By Marc S. Sanders
Director Damien Chazelle has come a long way since his first major motion picture, Whiplash, a small film about a young, tortured drummer. Since that accomplishment, he seems to get more and more elaborate with each project. Babylon certainly exceeds ambition in any select 3–5-minute scene it offers within its grand opus. The main title card doesn’t appear on screen until after the first thirty minutes and by then you are exhausted, yet completely awakened.
Babylon begins in the mid-1920s, during the pioneering times of Hollywood filmmaking where silent films were fresh and were regarded outlets for escapism and entertainment. Big studios like MGM were not quite on the scene just yet and movie makers experimented with their films having no regard for rule and caution while constructing them. On a busy day of shooting at around 3:15pm, an open field sword and sandal battle might turn up an extra in an accidental death with an impaled spear. No matter. Must keep shooting before daylight is lost and everything runs off schedule.
It was at this time that a star like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), rugged with a square jaw and dashing with a pencil thin mustache, offered greatness in movie houses that showed silent pictures. A new discovery like Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who seemingly came in off the street captured producers and patrons alike with her wide-eyed expressions and lanky, yet appealing posture. These were the first celebrities of the advancing twentieth century. They were starlets that brought people back and back again to the cinemas to witness battles of roman conquest or dancing on top of a bar while batting their long eyelashes for a mug at the camera. The filmmakers loved to work with them.
These performers ruled Hollywood until the Talkies appeared on the scene. Movies with sound revolutionized the industry, but these famed individuals couldn’t keep up with the evolution. Audiences and filmmakers couldn’t accept a compatibility. Try to imagine a Jack Conrad listen to a packed movie house chuckle at one of his romantic speaking scenes. It’s heartbreaking to watch. He was admired, but now he’s a joke.
When the sun would set, the parties soaked–make that drenched–in orgy and debauchery would begin and nothing was off limits. Naked women would happily get high and drunk and tossed over a large crowd. Prop penises would be inserted into one partygoer and then another and then another. Fat ugly men would happily accept getting urinated on. Endless amounts of liquor and especially cocaine would be gulped and snorted and the greatest dares imaginable would always try to top themselves. Have you ever heard of a party getting so out of control that someone would go so far as to wrestle a rattlesnake in the middle of the desert? Jack happily watched all this decadence go down. Nellie joyfully became the outrageously intoxicated and fearless ringleader.
I have offered only a sliver of description for Chazelle’s over three-hour film. To sum up, Babylon offers a hard-edged response to the family friendly interpretation found in Singin’ In The Rain. Both films delve heavily into the transition of silent filmmaking to talking pictures and those who were left behind. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s G rated picture will have you giggle at their Lina Lamont with the squeaky voice and pratfalls who’s all wrong for the next phase. The heavy R rated dramatic interpretation is offered in Chazelle’s script with Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy and her Jersey accent, accompanied by unrefined posture and behavior. Her drug binges are no help either. Margot Robbie is fearless in her performance. She is messy, sloppy, harsh and frenzied with her character. One thing that came to mind as she is snorting line after line of coke is that at that time, there was no such thing as a means for rehabilitation like today. No one was even looking out for the harm that drugs and alcoholic binging could have on people. People were left to their vices to just drown in their poison of choice. For silent pictures, you could plaster them in makeup and costume and let them mug and bat their eyes for the camera. It didn’t matter if their speech was slurred. Talkies required much more concentration of their performers.
The main player of the film is newcomer, Diego Calva, as Manny Torres. A Mexican who inadvertently finds himself in the Hollywood nightlife while pushing an elephant up a steep hill only to get shit on. (The elephant serves no purpose except to make an appearance at one of these crazy parties.) Manny has an instinct for what’s to come in the movies and builds himself up into a studio executive. While he’s dangerously falling in love with Nellie, he’s also discovering next big things like a Negro entertainer who’s magnificent with a trumpet, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Manny is a good man who swims above the dangerous life of Hollywood partying and decadence. He’s an innovator that’ll never receive credit for what he uncovers. That’s for the white executives to profit from.
A minor but welcoming story is Sidney’s. He’s soon hung on posters outside movie houses, and performing with big bands. Hollywood awards him with riches he could never imagine and never asked for. However, ironically, his complexion comes off too white against some of his other band players and the idea of caking himself in charcoal makeup is insisted. How will Sidney respond to this humiliating request? The wealthy also have a particular regard for him. His status as an entertainer. Do they see him as a showboat clown or the artist he values himself to be? How does Sidney want to be considered?
