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THB #280: Babylon (spoiler-lite)
I’ve never asked this before, but please play the following music video as you read the first part of this review… music, maestro, please…
Hear the beat… the beat is Babylon.
The most Kubrikian year in post-Kubrikian movie history continues as Tár moves on to Babylon, two films by filmmakers with their own strong voices and the cinematic muscle to not just pay homage to the master, but to chase his ghost.
The piece above is called “Welcome,” as it welcomes you, the audience, to join the ultimate circus… the movie business.
The scene is a party… a wild, relentless, profane, profound, heart-pumping, heart-stopping bacchanal with partiers on every level, from the guy who showed up covered in elephant shit - the most extreme cinematic embodiment of the oldest joke about show business and not giving it up - to the movie star who, like Tony Curtis in The Great Race, walks around the pie fight in a white suit without ever being touched. (That Blake Edwards film was a farce, so there was punchline to the sequence. This is a drama, so he won’t be hit comedically, but he will be hit later in the film. Hard.)
Like Kubrick, Damien Chazelle is working on two levels here. The party is real. But it is also an embodiment of the idea of how it feels to make a movie. The relentlessness of it. The hierarchies. The intense joy. The reality of what it takes to feed the machine.
This is Chazelle’s movie-biz version of The Great Gatsby. It’s set pre-sound, which was a major break in the industry, much more so, really than streaming… but the level of chaos that was caused is similar.
Brad Pitt plays The Gatsby here, Jack Conrad… movie star.
Is he also Jack’s wasted life? Jack’s broken heart? Jack's inflamed sense of rejection? Well, you’ll have to see Babylon and Fight Club to answer that for yourself.
Jack Conrad’s Nick Carraway here is Manny Torres (Diego Calva). Carraway is the most thankless part in any version of Gatsby and that remains true in Babylon. The other character I compare him to is Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show… the center of the show and at the same time, the least interesting character on the show. She was the fulcrum that allowed every everyone else to act with abandon and Manny is that here.
Margot Robbie’s Nellie LeRoy is nobody’s Daisy Buchanan… well, nobody’s normal idea of Daisy Buchanan. She is not going to be defined by men. She is not going to be acted upon before she acts herself (literally and in the sense of performance).
Again, like Kubrick, the movie is incredibly simple and also incredibly complex. The act structure almost exactly cuts the movie in half. The 1st half ends at 1 hour, 37 minutes. The film continues for another hour, 32 minutes.
But Chazelle seems to be working on a clock within that. The opening party sequence (and preface) is almost exactly 30 minutes long. Nellie’s rise (and Jack being Jack) is, again, almost exactly 30 minutes long. The chaos of sound, including a remarkable 12-minute sequence detailing the effort to get a 1-minute sound sequence made, and its growing effect on the industry is almost exactly 30 minutes.
We spend 20 minutes in the middle of making movies… gloriously. The silents allowed for many things to be happening in the same space. And not unlike the party we just left in the first 30 minutes of the film, it is madness. But building and building and building into something beautiful.
All kinds of “smaller” one-set movies are being made at the same time, on a nearby hill, an epic is being shot by a mad European director, played by Spike Jonze, who is not insane that way… but is just as intense about the work, allowing him to breathe amazing comic life into his character.
And in the end, every day is a race. All that matters is getting the shot before the sun goes down.
This is where I would have a needle scratch and the music end. You can let it play out… or not.
The second half of the movie is all downfall.
(Apologies for the load of movie and movie culture references in this review if they are distracting you… they are in the spirit of the film.)
The whiplash (pun not intended until I realized it and decided to leave it in) of the second half of the film will be, I think, the hardest transition to make for audiences. The many extreme bodily functions of the first half make audiences laugh and gasp. But the second half will frustrate many as the story darkens quickly and irrevocably, causing an emotional crash, like children eating too much sugar.
Chazelle does take us back to “the party” from the first half of the film. But it’s not anything like the first half. There is a 13-minute horror sequence ostensibly about private funding of movies. There are all-white “jazz” bands and others trying to be what they are not. There are goodbyes and avoided goodbyes.
The second half is about something lost, not about the thrill of something happening with seemingly an entire world of opportunities moving forward.
And again, in the second half, Chazelle is on the clock. You can almost set your watch to it. Every 30 minutes, someone/something will fall.
“In 100 years, when you and I are both long gone, anytime someone threads a frame of yours through a sprocket, you’ll be alive again. You see what that means? One day, every person on every film shot this year will be dead. And one day, all those films will be pulled from the vaults and all their ghosts will dine together. Adventure together. Go to jungle, to war together. A child, born in 50 years, will stumble across your image, flickering on a screen and feel he knows you… like a friend.. though you breathed your last before he breathed his first. You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful. Your time today is through. but you’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.”
It’s enough to make you cry, I tell ya.
As the film opened with a kind of prologue, it ends with a 10-minute postscript, 25 years later.
I won’t go into any detail, except to note that Chazelle delivers within this a 6 minute reverie on the entire history of cinema, starting with memories from within the film but then going back to the very beginning… the black jockey on the horse (see: Nope)… Georges Méliès… the silents (many of which were referenced through the film)… color… epics… international cinema… Sensurround… electronic cinema… Spielberg… Cameron… Wachowski… etc, etc, etc… and then back around the the foundational nature of color and emulsion, the cinematic origins, like Kubrick’s apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Every bit as much as Avatar: The Way of Water, this film demands to be seen on a big screen with amazing sound. And not just once. It wants you to come back a few times to soak in it.
When I first saw the film, a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed by the relentlessness of it, I admit. It felt like being force-fed a 20 course meal… like young geese being stuffed for foie gras.
I made some passing comments, under embargo. Friends who read it have pointedly told me, “I read you and you don’t like that movie.”
I have since seen it 4 more times. And I’m not done.
I sat down to write about it and I expected to write about the performances and details and choices in a more specific way. But there is no point. You need to see the film.
I don’t know if its Robbie or Pitt’s best work… but you won’t see any work from them that is better than this. Margot Robbie is the Energizer bunny… she will not stop. It’s like watching, in one film, the best and the worst of desperation and manic depression. Stunning performance. Pitt is pretty much the exact opposite, style-wise. His character is already a virtual deity, so the performance is all in his eyes, careful physicality, and in the performance of the script.
Because Tár is a step more inaccessible, Babylon has the makings of being the most beloved film of 2022 for a lot of people. It is actually a story that is bigger than the movie business. But for people in the movie business - awards voters - it could become the movie of the year if Paramount manages expectations and responses in the most effective way.
Don’t fear the elephant shit. Honestly, if the MPA would allow it, I’d be doing TV spots with it. It’s an important part of the film, but it is not the heart of the film. Nor are other bodily functions or nudity or drugs, etc.
It is one of the fascinating details of the film to me that in a film where she is inches from naked for quite a bit of the film - and others are full frontal - Margot Robbie is never fully exposed, high or low. And she never has a sexual relationship on screen. It has to be completely intentional by Chazelle. Even Brad has a little discreet intercourse during the film. Not Margot.
But I digress.
This is a movie that could win Best Picture. It is “about Hollywood,” it has 2 major stars doing major star work, and while it shocks and horrifies in certain ways, it is, more often than not, entertaining as hell.
I have a feeling we’ll be talking about this one more as the weeks pass.
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