Monday, January 23, 2023

Babylon – where the scenes of pooping, peeing and puking excel above the celebration of all that is bad (and good) about cinema

Babylon is a largely episodic film that charts the development of the US movie industry over 25 years from silent films into talkies. It follows the undulating and mostly self-destructing career trajectories of four characters, punctuated by at first decadent and depraved parties, then snobbish gatherings with a thin veneer of laminated sophistication and contempt. (The opening soirée would make the devil-may-care characters in Channel 4’s Skins blush!)

Manny Torres (Diego Calva) starts out as an elephant wrangler, but is a king of improvisation and has a nose that can sniff out the changing zeitgeist of the cinematic world, becoming a director for a time.

Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) provides flesh and sass to spice up early movies, before the studio tires of her many vices and failure to reinvent.

Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a talented jazz trumpeter, and for a time his music and his orchestra are in demand with film makers and their audiences. He walks out on the studio when they ask him to darken his skin tone to match the other performers. (That’s also the very moment that two different couples walked out of my screening, two hours into the three-hour endurance production.)

Meanwhile, box office veteran Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) has nearly as many wives as leading ladies. But he can cope better with the inevitable failure of his relationships than the stymieing of his career as his box office appeal wanes.

Babylon is a mess. Deliberately so. One overly simplistic reading of the film would be to imagine that it’s all a dream in Manny’s head, having paid 50 cents and fallen asleep in the cinema as Singin’ in the Rain plays on a loop, as he snoozes he imagines the roles he could have been playing behind the scenes. But you might try to demand a refund for your ticket if that was your only take.

At one point, Jack criticises the subtexts and complexity of theatre (with its lower audiences) and talks up the mass entertainment of movies. This piece dialogue jumps out in a film that clearly has much to say underneath the façade of racy storylines and damaged characters.

Babylon is testament to the ability for cinema to abuse those who work for it – in front of and behind the camera – at every point in its history. A reminder that exploitation in the industry is nothing new, and that the industry can casually consume anyone who works in it. It’s also an aide-mémoire that audiences love its product while largely overlooking the manner in which it is made. Characters deliver somewhat clichéd lines about the magic of cinema, complete with moments on set when everything comes together even better than the director could imagine.

Robbie delivers a sympathetic performance as a starlet who is sucked in and spat out by the studio system. Calva is mesmerising throughout as the outsider who burrows into the heart of Hollywood. Adepo deserves more time on screen to develop his character, though his playing and presence adds greatly to each of the parties. Pitt looks and sounds ridiculous at all the right moments, keeping dignity as an actor while the character loses every ounce he ever head.

Watching Babylon feels like going to a hotel carvery and putting a scoop of every dessert on offer into your bowl. It’s full of delicious and sometimes unexpected mouthfuls. The scenes of pooping, peeing and puking are particularly well executed. The hedonism at the start and end is closer to horror than comedy.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle is back working with composer Justin Hurwitz, who adds some tasty flavour by way of riffs that remind you of La La Land and make you wish it was playing immediately afterwards in the cinema screen next door as a way of washing out the foul taste Babylon leaves in your mouth.

“Well there’s a film I won’t rush back to see again” was how one cinema goer loudly expressed her exasperation with Babylon as the credits rolled. I silently agreed as I stumbled down the steps into the foyer and back into the real world. Neither the explosive elephant excretion nor the spoiling of a good carpet will be easily forgotten. But I doubt I’ll be remembering Babylon as a celebration of all that is bad (and good) about cinema. 

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