Long Way Down (One Last Thing)
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Damien Chazelle, U.S., Paramount
Art works about seismic change, cultural or industrial, tend toward sprawling canvases. Such aesthetic ambition implies that a panoramic view can better capture the historical processes that lead fictional characters to say things like “And it was never the same after that…” or, in the case of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, “It was the most magical place in the world, wasn’t it?”
This is uttered near the end of the film by Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a debonair silent movie star in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, to friend and colleague Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), modeled on Anna May Wong. At this point, Chazelle’s pedal-to-the-metal Hollywood chronicle has zagged toward elegy mode; this has come after nearly three hours of rhythmic, sensationalized pummeling, a narrative and aesthetic chosen to make the audience constantly feel and experience rather than intellectually engage. The sudden gloomy, reflective tone is more jarring than anything in the film’s endless cascade of whip-pans and track-ins. Following all the predictably staged debauchery, one might wonder what magic Conrad is talking about, and, more crucially, where the writer-director’s emotional interests have been staked.
Chazelle’s cyclopedic take on Hollywood of the late twenties and early thirties, depicted as a mythic town teetering on the edge of an abyss situated between silent and sound cinema, and between pre-Production Code permissiveness and censorious traditionalism, is so widely and grandiosely conceived that it risks devolving into cartoonishness at every turn—not the same thing as willful grotesquerie or purposeful dissonance, which one can safely assume were tonal goals. By wedding its large-scale aesthetic ambitions to a greatest-hits compendium of historical beats—tawdry mega-parties, the “wild, wild west” of silent filmmaking, the productive-destructive advent of sound cinema, the marginalization of non-white figures in the industry—Babylon amounts to a trudge through hoary movie-land clichés, compounded by its parallel determination to function as a kind of substitute gangland epic, with Tinseltown licentiousness standing in for mob violence. This story of historical change is less The Magnificent Ambersons or Singin’ in the Rain than Casino or Boogie Nights, to which Chazelle’s film owes clear debts. In this way, Babylon is evoking multiple eras of 20th-century filmmaking—the 1990s resurgence of the kind of lavish auteur filmmaking that dominates retrospective consideration of the 1970s; the 1950s, with its widening aspect ratios and exploded viewing methods as bulwarks against the rapid rise of television; and, of course, the transition to talkies of the late 1920s and early 1930s—by placing itself unapologetically within this mythic lineage.
For most of its running time, Babylon barrels past any possibility of wistful reverie, content to wallow in excess and sin, only to devolve in its final third into meditations on the power and beauty of the image—all the easier to end on a tear-wringing, Oscar-ready montage of cinematic wonders of a lost past. (In this way, it’s the opposite of Spielberg’s concurrent release The Fabelmans, which appeared as though it would take the form of a nostalgic encomium to the movies, yet is instead more invested in the meaning of image-making for those who look through a camera lens.) Yet even in its most perverse, Chazelle’s film barely touches the hem of Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976), a similarly braggadocian celebration of silent cinema that managed to capture the feeling of innovation and invention of the era. No easy task, to be sure, but the delight of Bogdanovich’s achievement—in a film that was both aesthetically off-trend and politically incorrect—was that it honored the craft and novelty of its artisans and technicians as much as it used pastiche to goof on its era’s alleged primitivism. Chazelle’s film errs on the side of the latter, stenciling a trio of principal players who function as archetypes and letting them loose in a fetid funhouse right out of the pages of Kenneth Anger.
