BABYLON. As soon as we saw the trailer, my wife, who plays her cinephilia close to the vest most of the time, said, "I want to see that! It looks like a Coen brothers movie, doesn't it?" When the time came to commit, though, she was less enthusiastic, (like most of the intended audience). This is, after all, a three-plus-hour meditation — albeit a lively one — on the excesses of early Hollywood and of some of the casualties of the transition from silence to sound. Even with the promise of nudity, drugs and a couple of our most luminous stars, it's a big ask for somebody looking for a simple good time.
And at this moment in time, Babylon is emblematic of some kind of dying of the light, of the end of the end of grand excess in studio entertainment (perhaps) and of the writer-directors of such excess as figures of cultural significance. The irony of Damien Chazelle, perhaps the last old-fashioned creator Hollywood plans to mint, who, before the age of 40, has overseen increasingly complex productions about Golden Age musicals, the space race and Pre-Hays Hollywood, should not be lost on us.
The movie industry is our most self-referential one, a clubby capitalist cabal of attention-seekers reliant on the dumb adulation of the audience and the more pointed affirmation of its own — and hangers-on and wannabes like me, though I'm probably too pessimistic about the business at large to get any closer than I have — for its nourishment. Professional sports have taken a shot, but still run a distant second in the egomania championships. And for decades, most of us were willing participants, lining up whenever Hollywood put a long-form self-portrait in front of us. (The 1970s saw a period of borderline obsessiveness with 1920s American cinema, for example.) But as we draw nearer to the endpoint of the species, we become ever-less introspective, less prone to intellectualism, less inclined to study the past.
So Babylon, for all its kinetic, colorful glories, is a thing out of its time. Even setting aside its formal anachronisms — narrative and technical alike — the mere idea that this is a story about and exegesis on an artist's often ambiguous feelings about their artform and the racket that has developed around it, places it well outside the sphere of contemporary popular entertainment. It is full of ideas, after all, and the 21st century doesn't particularly like ideas.
The movie opens, after a pointedly metaphorical sequence about a literal elephant, with a deservedly much talked-about bacchanal in the then-remote Bel Air home of a studio executive. There's a drug buffet, wanton public sex acts and a searing-hot house band, against which backdrop the movers, shakers, soon to be has-beens and will-bes rub shoulders (among other parts). The camera is deliriously, impossibly unmoored, moving in and out of rooms to show us overdoses, split-second career-making business decisions, snubs and couplings in seamless, breakneck succession. From within and without this mêlée of decadence arrive the principles: Manuel "Manny" Torres (Diego Calva), child of immigrants with an unrelenting reverence for the movies; Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), whose abysmal marriage statistics are the inverse of his box office to date; Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) a trumpeter with the chops and the work ethic to transcend house party gigs; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a new arrival whose self-confidence is matched perhaps only by her star power and insatiable appetites.
After the introductions, Babylon catches its breath before plunging into another incomprehensibly complex set-piece wherein, amid too many simultaneous movie productions to count (somewhere out in the desert), Nellie proves herself on camera and sets her career in motion, Manny becomes indispensable, and Jack nails the critical shot and makes a number of important deals despite drinking himself and his staff off their feet.
In short order, Manny has ascended to the position of studio production executive, where he tries to make a place for Sidney, who very quickly runs up against and away from the prejudices inherent in the machine (and the country at large). Meanwhile, Nellie and Jack both find themselves on the losing end of the battle for relevance in the face of a quickly changing business. By Hollywood ending standards, things do not really go well for anybody.
Chazelle is an outlier deep within a business that maybe does not realize it has rapidly eliminated the places it long held for people like him. He started young, transitioning from obscurity to prominence with Whiplash (2014), then winning an Oscar for La La Land (2016). First Man (2018), an often-frustrating sort of masterpiece, was perhaps unfairly ignored and now Babylon plays like the work of an old-timer with unresolved beefs and love in his heart. I think he probably realizes his good fortune, as well as the fact that it may not last, which is why he poured everything into this fourth movie and put it all on the screen. It makes Babylon perfect in its imperfections, ragged and outsized, reverent and sacrilegious in the same breath. It intones that the cows are not sacred, after all, but one still weeps at their slaughter. R. 189M.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
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