Sunday, September 17, 2023

TLDR Watch: Babylon (2022)

Watched:  09/15/2023
Format: Prime
Viewing:  First
Director:  Damien Chazelle


I was aware of several things going into Babylon (2022).  

It's an original story (of sorts) about the late Silent Era of the film industry and beyond.  It's clearly referencing Kenneth Anger's infamous, and not super-accurate, book, Hollywood Babylon, which I have not read, but I did listen to a whole season of You Must Remember this, which covered the subject matter and sought to split fact from legend.

I won't get into the book here, but it's a recounting of possibly/ maybe/ probably-not/ absolutely-not true stories from the era during which the film industry moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast and went kinda bonkers.  Sex, death, drugs, mayhem, etc... followed.  

If you have a casual interest in Hollywood history, even without specific stories to recall, you could be well aware of this era, of meteoric rises and cataclysmic falls of actors and behind-the-camera talent.  It makes today's tabloid stuff look like middle-school melodrama.  And, because Hollywood loves a good story, especially one that sounds true, they've been passed down, year after year until Anger codified them in his book.  And now we have a nice little package that I remember hearing bits and pieces of in college and whatnot.

Going into the movie, I was also aware that the movie was at least three hours.  It was all fictional but referenced the real world of Hollywood from about 1927-1935 or so, and that no one seemed to like the movie all that much.   It had a $110+ million budget, and did poorly at the box office.

Having had now seen the movie, it's a three hour movie that is beautifully shot and acted.  The design is... interesting.  

But it feels so weirdly derivative, the story is delivered by bullet point, and it seems so surprised by things that seem obvious on their face here in the 2020's, that by the film's end - 3 hours later, I have no clue what Chazelle was trying to say or why he wanted to say it.  

If this movie is for a broad audience, it feels too specific in what it's covering while filling in no details to give them the full picture of the era while also taking a very, very long time to get to the point with his storylines, while still not making you ever care about the characters.  

If this movie is for film history buffs, someone with my cursory knowledge is clearly going to wind up with so many questions, their hand will involuntarily raise repeatedly throughout the film.

Historically and Biblically, Babylon was a city portrayed to be one of wonders and great sin, that punished the faithful, and celebrated what Judeo-Christian ethos found immoral.  So, you know, we're very much setting the stage for what we're about to see.

My thesis by the film's end was that Chazelle watched Singin' In the Rain and had the same passing thought anyone who has seen the movie three times will have:  that Lina Lamont got fucked and the leads are maybe totally dicks.  Ie:  this entire movie is kind of a violent response to an American classic and reconsideration of that film's entire arc.  Which is... a thing one can do.  But if you're going to not just show a better movie during your movie (a Signal Watch Cinema Sin) but confront that movie, you better not miss.

I'm not mad at the movie, and if I were a young movie fan, I would hope this movie would at least spark some curiosity about Hollywood history and the first third-of-a-century of movie making.  It's a tough era to access in some ways as the movies themselves were largely lost due to the film-stock of the era and the lack of regard for preservation and vaults of film.*  Not to mention that cinema language, use of cinema and cultural cues have all changed drastically since the era, it can take some concentration and work.  But knowing who the people were behind those images can certainly help.  And this film borrows enough from real stories and fictional ones that it's as good a place to start as any.

The movie wants to be a sprawling, multi-year epic.  The type which tends to get the attention of critics, a la Boogie Nights.  And much like Anderson's film - or maybe a bit like an Altman picture - it hops around a large cast of characters all working in a similar industry and gives you a peak into their lives and hopes and dreams, and how that plays out over the years.  

There are individual scenes and sequences that are going to stick with me, many of them quite good.  As a whole, though, that same attempt at an epic means holding any one thought to pull toward the center becomes increasingly muddied.


