Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2022 2:46 pm 
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A film of self-consuming excess

It's the guiding principle of Babylon (a name associated with Kenneth Anger's notorious banned book about Hollywood scandals) that the late-silent, early-talkie era of circa 1926-1932 Hollywood was one of "unbridled decadence and depravity." Damien Chazelle, the celebrated, highly ambitious and still young (37) director (La La Land, First Man, Whiplash) proceeds without restraint, giving himself free rein for extravaganzas and spectaculars. Babylon is intentionally vulgar, offensive, and excessive when it is not being maudlin. Bombast and tragedy make an indigestible mix and sadly allow no space for sophisticated wit or humor despite it's being described by young YouTube reviewers as a "maximalist, zany comedy." Chazelle's assumption that his reported 15 years of research and work have resulted in a new and insightful picture of twenties and thirties Hollywood is illusory. What he does achieve is an explosion of excess and bad taste that sets some kind of record for a mainstream picture and whose energy keeps you focused and pissed off to the end.

Chazelle begins with his two biggest displays: a scene of three outdoor movie shoots going on at the same time, including a big Roman era film production with a crowd of starved looking extras who begin a revolt; and a huge, druggy, debauched indoor party full of music, dancing, and sex. Each is memorable in its way, the outdoor one, because more varied and original, more so. The party sequence is mostly a mess, almost consuming itself. These two occur after a prelude before the opening credits in which an elephant shits on someone's head. In them the movie shoots its wad: once again one is reminded that it's better to start slow, so you have something to build up to. The movie has its clichéd structure of career rises and falls, and the punctuation, also clichéd, of a male ingenue as audience surrogate perpetually awed by the wonder of it all. Chazelle can never do anything more impressive than those two opening sequences, except to ramp up the vulgarity. His depiction of the laborious conversion to talking pictures grinds the strain into us with tedious, extreme repetition. Does Chazelle think we are idiots? More is ultimately less, and less and less and less.

As in all period movies the cars are the real thing if a little too polished and perfect for real life. But what is hideously and distractingly wrong throughout is the dialogue, and in the most blatant way possible. People didn't swear like this in the twenties. (They didn't even talk like this in the fifties.) Oh, in private and low circles they did, of course, but the constant, unbroken flow of F-words and other obscenities even among women and young people and in supposedly "polite" gatherings is an unfortunate development of recent decades. A tin ear for period language mars many American films about past eras, never more blatantly than in Babylon..Thus every scene, every moment, virtually every line of dialogue is offensive and inappropriate and you can never lose yourself in a sense of period if you're listening.

At the big party sequence we meet the two main characters, ingenues of a sort, a wild, ambitious young actress called Nellie LaRoy (Australian actress Margot Robbie) and a movie-loving Mexican nobody, Manuel, later "Manny" Torres (effortlessly appealing newcomer Diego Calva). A famous silent film star also appears, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). Jack takes a liking to Manny and at six a.m. when the party ends brings him home to be a dogsbody. The fall and rise and fall of these three characters runs through a movie that is mainly just a series of thinly stitched-together set pieces.

There are other characters, a disenchanted black jazz trumpet player, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who experiences a crushing humiliation in a shoot when he is forced to apply burnt cork to his face because he's not dark enough to blend with the other musicians, and in disgust quits a good studio job. There is the too-little-developed character of cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). There's a brutal gossip columnist, Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) who defines for him Jack Conrad's decline and reassures him that though he's living, dead, on film he'll live forever. This isn't a feast of celebrities by any means but there are some additional familiar faces like Lukas Haas, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Jeff Garlin, even Flea, who pop in and out. Tobey Maguire, who is a producer of the film, gets to usher in a particularly repulsive sequence.

Brad Pitt's Jack Conrad invites comparison with his role in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as the stuntman Cliff Booth, best pal and stunt double to Leo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton: a reminder of how a nostalgic film about Hollywood can be done with class, its characters transcending cliché. Not here: Jack Conrad is a façade; he is papier maché, all wrinkles, tan, and mustache, even if Pitt is too good not to shape a few moments of suave ruefulness out of this prominent but thin role.

As Manny, Diego Calva is at least a soft and appealing character who gets to go through real changes, rising from being humble but ubiquitous at Jack's studio to a peak moment of being himself a producer and director of films. He is a man hopelessly in love with the excessive and doomed Nellie LaRoy, who gets into trouble with gangsters and retreats to Mexico, reemerging nostalgically twenty years later to revisit his old Kinoscope studios and step away from his little family long enough to go to a movie theater and watch and weep at Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.. This is one of Chazelle's best moments and a really touching one: it evokes the feeling of an early fifties technicolor movie, perhaps something he understands better.

Marot Robbie's Nellie LaRoy is the epitome of Chazelle's vulgarity, with one scene of excess after another, embarrassing herself and the viewer with what each time sadly veers over beyond voluptuous exhibitionism into coarseness. (I prefer the projectile vomiting in Triangle of Sadness.) At first Nellie seems some kind of vital force, with inexhaustible energy in doing take after take at a silent film shoot, then struggling through multiple early talking film takes, but eventually she's more and more redefined as the clichéd girl from New Jersey with bad pronunciation, bad grammar, bad voice: one of these would have sufficed. Interestingly, Jack Conrad in his unsuccessful move to talkies just isn't "it" any more: his voice is fine. Of course it should be pointed out that since Babylon is a succession of over-the-top set pieces, scant attention can be paid to these characters and their trajectories.

If only Chazelle had had an interesting, classic tale as his basis, like Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust - whose apocalyptic finale would have appealed to him - and had exercised some restraint, he might have made a good movie. Instead he has made what feels like an impressive, indescribably overambitious, hopefully one-of-a-kind disaster. It isn't really that, of course; it has redeeming features. As Tallerico wrote, Babylon has "a great score, a talented ensemble, and expert cinematography." Chazelle vitiates those elements with narrative hollowness and obviousness, but the vulgarity contains energy and love of movies.

Babylon, 188 mins., opens wide in the US on Dec. 23, 2022. It is receiving many awards nominations, especially for best actor and actress and best score. Screened for this review at Albany Twin, Albany, California Dec. 22. Metacritic rating: 61%. See the review in Le Monde.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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