The Bore of Babylon - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Bore of Babylon
by
Brad Pitt in “Babylon” (Official trailer/YouTube)

As someone who has written movies and about the movies for some time, the current state of cinema makes me melancholic. Not just because its asinine liberal messaging is so tedious, but because it wallows in darkness, debauchery, and despair while lacking the talent to create their opposite — incandescence, inspiration, and intelligence. Immorality only works in art if the artist understands morality, which is what distinguishes an Orson Welles from a Damien Chazelle, writer-director of a new film about Hollywood, Babylon.

For Charles Foster Kane to be one of the great tragic figures of the screen, we must first see the humanistic crusader he aspired to be (and is for the early portion of the film). We need another character to be our critical eyes on his corruption, such as Kane’s friend, Jedediah (Joseph Cotten). Jedediah recognizes the start of Charles’ decline, ironically and brilliantly in a festive song-and-dance routine. No such evolution, or devolution for that matter, exists in Babylon for any of the three leads. All three start off rotted, and only one becomes less so by the end, though we never see the transition. In surer hands than Chazelle’s, he could have fulfilled the Jedediah function and elevated the film.

Knowing how ugly most Hollywoke fare has become, I fully expected Babylon to be a sordid ordeal. But since my next novel will be a 50-year Hollywood epic covering some of the same ground — such as the seismic shift from silent pictures to talkies — I gave it a go. I was slightly encouraged that a movie about classic Hollywood featured two of today’s most classically attractive and talented stars, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Sadly, the film proved even ghastlier than I anticipated, despite some touches of movie magic, before going off the rails. I felt embarrassed for Robbie, if less so for Pitt, who preserves his dignity and coolness despite awful writing. Charismatic third lead Diego Calva fits somewhere in between.

The film opens repulsively. A Mexican handyman to Kinoscope Studios, “Manny” (Calva), transports an elephant through the desert to his mogul boss’s party, and the animal defecates on the driver. The party itself is an orgic spectacle, instantly typified by a floozy urinating on a grotesque naked fat man. You read right. The first eight minutes of Babylon contains two instances of body waste. Next, a lesbian Chinese artist (Li Jun Li) in top hat and tails à la Marlene Dietrich sings about “My Girlfriend’s (sexual part)”. For a moment I thought I was watching a John Waters picture. Until I realized Waters would be tame by modern entertainment standards, where gay rap stars fellate Satan and a top hit is the pornographic hip-hop song, WAP.

Chazelle soon displays even more ineptitude by having the best supporting character, black band musician Sidney (a touching Jovan Adepo), call his male bandmate “whiny bitch,” a nonexistent insult in 1926. Then follows a Screenwriting 101 entrance by Robbie, who literally crashes the party and her car, playing wild and drunken starlet Nellie LaRoy, and asks Manny, “Do you know where I can find some drugs?”

The lovestruck Manny takes Nellie to his boss’s drug vault and, even though he’d never touched the stuff before, proceeds to snort coke with her and talk about his dreams of working on a movie set in pathetic exposition. Any decent writing hope of turning Manny into a Nick Carraway–style observer on the decadence around him — especially as a Mexican poor boy in a glittering yet dark world — vanishes like the white powder. Finally, Brad Pitt arrives as screen idol Jack Conrad and, as stated, skirts unscathed past the humiliations around him.

I was ready to abandon Babylon at the very next offence, when it temporarily got — if not good — watchable. In three parallel vignettes, all the leads prove themselves worthy of the movie craft. Manny delivers a desperately needed camera to a major battle shoot just before the sun goes down and soon becomes a studio executive. A hungover Jack puts himself together to perfectly execute a sweet love scene. And Nellie cries on cue to save a movie and become a star. The fact that Nellie’s director is a woman — on a silent film — still almost got me out the door, but I stuck it out. A subsequent scene has Robbie almost identically replaying her best bit from Tarantino’s sublime Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where she sits in a crowded theatre watching herself on screen and basking in the audience’s appreciation.

After these few hopeful signs, the film completely falls apart in a torrent of cliché and predictability. Nellie’s coarseness jeopardizes her career. Absurdly, Manny tries to save it by introducing her to high society snobs so caricaturish, even Mel Brooks couldn’t spoof them. But Chazelle gives it a serious effort, having Nellie mess up by referring to George Eliot as a man. That few in Hollywood, then or now, could pass this Algonquin Round Table test, which would also have no bearing on a film career, didn’t stop the auteur from devising it. He ends the scene in his typical style when Nellie vomits all over the lounge and on a guest.

Nellie’s self-destructiveness brings Manny’s career down too. This leads to a painful, interminable, indulgent, sub-Lynchian nightmare climax, where Manny must deal with a laughably freakish loan shark overplayed by Tobey Maguire, none of which has anything to do with the movie world. In the end, Calva loses what little dignity he had left as an actor or character by, yes, soiling his pants.

But it is the final sequence that exposes Chazelle as a total hack. Aware that the all-time film masterpiece, Singing in the Rain, covered the same material — the early awkward days of movie sound — with wit and beauty, he has Manny attend a theatre showing of it, and crying as his memories reflect the actions on screen. So, Chazelle leeches off a great work of art to validate his poor imitation. Judging by Babylon’s box-office failure, he didn’t get away with it.

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