Arguably, the lead is Margot Robbie, and as of this writing, I have almost exclusively good things to say about Robbie as a performer.  Unfortunately, she's saddled with "the girl you know is going to die young off screen from the minute she shows up" thing that is the flipside to the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.  She has all the trappings of this stock character, from the grim back story and home life to the coke habit and preternatural acting talent.  And she's our Lina Lamont, which you'll start putting together the minute she opens her mouth with her Brooklyn accent.

Pitt plays the silent movie star who understands the need for novelty and change, and seems to be reaching for authenticity, which is something he can do in the silent pictures, but once audio is rolled out, you know as an actor over 25 in this movie, he isn't going to survive.  And, by the movie's mid-point, you're pretty sure he'll kill himself one way or another.  He does.  Pitt nails the character, including the bits of bad acting he has to do in character.  But he's saddled with such a weirdly predictable curve, it would have been a novelty only if he'd lived happily ever after.

Diego Calva plays a young Hispanic guy living in the shadow of LA's casual racism who moves from odd-jobs for movie producers to a producer/ executive himself, but who - somewhat inexplicably - is supposed to be in love with the train wreck that is Robbie's character he met, like, twice before the movie's midpoint.  It's almost grating watching the character, who is admirably played, but whose arc is so thankless, you may be waiting for his scenes to end just so we don't have to see these writing choices play out for the 10,000th time.

My theory about the nearly detached Jovan Adepo storyline, of a Black jazz musician who briefly becomes a star as pictures need sound, is that Chazelle became aware of the warranted criticism of his history of jazz as portrayed in La La Land, and inserted a sidecar storyline where he decided to make good or demonstrate he did so know about Black people doing jazz.  But then he really didn't have any ideas for it.  Adepo's character barely interacts with the rest of the cast, and he has maybe 10 spoken lines in the whole film.  What could have been a centerpiece and novel to many demographics about the Black experience in Hollywood of the era is unsurprisingly ham-handed even as Adepo is perfect delivering his ten lines and doing everything else via minute expression.

There's multiple other characters and storylines to keep up with.  Eric Roberts plays Robbie's ne'er-do-well father, Lukas Haas is Pitt's pal and his depressive producer (who you know is going to off himself at the 2/3rds mark, and he hits it like clockwork), the lovely and super-talented Jean Smart is given the off-the-shelf role of the gossip writer that is so enshrined in moviedom, we had this character in Batman and Robin.  Flea appears as a volatile movie producer.  The fetching Li Jun Li plays essentially Anna May Wong.  Tobey Maguire plays the creepy guy who always shows up in the back part of these movies as the characters are having their lowest moments.

And, sure, I'm missing a dozen more.

The movie is currently streaming for free on Prime, and my recommendation is to watch the first 30 minutes, which occur entirely before the titles.  Taking place at what we're to understand is a large but not particularly notable fiesta, it's a literal orgy of sex, drugs and jazz, complete with an elephant and accidental near-murder.  It's kind of a big joke to stun the audience when the titles hit - you've already borne witness to a hundred different sins, characters, plotlines and ideas - a firehose of opulence, rapaciousness, and overindulgence - both in what's on screen and how it's directed.  The camera won't stop moving, the music pounds (Jamie was woken up twice by the soundtrack's thumping), and most of the characters are at an 11.

A bit like La La Land, I'm not sure you ever really top the first scene here.  It really had me set thinking "well, maybe people were wrong about the film", because for the first thirty minutes, I was in, even if I was concerned we were getting 3 hours of movie working at this pace (we do not).  

Not to sound like too much of a creep, but it's also a very wide-screen take on all of this, not least of which is orgiastic activities, which are never quite the focus of a shot.  I think I get why Chazelle chose this - show it in the periphery as a fact-of-life - but it almost feels like Chazelle isn't quite confident in his own thesis after getting all of these people to show up and be naked.  Or else the MPAA lost their minds at a movie that actually shows boobs and some dick in 2023.

