Babylon (2022)

Damien Chazelle’s directorial output thus far has squarely put him in the realm of populist auteurs – filmmakers who challenge the audience without necessarily challenging the form, and always within the boundaries of widely accepted good taste. His work does not have the grit and prowess of what The Movie Brats did in the 70s or what the Indiewood crowd managed in the 90s.  

What he seems to have been after – artistically speaking – is to elevate (but not overhaul) the canonical prestige picture to bring enough freshness to the field of tried-and-true narrative templates. Whiplash was a heightened sports film transplanted into the realm of a musical conservatory, La La Land a glitzy ode to Jacques Demy dressed to appeal to a modern crowd, and First Man an inward-looking take on an epic story (and perhaps his unsung masterpiece). However, when examined against Babylon, Chazelle’s newest creation, his preceding features look more like a runway laid down in preparation for him to reach escape velocity and craft a movie that would challenge and entertain in equal measures, a balance rarely struck by studio fare and indie productions alike.  

In simplest terms, Babylon functions as a love letter to early Hollywood, although I appreciate the fact that this statement may not mean much, especially in the current climate where every other movie can be labelled as such. However, what Chazelle’s take attempts is not so much to indulge in apotheosis of visual storytelling alone, but rather to envelop the viewer in the madness of the early days of The Dream Factory, which is something most of us simply do not know about. After all, we often find ourselves hypnotised by the siren song of these century-old moving pictures. We romanticize the process of getting people’s movement recorded on the clickity-clackity cameras of the time. We gasp in amazement at the fact these movies survived in the first place and perhaps imbue their existence with some form of regal elegance, as though silence was an indicator of splendour.  

Chazelle begs to differ and reminds us that early Hollywood also happened to have formed during the so-called roaring 20s. And they were called ‘roaring’ for a reason. The movie parachutes the viewer into the middle of the desert where a guy turns up in a truck thinking he’d be transporting a horse, when in reality he’s being asked to transport a real-life elephant. With a trunk and everything. As he is told by who turns out to be the protagonist of the film, whose eyes we will see the entire movie through, Manuel (Diego Calva), the elephant is supposed to be taken to a party in a mansion owned by a big shot movie producer.  

A lot of sweat, blood, toil and elephant excrement later we eventually find ourselves at the party and witness its depravity in all its gory detail. We get to peek behind the curtains of the business end of moviemaking culture and what we witness would make The Great Gatsby blush. As Chazelle’s camera prowls through the savannah of cocaine overdose, golden showers, group sex and glimpses of things you may witness on very special websites if you are after some adrenaline, all to the tune of Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy tunes written in idolatry of the bebop era, we brush shoulders with stand-ins for who would be stars of the time (and some real ones, too) and breathe in the utter chaos of the time. And in this veritable bedlam we still find enough time to tune out the roaring madness pumped into our ears and focus on Manuel, a skilled handyman willing to do anything and everything to get into the moviemaking biz, and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young up-and-comer whose confidence matches her magnetizing appearance.  

This unlikely pair of youngsters immediately becomes the focal point of the story. It just so happens that the lens we are viewing them through is an ultra-wide angle fisheye lens that – on top of keeping its central subjects nice and sharp – keeps absolutely everything else in focus and even warps reality by way of generous spherical aberration that gives this lens its name. Thus, the world of Babylon is not at all a facsimile of reality as it was at the time. We know it is an elevated, romanticized and – dare I say – coked up approximation of what it was like on the ground at the time, just as we know the world isn’t bendy when we look at ultrawide-angle photographs.  

However, just as those photographs offer a uniquely entertaining way of interrogating reality, so does Chazelle’s movie. What his ultrawide angle fisheye lens allows us to experience is a fairy tale for adults full of debauchery, madness and vomit that takes us on a myriad journeys all rolled into one rollercoaster ride. It is quite honestly impossible to describe what this movie does and how it goes about doing it without leaving something at the door. It is perhaps best to describe it as a sensory overload, a Scorsese-esque epic that stands toe to toe with The Wolf of Wall Street (if only in the amount of cocaine consumed by its central subjects), that also functions as a multi-layered exploration of how unbridled early filmmaking was, how Hollywood ingested and spat out naïve young minds, how money corrupts and how a pedestrian carnie art form took over the world to leave the classier forms of artistic expression in its rear-view mirror.   

We see how Manuel chases after Nellie, how he falls in love with her unattainable beauty and impervious spirit and how he himself bends to the will of the industry he wants to make his career in. We see him change his name to Manny, abandon his roots and ruthlessly pursue the almighty success at the expense of everything and everyone around him, which is a self-contained film in its own right.  

