Had all items to appear multiple times in the Oscars 2023 nominees list: a luxury cast, a narration around the history of cinema, a powerful staging and a lot of spectacle. Nevertheless, ‘Babylon’, by Damien Chazelle, released in Spain at the height of the awards season, has become the most notable absence among the Academy nominations. Apart from its divisive condition (of which Chazelle has taken heart: “It is good that something spurs the conversation, the debate and that there are many opinions on each side”, recently told Insider), the film banishes the notion, assumed by many after ‘La La Land’ (2016), of its director as a diligent and inoffensive Hollywood pretty boy who seeks to please his elders: quite the contrary, ‘Babylon’ is a cynical, provocative and, for any industry member who might feel challenged, a bit uncomfortable.
In the manner of the stories about lawless cities of the Wild West in which brutality spreads until capitalism arrives, it establishes its institutions and everything becomes even more (efficiently) cruel, ‘Babylon’ tells the hard transition in the jump from silent to talkies and the profound changes that the medium underwent on all fronts. From the freedom, the chaos and the passion of the filming of the first age of cinema, according to Chazelle’s particular chronicle, he goes on to a much tougher system, not only because of its technical complexities, but also because of its growth as a lucrative mass phenomenon, which generates a much more hostile ecosystem for stars. Accustomed to a life of excess, actors and actresses suddenly find themselves scrutinized by public opinion. —in an atmosphere that may be reminiscent of the alleged persecution that some of those affected by #MeToo currently say they feel— and the new demands from the public and producers leave mountains of broken toys along the way.
At the same time, all the unpunished evil (violence against animals, abuse of women, racism, humiliation and dehumanization towards those below) that was displayed at parties and events with the best of film society disappears… to be reproduced in secret, in the dark, in a more lurid way and by more powerful and sadistic people. ‘Babylon’, in short, looks to the past to stop and observe the serpent’s egg of an industry plagued in recent years by all kinds of scandals, but which in the film are described as inherent to the system. An evening critical of his hypocrisy, perhaps difficult to digest for the same academics who were moved by the homage to the silent cinema of ‘The Artist’, Best film at the 2012 Oscars.
The reward for hard work
Partly Inspired by the famous and sensationalist gossip book ‘Hollywood Babylon’ (1959), by Kenneth Anger, ‘Babylon’ connects in a way as peculiar as it is disconcerting to the filmography of a filmmaker frequently accused of being a neoliberal propagandist, for the alleged odes to the culture of effort that part of the public saw in ‘Whiplash’ (2014), ‘La La Land (The City of Stars)’ and ‘First Man (The First Man)’ (2018).
In her new movie, Chazelle at least makes it clear that what interests him is talking about transcendence. The story does not specifically capture the tenacity, commitment and desire for improvement of any specific worker in the industry, but, in a final scene that breaks with the disbelief that has accompanied the tone in the previous three hours, it does pay attention to the result of all the mess it portrays. Related in that sense to the other great despised of the year by the Academy, ‘Nope’, by Jordan Peele, a fight for the black legacy in Hollywoodanyone would say that the conclusion of ‘Babylon’ is that the cinema is a terrifying arcane deity that requires human sacrifices.
Although there is a main character (the young aspirant to gain a foothold in the industry played by the Mexican Diego Calva), Damien Chazelle distances himself from the individualistic narratives of his other films in favor of a collective vision. His perspective is difficult to classify: the poor working conditions of the crews on the shoots he illustrates serve, strangely, as an excuse for creating gags. But this rhetoric close to farce also avoids the romanticization of all the misery that the spectator attends. When the bounty occurs, it is too late for the winners to enjoy it, either because they are banished, ostracized, or dead. In the abstract, however, they have their plot of eternity.
Without a necessarily overcoming discourse, ‘Babylon’ is not very different in its postulates to Chazelle’s predecessor titles, where the protagonists achieved greatness after paying a heavy price. The mental possession of a young drummer by a psychopathic teacher in ‘Whiplash’, the romantic resignation in favor of professional success in ‘La La Land’ or the total isolation of astronaut Neil Armstrong imagined in ‘First Man’ They were, in all cases, clearly tragic stories, where identification with the characters invited us to question to what extent the processes they were going through were worth it.
In an interesting twist, It is difficult to determine if there is any character who triumphs at the end of ‘Babylon’ despite its optimistic, celebratory and cathartic epilogue. For example, the small recording of Diego Calva and Margot Robbie that takes place in the third act is a consolation prize that the first gets for posterity, but also something false and meaningless outside the cinematic framework; that is, in the perhaps inconsequential but quite tangible reality.
The one who moves does not appear in the photo
In the trial ‘Art in the Age of Masculinist Hollywood’ (‘Art in the Age of Masculinist Hollywood’), from 2017, journalist Morgan Leigh Davis questioned Damien Chazelle’s approach to his wannabe stories. Focused on her trilogy about musicians, started with the lesser-known ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’ (2009) —director’s debut—, Davis was interested in how, even in a boy-girl story like ‘La La Land’, Chazelle seemed to be “attached to scenes in which men teach women to play musical instruments, explain music to them, or play music for them”.
With music performed by Ryan Gosling’s character, in the climax of ‘La La Land’ the success of the male part materialized, both visually (since it was set in his club) and sonically. The success of Emma Stone’s character, on the other hand, had more to do with the personal and family: it is known that she has succeeded as an actress in Hollywood, but what the montage highlights is her home, her husband and her son, without images of her acting. The character that mattered to Chazelle was, Davis concluded, the man.
In ‘Babylon’, if the actress played by Margot Robbie has a career, it is thanks to the fact that, in the long sequence of the prologue, the character of Diego Calva makes it possible. The dynamic between the two characters is markedly perverse, since he will try to use cinema as a means to control her and the image it transmits, emptying it of her real personality or identity, until he obtains exactly the cinematographic moment he craves. But the definitive durability is not going to be achieved with that, but with the engulfment of his experiences by the seventh art, every time that ‘Singing in the Rain’ (1952), as he verifies at the end, turns out to speak precisely of the passage from the silent to the sound.
It’s someone reflecting on their place in the grand scheme of things. Chazelle told Entertainment Weekly in December. “You can’t do anything but see how big it is compared to you and how you are part of something bigger. Being a small part of that is, in its own way, timeless and special.” What is striking is that the filmmaker does allow a character out of the cinema frame: the black trumpeter Sidney Palmer, fed up with having his face painted an unreal color on set. Initially, his resignation is presented as an act of dignity, but does he then lose the possibility of transcending?
That certainly disturbing contrast between the forced transcendence and the complaint was also formulated in ‘First Man (The first man)’, where the protests of the black community in the sixties, due to the poverty in which they lived in the face of the enormous budgetary items of the United States government for the trip to the Moon, were used in off by Chazelle in a chain of NASA images. In the aforementioned ‘Nope’, the filmmaker Jordan Peele ironized the paradoxical state of the first human being captured in motion by Eadweard Muybridge’s camera: a rider turned into an immortal figure, due to being a pioneer, but with an identity denied by history as it is a black man.
Peele, in his film, chose not to depersonalize the control of the cinema, as a mechanism of power, nor to make the medium something alien, autonomous or an end in itself. Although the final images of ‘Babylon’ seem to respond to a concern about the future of cinematographic art, Perhaps a joint viewing of the two feature films can suggest, rather, that the tension lies in the future of the narratives and who controls them.
Damien Chazelle, an obsessed with transcendence who seeks in ‘Babylon’ the eternal Hollywood