With all of the parties and drinking and drug use to go around, Babylon goes off in a hundred different directions before it finds an even keel outline that switches storylines from Jack to Nellie to Manny and Sidney. Chazelle strives to one up what other filmmakers before have attempted. I could not help but think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights which follows the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s. Happiness abounds until time and technology and constant self-abuse cause everything to unravel. Babylon follows a very similar trajectory.
A friend of mine found Babylon too be overly gratuitous. She’s not wrong, but while she took it as a complaint with the film. I take how superfluous the movie is as a major compliment. There are long scenes where Chazelle will not surrender for the audience. He shows how drug raged Nellie is when no one will fight that rattlesnake by having her violently pick it up, swing it around and thus it will eventually latch on to her neck while she’s running around amid a gang of naked partygoers. Then we get to see another starlet cut the snake off below it’s head, rip its fangs out of Nelly’s skin and proceed to suck the venom out. Oh, you’ll squint and squirm through the whole scene. What do we learn from this? Drugs are bad. Really bad, and they will delude you into acting with no vices or boundaries. So, let’s be completely honest about it.
When Nellie is recruited for a talking film, we see take after take after take of her trying to make her mark while it is shouted over and over again to the crew to shut the fuck up. There can be absolutely no noise from anywhere that the mikes can pick up and it doesn’t matter if a crewman is getting dangerously overheated in a soundbox. (No air conditioning could be allowed because the hum would be picked up by the microphones.) It’s a brilliantly, well edited, long and tortuous scene of flaring tempers, sweat, heavy light and stress.
I remember reading an interview with Henry Hill, the mobster who was the focus of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Hill said with no uncertainty that the characters portrayed by Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro were not even close to how frightening and violent their real-life counterparts were. So maybe even Scorsese glossed over how harsh that world ever was. Damien Chazelle is a relentless filmmaker with Babylon. Nothing is whitewashed. Most of what you see is shock value, but that’s the message he’s conveying and per his research he must be convinced the life of this era was actually this outrageous and way over the top. He’s certainly not forgiving with how manic these people lived, particularly with Margot Robbie’s character.
At the same time, he calms the film down to offer a harsh truth to a quickly becoming has been like Jack Conrad, Brad Pitt’s character, no longer in his prime. Jean Smart portrays a gossip columnist reminding Jack that the height of his career is long gone, but fifty years from now, new generations will be rediscovering his achievements. He will be a legend for all eternity. Chazelle is speaking to us, those that appreciate what Turner Classic Films and other formats like videotape and DVD offer to see the first of these kinds of pictures where it all began with legends like Jack and maybe Nellie and especially Chaplin. Chazelle was an important student of this later generation. This is the best scene of the picture with a magnificently written monologue, and I won’t be surprised if Jean Smart gets an Oscar nomination that no one ever saw coming. I’m inclined to declare she should just get the award. It’s such a telling moment for all kinds of movies.
Chazelle loves to make films. The epilogue to Babylon demonstrates his affection as his story jumps to twenty years later, and an older Manny watches Singin’ In The Rain in a theatre. From what he inadvertently brought to the fold all those years ago, movies have evolved and continue to develop into bigger scales of what we could never have thought possible. Chazzelle edits in a sequence where it started with silent films like A Trip To The Moon and Keystone Kops over to grand musical ensembles and adventures like Ben-Hur and then on to special effects with quick cuts of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Terminator 2, and Avatar. Flashes of color appear on the screen and then quickly cut back to these captions in celebrated films and film stock. I don’t believe any of this spoils anything of the film, but I like to recognize how Chazzelle takes inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s bewildering conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Movies are going on and on and on. Whoever is hot now and presently significant will have to adjust to an ever-changing industry. Once celebrated puppeteers working for guys like George Lucas have no value in an age of computer graphic engineering. Big box office stars might not be able to uphold their careers during a time of streaming films that come to us by means of our flat screen TVs we can affordably buy at Walmart. Kardashian girls are more widely recognized than maybe a Jack Nicholson or a Meryl Streep. (Someone I know had no idea who Carol Burnette is.)
It’s hard to sum up everything captured in a film this big and ambitious and yes, gratuitous. Perhaps, the best I can tell you is simply that a hard truth to accept is that casualties come from discovery in a film like Babylon.