Much like its title, Babylon is about the ultra decadence, violent and no holds barred all swinging 20s, and its inevitably downfall. We follow four main plots interwoven through the period recollection that Chazelle wants to highlight as we see how different people get drawn to and inevitably destroyed by the system. This ain’t your daddy’s love letter to cinema, rather the opposite.
I’ve seen Babylon a few times in cinema, in case it’s not already clear, I love it, adore it even. Yet I’ve struggled to sit down and write something, perhaps due to feeling like I’m defending art itself. I said above that this was not a love letter but in some respects I was lying. I have seen many takes, calling Babylon just that but when viewing experience was one far different. There’s a reason a film about filmmaking and Hollywood is not gunning for Best Picture, hell, it wasn’t even nominated.
I believe that is due to what I meant by being the opposite to a love letter people are claiming this to be, it’s a cynical, cold and dirty view of Hollywood. Showing it off for warts and all. Including our characters and their plots, Chazelle seems to take a very objective look at the types of people at least then and perhaps now that get drawn to Hollywood, the classically handsome with arguable amounts of talent, the shooting stars that are destined for nothing but burning up as they enter orbit, down to the practical people with dreams of recognition and being a part of the industry they love. That’s key to the complexity at play here, Chazelle might be displaying Hollywood for all its downfalls but he is there equally for all its triumphs. Nowhere is this better seen than in Chazelles showcase of the creatives working in Hollywood during the silent era. He shows us the absolutely bombastic and absurd way in which these crews worked. It’s both hilarious, often larger than life right before Chazelle reminds us of what it is all for. A moment of sheer majesty, captured on film. Art.
This sentiment in no better captured than by Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt who is down right absolutely inspired casting if I have ever seen it. Filmstar and one of, if not thy first of his kind. He recognises the bombastic, working class, rough and ready way in which the movies are being made and recognises them as the altar of the regular Joe. A thing to gaze up at and “yell eureka, I am not alone”.
Which is the sentiment I believe is carried through the film, one of a movie for everyone, it’s not high brow and it’s not pandering. It never once assumes its audiences are too stupid or too intellectual, it plays and lets the chips fall where they may. No where is this better exemplified than by the closing montage, one that garners admiration for the sheer guts to include something so arthouse at the end of a 3 hour long blood pumping thrill right that barely lets up to let you ask ‘hang on was that dude eating a mouse’. Chazelle handles the pacing and tone with pure ease, like a director well beyond his years, going from large, grandiose choreographed set pieces brimming with excitement to intimate exchanges of subtle intricacies. The score works like it was born right on the screen as you are watching it, never does a beat fall out of place or a tonal motif feel forced, its one you’d be hard pressed to not be humming a few days later.
In the later part of the film the plot does slow a little too much around one section of the film and it could certainly be argued that the core romance that takes centre stage in the back half of the narrative doesn’t earn the audiences admiration. But I might equally argue that it may be the point, that Hollywood types often delude themselves to these wild romantic love stories because of the electric atmosphere of the world they inhabit. It’s a view the movie takes across the board, no one here is wholly good or bad, they’re unabashedly human.
Ultimately, Babylon is an absolutely riot – that claim gets thrown around perhaps too easily, I mean it here. It is an absolutely riot from start to finish. Displaying both the frivolity, shameful, insane world of old school Hollywood creatives – how that bled through to the majestic art they created and further how that was stifled, suffocated by aristocratic squares that took that majesty and put it in a box, for their own gain. Taking no moral stand point, it leaves the audience to decide whether the raging animal that was Hollywood needed to be put on a leash or if these types were simply using the people beneath them, while the system chewed them up and spat them out. Or maybe somewhere in-between all that. That is for you to decided, Chazelle makes no judgements for you, just about the only thing he clearly says is that film is beautiful, it can do and be so much. He even uses lots of meta camera shots, sound and lighting to tell us this in jokes as well as drama. In the end, we watch a montage of everything film was, is and could be and cannot help but be awed in the majesty. In that respect, this is a love letter to film but perhaps less of one to the system and the people that are drawn to it.