If you want to stick with it, I'd include everything up through maybe the first hour as keeping me invested as we move onto a day in the life of a silent-era studio with appropriately pitch-black humor, everyone doing their best, movies all being shot side-by-side, surprises and discoveries and the alchemy of winging-it film making.  And, of course, an insane German director.  

It's a stunning recreation of a period when Hollywood would both film light comedies alongside westerns (no sound issues to worry about) and would, in fact, hire casts of thousands to fill gigantic sets.  And everyone was treated a bit like cattle.

The thing is - Hollywood is full of very real stories and well-known legends that are bleaker, funnier, and at least as dark as everything Chazelle puts on screen.  He references some of those things, borrows from others (Clara Bow famously partied routinely with the USC football team, etc...).  There are well-documented trials that spun out of some actors lives, stories of weird deaths and suicides.  It's all available for a willing writer/ director.

So... I guess an amalgamation lets them kind of do whatever they want?  So why land of the completely obvious?

As sound comes in, though, we get the too-tempting fruit of showing the first attempts at sound recording and "boy, figuring this out was hard", which is true.  But it was also something they figured out with wildly impressive velocity - necessity became the mother of invention.  And it's already covered in detail in the movie this movie hopes you've already seen in Singin' In the Rain.  So it can feel redundant.  Which kind of begs - who is the movie for?  

The movie specifically recreates elements from  Singin' In the Rain movie, implying that the 1950's film is, in fact, referencing the characters in our parallel universe here.  Funnily enough, Babylon does loop back to the 1920's studio produced, all-star Singin' in the Rain "we've got sound" promotion done at the time that Singin' in the Rain's title was referencing (but which isn't in that movie).  

(became aware of this years ago in a Joan Crawford doc)

And, fair enough.  Like I said earlier - Singin' In the Rain does make fun of people who lost careers to unshakeable regional accents and who lost their way in the transition.  Even in my film school reading in the 1990's, this period was eyed with a sort of retroactive disgust.  And, I agree, it was a tragedy in it's way.**

To extend this thought, the conclusion of the film is how we go through transition after transition, Hollywood shedding people as it goes along.  

Just recently, Peacock's excellent Poker Face paid tribute to the great FX maestro and stop-motion animator Phil Tippet, who essentially became a dinosaur himself overnight as Jurassic Park introduced the world to CG dinosaurs.***   Babylon is a movie, in many ways, about the casualties of technological innovation and the greed for novelty by movie audiences.  

But it's also a movie that wants to be about how movies became respectable alongside sound, and the impact there.  However the presentation of that idea is not.. great.  Nor is any explanation given as to how or why this was suddenly happening - you kind of have to just realize rich people were moving west at the time and mixing with low-brow actors in Los Angeles.  But the weird malevolency feels like Mean Girls more than anything honest about adults.  

Further, the career-ender for our one Black character is a justifiable moment of fury cribbed from real issues cropping up as Southern exhibitors let it be known they wouldn't show things like "mixed race" bands performing - something that wound up impacting what one would take as a general impression of how race worked in other parts of the US at the time.  But, yeah, they ask a Black character to do Blackface to better fit the way more dark-skinned members of the band appear.  

Maybe it's my 4K TV's color settings are inadequate or something, but the actor wasn't particularly light-skinned, nor the other actors particularly dark-skinned.  Nor was lighting or other ideas trotted out before someone reached for fucking shoe polish.  And, fair enough, horrific and painful sequence.  But there's no follow up, really.  We see the musician has gone back to just performing for audiences - he never says anything.  It's... a very strange lack of giving the character a voice of his own.

There's suggestion that the morals squads have begun to crack down on Hollywood, but no filling in the blanks as to why - which is a rich tapestry of reasons, really.  90% of which was political posturing bullshit and campaigning for boring cultural hegemonization.  But at the same time, this movement is impacting our lead characters and in part why the worst part of the party scene shown at the beginning goes underground and metastasizes into something infinitely darker (I have no clue if this is based on anything, but it's wacky!).  

