Monday, June 5, 2023



Director Damien Chazelle on the set

Chazelle with cinematographer Linus Sandgren

Chazelle with Brad Pitt and Diego Calva

Chazelle with musical composer Justin Hurwitz

BABYLON                B                                                                                                                 USA  (189 mi)  2022  ‘Scope  d: Damien Chazelle

A child born in fifty years will stumble across your image flickering on a screen and feel he knows you, like a friend, even though you breathed your last before he breathed his first.  You’ve been given a gift.  Be grateful.  Your time today is through, but you’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.                   —Elinor St. John (Jean Smart)

From the maker of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash (2014), and 2016 Top Ten List #10 La La Land, which soared to 14 Oscar nominations, becoming the youngest ever Oscar winner for Best Director, this $80 million dollar extravaganza is not for the faint of heart, as this could also be known as Sodom and Gomorrah goes to Hollywood, becoming an exposé on the outsized ambition and outrageous excess in the early days of Hollywood, tracing the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity, where this bombastic saga takes on the grand-scale myths of Hollywood lore from yesteryear, like a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza selling a grotesquely exaggerated vision of reckless hedonism, becoming a walking travelogue through the hidden pre-Code secrets of an out-of-control industry.  Setting its sights on exposing the sordid, darker underbelly of Hollywood history, which they have been so adept at sweeping under the rug, the film bombed at the box office, where the more than three-hour run time for a Christmas release might be a factor, along with poor marketing, while historical films tend to be hit or miss with movie audiences, but the ostentatiousness and grandiose spectacle on display is much like Ruben Östlund in Triangle of Sadness (Sans Filtre) (2022), as both use projectile vomiting and diarrhea scenes for grotesque humor, seemingly on a similar wavelength of crude condescension, and while LA LA LAND was a love letter to the hopeful dreamers of Tinseltown, this feels more like a “Fuck you” letter to the industry, pushing the limits beyond all established limits, where it’s doubtful Chazelle will ever get the same opportunity again, so he shot the wad with this one.  While much has been made about matching certain fictional characters to their real-life counterparts, that’s not really a factor, as the boundaries between imagination and reality are blurred, where it neither enhances nor detracts from the storyline, becoming a multi-character tragicomic epic set at the twilight of the silent era, where if we learn anything it’s that Hollywood is a place of dreams and pain in equal measure.  Spanning from 1926 to 1952, this is an uneven, yet outlandish film that’s hugely ambitious, but never lives up to expectations, as there’s an emotional disconnect with all the characters, with blatant attempts at humor that mostly fall flat, and while there are moments of brilliance, much of this ends up feeling overly trite and predictable.  Bearing some resemblance to David Fincher’s Mank (2020), with both offering inside glimpses into a world of often drunk, drugged out, and chaotic individuals who thrive in the industry, each establishing behind-the-scenes connections to the lavish weekend parties of William Randolph Hearst, where his Hearst Castle becomes a resort for Hollywood’s royalty during the Roaring Twenties and into the 30’s, including stars, directors, producers, and writers, where California is viewed as both a Garden of Eden and a land of material opportunity, ultimately satirized by Orson Welles in CITIZEN KANE (1941).  On a desolate hilltop in the Bel Air desert, inside the fairytale mansion of Hollywood producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Harvey Weinstein), we are witness early on to the orgiastic frenzy of a 30-minute party sequence set to the exhilarating music written by Chazelle’s longtime musical composer Justin Hurwitz, Voodoo Mama (Official Audio) – Babylon Original ... - YouTube (3:59), which sets the tempo, something you might expect from Baz Luhrmann in The Great Gatsby (2013), a filmmaker known for his lavish extravagance, but this is an unrivaled, no-holds-barred scenario with quick cuts combined with longer takes that feels breathtaking in the way Linus Sandgren’s bravura 35mm camerawork simply glides through the Felliniesque bacchanal festivities like poetry in motion, where viewers are literally immersed in the excess, debauchery, and revulsion of the experience.  Shown on 70mm in a few theaters, yet compared to this, what went on in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) seems relatively tame.      

