Cinema is dying. It’s hard to believe given the glut of options we have being released every week on the myriad of streaming services that lay themselves at our feet for a mere pittance, but it’s something I ungraciously believe. A body without a soul is nothing more than a corpse and a movie without a point is no different. A lot of the movies I’ve seen in the past couple of years have had nothing to say and if a movie has no voice, then it has very little point in existing. But every so often, there is a flicker of life in the midst of every ashen pile that reminds you even embers may burn again. Babylon is one such flicker and Damien Chazelle is the perpetrator of this.
First and foremost, this film is not a love story or even a drama as Chazelle has done in the past. Rather, it’s an epic, which I would categorize as a genre all on its own. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself seeing one being made today after I, along with the other great film writers at the Knockturnal, discussed this topic on one of our more recent podcast episodes. An epic is an old style of making movies, filled with grand shots and numerous plot lines, but with an overarching theme. These are films that have incredible scope and often span years, acting like literal novels come to life. Each scene is less a fluid story and more a highly connected and interrelated series of vignettes that epitomizes the central theme and often time period. Babylon is very much so an epic which follows the lives of different characters during the late 1920s in Hollywood as the industry moved from silent films and the raucous age of the roaring 20s into the slowly sterilized but pioneering golden age of film which began with the onset of “talkies”, films with sound.
Babylon essentially opens on a large, off the rails party filled with every form of debauchery you could imagine, as well as you few you didn’t. The music is bombastic, the setting is ostentatious, the attire of the party goers is shocking to say the least, and their behavior is purely a degeneration of social norms. In fact, the scene itself is loud in every single way you can imagine, aside from the dialogue, which is almost unintelligible. At first, I thought this was a shortcoming of the sound mixing team when I realized that this was the point. Drowning out the sound of dialogue is the pure spectacle of the moment. Not to mention the fact that Chazelle is such an adept storyteller that even without understanding what’s being said at all moments, it’s clear what’s taking place. This opening act spans the first thirty or so minutes of the runtime but it perfectly exemplifies the spirit of the film and the silent era: it’s one large party that’s hit its peak, but it’s on its way to a downturn.
It’s beautiful and is not unlike the rest of the film which carries on for another 150 minutes to a total runtime of three hours, which sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Most movies I find myself watching today are so slow and poorly placed that I’d rather repeat a year of high school than finish the sleepy mess I was watching. I’ve seen movies this year with the usual 120-minute runtime that were 90 minutes too long. And yet, Babylon almost feels rushed at 3 hours. I actually wish it was 4 hours. The only flaw I could find in this movie is that because it tells the stories of so many different characters, there are scenes which aren’t given enough time to breathe and there are no scenes that I would cut. That and the fact that writing dialogue has never been Chazelle’s strong suit.
This is an interesting review to write. I’ve been a writer for nearly seven years and in that time I don’t believe I’ve reviewed a single epic. It takes me back to my days in film class and learning why John Ford’s How Green Was My Valleywas a masterpiece, even though it never really quite clicked for me. Looking back, I was too young and unbothered to understand the depth of that movie, but today I can appreciate the beauty of it. Babylon is much the same in that I don’t believe this film will receive the audience reaction it deserves. Honestly, I’m not even sure it’ll receive the critical praise it’s rightly owed. It’s a bold step that seeks to revive something from the past that most have decided to leave in the grave it found itself in. However, Chazelle has shown that once again in this film that he has in the past, anything old and underappreciated, like the genre of musicals, can still work if under the watchful hand of an extremely talented auteur. That is what Chazelle is now, by the way. With this film, I feel the argument is more than clear cut than ever that he is a true auteur, one who can tackle and navigate the choppy waters of the most under-appreciated and overlooked genres. Looking at this film as a standalone piece of work may seem like an almost experimental test of what a movie can be. A take on an old format. However, consider this in the work of everything Chazelle has done and it makes for an incredibly interesting piece to the creative psyche he portrays so well in his work.
I believe it was the director Howard Hawkes that once said that a good movie is one with a few good scenes and no bad ones. By that definition, Chazelle has certainly made a good movie and I feel it’s the best scale to grade this product by. It’s a piece of cinema for cinema lovers, but sadly, I’m not sure a regular audience member would enjoy this. I certainly don’t see a regular movie goer like my Dad going to a theater and saying it was time well spent. Movies of this style are ones that require an acquired taste, made specifically for the movie goer with a developed palate in the pursuit of something more that regular run of the mill production won’t provide. It saddens me to say that. I remember hearing people laugh at what may be one of the most tragic and heartfelt scenes of the film and thinking to myself that this is not going to be appreciated by movie goers and probably not even by critics. In time this film will get the critical praise it deserves, but it may go as a misunderstood masterpiece from an era where Hollywood had a creative drought.
Babylon will be in theaters on December 23rd, 2022, and I sincerely hope that against all odds that it’s a smash hit.