January 31, 2023

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The lesson of ‘Babylon’: Every director should read it on their face once

5 min read

Watching Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” with all its over-the-top titles, occasionally exciting and mostly tiresomely gross extras (orgies, the elephant poop, contemporary actors making it the dawning star of cinema, the general air of brutal performative avant-garde), I thought to myself: We’ve been here many times before. .

You sit down to watch a movie by a director whose work you admire. He’s swinging for the fences. His ambition is on full display and so, fit and sports, is his talent. Yet something else is also on display: the lack of judgment that begins as a worm, moves through the process, eats everything in its path before growing and metastasizing.

I’ll leave the D-word out of this one, since “Babylon,” a watchable if oddly joyless movie, never devolves into a disaster of incoherence like “Amsterdam.” Yet the movie reminds me of how many great directors have a compelling epic misfire in them. Probably most of them; It may be inherent in the imagination of filmmaking. I’m thinking of Francis Ford Coppola and “One from the Heart,” Robert Altman and “Quintet,” or Martin Scorsese and “New York, New York,” a warped ramble of a method musical that, I’m not sorry I’m David Lynch and ” Wild at Heart”, Steven Soderbergh and “Kafka”, Michelangelo Antonioni and “Zabrisky Point”, Baz Luhrmann and “Australia” or even (dare I say it?) Stanley Kubrick and “Eyes” are thinking of Wide Shut. ” (We can argue with each other, but after countless viewings I don’t think it gels.)

My point is that great filmmakers, in order to follow their magic, sometimes have to let go of themselves there – too far out there – to return to earth. Every huge movie failure is different; Everyone writes their own rules of what not to do to get ahead. But film directors, who treat every movie they make like their own child, are often very protective of their big bads for understandable reasons. Directing a film can be an impossible task. People who make movies need to think that the ones that aren’t finished are worth making. Yet lessons can creep up on them. Especially if they really made a movie around a mistake, which I think Damien Chazelle did in “Babylon.”

Chazelle has been on the map since 2014, during which time she’s made three films, two of which I love (the other, I think, is good and underrated). Have you seen “Whiplash” recently? I found it even more compelling the second time around — a percussive jazz psychodrama centered on a charismatic teacher from hell, built like a runaway riff that just won’t stop. “La La Land,” a musical that’s a virtuoso fusion of old and new (exactly what Scorsese wanted to pull off in “New York, New York”), achieves a quality of blissful nostalgia and bittersweet longing. It’s an addictive movie (I’ve seen it about a dozen times). And “First Man,” while not on that level, dramatized the American moon landing with such palpable apprehension. the danger of space travel – doom hitting beneath the smooth glide – that if you got the film’s wavelength (which many didn’t), you felt the scar in every scene.

I think Damien Chazelle is an important filmmaker – the artist he reminds me of the most is Spielberg – in each of these three films he’s creating a story of faith. Not religious faith per se, but faith in something (the salvation of music, the promise of love, the evolutionary need to explore) that is passionate, whole, sustainable. A kind of gaga-eyed faith in the stories he tells is Chazelle’s defining quality as a filmmaker. This is why “Babylon” is such an overwrought oddball. Chazelle, of course, has every right to switch gears and create an ironic, side-eyed riff on old Hollywood vulgarity. And he has every right to make a film that is no less a docudrama than a historical fantasy.

For all that, the hook of “Babylon” is that Chazelle is presenting Hollywood’s formative days with a bracing warts-and-all semiotic realism. He tries to go deeper than other figures to lay bare the underbelly of the dream factory. It has become a cultural tick to dismiss the authenticity of Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon,” a collection of sordid stories (of sex, drugs, murder) first published in France in 1959, but although that book presented itself as unsolicited gossip, its Much (though not all) really happened, and the myth it helped create about the dirty hidden truths of 20th-century celebrity was part of what Chazelle was aiming for.

But “Babylon,” in the largest sense, really is The inauthentic movie packs a thousand meticulously researched details, yet its sense of excess is fundamentally immune and excessive, whether it’s Margot Robbie’s wild dancing at a 1980s-style party or the way the perversity on display seems to happen hermetically. The counterculture bubble has been removed from the corridors of power.

Even Kenneth Anger, in his mockingly dark way, realized the grandeur of Hollywood. The scandals he presented became part of his underground mystique, but everything about Hollywood for Rage, even its perversity, was larger than life. What’s missing from “Babylon” was a Hollywood dream factory that… well, dreams. The assembly-line filming of the silent-movie two-reeler, in which Robbie’s Nellie Loroy first proves her mettle as a star who can dance and cry on cue, is staged with promising skill. But when the film reaches the age of sound, the closest it comes to showing us the making of the movie is a scene of maladroit studio-set logistics in which Nelly has to shoot the same entrance and phone conversation over and over again, until the camera man literally expires in his hot-box chamber. We get closer to the joys of filmmaking in “Babylon.”

But the whole reason Hollywood operated itself, especially in the 20s, as an industrial version of a castle in the air was because it made movies with magic in them, and the people who made those movies (or at least some of them) meant what they were doing. It wasn’t only An ugly shitshow you’d hardly guess from “Babylon,” with its high-magazine over-the-top flamboyance and nose-thumbing aesthetic.

Watching the movie, what I couldn’t understand was how Damien Chazelle, a disciple of cinematic faith, as surely as any filmmaker, could think that this brand of reflexive undercutting represented some kind of higher truth. An inescapable conversation piece of “Babylon” is its film-montage ending, where Chazelle uses a rapid-fire psychedelic feast of famous film clips to send us on a floating cloud of movie love. But all I can think of is this: I hope that a meeting can be arranged between that sequence and the previous three hours of the film. What “Babylon” lacks, oddly enough, is a movie love you can feel in your bones. It shows the incidental beauty of a sunset kiss in our silent era, and Gene Smart’s beautifully written speech by gossip columnist evokes a wistful sense of the cyclical nature of movies and celebrity. But Damien Chazelle’s belief in the power of film is, for the most part, what he forgot to bring to the table. That’s the lesson of “Babylon”: Even a great filmmaker can’t trust himself.

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