Rated R, and for a while, I thought would push the NC-17 train. Again, the combos for these Academy Awards are too long, too depressing, and too sexual. While depressing, it might not be the most depressing. But there's a ton of nudity and sex happening in this movie. I'm pretty sure there's drugs. A ton of alcohol. There's violence, and feces, and projectile vomit. It's got so much going for / against it. Depending on where you stand. (Just don't stand behind the elephant!)
DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
He uses the theme to La La Land a lot, doesn't he? Like, it is all through the movie. I'm not even mad. The soundtrack to La La Land is a bop, even the score. Hearing a rendition of it in Babylon isn't exactly a turn-off either. If I wasn't in mixed company right now, I would be blaring this soundtrack loud. You all hated this movie, right? Don't get me wrong. It commits all three crimes of the 2023 Academy Award nominees: it's too long; it's too sexual; it's too depressing. But I'll tell you what. Despite being kind of imperfect, it's pretty great.
In the first 20 minutes, I was convinced I was going to hate it. I also forgot that it was directed by Damien Chazelle, whose movies have completely crushed for me. Yeah, I'm becoming a bit of a fanboy. The movie, for those not in the know, starts with an elephant massively defecating all over a person as they attempt to spit out the excrement. Mmm...sign me up for more of that, am I right? (Sometimes, sarcasm is lost in writing. I did not care for this sequence.) From there, the movie spirals into an epic party that has more in common with the orgy from Eyes Wide Shut than it does an party that I've ever thrown. For example, not once did anyone pull out an unplayed copy of Star Trek: Catan in an attempt to really get the party cooking. And then the party just kept going and I thought, "I can't handle this." One thing about me and shock, I'm not a fan. I was in high school from 1998-2001 (stop it, identity theives!) and I was just in the cradle of shock culture then. I learned that shock can only go so far when it comes to storytelling.
But I think that Damien Chazelle knows that. Yeah, the movie has three hour and nine minute runtime, a crime in my imagination. But I think it's there for a very specific reason. Babylon, for all of its commentary on Singin' in the Rain (I'll get to that later), is a movie about juxtaposition. We were at one place; now we are at another. We are absolute messes; we make art out of chaos. The more extreme that these parties get, the more the product of cinema seems impressive. Babylon, as its name implies, stresses that movies should not work. These are people who are given too much money and drugs and alcohol and sex and, somehow, the movies that we all grew up modeling film off of seem fun and entertaining. There needs to be that contrast. Yeah, I do think that Chazelle really embraces that he's allowed to make a really long movie. But sometimes, I feel like I am just binge watching a show. I know. It's not the most flattering thing to say about a movie, especially a movie about the glory of movies. But The Irishman had the same thing. When a movie hits a certain runtime, our brains have to shift. It's incredible American for me to say, because other countries regularly have insane runtimes for their movies. But for the sake of storytelling, sometimes the audience has to shift perspectives a little bit.
Nothing I'm about to say is going to be shocking. Chazelle wears his obsessions on his sleeves. He really likes old-timey cinema. He also likes music. Like with La La Land, he's doing both fandoms a service. With La La Land, it was more music over film. With Babylon, it's more film over music. I'm okay with that. He does what he does. Do I want him to branch out? Sure. But Chazelle is doing a lot of inside baseball here. He knows that a lot of his audience probably knows Singin' in the Rain pretty well. (That's me!) I don't think that a lot of people were casually about to go see Babylon. It's the cinephile's bait. I don't even know how he got financing outside of promising Academy Awards that he will not get. There are all these references to Singin' in the Rain, going as far as having Jack Conrad try to sing that song for a movie he doesn't want to be in. For a while, I thought that Chazelle was doing some kind of pastiche. It's a weird place to be in. Singin' in the Rain is a comic send-up of the death of the silent film era. If you wanted to make a historical fiction set in this era, you are going to hit a bunch of the same touchstones. But I honestly started screaming "Dueling Cavalier!" during the movie, saying that there is pastiche and then there is plagiarism.
But it's not plagiarism. The movie decides to cite its sources. It all culminates in Manny watching Singin' in the Rain, watching it as a tragedy. I have such amorphous opinions about this. I love Singin' in the Rain. It's one of those musicals that I completely gel with. There are a handful. I don't call myself a musical guy. But I do like good film and Singin' in the Rain is good film. It's funny and well-made and I'm not going to apologize for it. But I will say that maybe --just maybe --Chazelle has a point. Or maybe this isn't his point and I'm full of it. Anyway, he might have a point in saying that one man's comedy is another man's tragedy. For all of the laughs and broad characterization of Singin' in the Rain, there's something tragic and slightly bullish about the concept of the movie. (I know, I'm trying to make the word "bully" into an adjective, but "bullish" means something else.) There is this temptation to look at silent film as something primitive. It was the beginning of a movement that was built out of novelty. For the longest time, it wasn't treated as art. After all, one of the first films that Edison ever made was "boxing cats", the forerunner of today's YouTube culture.
