Babylon Review - Dreams on Celluloid, Printed Into History
Unlike its historical namesake, the new film Babylon has statues which are not worshiped but rammed down with luxurious rental cars. Worship has taken different forms and different shapes. The patron god of Los Angeles isn’t seen in the statues of the night but in the night itself, where eternal stars in the black sky look down on these mortal stars making their way around the developing world of Hollywood in those opulent black vehicles.
The core dynamic of the movies alternates between the creation of art and the culture of creation of that very art. The abstract theories surrounding the value of powerful but ultimately fake stories find a tension with the world where these stories come into being. Manny, played brilliantly by Diego Calva (whose biggest role until now was in the little-seen I Promise You Anarchy), does anything he can to stop working at only the Hollywood parties. He wants to go to a real movie set. Jack Conrad, the legendary film star played by equally legendary Brad Pitt, drunkenly invites him to one, the set of a “costume picture” he’s involved in. “It’s the most magical place on Earth,” Conrad tells Manny, only through slurring and mumbling language. “I’ve heard,” he replies in Spanish. Cue the title card, which has come only after a sleepless night and a dizzying extended party sequence.
Art in its idealized form is the subject of distinction throughout Babylon, and the relationship between The Movies (in capital letters) and the movie world is one of the most focused of these discussions. The movie fluctuates between the potential value of art and the wildly destructive culture of its creation. “I always wanted to be part of something bigger,” Manny tells aspiring actress Nelle LeRoy (a kinetic Margot Robbie) the first night they meet. She agrees with him, preaching in her particular wide-eyed style about the cinema's capabilities for escapism and emotional resonance. All of these affirmations only come through a (purposely) abhorrent amount of narcotics. It’s unclear, at least at first, how much LeRoy will even remember of this night.
One instance of right-place-right-time later, Nelle finds herself on a set the very next day. Simultaneously Conrad is shooting his “costume picture” at a different studio. Throughout the day, he spends his time waiting for his scene in his tent, drinking and yelling at his assistants what the next line of his screenwriting debut should be, a debut bound to be a masterpiece if you ask him. Conrad is constantly debating with everyone, including himself, about the ability of film to be "high art". He wants to be part of the eternity of such great art and create something so timeless that “tomorrow’s lonely man” can look up at the screen and find some dreams worth dreaming.
Damien Chazelle’s films seem sequential on some level, building upon themes addressed in the past. His most acclaimed film to date, the beloved and instantly iconic La La Land, cheerily sings songs about the fools who dream. Babylon is the experience-weary polarizing older cousin, asking back, “Do you want to know what that dream looks like?” The film chronicles the exploitative nature of art creation in a world of capitalism and the frustrating attempts to make something that may be great, but equally may be embarrassingly bad. Beauty is confined to the limitations of the process which, at its core, chews you up and spits you out, letting you rot on the sidewalk when your time in the spotlight is gone.
Brad Pitt’s Conrad brings another layer to the discussion. He’s been in the limelight for some time, finding success after success, and has become MGM’s biggest attraction. One of the first moments of the film features his wife (a cameo by Olivia Wilde) yelling at him, her anger amplified by his decision to speak only in Italian. She threatens him that if he doesn’t talk in English, she’ll divorce him. He doesn’t listen and she follows through. Mamma mia!
Conrad doesn’t care about his wife, and that trend continues for the multitude of wives he has throughout the movie. (“She doesn’t speak English!” someone says of a Hungarian girl he’s interested in. “Neither does love,” is the reply.) It seems all of his sincerity is saved for one person: George, his depressed producer friend who isn’t quite as lucky in his love life. George is Conrad’s anchor, the only person who earns his sympathy. Of course, Conrad the artist can't exist in the abstract; he needs Conrad the human being. When George becomes absent, Conrad finds himself falling into a downward spiral. He is comforted by critic Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) who says that he is destined to live for eternity on the screen, and any person in one hundred years can see his face flicker on the screen and he’ll live again. One is reminded of the Prince lyric: “Things are much harder than in the afterworld/In this life/You're on your own.”
Is the relationship between hedonistic excess and profound personal connection doomed to be an inverse one? Hollywood of the 1920s (and of every decade since) is one where the former flourishes. If the ancient Babylonian festival that depicted the creation of the world was a historical benchmark for such hedonistic focuses, an excessive and over-the-top celebration full of material pleasures, our aging leading man is tossed into that festival world for the rest of his life. For a star like Conrad, perhaps immortality is the only option.
The grasp at eternity is the thing motivating all of our lead characters. Manny wants to become involved in something outside of himself, “something more important than life,” by getting involved in cinema. As mentioned, St. John tells Conrad that he will live forever, dining with angels and ghosts. And Nellie LeRoy knows that her fame isn’t something that comes and goes. “You don’t become a star,” she says. “You either are or you ain’t.” For a film so inspired by its period, Babylon tells us that the screen defies the laws of time. The Californian update on the ancient city worships not gods themselves but godly immortality that mortals can hope to acquire .
And so comes its wild ending, one of the boldest endings from a big-budget movie I have ever seen. La La Land worshiped those who put their life into art. Babylon wonders: are movies the greatest thing on earth, or are they embodiments of the worst? Is our pursuit of finding a new world on the screen indicative of the discontent that fueled that same new world’s creation? Is it worth having these dreams at all? In the final five minutes our attention is turned to the greatest films ever made, showing us the capacity of this art. If such beauty is Chazelle’s message he wishes to leave us with, what did the previous few hours teach us?
Babylon feels like the end of the movies themselves. Much has been said about the film’s lackluster commercial appeal. But what else is the end of the party if not an empty room, abandoned and left for dead like the ruins of the ancient city? We look back at the history of cinema and see our greatest dreams projected on the screen. But what are dreams, Babylon tells us, if they aren’t crafted in the endless darkness of the eternally starry night?
But enough about the end. The show’s on now. (Later, when this is all over, you can ask your posek if it’s the year’s best. Certainly feels that way.) Let’s hit the party. Or is it a funeral? The movies are dead; long live the movies.
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