthful depiction of the roaring twenties in a manner that would make Jay Gatsby blush, say blimey and promptly take a long lie down.
They also reminded me of the chaotic verve of some of Terry Gilliam’s movies, which equally had a satirical eye in their anarchic spirit. In the case of Babylon, it uses its chaos to both illustrate the unwieldy nature of early movie-making and the delusions our central figures indulge in being part of that system.
Take the famed silent actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). He is a vocal advocate for the virtues of Hollywood movies in people’s lives and the new ways they can innovate (namely sound). However, he’s often aloof at his continued irrelevancy and power as a star in the face of Hollywood steamrolling into progress and modernity. If Conrad is an ignorant frog who is unaware that he’s slowly been boiled alive, then LaRoy is a tragic flame that’s swiftly snuffed out.
Due to the character’s insecurity and exposure to the excesses that come from the Hollywood lifestyle, LeRoy chooses to become the embodiment of it by acting out in impulsive ways. However, when the system requires her to be well-mannered, she chooses to become the contemptible figure that people secretly think about her. These scenes where LeRoy has to be at a buttoned-up doner party felt like Chazelle’s critique of the Oscar-baiting and campaigns that require excessive sucking up and swooning. Even LeRoy’s last appearance in the film, disappearing into the night and subsequently being reported dead in a newspaper montage, feels like a commentary on the fate that befell many early stars of the silver screen.
While the first two characters in Babylon’s triad feel completely in synch with the themes and satire of the picture, Manny gets lost in the shuffle. This is due to the screenplay saddling the character with a never-ending feeling of passivity. Many things happen to Manny rather than the character having any sense of agency. Even the life-changing event that ignites a wave of success (for the character) comes from someone else’s suggestion rather than Manny himself. It is a shame as Calva gives a committed and passionate performance (especially in the opening where he delivers a barnstorming speech about what it would mean to be part of movies).
Pitt’s performance at the tail end of the film, as he realizes his time is up as a star, is the most striking, particularly as they contrast with the bravado displayed at the beginning of the movie. Robbie delivers a star-making turn worthy of Katherine Hepburn as the live wire LeRoy who always feels like she’s performing (even privately). And in a film littered with excellent performances from characters actors such as Jean Smart and Eric Roberts, Tobey Maguire steals the show. It’s fun to see his infectiously dorky and puckish charm being filtered through a disarming mobster who has a rancid idea of entertainment.
In his direction, Chazelle channels Gillam too. In particular, one scene reminded me of the Brazil filmmaker’s theatrical tendencies. There’s a scene where we see a closeup of Manny, half-lit by a green-tinted colour. During this moment, he has to tell Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) that she’s no longer needed for writing intertitles for silent movies. The simple almost spotlight moment is an effective illustration of the twin faces that Manny now carries as a human being and studio executive.
Likewise, an early scene in which we’re shown a tracking shot of a historical silent movie is amusing for its sheer disordered nature that at times feels Python-esque in its humorous reach. The same could be said for Babylon’s editing which wrings quite a few instances of black humour out of its pauses and slow moments early on. These go a long way to showing the cruel nature of Hollywood as its popularity comes at the price of its increasingly merciless soul. In those instances of clarity, the sheen of Hollywood loses its lustre, much as Chazelle intends. And that in essence is partly why Babylon engaged, moved and thrilled me to no end.