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Babylon


This is a weird one.


I’ve enjoyed all of Damien Chazelle’s movies. He’s the real deal!


But this one had all the makings of a “passion piece” that was basically, “To hell with it, I’m going to bankrupt whoever I want.”


Either that, or he was smoking his own press releases.


On that assumption, it was way better than I expected.


The opening half-hour seemed out of control, like 1941. But as the plot settled in, it clicked: oh, this is about disadvantaged people chasing their dreams in movies.


And then, as the movies grew and added sound—and the abstract debauchery and weirdness of the silent era was pounded out by corporate conservativism—they all got hosed.


So this, I understood, and liked: it’s Cabaret (same time period), where gradually the Nazis take over.


It’s beautifully made. Good music, too, even if one of the main themes is awfully reminiscent of La La Land.


I will say one thing…this is perhaps the least period period movie I’ve ever seen.


I assume this was by design, because Chazelle surely had the budget and focus to make something slavishly accurate if he wanted—but he chose to embrace a contemporary zest instead.


Or maybe he just gave up? To really do period right, you have to police a million details of the world around us—every single little manufactured thing is a potential anachronism. And then the haircuts and physiques—people’s bodies are just so different now.


Is it really possible to tell a bunch of huge movie stars—who have all signed on to a passion project—to get out of shape to resemble what people looked like before gyms?


In contrast, the most period period movie I can think of is Chinatown. Its achievement is especially breathtaking because it doesn’t use any kind of sepia tint or filmmaking trick to make it look like an old photograph: on the contrary, it’s stark naturalism.


But the way Polanski pays the utmost attention to every manufactured detail of civilization, and especially the human behavior—I always feel like I am transported by that film.


In Babylon—well, it goes by awfully fast, but the breast implants in the orgy scene...?


It was also weird in Babylon to see at least one house where I used to spend a lot of time!


And the finale outside Paramount Pictures—I was just there picketing a few weeks ago.


By the end, I enjoyed it, and am thinking about it way more than I thought.


However, there’s just something about early Hollywood that’s a graveyard for contemporary movies. Outside of the masterpiece of Singin’ in the Rain (which plays a prominent role in Babylon’s finale, so at least Chazelle owns the comparison), they just seem to get lost in confusion and audience apathy. The Day of the Locust comes to mind. And Mank was disappointing.


I’m not exactly sure why. It’s probably some combination of being too obscure, and too annoying in its Hollywood navel-gazing.


I don’t think I’d make one!

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