7/10 About five minutes into Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, an elephant shits directly onto the camera.
It’s a point-of-view shot for our main character, Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who is tasked with getting this elephant to a gigantic, depraved party at a Hollywood executive’s mansion. The anus is in the high center of the frame, perhaps a little above the top third, with the split of the beast’s legs acting as a leading line drawing your eye straight toward it. The image is so well-composed that, as the watery shit spurts out, it seems to explode out of the frame and straight down right onto my large, mostly full popcorn in my dead-center front-row seat. I had just farted as this happened, so I got to smell it a bit too.
Bel Air, California, 1926- At the party, Torres sets himself up as a fixer and begins to quickly rise through the studio ranks. The film roughly follows him, screen legend Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a New Jersey runaway who’s decided she’ll take Hollywood by storm.
The film is a party, and it plays out through parties, first the opening party and then the debouched, day-long party that is the next day of production. Then things flash forward to sound’s arrival in 1932, and the music stops as all characters struggle with the new technology. The arrival of talkies is portrayed as driving a decay in Hollywood extremity.
If I wanted to watch a loving, longform homage to Singin’ in the Rain about the tension between romance and modernity, specifically the tension between the myth of Los Angeles and cultural shifts driven by new technology, the perfect movie about all that already exists – it’s La La Land, Chazelle’s breakout from 2016.
This is not a subconscious connection. Babylon is clearly intended to be a reprisal of La La Land, quite a literal reprisal in moments when it picks up the musical’s iconic original score. It’s longer, edgier and coked-out, and the romance is seen from a different perspective – La La Land is set in 2016 about characters who yearn for the ‘50s, but Babylon is set in the ‘20s and it’s the camera, and therefore the audience, doing the yearning. It takes its cues, maybe a little too directly, from Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrman films about excess and partying, particularly Goodfellas and Moulin Rouge!, though it seems like it was going more for Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Gatsby. That makes it all sound more fun than it is.
An elephant shitting directly onto the camera is where the film starts, and that’s where it would like to be. Chazelle wants to insert depravity into an otherwise idealized dream of Hollywood in the late ‘20s, but Babylon doesn’t stay at that level for the full 189 minute runtime. It feels like a phony grindhouse film by the end, and the gross-outs feel like an edgy gag to make the film more extreme when it should be a defining aspect of the setting – and if shit like this is supposed to be happening constantly in the background, well, movies have backgrounds, so it should be happening constantly in the background.
That impression of shock-jockeying gets stronger as the film goes on and gets into depictions of sex, suicide and mob violence that are all just a step more explicit than they need to be, but never truly extreme. The movie will step just past implicit violence, but not all the way to putting it onscreen, and there are a number of examples of this. The point is to rub in that it’s edgy and past your comfort zone without going into actual grindhouse territory.
Babylon comes from a more bitter, less coherent place than La La Land, and comes onto the screen as a more bitter, less coherent film. The surface-level emotions are expressed as an unconsummated love story between Torres, Chazelle’s hard-working self-insert character, and LaRoy, who personifies Hollywood. The instant sex symbol who spends a tumultuous almost-decade in the biz immediately captures Torres’ attention, but never loves him back, hopping through several well-publicized relationships as a function of her career. Even LaRoy’s place of origin is symbolic – Hollywood was established in California to get out from under Thomas Edison’s camera patents. The whole town is a New Jersey runaway. The film watches her gyrate endlessly, never caring who with, never noticing she’s in trouble until she’s already almost dead.
At the end of his career, Conrad is asked by a reporter if he misses the silents. He gives her media-coached pith, but his face screams the real answer – they weren’t silent! They were bombastic, insane parties every day and night with no rules, an ocean of sketchy extras, all the drugs anyone could possibly do and a handful of camera jockies who think they’re artists recording whatever they can do deliver to a factory of bewildered editors townside. They only became silent when the microphones were installed.
The extended closing act, in which the camera follows every character to their demise, loops what sounds like “City of Stars,” the romantic anthem from La La Land, which famously ended on an extended fantasy sequence that imagined its tragic central romance playing out happily. They’re both love stories set against bittersweet visions of an older Hollywood, but where La La Land interacts purely with aspirants to stardom in a contemporary Los Angeles, Babylon is about the front-facing stars themselves, who forged Hollywood from the last vestiges of the West when the real “talent” was being able to navigate this 24/7 carnival of outlaws, hucksters and runaways.
The critical difference is that La La Land is every inch the movie that it romanticizes, a big, colorful musical romance. Babylon isn’t a silent, and it isn’t even a roaring ‘20s party that fueled them, not completely at least. It’s just a tribute.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.