In imitating Boogie Nights’ essentially conservative template—following the steady decline of an entertainment industry depicted as irrevocably sliding into libertinism—Babylon offers a singular combination of debauchery and sanctimony. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, made when he was only 27, also flirted with the potential for prudish moralizing, yet the essential love he was able to express for his surrogate family of emotionally stunted wayward souls obiviated the need for the speechifying that dots Chazelle’s tapestry of bad behavior. Here we have images of received, over-mythologized hedonism, embodied by types. Margot Robbie, in strenuous Sharon Stone mode, is coke-fueled wannabe starlet Nellie LaRoy, who becomes a minor silent-screen sensation able to cry on command but whose road to sound-era success is blocked by her off-screen sexual exploits, accruing gambling debts, and a “New Joisey” voice that one character says “sounds like a donkey.” Then there’s Pitt’s glamorous, alcoholic Jack, whose mustachioed irreverence and turpitude gradually give way to introspective musings about the changing nature of the business and bromides about the movies as vessels for meaningful art. Finally, the observer to all this is Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), an immigrant from Mexico whose savvy resilience and ability to maneuver his way through the hierarchy of the industry helps him ascend from delivery boy to movie-set-gopher to sound chief to producer, while always remaining Nellie’s devoted, hopeful love interest. At least in terms of their careers, none of these characters survive the industry shifts of the 1930s, and not all of them live until the end of the movie, due to either hubris or self-destruction.
Chazelle’s movie is constructed out of set pieces, with huge chunks of running time given over to either single-location blow-outs or sequences rapidly cut together to Justin Hurwitz’s pulverizing “Hadestown goes West” cabaret score. The first of these is the stage-setter, a half-hour pre-title bash at the home of producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin, presumedly cast for his unsettling resemblance to Harvey Weinstein) that establishes the film’s tone of hyped-up degeneracy, depicted with a touch of the millennial party-time anachronism that Baz Luhrmann has normalized. In Chazelle’s film, the ahistorical bits are relegated to possibly unintentional one-offs, like Margot Robbie’s dancing style (rubbing and gyrating all over Calva in a near mosh pit) or lines like “Un-fucking-believable!” Otherwise, the film means to situate the viewer in a timeless, Satyricon-esque underworld of overindulgence, typified by glimpses of a corpulent Fatty Arbuckle–type getting golden showered upon; mountains of coke being snorted off naked women; a little person humping a pogo-stick penis; a blink-and-miss-it shot of a champagne bottle being shoved up a man’s bare ass with a cartoonish plop; and a real, live elephant, delivered by Manny as a party favor for Wallach, parading through the living room while the drugged-up partygoers run in fear and amusement. In case one feels they haven’t been properly ushered into this world, this elephant had in the previous scene announced the film’s scatological aims with a true calling-card image: its anus in gigantic close-up unloosening its bowels.
Even more than its urine and excrement, Babylon’s most consistent motif is a crane shot gliding across a room from a dazzling height toward a live jazz orchestra and right up to the horn of a trumpet as it’s being blown. I counted at least six variations on this shot—evoking the cinematic thrill, both visual and sonic, of jazz nightclub performances, a convention of American cinema from early sound jazz shorts like Black and Tan (1929) and A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935) to Mo’ Better Blues (1990) to The Aviator (2004)—and as they pile up, they seem to gain a certain narrative purpose. At one point, trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) tells Manny, assisting on the filming of a corny musical sequence set to Tin Pan Alley hit “Singin’ in the Rain,” “I think you’ve got these cameras pointing in the wrong direction.” Lit up at the thought, Manny brings the idea for a short—in which the jazz musicians are the center of the film—eventually titled Harlem Trot, to MGM (this, in turn, leads to Manny being hired as sound chief for the studio Kinoscope, where he’ll partly oversee the rise of Spanish-language pictures). Up until this point, Sidney has been at the margins of Babylon, shown mostly in those soaring musical cutaways. Hours into the film, he becomes a featured player, which makes sense as its own baked-in structural metaphor (as a Black artist, he’s been largely invisible before the camera begins pointing in the right direction). Yet in a subsequent scene, when the character is forced to darken his skin for the camera with burnt cork (and the music, in a rare instance, stops), the film's interest in Palmer begins to feel disingenuous, as though he's little more than a vessel for humiliation and suffering.