While we have seen this kind of satiric Hollywood history rehash before in the Coen brother’s Hail, Caesar! (2016), nothing really prepares us for the exaggerated histrionics and massive scale of this film, which dares to go where others refused to go, elevating bad taste to an operatic artform while luridly swinging for the fences in attempting to capture the shallowness and moral void at the center of this business.  Three central characters are introduced early on, Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a star-gazing Mexican emigrant who dreams of making his way up the Hollywood ladder (“I just want to be part of something bigger!”) but remains stuck on the outskirts of fame, employed as an errand boy for media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), where he runs into Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a loud and brashly impulsive, would-be actress from New Jersey appropriately dressed for the occasion, but she’s not on the invite list, so Manny whisks her inside where they partake in a mountainous pile of readily available cocaine before hitting the dance floor.  Manny falls instantly in love, enamored by all the stardom and glamor, but she’s just there for a wild time, becoming an instant hit, dazzling the eyes of party revelers and viewers, where the intoxicating sequence goes for the juggler, driven by the furious pace of the music, taking us on a roller coaster ride, setting the tone for what follows, Babylon (2022) - The Orgy Dance Scene | Movieclips YouTube (2:30).  While they are merely periphery players, the grand entrance is reserved for Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a matinee idol whose extreme arrogance and eccentric personality is modeled after John Gilbert, MGM’s biggest silent movie star and producer at the peak of his star power, the man who helped build Hollywood into the multi-billion dollar conglomerate that it is today.  Jack is the face of the movie industry, fawned over by adoring fans, with everyone trying to get into his ear, but he’s an unflappable character, clearly in his element in the midst of the delirium of surrounding chaos, with a propensity for getting wildly inebriated, yet shows up on the set the next morning ready to work.  In addition, the sequence features black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a lesbian Chinese-American cabaret singer modeled after Anna May Wong, dressed in a top hat and tuxedo singing “My Girl’s Pussy,” My Girl's Pussy by Justin Hurwitz in Babylon (2022) Cabaret ... YouTube (2:30), with both also craving the spotlight, while Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a gossip columnist turned grand dame of Hollywood journalists, offers her own first-hand accounts of the day-to-day trials and tribulations, providing a checkered history that is filled with looming themes of transience and sadness, with Chazelle and his editor Tom Cross cleverly weaving these stories together while referencing some of the classic ensemble films.  Manny proves his meddle by devising an ingenious diversionary plan to escort a dead woman who has overdosed out of the party in plain view without anyone noticing, with Nellie chosen to take her place on the set the next day.  Jack takes Manny under his wing as his personal assistant, driving him home to his own palatial estate, becoming a trusted confidant, an everyman bearing witness to the idiosyncratic methods of making movies on an outdoor set with multiple productions shot simultaneously, fascinated by the pandemonium and complete disarray in what he sees, with a timeline separating distinctly different sets in operation, including a sprawling action sequence directed by Otto Von Strassberger (Spike Jonze in a German accent) that goes haywire, killing one of the actors (turned into a sight gag), as real weapons are used, suggesting it’s a Wild West out there, destroying all their existing cameras as well, but all that matters is that they got the shot, Getting The Shot Of The Soldiers Fighting - Babylon (2022) Scene YouTube (2:42).  Erupting out of this chaos, occasional magic occurs, as Manny saves the day by making an emergency run afterwards to secure another operating camera, a scene that borders on the ridiculous, and the miraculous, revealing the remarkable spirit of an era that has come and gone, BABYLON - First 8 Minutes Opening Scene (2022) YouTube (8:20).

