“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles.”
Spending the holidays with family was a healthy shake-up for me after a couple years of COVID-related isolation, which only compounded my usual, longstanding reluctance to travel to rural & suburban Louisiana. Getting outside the city meant getting outside my bubble, and I talked to a few distant loved ones about movies without being able to cite relatively popular artists like Bergman, Lynch, and Cronenberg as household names. Meanwhile, actual household name Steven Spielberg’s magic-of-the-movies memoir The Fabelmans was being categorized as elitist snobbery for Julliard graduates on Twitter, and every movie without a blue space alien in it was drowning at the box office. And if you count cameos, at least one movie with a blue space alien was drowning too. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon sank while James Cameron’s Avatar sequel soared, and it was impossible not to fret over the two films’ disparate levels of success, since the madman Chazelle dared to include a few frames of Cameron’s Na’vi creatures in his film’s climactic Movies-Through-The-Years montage. The financial failure of Chazelle’s star-studded movie industry drama sounds surprising in the abstract, but after a few days of talking about movies with people who don’t often Talk About Movies it makes total sense to me. Caring about the craft & history of cinema as an artform is a niche interest, even when the cinema itself is populist media. The thing is that Babylon is explicitly about that exact disconnect: the horrifying gap between how much general audiences love to be entertained by The Movies and how indifferent those audiences are to the lives & wellbeing of the people who make them.
The obvious reasons for Babylon‘s financial failure extend far beyond expectations that general audiences would share its nerdy academic interest in the century-old history of pre-Code Hollywood moviemaking. If anything, Chazelle’s $80mil flop is most impressive in how eager it is to alienate its audience, regardless of its movie-nerd subject matter. It’s a three-hour, coke-fueled montage on double-speed that not only indicts the unwashed masses for our indifference to the artistry behind our favorite movies but also assaults our eyes with every fluid the human body can produce. Piss, shit, tears, blood, puke, and cum all dutifully grace the screen in their own time, with the piss & shit ticked off the checklist early on to help set the tone. Modern-day movie stars Brad Pitt & Margot Robbie suffer the same rough transition from silents to talkies that has been mythologized as the downfall of Early Hollywood since as far back as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Only, their backstage debauchery between productions is cranked to a year-round Mardi Gras bacchanal never before depicted with so much onscreen hedonistic excess. It’s enough to make you want to puke yourself, if not only from the carsick momentum of the film’s manic pacing, which rarely slows down from its intercutting dialogue barrages to stage a genuine scene of real-time drama.
Because its characters are more symbolic than dramatic (directly recalling past industry castoffs like Clara Bow, Louis Armstrong, and Anna Mae Wong), Babylon is often more interesting for what it’s trying to say on a big-picture scale than it is for its scene-to-scene drama. I was particularly struck by the way its repetition of Singin’ in the Rain‘s talkies-downfall plot is directly acknowledged in the text, with Babylon consciously positioning itself as yet another example of Hollywood’s cyclical, self-cannibalizing nature. When most movies cite the magic of cinema being greater and more enduring than the people who make it, it’s coming from a place of awe & respect for the artform. Here, Chazelle projects pure disgust & horror. In its mission-statement climax, our low-level-fixer-turned-high-level producer POV character Manny (Diego Calva) watches caricatures of his dead friends & colleagues mocked as comic archetypes at a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, then slips into a subliminal montage of the next 100 years of Hollywood-spectacle filmmaking, with each successive title—Un Chien Andelou, The Wizard of Oz, 2001, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Avatar, etc.—building on and borrowing from the past for its own in-the-moment splendor until there’s no splendor left to go around. Chazelle even shamelessly participates in this ritual himself, as Babylon can easily be passed off a cruder, shallower Hail, Caesar! crammed into a Boogie Nights-shaped box. It’s an ungenerous reading of how cinema perpetually “borrows” from itself in a way that feels like homage but rarely acknowledges or takes care of the real-life people who built its founding texts. And when Manny snaps out of it to gawk at the uncaring, unknowledgeable audience cackling at ghosts of his loved ones, the tragedy of his cruelly perpetual industry hits way harder than any of the character deaths that sparked his melancholy in the first place.
I was most impressed with Babylon in its scale and in its eagerness to alienate casual moviegoing audiences. It likely would have been better received if it were a 10-hour miniseries that allowed each of its overlapping character arcs to breathe (especially since it already intercuts their stories like a long-running soap opera anyway), but its manic tempo is exactly what makes it special among the million other movies about The Movies, so it was probably better off flopping than capitulating. I also love that Chazelle projects such a sour view of moviemaking as an artform, a compulsory practice he immediately likens to dragging a diarrheal elephant uphill. The only reason I don’t fully love this movie is I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve already seen it all before (even if at half-time pace), but that kind of complaint only plays into exactly what Chazelle is trying to say about Hollywood’s cyclical history here. Even his climactic montage’s assertion that cinema has already reached its end—a death knell also sounded by the hundreds of click-bait articles that auto-populate every time a major production like Babylon flops—feels like a self-cannibalizing repetition of Hollywood lore. How many times has cinema already “died”? Did it die when the talkies ended the silent era, when television became affordable, when television went prestige, when normies began to stream? Every generation thinks they’re going to be the last, and although one day they’ll be proven right, the cinemapocalypse has yet to fully come to fruition. In the meantime, artists can only watch in horror as their work and their peers are absorbed, digested, and regurgitated by subsequent art movements they do not understand, with no wide audience recognition for how they contributed to that greater continuum. Even the populist Spielbergs of the industry become historical, esoteric references in the long run, and there will come a time when Chazelle’s own name is synonymous with The Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Michael Bay as dusty antiques only of interest to high-brow academics.