Damien Chazelle’s latest film Babylon is an intoxicating affair about the worst aspects of the movie making business.
Rory Doherty explores how Chazelle’s film reflects a long history of abuse in Hollywood and reminds us how little has changed.
This article contains mild spoilers for Babylon.
Just over two years ago, Tom Cruise yelled at some crew members for breaking COVID protocols on the set of Mission: Impossible 7. The UK was on the brink of entering another lockdown, cases were at a historic high, and no film production of this size had been attempted since the breakout of the pandemic – it’s clear why tensions were running high. The contemporary mood around COVID safety made Cruise’s outburst, to many, appear righteous, and it’s not hard to find the hundreds of voices commending him for it.
With a Tom Cruise reappraisal in full swing since the commercial and critical success of Top Gun: Maverick (yes, he’s crazy, but the man knows entertainment), it’s unlikely the consensus on his tirade will ever settle on a more sobering reality: Tom Cruise shouted abuse at a couple of below-the-line crew members because he’s a man of tremendous power and likes using it to make people step in line.
Welcome to the movies – get used to it.
This phenomenon of undue apologia seems to be the lifeblood of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. A three-hour-plus romp through debauchery and mayhem localised in one industrious corner of California, this scathing 1920s Hollywood takedown tracks a number years from the silent era through to the talkies – and those it left behind.
People have been divided on the historical critiques buried in the film, dubbing them too vast, too lumbering, and at odds with Babylon’s party-loving tone – although they might just be referring to the first act’s defecating elephant.
But to say Babylon’s criticism of early Hollywood practices – its treatment of women, racial and sexual minorities, and the impoverished – cause tonal dissonance with the celebratory tone of Hollywood’s beauty misses the film’s biggest point. Babylon is a movie with contempt for its form and audience; each broad, provocative gag covers a genuine, piercing pain which hasn’t just been willfully forgotten, but was in fact necessary to Hollywood’s construction of an empire.
We first get to know our leading pair – Mexican immigrant Manny (Diego Calva) who can’t get a foot in the industry, and wild child, starlet-to-be Nelly LaRoy (Margot Robbie) – as they share a comical pile of cocaine. They bond over their shared dream: to make it in movie-making, backing up their aspirations by repeatedly insisting how important, precious, and iconic movies are.
The certainty with which they wax lyrical about cinema’s poetic and historical eminence is undermined by the fact that, at that moment, they’re consuming the movie industry’s provisions of an addictive narcotic. So begins Babylon’s series of blunt metaphors: cinema is an intoxicant. It sweeps you up in its magic, makes you feel unparalleled elation, so that you’ll forget its uneasy, inconvenient truths. It leaves you sick and vulnerable – and pining for another hit.
As we track the careers of Manny, Nelly, and the silent film leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the deification of an unhealthy industry ends up damaging its players. Nelly and Jack feel firsthand the give-and-take of celebrity status: Nelly has the on-camera dynamism needed to shoot to stardom, but is completely discarded and alienated by the arrival of “talkies”. Her uncultured outsider status is soon weaponized against her by the classist moralising of powerful, conservative magnates like William Randolph Hearst, who Hollywood drops everything to curry favour with.
They can justify mistreating their human livestock in the process because, remember, nowadays “people care about morals”. The people in Hollywood’s movies must be ethical, not the industry producing them.
Jack’s decline into irrelevance comes from a series of misjudged flops that drive him into a suicidal depression. He realises all that will be left of him is the images recorded onto celluloid, a crushing reminder that only the dream gets archived, while the person is lost.
Both Nelly and Jack ultimately accept being told that they’re worthless, and think the only way to be redeemed is to become a star again. It calls to mind the uneasy “comeback stories” we’re seeing this awards season. Actors, through no fault of their own, have been mistreated by an industry who now reward them for being brave and persistent enough to return into its fold.
Our takeaway is not that we should lambast or dismiss the institutions that caused these problems, but reflect how nice it is that someone is getting new appreciation from the powers that once rejected them. There are ways to validate someone’s pain without them having a successful film, but the myopic perspective of Hollywood allows only a few paths for “redemption” – and they’re all to do with business.
Manny receives the most cynical arc of the characters, becoming an arm for Hollywood powers to continue their regressive will. He dismantles a labour strike, fires a WOC because she’s queer, and forces a Black artist to darken his skin on-camera. We see Manny’s dreams of becoming part of the Hollywood regime be shot down by a racist colleague, only to watch Manny achieve his dream in a way that doesn’t challenge Hollywood’s bigotry.
If he had not sold himself on the allure of movie-making, perhaps he wouldn’t justify his appalling behaviour so much. Hollywood is not making “dreams” in the California desert, they have just found the most profitable oil well imaginable, and they will pump it til it runs dry.
Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all of movie-making, it’s just the oldest and most profitable factory. India and China may produce more films and sell more tickets, but Hollywood stands out for most successfully co-opting a nation’s capital potential and its ruthless ideology of self-fulfilment. We should always be sceptical of industries that try to define an artistic medium, but it’s difficult to deny how readily accepted America’s claim of ownership over “the magic of cinema” is here and across the world.
In Babylon’s final stretch, an older Manny watches (in horror?) the trauma of his former career committed to bright, jovial celluloid in Singing in the Rain. Manny’s pain has been flattened into something amusing and digestible, indicating a good film’s most powerful effect may be the ability to cause mass amnesia over the abuses that created it. As the crowd erupts around him, a queasy thought arises – is the movie, and by extension Hollywood, laughing at him?
Babylon doesn’t seek to deny the overwhelming emotional power of seeing stories on a big silver screen, but rather show how such a phenomenon has been repeatedly exploited for a century. In its final moments, where Justin Hurwitz’s earworm of a score pounds over a greatest hits montage of moments where the cinematic medium was redefined, it could be argued Chazelle is suggesting you can’t love movies until you understand how much pain has gone into building them.
But even this is a dig: the clips featured – The Wizard of Oz, TRON, Jurassic Park, Avatar – were all landmark achievements in boundary-pushing visual effects. During a historic era of labour exploitation in the effects industry, it’s clear Babylon doesn’t want us getting too misty-eyed just yet.
Babylon is in UK cinemas 20 January.