— Author: Charley Brady —
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. And if you decide to go to Damien Chazelle’s three-hour-and-nine-minute epic Babylon, then you’ll understand that rather weak joke within the first few moments.
Babylon is the diametric opposite to and the flip side of the director’s enormously successful and sentimental hit film La La Land. There is nothing cozy and reassuring about this one; and little fear of anyone breaking into a few verses of ‘Another Day in the Sun’. Another day in Hell or Purgatory, perhaps, but the sun? No. I don’t think so .
Before the title credit has even appeared, we have been ‘treated’ to the most… ahem, elephantine defecation scene in movie history. And short of King Kong having a Skull Island bowel movement it is likely to remain so. We’ve also gazed in unbelieving wonder at a dwarf bouncing around on an enormous, spurting pogoing rubber penis; we’ve broken casually through the Fourth Wall; witnessed the sex act that left silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle with a dead body and no career; and a no-holds-barred, in-your-face orgy of the kind that was always rumored to take place in Old Hollywood. Because that’s where we are in this prologue: Bel-Air, 1926, to be precise. And here we are introduced to the four main characters who will be weaving their way through the next difficult transitional years that saw the death of the silent film and the birth of the talkies. And it’s no spoiler to say that we’ll be watching their rise and inevitable fall.
Diego Calva as the ambitious dreamer Manny is the thread that ties the others loosely together; Brad Pitt is the powerful and successful leading man, Jack Conrad; Margot Robbie is Nellie LeRoy, also ambitious but initially more focused; and secondary characters are Sidney Palmer, the talented jazz musician who is played by Jovan Adepo; and in a woefully underwritten role there is Li Jun Li as cabaret and title card writer Lady Fay Zhu. I found the exotic Lady Fay more interesting than the others put together and would love to have learned more of her backstory.
Look: I admire writer-director Chazelle for his uncompromising pursuit of a certain vision of Hollywood; and he probably speaks for many of us – certainly for me – when he indicates that he doesn’t have much time for the sleaziness that goes on there while being in love with the art form itself. It’s just that the problem for me is that his film much too often eminds the viewer of far, far better ones. And any film that does that – that pulls you out of its world – is failing.
Do any of you wonderful people out there in the dark remember Ken Russell’s flawed, magnificent Valentino (1977), with its majestic recreations of the Sheik’s silent movies? I traveled to Glasgow three times in the same week to be entranced by the actors who played the likes of Alla Nazimova, Rex Ingram, Natacha Rambova or June Mathis, and others - legendary shadows who even then were capturing my imagination. I simply can’t see another eighteen-year-old being seduced by Babylon in the way that I was by Valentino. Or other films that it recalls, such as Cinema Paradiso or most damningly Singin’ in the Rain in a 1952 coda that only reminds you of what a truly great film that was.
Away from the orgy and the later, nightmarish visit to an underground club that is straight out of Hieronymus Bosch, the less bombastic scenes work better. My favourite was an extended and increasingly hilarious sequence in which Nellie is trying to get used to working with sound. Then there’s the scene where Jack explains passionately to one of his many wives that he believes that Hollywood can produce High Art as well as any upmarket theatre. Or the wonderful monologue from Elinor St. John (a superb Jean Smart), the acerbic Hedda Hopper-type columnist who explains to him that his failing career isn’t down to any one particular factor, but is simply a sign that his long run of good luck has ended. But, she reassures him, in a hundred years’ time, when all of them are dead and gone, he will live on whenever one of his films is watched and that he’ll be spending time with angels and ghosts.
It reminded me of this: in 1997 I went along to see the film that everyone was talking about, James Cameron’s Titanic. And what had Cameron done but cast that great actress of yesteryear, Gloria Stuart, still beautiful and narrating the events of the film as the older Rose? It was a masterful stroke.
A short time later I was at a James Whale Retrospective and there was the lovely Ms. Stuart, once again in her twenties, playing in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). In the blink of a flickering light, over sixty years had been erased.
And right there is cinema magic, indeed.
I wish that Damien Chazelle had played more quiet scenes that remind us of that hilarating magic – but that’s me trying to impose my likes on something that it is his right to film as he sees fit.
There’s a line in Babylon where Nellie abruptly announces that she hates it when toppings are put on ice cream.
I know what she means.
Ice cream is delicious just as it is. Too many toppings can overwhelm it. And there is a lot of delicious icecream to be found in Chazelle’s film; it’s just a shame that he felt the need to smother it under so many toppings.
Babylon opened in Galway on 20th January.