“What happens on that screen means something,” says actor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) in Damien Chazelle’s latest feature, Babylon. It’s a bold claim for a film up to the neck in debauchery. From sexually depraved parties to a rattlesnake fight to a hilarious elephant excretion scene, the three-hour runtime has no shortage of such antics.
*The review may contain mild spoilers*
From its inception, Hollywood has been outrageous in its corruption & excess and incorrigible in its racism & sexism. The people here are hopeless, and so are their journeys. They dance in the spotlight for a few moments, ultimately mocked, ridiculed, and lost in the darkness of history.
We’re exposed to all this absurdity that seems nonsensical, but is it all for nothing? Is there a void at its core, or is there some meaning? Such an existential question can be focalized on any art form. After all, art is simply the assertion that human life has some significance.
Jack’s claim is understandable, but he is eventually emasculated when he sees an audience laughing at his film. He disputes the perception of cinema being a low art, but his audience opposes him. This may nullify his work and legacy. However, it’s neither the artist nor the audience that’s the determining factor here – it’s the art itself.
A mere chain of celluloid frames through which light shines and paints the big screen. This object that we call film is a preserver of humanity. Regardless of its immediate reception, if a film lasts, it retains the potential to leave an impact. Someone may experience Jack’s film many years after its release and see themselves in it. Then the art becomes larger than life, and it revives the artist. This is the magic of moving pictures.
Jack Conrad, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Manny Torres (Diego Calva), and everyone else involved in filmmaking are now a part of something bigger than themselves. No matter if they find themselves in the depths of hell (quite literally in the “LA’s last party” scene in the third act), their outsized ambition now means something, and they’re rescued from futility.
Chazelle ends his most zealous work with a scene that reminisces Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, showing films transcending time. Silent movies to talkies, black-and-white to color; technological leaps are showcased in a matter of seconds, and we get a glimpse into cinema’s future through the likes of Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and Avatar. For some, this may be a cheap trick, a saccharine sequence of gimmicks, but the exhibition of immortality through cinema left an overwhelming impact on me.
Unlike these drastic shifts in the form we see cinema go through, Chazelle sticks to his expected sensibilities for the most part. In some sense, Babylon is an accumulation of Chazelle’s past work, from the sharpness of Whiplash to the grandiosity of La La Land. As a result, the film may seem too stylistically polished, with a script that feels calculated despite the chaos it aims for.
Nonetheless, some of the set pieces are unbelievable in their technical work and production design. Chazelle also intersperses his film with his signature whip pans, complementing the jazz music and rapid editing to keep the lengthy runtime engaging.
Furthermore, the visual artifice here only facilitates the point of commercial excess in my eyes. It’s a world where all natural textures are absent; almost everything here is a part of the plasticized Hollywood business, so the only goodness we can find is in the distinct notion of cinema.
Babylon’s failure at the box office was somewhat inevitable due to its clash with Avatar: The Way of the Water. Nonetheless, seeing another original film go unnoticed by a large portion of the mainstream audience is disheartening. There are many entries in the metatextual “love-letter-to-cinema” genre, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, and more. Babylon is perhaps the most maximalist out of all of these. It’s a biting critique of Hollywood and an unabashed worship of cinema. An odyssey that, albeit divisive, deserves to be seen by all self-proclaimed cinephiles.