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Schadenfreude and Babylon: the aftermath of Damien Chazelle's epic flameout

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After indie darling Whiplash (2014) and romantic musical La La Land (2016), writer-director Damien Chazelle cashed in his credibility for his most ambitious project to date. Babylon is a three hours-plus drama set in 1920s Hollywood, tracking the rise and fall of a cast of characters working in the film industry. It is the kind of movie that just does not get made anymore, and judging by the mixed critical reactions and poor box office receipts, chances are it will not get made anymore at all. Watching the movie, you feel it could not be any other way. Failure provides a bitter real-life epilogue on par with Babylon’s spirit.

At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, film mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), head of fictional Kinescope Studios, hosts a wild party at his palatial state. The guest list includes Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a leading man at the peak of his career and the end of his latest marriage. Aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy crashes the event. Mexican assistant Manuel (Diego Calva) lets her in, earning a lifetime crush and a nickname. After leading Nelly to the room where all the drugs are, Manny runs around doing whatever is necessary to keep the good times rolling for the swells.

Life of the party: Pitt and Calva find peace in the middle of Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures
Life of the party: Pitt and Calva find peace in the middle of Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures

Nothing is more important than keeping the good times rolling. A young actress might over-dose in a tryst gone wrong with a portly comedian - this is an allusion to the Virginia Rappe killing, one of many real-life events hinted at in the movie. Manny figures out a way to take the body away without rising suspicions: the elephant scheduled to close the party on a high note will make an early entrance, allowing Wallach’s goons to exit carrying the victim's body. Manny’s resourcefulness will push him up the power ladder.

The incongruous image of a pachyderm crashing a multitudinous, frenetic party spells spectacle in capital letters. Chazelle gives you the dazzle with felliniesque abandon, but before that, he gets into the toil involved in getting a large animal to make this kind of orchestrated appearance. Babylon opens in a low, dirty key, with Manuel schlepping the animal on an inadequate truck over dirt roads. In a frankly disgusting bit, the elephant shits copiously on the poor wrangler trying to keep it from sliding off the truck bed on a steep hill. You get a point-of-view shot of the excrement coming out of the anus in such detail that it would not be out of place in a gross-out comedy from the 90s.

Yes, a rain of elephant shit. It is not the only bodily fluid smeared on the screen. Human sweat, blood, piss, and vomit also appear in varying degrees of quantity and visibility. They remind you that for all the glitz and glamour Hollywood sells and all the emotion we project on making and consuming films, this is a tragically human endeavor. In the controlled chaos of the scenes dramatizing the production of movies, Chazelle bothers to register, at least for seconds, the below-the-line workers that keep the machine running.

Babylon’s problems started when the trailer hit theaters. I am the target audience for this movie, and it rubbed me the wrong way. There was something anachronistic in details like Robbie’s shaggy hairdo. Shots introducing Pitt’s character put comedic antics upfront, like the silly drunken jig that sends him off his garden rails. In the final cut, we get a heartfelt soliloquy about movies as art. The quality of the Babylon traileris one of the lesser controversies. Historical accuracy is one of the most sensitive points, with plenty of recognizable names calling the filmmakers off on social media, including director Paul Schrader.

Others weigh in on how the movie amplifies rumors, half-truths, and outright inventions, like those included in the book Hollywood Babylon, written by filmmaker Kenneth Anger. By touting the alleged historical research behind the movie, Paramount and Chazelle are inviting a level of scrutiny that Babylon cannot stand. Sticklers for accuracy are preemptively addressed when Conrad complains about the quality of a spear because it looks too new. Again, back in the Crusades, it would be new.

In spite of it all, I wanted to see Babylon. As the movie unfolded, I could make sense of the contemporary quality of Nellie’s styling choices and Robbie’s acting. They serve as clear signifiers of star quality. That it ascribed to Clara Bow, who served as a model for Nellie LaRoy. Robbie gives us a manic pixie girl for the ages in a fearless performance. It is grating because it should be. If anything, the scrip fails at providing ballast to her relationship with Manuel. In the final stretch, when he professes his love for her and she claims to correspond it, it seems to come out of nowhere. Then again, Nelly is incapable of committing to another person, someone who is not her own fantasy self.

Robbie's manic pixie girl comes undone in Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures
Robbie's manic pixie girl comes undone in Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pitt’s character, Jack Conrad, is an artist tragically ahead of his time. He fights for the movie’s value as art with his snobbish Broadway star wife, Estelle (Katherine Waterstone). While shooting a medieval epic, he takes refuge in a tent while an unnamed European director (Spike Jonze) sets up a complicated battle scene. He is writing a script with two collaborators and throws some ideas for dialogue lines that echo the most famous quotes from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) and Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleeting, 1939). A few beats later, the three collaborators are knocked out drunk. 

Conrad and LeRoy may be stars, but in an industry that mirrors the class structure in society, they are little more than temporary interlopers to be tolerated while making money for the studios. As Nellie’s career crashes among druggy meltdowns and gambling debts, Manny pulls strings to get her an invitation to a party at William Randolph Heart’s state. The idea is that she kisses the proper rings and gets a chance for a comeback. Gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) offers to play Professor Higgins to Eliza. Spoiler alert: it goes spectacularly wrong.

Play it again, Sidney: Adepo blows a golden horn in Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures
Play it again, Sidney: Adepo blows a golden horn in Babylon / Photo: Paramount Pictures

Babylon contains multitudes. You wish it dedicated more time to Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the virtuous black musician who hits the wall of racism as his career skyrockets and turns his back on Hollywood. The final stretch owes a lot to the euphoric downer closing act of Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997). It also gives- you the feeling the movie is both too long and too short, leaving interesting characters behind. There are hints of Jay Gatsby in Wallach, who pulls out all the stops for the orgiastic party but never seems to partake in anything resembling fun or the tawdry, sad version of fun within reach. You could make another movie following Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a stand-in for Ana Mae Wong.

As much as we can recognize the corruption of the system that produces movies, we are powerless when we sit in front of the screen. Chazelle brings disillusioned Manny to a screening of Signing in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952). Years turning his back on Hollywood, he gives in to the spell film casts. The scenes of the classic movie give in to an anachronistic montage that splices in scenes from The Matrix (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999), Pater Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), and some experimental films to boot. I guess the director is trying to say the magic of movies transcends genre, frontiers, and time. Babylon plays like a poisoned love letter and an elegy for the silent film era. The box office fracas makes a fitting requiem for the adult Hollywood film.

Whether it is good or bad seems beside the point. I could do without the penchant for shit and vomit, but I would be lying if I say I was ever bored. The film ecosystem needs these massive flameouts, love-it-or-hate-it sensations. Think Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), One From The Heart (Francis for Coppola, 1981), or Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2001). Maybe Babylon will be vindicated and reevaluated as a misunderstood classic. Maybe it will fall into oblivion. If anything, I appreciate grateful for whatever interest it might awake for silent-era cinema and the people who made it. Check out these great articles by Farran Nehme and Marya E. Gates, identifying the real-life inspiration of the revelers lost in Babylon.

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