Jack sends Manny to New York to see Al Jolson in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) and report back on the new sensation of talking pictures, which would change the industry, driving most of the silent era actors out of business as their overdramatic theatrics don’t play so well in sound pictures.  While Jack wants to be part of the future and make accommodations to the changing times, his wooden acting doesn’t play so well with audiences, which throws him for a loop, as he’s never tasted anything but success before.  Nellie becomes an instant silent film success, a rags to riches character based on starlet Clara Bow, the scandalous “It-Girl,” but her shrill Jersey accent never plays well in the tightly restricted atmosphere of a sound studio, where she is the living example of the growing pains that came with the transition into unchartered territory, Babylon (2022) Retake Scene Over & Over Again YouTube (3:05).  The film depicts a time when Los Angeles was a desert community of rootless transplants growing into a world-class city, where Hollywood in particular was operating in a no-holds-barred kind of world, wilder, more aggressive, while still tinkering and experimenting with an industry format that was still being built.  For instance, there’s an early scene of the beginning stages of the infamous number that would eventually end up in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan’s Singin' in the Rain (1952), regarded today as a masterpiece of the classical Hollywood musical.  But in the early stages actors were used to simply standing in place and singing, not moving around or dancing, where motion was not yet integrated into the medium.  In this side-by-side comparison, Jack reveals his personal reservations as Chazelle’s film is seen juxtaposed against Charles Reisner’s THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, Singin In the Rain 1929. Babylon comparación. - YouTube (1:14), while there is yet another version of the same song, Singing in the Rain - YouTube (4:18), offering an unusual historical perspective.  Chazelle unabashedly shows the dark side of the industry where even the mighty must fall, viewed as inevitable, as gossip columnist Elinor St. John will explain to a devastated Jack Conrad why his career is over and how insignificant that ending will be to Hollywood history, Best scene of Babylon YouTube (4:50), which is even more tragic considering ninety percent of all silent films are estimated to be lost.  Manny eventually finds a place as a movie executive, but does so at the expense of his moral integrity and racial identity, as he ends up passing for white, ignoring his own family for years, though they live nearby.  This plays out in devastating fashion when it comes to musician Sidney Palmer, a black man who actually made it in Hollywood, until the moment when the powers that be decide his skin is too light for the camera, and may not play well in the South, setting the stage for the indignity of “blackface,” a racial subtext within the industry that still lingers today.  As Palmer, Jovan Adepo is able to express all the humiliation and psychological damage that Hollywood has inflicted for generations, Manny Makes Sidney Palmer DARKEN HIS FACE - Babylon (2022) Movie Scene YouTube (3:00), transitioning perfectly into another sequence, Sidney Palmer Plays The Babylon Theme Tune Perfectly - Babylon (2022) Scene YouTube (2:30), offering a poignant eulogy for a forgotten era.  One of the most grotesque twists is a surrealistic descent into the dark underbelly of the beast, a subterranean dungeon where the layers of Hell resemble Dante’s Inferno, described as the “asshole of Los Angeles,” where the depravity of the industry on steroids is a fantasy crime scene selling its soul to the highest bidder.  For the finale the film jumps ahead thirty years and finds an aging Manny revisiting his former stomping grounds, where its cleaned-up image turns into a CINEMA PARADISO (1988) moment of movie rapture with a spellbinding montage of movie clips that is nothing short of sensational, Babylon (2022) - The Ending Montage Scene | Movieclips YouTube (2:57), offering a one-of-a-kind exposé that can be as stupefying as it is enthralling.  


Prior to shooting the film, from the fall of 2018 through the spring of 2019, Chazelle and executive producer Matthew Plouffe organized private screenings in empty theaters to screen 35mm prints of films they felt consciously tried to push the boundaries of cinema while expanding the viewing experience.  Included in this eclectic mix were the following films, D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE (1916), William Wellman’s WINGS (1927), G. W. Pabst’s Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (1928), Jean Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), Federico Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960), Luchino Visconti’s THE LEOPARD (1963), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970), Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972), Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990), Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER Part II (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975), Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007), and Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000).

Every movie referenced in the 'Babylon' ending montage  Calum Russell from Far Out magazine

  • The Horse in Motion (Eadweard Muybridge, 1878)
  • Cat Galloping (Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)
  • The Arrival of a Train (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895)
  • Annie Oakley (1894) – Thomas Edison’s earliest Kinetoscope
  • Birth of the Pearl (F.S. Armitage, 1901)
  • A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
  • Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Ferdinand Zecca, 1902)
  • The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903)
  • Little Nemo (Winsor McCay, 1911)
  • Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
  • The Champion (Charlie Chaplin, 1915)
  • The Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915–1916)
  • Joan the Woman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1916)
  • Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920)
  • Voice of the Nightingale (Ladislaw Starewicz, 1925)
  • Le Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, 1924)
  • The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)
  • Black and Tan (Dudley Murphy, 1929)
  • Hollywood Review of 1929 (Charles Reisner, 1929)
  • Piccadilly (Ewald André Dupont, 1929)
  • The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
  • Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 (Sergi Eisenstein, 1944)
  • Tarantella (Mary Ellen Bute, Norman McLaren & Ted Nemeth, 1940)
  • Love Letter (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953)
  • Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
  • Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, Merrie Melodies, 1953)
  • This is Cinerama (Mike Todd, Michael Todd, Jr., Walter A. Thompson and Fred Rickey, 1952)
  • Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) 
  • Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) 
  • Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969) 
  • Dreams That Money Can Buy (Hans Richter, 1947)
  • Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, Alexandr Hackenschmied, 1943)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
  • My Life to Live (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) 
  • Lucia (Humberto Solás, 1968)
  • NY. NY. (Francis Thompson, 1947) 
  • Borom Sarret (Ousmane Sembène, 1963) 
  • Le Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, 1924)
  • The Black Vampire (Román Viñoly Barreto, 1953) 
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Week-End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
  • Matrix 1 (John Whitney, Sr., 1971)
  • 0–45 (TV Cultura de São Paulo, 1974) 
  • Sunstone (Ed Emshwiller, Alvy Ray Smith, Lance Williams, Garland Stern, 1979)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
  • Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982)
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
  • Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
  • The Matrix (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
  • Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  • Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1965)

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