Body Double: BABYLON, or NOT ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD MOVIE
On how “Babylon” is great because it understands the experience of someone who grew up watching movies about people who party and do drugs but only recently actually started going to parties and doing drugs
As I have told my friends when defending it, my theory about Babylon, the epic cinematic blaspheming of Hollywood history and the industry’s transition from silent to sound pictures, is that it was made by someone who only recently started doing drugs. (Trying to explain the movie to my friends by just saying “Damien Chazelle has straggot energy” over and over was not sufficing.) It’s an unholy shit-smearing of Singin’ in the Rain and travesty of Cinema Paradiso, sure, and an ambivalent ode/eulogy to the notion that artistic innovation will inevitably be crushed by industrialization. But it is mostly a movie made by a scamp, who conceives bacchanalia as finely choreographed recklessness and whose deep imposter syndrome pervades each outré provocation. I like to think of Babylon as painting with the goofiness of a John Waters or Adam KcKay upon Kenneth Anger’s easel.
It’s a garden-variety parody made by a Jenna Maroney type: crazed but practiced, unhinged but sincere, sardonic but authentic; it can’t help but show off and can’t help but beg for approval. It’s like that scene in 30 Rock where Jenna’s self-evaluations are discovered and a smash cut shows her slobbering through vicious lacerations like “I want to be famous to make people love me.” There’s truth to it, and also a hint of “If I’m going to be the worst person I know, I have to be the best at it.” So Chazelle puts apocryphal lore about legends like Fatty Arbuckle, Joan Crawford, John Gilbert, and others through the wringer, all in a display of virtuosity so precocious as to be endearing. Send the audience through an orgy scored by wailing trumpets and screaming saxes, the camera soaring and revealing just enough tactility to make the audience go, “Wow”? That’s theater kid energy right there. And I love that.
Theater kid energy is the thing that undoubtedly alienated audiences from La La Land: a needy three-legged dog compensating overtime. It’s all sparkle and shine, primary colors ripped from your favorites and smiling ear to ear so you know where the reference comes from. I didn’t care for the film back when it came out in 2016, but I returned to it after being, ahem, Babylon-pilled. Time has been kind to the ones who dream: underneath that sun-drenched grin is the sweat, the need for validation, and an authentic fear of failure. That’s not to excuse that movie’s flaws, but perhaps I’ve been at this whole writing thing long enough to recognize the effort, the small but acute pain that’s felt and that you have to train yourself to become numb to in order to succeed in this world. La La Land is a mournful lullaby, Babylon is a washed out wakeup call.
So, in the thrall of pulsating chants of “Voodoo Mama” and Margot Robbie flailing her arms through her peekaboo red scarf outfit, this feeling is electric and the scene is exciting, Earth-quaking … and also, let’s admit it, extremely mannered. Oners and tracking shots are beautiful in a self-conscious way. All the party guests are raucous like they’re at Denny’s on coke after a high school musical. It’s ironic that a man who loves jazz so much has so little room for spontaneity and improvisation (one of the great paradoxes of Whiplash, a film I like). And yet something happens there. Something uncontrollable. Perhaps it’s because of Diego Calva and Robbie’s star power and in spite of Chazelle’s eager-to-please impulses, or vice-versa, or because the two find harmony in one another, but the party scenes feel like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. It’s not because of some cliched “You’ve never seen this before” bastardization of Tinseltown, but perhaps because we have seen it — or I have. In The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhouse lustrously capture the decadence of the Gilded Age, as well as its flesh-scraping attitudes. He whirs and waltzes through ballrooms and across tables and into gazes that pierce through the lace that wraps around waists like a corset. In a similar way, Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren convey the feeling not of being at a great party, but of watching one, and the struggle to internalize that euphoria for oneself. Sandgren hovers and trembles with anticipation. When Robbie or Calva are on screen, they’re about to combust with emotion, with power, with galaxy crunching immortality. The parties of Babylon are studied, even in their wildness, calculated attempts to shock. But to me, that is electrifying all the same. Because something breaks through.
This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not intended as one. It’s actually this unusual sense of remove that makes the film great. Combined with the fixation on doubles and facsimiles, this distance reveals to me the movie’s preoccupations: not an unironic poison-penned love letter to cinema, but rather a cherubic raspberry at movies about movies, cinema’s ego, and the uncanny simulacrum of sublimating a feeling into a work of creativity. From the much-ballyhooed rain of elephant excrement to the projectile vomit aimed at William Randolf Hearst, it looks like everyone’s having too good a time to take it all that seriously. (Is that why many lovers of Old Hollywood hate the film?) Rather than an earnest attempt to reveal that early Hollywood was “more wild than you could imagine,” almost every setpiece feels closer to Blazing Saddles — or, for the sake of vulgarity, Not Another Teen Movie. Things like Nellie sitting astride the shoulders of hot footballers screaming “Party time, sparkle cocks!” or the director of her first sound film going ballistic over new technical difficulties are cut to take the air out of Hollywood’s self-regard, Drunk History-style. For nearly every clunky, self-important monologue about the importance of the movies, for every gaze into the sunset marveling at the beauty of the art, there’s a dead body or vulgarity to undercut the moment. Remember The Artist? Or The Shape of Water? Or Hail, Caesar!?
If anything, Babylon is knowingly skeptical about Hollywood’s tendency to mythologize its own process of mythologizing. It rolls its eyes and sticks its tongue out at The Movies’ desire to play fast and loose with their own history and sell it as an Edenic escape for audiences, as “Truth,” when the reality is puffier and more callow. It features scenes that have to be there for it to be about Hollywood and a movie about movies, but it deflates the easiest sentimentality with bitter laughter.
The attempt to channel the ecstasy meta-reflexive joy of a good party scene, trying to conjure what other people feel when they’re flying high and off the rails, is odd but nonetheless satisfying. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from Tarantino, whose idea of the world is so insularly shaped by movies that it would shock me to learn he reads the news. But I’ve watched the movies Chazelle has probably watched and was inspired by. Dazed and Confused and Spring Breakers and The Last Days of Disco. And I always hoped to be able to have that much fun. It wasn’t until I recently started doing edibles and going out and getting the stick out of my ass that I learned how to. And I learned how to feel in my own body, blinded by the flashing lights, smothered by the sound of music, trying to catch my breath while sweat lingers in the air. And now I know what ecstasy tastes like (bitter, lighter than a cloud), and I’m torn between that mediated cinematic dream of a good time and the one that pulsates through my body on the dancefloor. I’ll close my eyes, colors buzzing in the darkness behind my lids, and imagine I’m in a movie. So I feel for Damien.
While parody curdles to ruthless yet ambivalent satire, with the story conceding that beauty will be stomped upon by exploitation in spite of evolution, Chazelle’s try-hard-ness offers authentic amazement. The amazement is not at the magic of the movies, per se, but at having to choose between experiencing unbridled bliss — whether directly or through art — and the sacrifices one makes to feel like a god, if only for a moment.