This brand of well-meaning tokenism—which falls into the same traps of representation it intends to critique—extends to the film’s deployment of Lady Fay Zhu. During her first appearance, in a performance at Wallach’s bash that pays direct homage to Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo drag in Sternberg’s Morocco, Lady Fay sings the 1931 cabaret ditty “My Girl’s Pussy” and, like Dietrich’s nightclub singer Amy Jolly, plants a full-lipped kiss on a blushing woman in the audience. Lady Fay will pop up at brief moments throughout the film, enough to alight on certain realities of her place in the industry (her family works at a laundry, she sends checks home to family in China, she helps write intertitles), but her minimal screen time is usually reserved for sensational side notes like sucking venom from Nellie’s neck after a rattlesnake bite. While one can see how the compelling Li Jun Li may have been able to wrest shades from this character, she’s treated as the focal point for so much “othering” (as both the only Asian-American and queer character) that the burden of the film’s exoticization is too strong to overcome. There’s a similar nobility bordering on vacuity in the way the film handles the character of Manny, who’s intended as the audience surrogate bearing witness to the film’s escalating hysteria. Often he’s relied upon for reaction shots, either stunned or sympathetic, to the madcap (and in the eyes of the film, way more fun) lives of its prominent white stars. This is never more ridiculous than in a slapstick scene where Nellie, at a hoity-toity party where she’s meant to show off her new, ladylike demeanor and voice, ends up swearing, spitting, and projectile vomiting all over the stuffed shirts; a cut back to a stoic Calva with tears glistening in his eyes provides tonal whiplash. (There’s also a cutaway in this sequence in which an elderly wealthy white woman asks Palmer, “What do you think of the new race films?”—an implausible clunker that might have been airlifted out of Ryan Murphy’s execrable series Hollywood.)
These aren’t minor quibbles; they’re flaws that reveal the project’s precarious structural integrity. Chazelle’s film intentionally both critiques and extols Hollywood, which is a fair and apt approach for any of us harboring an intense love-hate relationship with an industry that has provided so much fuel for our dreams and our nightmares, our aspirations and disappointments, and whose past is one of both painful cultural exclusion and endless aesthetic pleasure. But its apparent aim to be both love letter and poison pen ends up blunting its edges, from the preposterous speechifying by Jean Smart’s gossip columnist to Jack about his screen immortality (“You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts!”) to its howler of a conclusion, which has Manny seated in a theater in 1952, weeping as he watches Singin’ in the Rain dance across a movie theater screen (gosh darn, it was the most magical place in the world, wasn’t it?) before the film glides into its final reverie about what's been lost, taking us from Buñuel to Cameron, with some faux Brakhage and Paul Sharits thrown in for good measure—not to mention images from his own movie we just watched. (Imagine if this montage had ended instead on the close-up of the elephant’s anus shitting all over the screen again—now that would be a joke worthy of Kenneth Anger.)
Unfathomably, this coda isn’t the film’s nadir, that honor belonging to an extended suspense climax cribbed from Boogie Nights. Manny and a loser associate try to erase Nellie’s copious gambling debts by visiting movie-obsessed, local mob boss McKay (Tobey Maguire in rotten teeth and ghoul makeup) with a suitcase full of cash. The true heart of Hollywood’s darkness, McKay entertains them with ether-spiked brandy and movie pitches about “retards” and “midgets” before conducting them into an S&M dungeon (“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles!”) where the featured players include rat-eating musclemen and angry, chained-up alligators. A little of Maguire’s impish grotesquerie goes a long way, but his overdone monster-baby makeup does at least finally reveal the essential infantile nature of Babylon. It wants to be impressively graphic and deranged, but this is kids’ stuff. Lovers of the musical who watched Chazelle’s La La Land and were, like this writer, put off by all the sweat-stained effort expended on a genre that should be about the illusion of effortlessness, might have a similar feeling while experiencing Babylon.
There’s an earlier sequence in which Manny has been dispatched to the 1927 New York premiere of The Jazz Singer. As the audience applauds, smiles, and gasps to the spectacle of synchronized sound, Calva rises and staggers to the middle of the aisle, looking back at the screen with wide eyes. The camera cranes and tracks him as he runs out of the theater to a phone booth so he can call out west and proclaim, “Everything’s about to change!” Momentarily forgiving the goofily outsized dramatic gesture of it all, I couldn’t help but think about all those moviegoers. Based on Babylon, this would appear to be Chazelle’s ideal audience, stunned into submission, maws agape, eyes bulging. Open wide, here it comes.