When a movie opens with an elephant spewing diarrhea on the head of the main character, you have to wonder if the whole endeavor that follows isn’t purposely meant to be a massive load of crap.
Set in silent-era Hollywood at the dawn of talking pictures, Damian Chazelle’s new film, Babylon, keeps referencing Singing in the Rain, a 1952 musical with the same setting. Yet it has none of that film’s breezy charm. Instead, it follows the strategy of taking a Baz Luhrman movie, dropping it in a vat of acid, and having it emerge as the Joker.
Think of any shocking and disgusting thing a movie can show – deviant sex, drug abuse, wanton violence, scatology, body dysmorphia, torture of both humans and animals – and this one shows it all, in the most gratuitous way possible. Not a one of these incidents is used to advance the plot, they are only there to relentlessly underline the simplistic and ‘who cares?’ point that early Hollywood was debauched.
Being a gay, I normally love over-the-top stuff. I read Hollywood Babylon and had a VHS of Mondo Cane that I watched like 100 times. These are the two sources that inspire this film way more that Singing in the Rain. But that book was a quick snack of salacious gossip, like an episode of Watch What Happens Live!, and Mondo Cane had a documentary’s innocent wonder at weirdness. Babylon is a 3-hour narrative film that is – no matter its celebration of chaos – calculated and callous.
Diego Calva plays the main character, Manuel, a dumbfounded innocent ping-ponging through the madness. He’s given an impossible-to-embrace motivation – falling in cocaine-fueled love with a self-obsessed actress who has no interest in him – and thus we care nothing about whatever ridiculous stuff happens to him. That actress is Nellie LeRoy, played by Margot Robbie as an amalgam of the ‘immoral’ women that silent films loved to base plots on. Any opportunity to comment on Hollywood’s inability to view female actors – on screen or casting couch – as anything but opportunistic sluts or vengeful vamps is buried under the elephant dung.
Brad Pitt is here to try to compensate for the onslaught of such unlikeable characters, but the charms of his John Gilbert-ish silent film star wear out quickly, and he’s left a hollowed-out victim of the public’s fickle taste and ‘high’ art’s critical savagery.
As for the rest of the stunt-cast, who’d have thought the brilliant Jean Smart couldn’t handle a British accent? And who in their right mind would ever think Toby McGuire could believably play an opium-addicted mob boss? I guess the same guy who thought Ryan Gosling could dance like Fred Astaire.
Early on, Jean Smart’s gossip writer describes Nellie as a “maelstrom of bad taste and sheer magic”. Clearly, this is the take-away Chazelle wants from Babylon, the overarching comment he’s making about Hollywood movies. Dazzled as he’s always been by the details and the mechanics of movie-making – the sets and costumes here are extraordinary and the camerawork sometimes breath-taking – he can forget that the magic isn’t just what comes at us from the screen, but what happens inside us as we watch. That magic can’t happen if all we get are ugly people and abusive behavior for the sake of laughs and shock.
On that last note, Chazelle and the rest of you unchecked filmmakers, please consider the growing callousness toward animal abuse in movies. You assure us that “no actual animals were harmed in the making of this film”, but isn’t depicting casual animal abuse as a joke the same thing, because it reinforces perceptions that animals aren’t valuable beings? And when is a depiction of animal abuse actually necessary other than narratives meant to bring awareness to the problem? Creating a truly frightening villain, for instance, doesn’t require the spectacle of killing a puppy. It requires imagination, which is the real magic of movies.
Predicted Oscar nominations: 3
Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design
One thought on “BABYLON : Missing those early YouTube videos of Japanese girls eating their own poop?”
I love your brilliance and keen perspectives, FW. I knew I’d never watch this movie after seeing the trailer, and your review is all the delightful confirmation that I need:)
Bonus Q: Do you think Margot Robbie is falling into that K-Hole of Oscar ambition where everyone smells how bad she wants it so no one will give it to her? (A la young Nicole and Rene, Amy Adams, etc)