Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Never before in the history of cinema have movies been so technically proficient. Cinematography is always reasonably strong when you come across a studio-produced film. The lighting is pitch-perfect. You cannot beat today’s sound design. All production design elements are spot on, from set dressing to costuming to make-up. The behind-the-scenes people deserve far more credit than they get. They are the laborers who make it feel effortless while putting their total energy into the job. I wish I could say the same about the directors & screenwriters of these big Hollywood pictures, though, but that would be a lie. From Black Adam to Don’t Worry Darling to the seemingly endless Marvel movies to the litany of reboots/sequels/reimaginings, there is a dearth of actual talent steering these movies. I have never been the biggest Damien Chazelle fan, but I enjoyed Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. They were well-made movies with some strong performances. And then we have Babylon. This is where I get off the Chazelle train.
In this sweeping story of the end of the Golden Age of silent cinema, Chazelle takes us on a whirlwind journey with a collection of barely developed characters painted in the most generic brushstrokes. We have our senses assaulted with decadence, obscenity, and violence. Nothing wrong with that if you are a filmmaker who is coherent in what you are trying to say. Not so in Babylon. We have Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a leading man who can’t seem to keep a wife & imbibes too much. There’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman from New Jersey that is certain she will be a star. Their stories are followed by Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant working for an executive at Kinoscope Studios. Through their eyes, we see the dimming of the silent era as talkies become all the rage. The debauchery of the period is tamped down as patrician standards of decency are imposed. By the end, the candle fades, yet the movies remain, as Chazelle reminds us in one of the most ham-fisted montage sequences I’ve seen in a long while. This is a film meant to reach its hand into the trousers of Hollywood and give it an excellent ol’ handy, a messy celebration that “movies are real swell, right?”
Oh yes, and then there is a token Asian character and a token Black character who are given minimal character development and honestly serve as props in the white characters’ stories. It’s clear that Chazelle certainly heard the criticism about his lack of BIPOC representation in his movie. I’m not one for token representation, though. Just because you put a character of color in your story doesn’t mean you’re doing anything constructive. We can tell by the way Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Ji) walks in and out of the white character’s plots that Chazelle has zero interest in developing her in any meaningful way. We know she is a lesbian and that she is a singer. Beyond that, there’s nothing else. Fay even ends up in a romantic relationship with Nellie, the vast majority of which we never see. At some point, off camera, they break up. Then Fay shows up in a critical scene for Jack to make Jack look like a good guy? It elicits the shallow sympathy we’re expected to have for poor Jack, the wealthy white guy with a never-ending carousel of young women. Yeah, he’s the one with the harsh life cause people are laughing at his movies.
But what about Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the Black jazz trumpeter? He’s got a good storyline, right? He has some “comedic” exchanges with his brother between sets at some parties. Then he gets featured in some musicals but is asked to put on shoe polish “for the camera.” This makes him reasonably upset, and he walks away from the Hollywood system. Later, we see him playing in a jazz club, and he seems fine. What an incendiary examination of racism in Hollywood, Chazelle! Brilliant depth and nuance given to this Black character. What were we expecting from the white dude who made two movies focused on jazz music centered entirely around white people? I don’t think Chazelle is some exceptionally racist director, but he’s nestled quite comfortably in the bosom of systemic racism.
Chazelle’s comfort with ignoring Hollywood’s racism is exceptionally apparent in how The Jazz Singer is presented in the movie. If you don’t know, The Jazz Singer was a biopic about the famous singer Al Jolson, nicknamed “the king of blackface performers.” Would you know this about Jolson and this picture by watching this film? Nope. Chazelle edits around that in the brief clip he shows so that it is just presented as a revolutionary talkie film. There’s never a revisiting of it to discuss the racism inherent in the production. Chazelle also makes it Manny, who witnesses the audience’s rambunctious reaction to hearing the sound, which also softens the racism that should be in this scene. The director would like the audience to think they are getting a look behind the curtain into what Hollywood was like at this time, but that’s simply not the case. This is to movies what the “anti-CRT crowd” is to public education, an attempt to sweep the uncomfortable parts under the rug because it’s just “so unpleasant to think about.”
