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Babylon: Damien Chazelle’s Love Letter to Cinema/Hate Letter to Hollywood | Sophie Harasha
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is widely regarded as his love letter to the art of cinema but a satirical mockery of Hollywood itself. At a whopping 3 hours and 10 minutes, the film highlights the transition from silent films to “talkies”, the movies we know now. Here are my thoughts on the movie with some minor (spoilers ahead!!!)
The film, set in 1926 Hollywood, follows Manny Tores, an assistant trying to climb his ranks up the entertainment industry’s ladder. At a party hosted by a major studio executive, he meets Nellie LaRoy, a self-proclaimed star and wanna-be actress. They share their love for film and art, as Manny explains he wants to be “a part of something bigger, something that lasts, something that means something. Something that’s more important than life.”
At the party, both Nellie and Manny get their opportunity. Manny starts working for big time movie star Jack Conrad. Nellie gets her first role in a silent film. They fall in love with the industry itself. Nellie makes it big, and eventually, so does Manny. He was one of the few directors in the industry capable of handling the massive transition from silent films to sound ones. Not everyone fared as well though. Many, including Nellie and Jack, struggled during this transition period from silents while others thrived. But soon after, things start to unravel and the idealistic image of glitzy Hollywood shatters.
Personally, I felt this movie was about a 7/10. I don’t think it deserves the harsh criticism Rotten Tomatoes (55%) is giving it, or the 2.6 star audience review. The performances of Brad Pitt (Jack Conrad) and Margot Robbie (Nellie LaRoy) were fantastic. In one scene in particular, Nellie has to cry on command multiple times on her first shoot. It leaves everyone on set, as well as in the audience, speechless. The director asked Nellie to cry on command and Nellie responded with “which eye?” That film skyrockets Nellie’s career, and proves what talent Robbie has. Pitt plays the drunken star Jack Conrad well, a man who struggles to adapt to the audio new way of filmmaking and falls from the highest success.
I could also tell this was a Damien Chazelle film through and through. After highlighting the 1950’s era of Hollywood in La La Land, he moves to highlight a different era of Hollywood. His familiar style shines through, shooting on 35mm film and with his iconic whip pans. There were similar themes, storylines, and shots of his latest works including La La Land, Whiplash, and First Man. Chazelle had some pretty satirical commentary of Hollywood as well. In an interview, Chazelle is quoted as saying “Hollywood is just this voracious machine that's going to chew you up, spit you out, no matter whether you're on top or on the bottom. It’s a kind of equalizer in that way. It's going to level everything in its path when it feels like it.” And this film definitely exposes the dark corners of Hollywood the glitzy glamor blinds.
But one of my main criticisms of the film is that it was too long. With 3 hours and 10 minutes, granted, it’s hard to keep the audience's attention for that long. And for about 2 and a half hours, I was thoroughly invested. However, there were some 15-20 minute scenes that were merely plot devices (Tobey Maquire’s entire character). And with such a hefty runtime, we were following so many different characters and their complex storylines. But because we were following so many, I felt that some of the characters were merely a foil character with no real substance. Or if the character was built up well, their storylines felt incomplete or hastily rushed in the final minutes. I would have loved to see a more rounded ending for both Fay and Sidney, two very interesting characters introduced in the beginning and confusingly thrown in later. And in my opinion, the character of Nellie’s dad could’ve been cut entirely as he was introduced in the middle and left in the middle. With so many smaller characters we’re supposed to watch and care for, the lack of substance and development for each character leaves me caring for none of them. Even some of the film’s main characters became unlikeable towards the end.
With so many storylines, characters, and overlapping storylines, the film felt messy. The pacing of the film was not consistent. The beginning, matching with the chaos and excitement of the industry, was fast paced with nauseating sweeping pans and eccentric music. Then, about an hour and a half later, the pace suddenly slows down as we start to follow more of these characters in depth. This jump is not only jarring to the audience, but makes the middle hour feel like an eternity. The end picks up the pace yet again, causing a rollercoaster for the audience to barely keep up with. Plus, in my opinion, half of the film felt spoon-fed and a little bit too obvious. It seemed like Chazelle didn’t trust the audience to understand his intended meaning.
However, to its core, this film is a celebration of cinema. As someone looking to pursue film, it was a welcomed examination of the craziness of the art of filmmaking. I luckily saw it with a few of my film friends and some of the scenes hit too close to home. There was one scene of a director praying for the sun to stay above the horizon to finish the scene, a little too reminiscent of a shoot day I had where we were racing against the sun to get the perfect lighting. There was one scene where Nellie did her first “talkie” movie ever, and the sound guy kept interrupting the filming to correct a minor audio issue. This reminded me of when I’m filming and it’s always a battle to shoot the scene between loud airplanes or AC units. Babylon also was somehow able to capture the feeling of getting “the shot” perfectly. Chazelle also highlights the essence of what makes film such a beautiful medium, seen through this monologue from Jack to his wife, a theater actresses: “My parents didn’t have the money or the education to go to the theater so they went to the vaudeville houses and then they went to the nickelodeon, and you know what? There’s beauty there. What happens on the screen means something -- maybe not for you up in your ivory tower, but down on the ground where real people live, it means something.” Chazelle points out that film is accessible to the masses, an expression of the human experience that can reach broad audiences. But the end is where Chazelle truly expresses his love for cinema. In the final montage, he pays tribute to early filmmakers that struggled and experimented to allow him to do what he does. He honors the trials and tribulations made by those who first shot on film and those who used sound first. Chazelle pays homage to the earlier films that trailblazed in their own ways to allow all filmmakers to do what they love. As I sat in the theater watching this powerful montage, I was reminded of all those artists who came before me and their unique mark on cinema itself.