Things I don't entirely understand include 
  1. why Chazelle seems averse to the actual wardrobe and hairstyles of the period.  It's not just Robbie's hair, make-up and wardrobe.  Almost all of the women in the film look like they stepped out of a club in 2022, except for Jean Smart.  And I don't know why - if you're making this movie, you decide to *not* embrace flapper chic, the up-do's and headbands of the era.  I mean, if he thought "well, this could take place NOW", well... every other detail is pretty period specific, so it's just confusing.  
  2. Or why his few clips shown of what is supposedly filmed for the movies being made bear minimal resemblance to the actual films of the era, which never saw a camera not in plane to the horizontal surface except in wide shots or establishing shots.
  3. similarly, the soundtrack never feels remotely like that of the era, which I assume is part of point 1's "could be anytime" thing.  Still, the soundtrack is pretty solid!  But you're gonna hear the same refrains over three hours, and that's... a lot.

And it gets in the way of whatever points he's trying to make.

If the movie has a scene where I think everything just absolutely fails, that may be the epitome of the film, it's the final meeting of Jean Smart's gossip columnist and Brad Pitt, who is realizing he's on his way out, his career past faltering to wrapping up.  He's no longer Hollywood's A-List leading man, and he'll be in supporting roles to give clout to movies that aren't going to be good and need his stilted gravitas.  And then..?

Somehow I guess Pitt just enters Smart's house? (okay) And then confronts her about the front page article she's placed about how he's washed up.  

Smart has demonstrated for decades that she's truly one of the greats.  She's had a late-career renaissance that must drive her contemporaries insane, turning in amazing performances one after another.  Here, she's given what is supposed to be a profound speech about how they're just part of a continuum of people in their jobs and roles.  And how this will go on forever, but it's okay, because Pitt will be immortalized on celluloid.

Chazelle has an idea that this is matter-of-fact, shown in the most pedestrian way possible.  
The speech is widely open for debate.  It's shot like a scene in a TV hour-long drama while having absolutely nothing you haven't heard anywhere before, from Sunset Boulevard to name-your-movie-about-the-movie-industry.  And I can't figure out if he thought the idea was boring and hollow, or if he thought this was somehow profound and muffed it.  

Either way, it's a crucial moment for Pitt's character, and the movie does want to sell the idea that people want to be part of something bigger, and that's why they're in Hollywood.  So the notion that being part of something bigger also means the show goes on without you is quite the blow - nor does Smart's speech necessarily make that connection, that's up to us. 

I'm not sure Chazelle sticks the landing of the "and therefore..." bit of it as the film accelerates into the inevitable tragic conclusions for each character.  I want to know how many times Smart's character has given this speech.  I want to know if she's exhausted by it.  I want her to say who came before and who will come next.  I want it to feel like it matters and isn't an obligatory part of the film, a check-box in a film about Hollywood history where the audience knows what's coming for everyone, and we're working with that ironic tension.  

I hope this isn't just a "here's what I would have done" moment.  Smart is so good, she papers over the inadequacy of the scene, just as Pitt's character is a hired gun to paper over scenes in his mediocre films.  But, nonetheless, the scene ended, and I was like... so, that's it?  

And then braced myself for the wholly perfunctory ending.  

Look, the movie ends on a montage meant to say something about the continual change in motion pictures, and, as always, point back to the start in those silent pictures and say "wasn't this pure?  Look what we had!" but we all know that's some hand-wavy stuff.  Or maybe it's a warning to all of Hollywood that they're the dinosaurs even now.  Anyway, yeah, time and technology move on.

But landing those ideas is a complicated thing.  And wrapping them in the package of some boring characters and celebrating excess (and let's not pretend Hollywood ever really stopped.  I've seen The Oscars.) buries your thesis, making it's delivery the same bullet-point concept as you made everything else.