But Chazelle wants to stress that the silent film stars were people. Sure, they were full of themselves and led debaucherous lives. But if we focus on Nellie and Jack, what should have been progress was an assault on what they considered something difficult to do. These were people talented at one specific thing and then someone came in and just made them amateurs in a matter of years. Nellie's life, for all of her partying, (which is intentionally a blend of sympathetic and pathetic) made her self-actualized. She comes to grips with some demons and embraces others. She finds value in the fact that she can have fun on set. She doesn't allow others to define her because she knows that she can have fun on a set. But then sound comes and, moreso, audiences get more conservative. Nellie goes from her authentic self to a self that is being determined by outside forces. There's something to be celebrated while Nellie is a silent film actress. Yeah, I'm going to judge her because I lead a very vanilla lifestyle where I look forward to my 100 calorie bag of veggie straws after a long day of teaching.
But Nellie, in her full-party-saiyan form, is happy. She is who she wants to be. When she's being the Wild Child version of herself, there's something gleeful. She's making art. She may not call it art. But Nellie gets on camera and blows people's minds with her impulses and her instincts for what makes good movies. It's subconscious and honestly a little lovely. As much as I judge her, there's a joy to see oneself so fully-realized, especially considering that everyone pigeon-holes her for being just another party girl at the party. That scene, where Nellie's close-up calls her the Wild Child --as sexual as it is --it's heartwarming. She is seen and she is appreciated. Sure, the Hollywood Babylon, from which this movie gets its name, can only sell that image for so long. But instead of minimizing the concept of the fifteen minutes of fame, that time in the sun is about actualization. Conversely, it is also about the crime of hope. For the first time, the people agree that Nellie has value. Not only does she has value, but she has celebrity. When that is stripped of her, that's when she spirals out of control. Manny, for all of his successes, probably stays most similar to his own personality. He gets more ruthless, but he doesn't really change his thoughts about Nellie, despite constant disappointment from her. (I think a bunch of my draft didn't save and I kind of want to cry because I'm so tired right now.)
I don't know what to think about Jack, though. If I had to say that this was a story about someone, it's about Nellie and Manny. Nellie and Manny have a clear arc. It's almost telegraphed in their opening scenes together. They go from nothing, to ruling the world, to destroyed by their own meteoric rise to success. Nellie and Mannie are tragic and that's what is going to stick with me. Then why have Jack? I'm obsessed with the Singin' in the Rain angle of the whole thing. Jack is Don Lockwood. But the story plays out really differently for the two characters. Jack as Don works kind of well. He's a guy who made it big in the silent era. You couldn't get any bigger than either of these guys. Okay. That's fine. When Don makes The Dueling Cavalier, it comes across as a joke and there's a risk of him being washed up. But Don sets aside his own ego and makes active change. It seems like Chazelle is a guy who doesn't want to have that easy out. Maybe it is more about the notion that you can't just want things to be okay and then they are.
Jack doesn't get a singing version of The Dueling Cavalier. If anything, his movie lives in a more grounded world. Test screenings don't really exist and a studio isn't willing to sink a bunch more money into making a flop into a hit, especially considering that the footage wouldn't be useful. Heck, Jack doesn't even realize that the film is a flop until he comes back from a many-week vacation. What's even more frustrating is that Jack's movie doesn't seem that bad. I mean, it's not charismatic or anything like that, but it isn't an active failure as established by the fact that we see the part of the movie that gets lambasted. That had to be a choice, right? I am grasping at straws here because I'm exhausted, but maybe it is the need for an audience to be so polarized by something that is supposed to be neutral. With Singin' in the Rain, The Dueling Cavalier is meant to be awful. It's so over-the-top awful that it's quotable. But with Jack's performance, it's just a little flat. Yet, the audience loses its mind over Jack's forgettable performance. Aren't most performances forgettable? I go through my Timehop and see that I wrote entire blogs on movies that I don't even think that I've heard of at this point.
While Babylon might be my least favorite Damien Chazelle movie, it's darned great. Yeah, I'd have a hard time rewatching it, simply because of all of the shocking content contained within. It's not one of those rewatchable movies. But, honestly, part of me really wants to. There's so much charisma behind the choices made within this film. Maybe that's what draws me to Chazelle's movies, despite the fact that they keep touching on the same points. Regardless, this movie should get more attention than it does.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.