Babylon

Yehudit Mam
5 min readJan 24, 2023

An excess of excess

What is it with directors lately that are going for gross exaggeration? Has the pandemic unleashed a wave of cinematic revolt that is revolting in itself? I am thinking of movies like The Triangle of Sadness, and to a lesser extent Bardo, literally awash with human effluvia and gross out imagery.

I fail to see how projectile vomiting and epic shitting are nothing but the crudest metaphors. I am not squeamish, but that stuff really turns me off, not because it is disgusting, but because it is puerile. It was the only thing I did not appreciate about Bridesmaids, otherwise an inspired and hilarious comedy. And it seems to be the province of male directors, regressing to their toddler years, but with props.

This is one spoiler alert you may be grateful for: In Damien Chazelle’s overwrought Babylon, the first sequence involves an elephant that shits profusely on a human being. That’s when I knew we were in for a disaster of a movie. The image of a truck dragging an elephant up a hill is a fitting metaphor for a tale about making movies, a massive undertaking. Is it also like being shat on by an elephant? What does this bit add that is of any value except crude shock?

Babylon, a very confused movie about Hollywood, is an ambitious and failed effort to belong to the genre of movies about the topic, all of which are more dignified and worthy. Some are masterful: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Robert Altman’s The Player, The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

Babylon is a mess: on the one hand it’s a treacly, inane paean to the power of movies. Except it doesn’t really explore WHY movies exert such power over us. Its best guess is that they are there for our escape, which is the least interesting reason. Here are the Cliff Notes, then: movies are powerful because they come from and tap into the human unconscious, because they are a sensory shorthand on the stories that move us, because they are the modern era’s answer to mythology. We may think we go to the movies to escape, but we go to connect. On the other hand, Babylon means to be a broad satire with a gigantic chip on its shoulder about the legendarily terrible movie business and some of its awful people. But it does not have the wit to be a satire, and it feels put upon, like a personal complaint.

It’s an immature film full of grandiose ideas buried under the weight of excess; literal, obvious, and longer than three hours. Its grand thesis is that movies are magical but the industry that makes them is rotten to the core. Not a new concept, albeit a fascinating one. See the films referenced above for elegant, smart and meaningful examples that deal with this paradox.

The music by Justin Hurwitz is appalling: obnoxious, basic, repetitive, and annoying. I know that there are people with good ears who know what I am talking about. As in La La Land, leit motifs are repeated ad nauseam with diminishing returns from the first bar. By the eightieth time you hear those same three saccharine notes, you want to tear your hair out. I concede that the trumpet playing is great and the orchestrations robust, but the music is mediocre. Hurwitz has the nerve to attempt a faux Ravel’s Bolero, as if anyone, let alone him, can possibly improve on the original. To make things worse, and here is your second spoiler alert, it is used bombastically to punctuate a scene where the character played by Margot Robbie projectile vomits on William Randolph Hearst.

Citizen Kane this is not.

The anachronistic costume design (by the otherwise fabulous Mary Zophres) and the ersatz style of music are meant to signal that the moral iniquity and racism of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties continue to this day. The great Margot Robbie is saddled with a mane of hair that did not exist in the Twenties except in inmates of lunatic asylums. This stylistic signaling could have been better achieved with something called subtlety, which is not in Chazelle’s tool kit. One can portray excess without wallowing in it. Fellini is a master in this respect. So is Stanley Kubrick.

The most frustrating aspect of this film is that buried within its orgiastic mess are topics worth exploring, like the racism of the early movie industry. The movie follows the fates of several characters of color, a lineup of tokenism that clashes with its intentions to honor the people that were always being insulted in Hollywood. The protagonist of the movie is Manuel Torres, a young Mexican gofer (Diego Calva) who dreams of working in the movies and is ready to do anything it takes. Calva is not a compelling enough actor to carry the film, and I am being charitable. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), is inspired on the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong, and she also happens to be a lesbian so we can hit all the intersectional points, and Sidney Palmer is a Black trumpet player (Jovan Adepo) who becomes famous in Black movies and who is asked to do a most humiliating thing. The theme of Hollywood’s appalling racism towards performers of color is well worth exploring in a movie, but in Babylon it falls flat, like politically correct virtue signaling. Instead of the lesbian plot point, it would have been more interesting to learn about Ana May Wong, who was rejected to play the Chinese protagonist in The Good Earth in favor of a white actress wearing yellowface.

In this Hollywood, there are white actors too. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, giving her all), is a vulgar Jersey starlet wannabe and Jack Conrad is an aging movie star played with panache by Brad Pitt. They are both very watchable, and probably the reason that one sticks around. Jean Smart, playing a gossip columnist, is the best thing in the movie, as is Eric Roberts for five seconds as Nellie’s sleazy dad. P. J. Byrne has a great scene as an assistant director that loses his shit in a sound stage. The actors swim ferociously against a heavy handed, witless script and hackwork from Chazelle who seems to have unlearned how to stage a visually coherent sequence.

The movie is entertaining for a while as it shows how silent films used to be made (outdoors, one set next to the other, an unholy racket), and the switch to sound and its clunky early technology, but for all its professed love of movies it fails to capture the magic. It shows the grit, and the ingenuity, and the hard work but it can’t keep from shooting itself in the foot, as when someone at a restroom asks innocently why would anyone want sound in movies, and we hear an explosion of diarrhea coming from a stall, a bad punchline to a good line of dialog.

After much tragedy and schmaltz, Chazelle ends the film with an embarrassing montage of famous movies, edited so fast and sloppily you can barely recognize them. It’s like one of those montages at the Oscars but worse, because those montages are what saves the Oscars from their own bloat, but here it’s too little too late and a lazy cop out as the ending of this grandiose, vulgar film.

--

--

Yehudit Mam

Author of Serves You Right, a novel in NFT. Cocreator of dada.nyc. A Jewish Aztec Princess with a passion for film, food, and human foibles. yehuditmam.net