I opened by saying I don't know what Chazelle was trying to say or why he wanted to say it.  I can point to what I've pointed to about specific ideas, but very little of it is novel or a new take.  It feels processed through prior films touching on specific ideas on the same material, and pieces borrowed from here and there.  But if he has something illuminating to say about any of it that was his own thought rather than echoing back current film-buff consensus, I didn't find it.  And if he's borrowing from other films and reflecting back what I've been told, I'm hard-pressed to not just spend time drawing comparisons and asking questions.  In the end, I was waiting for some unifying argument or novel concept, and it just never arrived.  

Like I say, I actually liked many parts of the film.  I like that Chazelle swung for the fences.  I think everyone in the movie turned in sterling performances.  But in the end, this thing just got away from them.  And at 3 hours, I am not rewatching any time soon to see how wrong I was.

In some ways, this movie seems like it would have been a tremendous 10-episode thing on Prime.  All the things the movie can't make time for, building up characters into three-dimensional beings instead of outlines.  Giving the audience a chance to get invested and feel some sense of actual pathos when anything occurs instead of "oh, ok.  Check that off, I guess.".  But Chazelle is making movies, and that's television.  And if we're not going to change to meet the new format, we might just get steamrolled.

*for more on the path and history of the actual film reels of the silent era and what happened, I recommend viewing Dawson City: Frozen Time  

**here's a fun thought experiment:  what if Hollywood had embraced the Brooklyn accent?  Given that we all now sound weirdly region-free in the US - based more on accents from television and movies than our own parents, would we all be speaking with some version of Brooklynese?  

***ironically, the shot from JP used to illustrate this point was of a puppet dino


JAL said...

Calva at the rental house had me in hysterics. I saw the in the cinema at the height of when everyone decided this was going to be the worst movie of all time (and largely because it was viewed as a flop), so I'm sure that help me like this, which I did, and a lot.

I didn't expect there to be so much comedy. Nellie's first sound shoot, The Count's apartment littered with his headshots, impaled extra, and Maguire pitching movies. Not to mention casting Robbie against Weaving. All funny, and to me actually funny, not just absurdism passed off as comedy, though there's plenty of that in this, too.

That last hour can really keep up with the rocket ship that is the first two and for me is where it suffered.

Chazelle seems to be an easy punching bag, but I'll take a guy who really seems to be going for it each time. The guy clearly loves the movies. This feels a little like a guy who won't shut up. It doesn't all work, but it's nice to see someone with a platform and a budget not making a movie that feels intended to be big on Tumblr.

The League said...

I have no particular feelings on Chazelle. I liked La La Land when I saw it, but I can't remember much about it now. First Man was solid. But I also think it's best not to take the 20-somethings trying on their big-boy movie pants on social media too seriously (for the record, movies aren't really a thing on tumblr. I see 97% of my bad takes on Xitter. These days, tumblr is more for fanfic, gifs and unhealthy parasocial relationships with media).

I agree - some of the comedic bits were a hoot. I won't dissect each of your examples, but some of them worked better for me than others. But if I was to get specific about what works well in the first 90 minutes, certainly there's some great, loony gags.

I haven't checked the actual reviews to see what critics and audiences thought as I wanted to see the movie first. I was pretty sure I would see it no matter what and might have seen it in the theater if it had stuck for more than a couple of weeks. I mean, I have my opinions, but I think at this point, if there's this much pomp and circumstance to a film, I'd like to see the extra effort in the story and maybe a more novel point.

JAL said...

I just chose Tumblr to mean it really seems like people are making movies with the intent of them becoming gifs and screengrabs vs any real longevity. Not to say it makes them better, but I don’t see Chazelle making movies for the moment, and I appreciate that.

The League said...

ah. Yes, well, I don't disagree with you there.

They are not pop movies, for the most part, and that's a rare thing at this scale and at this budget. And he's certainly not worried about his movies as IP, franchises, etc...

But that's also the challenge here in a way. He's entering into a different level of conversation that invites greater engagement and far more moving parts when you start wondering if this works.