Babylon also brings colour out of the black-and-white reels left behind the silent era. It breathes sound and life into the way these movies were made and suggests it may be a good idea the final products were devoid of sound because if they were to carry the intensity of the way they were made, they’d produce deafening sounds even before they were projected on the screen. Chazelle’s fascination with the maddening journey the moving pictures have been on since their very inception as an optical illusion sold for a penny at travelling theme parks does not end there.  

In fact, the filmmaker’s unyielding affection for the medium protrudes from between the frames of the movie he so lovingly oversaw, as he teaches us – by way of truly adult-oriented entertainment – about the ironic contrast between the way movies were made in the silent era and how they transformed into a medium we are familiar with today. Silent movies looked tame and well-mannered while their production was a festival of loudness, depravity and borderline criminal activity. And when sound made an appearance, it didn’t only denude actors’ shoddy accents or inability to emote using their tongues, something The Artist also tried to do, albeit in a much more regimented and family-friendly manner. The newly-gained freedom for movies to express themselves aurally came with constraining the production because – simply put – you couldn’t run a circus on set when sounds were being recorded.  

This is just beautifully delivered during a phenomenal scene where we get to see Nellie enter the room and say a few words, something so trivial we wouldn’t ever pay attention to it if we were watching the film on the screen. But this isn’t even the beginning. Chazelle goes full Scorsese with a hint of Tarantino (remember that scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where Leo DiCaprio kept messing up his lines?) to show just how close to the brink making talkies was taking people who just yesterday were making silent epics. Robbie enters the room and misses her mark. Cut! Re-set. She enters the room, hits the mark, but delivers her line so loud, the sound guy nearly gets a heart attack. Meanwhile, the camera guy in the booth complains about the heat. Re-set. Robbie enters the room, hits her mark, gets everything right and then someone enters the set and ruins the shot. The Set supervisor loses it, Robbie loses it. Everyone loses it. Re-set. Finally, the scene is completed – a full minute of screen time and the joy experienced by everyone on set – from the exasperated director all the way down to the janitor in the corner – is palpable. You could think they just wrapped the movie, but they didn’t.  

This simply magnificent scene is but one of hundreds of little vignettes Babylon is composed of and they all wow with their miniature brilliance. Hence, the movie becomes a collage of madness into which Chazelle weaves a nuanced love story, a tale of loss of identity, a parable of prejudice baked into the fabric of the movie industry, and a tragedy about a silent movie star not necessarily falling from grace, but rather fading into obscurity. And that’s not even the half of what Babylon has in store for those brave enough to dive head-first into this sensory orgy that also doubles as a nostalgic love letter to cinema as an art form, only delivered with trumpets, elephants, bodily fluids and a few choice frames from Avatar. Yes. You read it correctly. Avatar. And then Persona. I promise it all makes sense.  

Taken together, Babylon is a rocket to the tip of which Damien Chazelle strapped himself – akin to Neil Armstrong whose life he recounted in his previous movie, by the way – and crossed his fingers hoping it would carry him to infinity and beyond. Granted, some viewers and critics see this film as an utter failure, a style-over-substance exercise in trying too hard to do too much with too little regard for too many things. But I respectfully disagree as I am now looking up towards the sky at a bright dot soaring towards the stars.  

Yes, it’s an ambitious movie. Perhaps even too ambitious.  

Yes, it is rambunctious, offensive and brash.  

Yes, its reach exceeds its grasp. It attempts the impossible.  

But it succeeds. 

Babylon is irreverent, funny, melancholic, aggressive, jazzy and loud. It is all of those things and more which epitomizes exactly the very nature of the world it attempts to describe. Chazelle bet his career on the assumption that you can’t make a movie about how Hollywood became Hollywood and the madness surrounding this process without indulging in this madness yourself and – most importantly – letting the viewer experience a modicum of it as well. It is quite frankly a phenomenal example of pushing the boundaries of what a lush big studio production could accomplish when the people in charge of the production scoff at the they-won’t-let-you-do-this naysayers and stick to their guns, perhaps against their better judgment. 

This is the kind of ballsy cinema Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola would bring to the screen when their blood was still hot, and their loins were supple and young. Chazelle beautifully channels the uninhibited sensibilities of these iconoclasts of years gone by and crafts a truly magnificent encapsulation of cinema a ’la Hollywood, the type of which only a handful of filmmakers could get away with without tarnishing their reputations and putting their livelihoods in peril. Perhaps, there is a hope for the movie industry as we know it after all and maybe New Hollywood Mark 2 is on its way. And if it is in fact the case, I can only imagine Damien Chazelle will be remembered as one of The Movie Brats 2.0 when I am old and frail because the kind of cinema Babylon smuggles to our screens to be shown between the conveyor belt of superhero fare and an avalanche of legacy sequels shows perfectly that Hollywood still has both its heart and its balls where they should be.  


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