Chazelle’s thesis in Babylon is pretty tricky to understand. Follow me, will you? First, the silent film era at its peak is enmeshed in drugs, sex, partying, and decadence of all sorts. It’s hard to tell what the director is saying about this, but my takeaway was that it leaned more on the positive side of things than the negative. It seems clear that the audience is meant to see the silent era as “good” and the talkie era as “bad” or, at minimum, wrong for some people. In his masturbatory celebration of Hollywood, Chazelle also refrains from addressing the specter of Birth of a Nation, the highest-grossing film until Gone With the Wind, both movies entrenched in anti-Black & white supremacist ideology. This is because Chazelle has zero interest in being honest about the American film industry. He’s a conservative and thus rewrites history to make things more favorable for the system he wants to be a part of. Of course, he lets there be some racism, though extremely nebulous, and disengaged from burning any bridges our director wants to preserve for himself. He creates a fictional movie studio and fictional executives & actors so the people in charge now can continue to say their hands are clean. He pulls the same concealment act at the end of the movie, spotlighting Singin’ in the Rain, yet another film with a prominent blackface musical sequence that we wouldn’t know was there if we hadn’t already seen it.
The audience is meant to see Manny as their surrogate. Because he is Mexican, the way he receives these movies helps make it acceptable for us to ignore their racist elements. See how Manny weeps at the beauty of American cinema at the end? That’s art. Manny seems mystified by the existence of movies which is weird because the Mexican film industry has been chugging along since around the same time Hollywood was constructed. In 1994, the Mexican magazine Somos published a List of the 100 Greatest Mexican Films of All-Time. The oldest movie on the list was “The Grey Car,” made in 1911. In the 1930s, Mexican films took off, and Hollywood even tried to get in on the production because of how financially lucrative they were. This would have made a far more interesting story to follow in the film, but Chazelle is much more concerned with white people doing white things.
I have also read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books (clearly a significant source of inspiration here), which are interesting anecdotes about this era. It would be fantastic to make a movie about one of these stories, going deep with the people involved and understanding them from multiple angles. Instead, we get hyperactive editing and an ultimately incoherent mess of noise & shock value. I have seen online where some who enjoy this picture justify it by pointing out all the other movies Babylon references. You see, the scene with Tobey Maguire, it is referencing Boogie Nights, The Elephant Man, and Frankenstein. While this may be the case, a stretch in some instances, all it does is remind me of better movies I could be watching instead of this bloated, shallow three-hour crap.
This was the first film in a long time where I turned it off an hour in. I didn’t think I could finish it, but the following day I went back and begrudgingly finished the film. What caused me to shut it off the first time is that Chazelle is somehow behaving as if acting and shouting are synonymous. Scene after scene has every character shouting their lines with “fuck” finding its way into every sentence. I’m not an anti-cursing prude, but this was to a level of parodic. That type of profanity works in a mob movie because the characters at the story’s center aren’t brilliant; they are violent inarticulate brutes, so that word fills in for their lack of cogent thought. Yet even a mob guy in a movie will talk in hushed tones, still use profanity, and come across as intimidating. It’s a balance of dialogue & tone, Damien! Here we have every cast & crew member on a movie set screaming at the top of their lungs with persistent rage over everything. There came the point where I wasn’t sure if this was a comedy-drama or an outright parody film in the vein of Airplane! (also a better movie to watch).
Damien Chazelle knows how to make a movie, but he doesn’t really care about anything beyond what reflects himself. His BIPOC characters are set dressing in the context he uses them & the performances he gets out of Robbie & Pitt are bland and uninteresting. At this point, I see Pitt as less an actor than a screen persona, and Robbie is joining him in that regard. She is “sad Harley Quinn” here; nothing is interesting about this performance. I didn’t give a shit about what happened to her or Pitt’s character. Chazelle has also overloaded his film with characters so that supporting players just float in and out of the story, never having a resolution. It makes it extremely difficult to get what the hell the point of this movie was other than just being another “hooray for Hollywood” project. Once again, it just makes me think of better films that do this same thing.
If you want to watch a film, still imperfect but much better, that doesn’t pull its punches with the industry, check out John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust. That movie is far more horrific, better acted, better written, and ultimately doesn’t end with a wank-off of Hollywood. It’s also based on the novel of the same name that gave us a character called “Homer Simpson,” which would be used by Matt Groening many years later. I can’t imagine mustering up the interest to watch another Chazelle film after this one, and here’s hoping he doesn’t make any more. That money, time, and resources could go to someone who wants to challenge the audience in a meaningful way instead of having the protagonists deliver clunky, sanctimonious exposition for three hours.