“A child born in 50 years will stumble across your image flickering on a screen and feel he knows you, like a friend, even though you breathed your last before he breathed his first. You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful. You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.”
-Jean Smart as Elinor St. John
Immortality via celluloid. A hellish and magical descent into the story of cinema, of the blood, sweat, and tears that grant one a hit of the intoxicating elixir that is the camera, a modern Fountain of Youth. Though history has given us writings, tombs, photographs, and music from bygone civilizations, the camera affords the chance to see its subjects move, be heard, and become alive once more. It can feel like a time machine, whisking the audience away to far off lands and otherworldly situations navigated and created by people that are long dead. This is their eternal life, reaching out from beyond the grave. It has an indelible power, one that speaks to audiences from all walks of life, arresting them in a state of belief that is bigger than any one of them and bigger than any of the talent behind or in front of the cameras. It may be a time capsule, but once unearthed and explored, it goes back into its place and life goes on.
For Damien Chazelle, Babylon continues his focus on artistry, its demands, and its impact on the artist and audience alike. It explores the magic of Hollywood, turning these often drunk, drugged out, and chaotic individuals into beings that speak to people born generations later. It shows that sausage being made alongside the impact it has, never turning its eye away from the debauchery and forbidden delights that mark the path of the silver screen heroes nor from their incredible legacy. For these stars, it is the spotlight that draws them in, a call to be a star. Yet, for all of them, they soon pass out of the spotlight and awaiting them off-stage is the darkness, the Devil waiting to collect his debts for the stardom paid, and the brutal reality that life off-camera is never quite as magical as the impact made on. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) are at the center of this reality with Babylon opening in 1926, one year before the arrival of sound. Jack is MGM’s biggest star, a man who helped build Hollywood with a movie star style. Jack is capable of spending the whole night drinking and partying before stumbling onto set, drinking more, and then delivering a moment that will stand the test of time. Nellie knows she was born to be a star and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the attention of Hollywood, before jumping onto a set with three hours sleep, grabbing them all by the scruff of the neck, and transporting them to a different world. For them, the spotlight is all they want. When it passes, either metaphorically for Jack or literally for Nellie, they are forever lost in reality, only to be found in the films they made.
Chazelle revels in their talent, the power that actors, directors, cinematographers, sound designers, and more can create to make movies real. Tracking shots follow not only that action, but track around the Kinoscope lot in 1926 with set upon set all shooting simultaneously. War pictures, dramas, comedies, and more, rubbing shoulders with one another, feeling like a true dream factory. Babylon, like Hollywood and its stars itself, lurches between these moments of sheer beauty and sheer chaos with sexuality, violence, and darkness that will challenge many viewers. Yet, for those willing to go along with its wild story of excess, indulgence, and nightmares, Babylon is a kinetic ride. It is what draws in men like Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who fall in love with cinema until they work in it and then, years later, fall in love again, in spite of all the sins they know that belie the on-screen beauty. It holds a power that is unlike life itself and unreal, messing with the mind like a drug. Celebrating cinema and its power, while simultaneously mourning both due to its destructive and harmful impact on those behind it, Babylon is cinema, both beautiful and ugly.
Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren combine for an experience that feels equal parts a trip to Heaven and a descent into hell. Its debauchery and scenes of chaos, all showcased with the camera floating across an orgy of naked bodies, dancing, drugs, and animals will soon be matched by the camera seeming to float and flip in the air as it cranes up, looking at a bewitched audience watching a film in theaters. Babylon is capable of so much, literally guiding the viewer into the depths of Los Angeles with James McKay (Tobey Maguire), a mob boss with Satan-like qualities leading Manny, via point-of-view at times, to a reclusive party site that feels akin to the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, before dropping us back into Hollywood with an elegant and refined party, marked by mournful faces amidst lush and beautiful scenery. Chazelle and Sandgren manage the clash incredibly well, finding comedy and poignancy in these moments and transitions, painting an elegant and perverse picture of the City of Angels. Sandgren’s lighting (especially in the party, the silhouettes of Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) and the dim lighting are otherworldly), camera movements, and transitions between old black-and-white shots with modern wide-screen flourishes makes for an incredible, transformative experience.
The cast of Babylon lives up to the same standard, capturing the chaotic energy and uneasy appeal that would make people like this a fabric of Hollywood society. Margot Robbie’s charisma and reckless abandon makes Nellie into a fascinating and tragic figure, a New Jersey woman thrust into Hollywood regality, who can transform on screen but not in real life. Chazelle deploys plenty of gross-out humor in the film with Robbie at the center of some of its biggest moments with this great actress committing to every nauseating spectacle with full vigor. Brad Pitt’s evolution throughout the film gives Jack a very sympathetic role in the film, moving from star playboy to a hasbeen who never realized the spotlight moved away from him. His increasing honesty about his own life and role in the world underscores the inner turmoil that Pitt does so well to capture. It just rests in his eyes, looking around a city he once held in the palm of his hand and knowing it is lost to him. Diego Calva is a standout in the cast, having this boyish exuberance early on that gets washed away through the scenes he endures. He mirrors the audience’s reactions from horror to tears of joy with full commitment and believability. Tobey Maguire’s devilish mobster, Jean Smart‘s wise gossip peddler, Eric Roberts‘ sleazy business manager and Nellie’s father, and Jovan Adepo‘s mistreated jazz musician, all standout as well, each bringing their own energy to the picture. It is a film of many sides, brought to life in the unique characters and situations that surround this journey. It can move one to tears as Smart delivers the quoted line to Jack Conrad, feel enraged as Adepo’s Sidney Palmer wrestles with whether to put coal on his skin for a shot, or make one laugh as Roberts’ drunk father tries to fight a snake. It is a wonderful journey made real through the fantastic performances by all.
With Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man, director Damien Chazelle showed audiences the work, personal pain, suffering, and loss that defined those who would create indelible moments. It is not all sunshine and roses, but a path littered with agony and tears, all to do something that one loves. Babylon takes this and places it on a larger scale, ambitiously trying to recreate the journey of cinema from the very first shot of a Black man on a horse to Avatar, setting itself amidst the greatest turning point in its history – the transition to sound – and pulling back the curtain to show the selling of souls amidst the hours put in at a factory of dreams. “You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts,” says Elinor St. John to Jack Conrad. He, and all stars like him, will but the immortality of the silver screen is only spiritual, not physical. It is an incredible power to create lasting images that will touch people not even born yet, but the Heaven on the screen is often backed by hell off. Babylon is excessive, glorious, and all together an incredible summation of cinema, creating a one-of-a-kind ride that whisks audiences away to an otherworldly place.
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