WHITE ELEPHANTS. Kenneth Anger chose to open his Hollywood Babylon with these two words; Manny Farber’s grandiose polemic endures; Damien Chazelle, we can assume, knows what he’s doing when he opens his own Babylon with the Sisyphean act of pulling one up a Santa Monica hill. (Later, he repeats the image, only with a crew of handlers relaying a nearly unconscious leading man to an epic summit.) For Anger, it’s an incantation preceding a conspiratorial monologue; for Farber, a symbol that allows him to riff on everything he disliked about Antonioni, Truffaut, and Tony Richardson; and for Chazelle it’s a way to show he’s done his research, to prove that he can assume, albeit in a rather anxious pose, the seat of authority required to make a capital-S statement film about the whole business of making massively public art.
The milieu is attention-grabbing: pre-code Hollywood, with enough creative license so that the historical record shadows, rather than defines, the plot. There are, roughly, five protagonists, all of them stars whether entering (Margot Robbie), exiting (Brad Pitt), merely admiring (Diego Calva), or grasping a brief after-hours aspect of the spotlight (Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li). It would be possible to psychoanalyze these players, to trace them to the names, many of them lining Anger’s book, that influence their characterizations. It would also be possible to make a big deal out of the second-hand electricity Chazelle bottles from other films, most notably those by Paul Thomas Anderson. But what’s most striking about Babylon is its attempt to grapple with insignificance.
Chazelle’s prior successes have earned him the title of a virtuoso, someone within shouting distance of the achievements Pitt’s Jack Conrad might be referring to when he pontificates that musical form is the summation of all the arts. But in practice, Chazelle’s films tend to be limited rather than defined by their musical sequences, which work uphill to redeem the curiously leaden drama and deadpan theatrics of scenes so alien from one another they approach, on the larger canvas of Babylon, an anthology film. Yet, seams and all, the film is compulsively watchable.
As in his previous film, the largely unsuccessful First Man, Babylon a work about the difference between reaching the top of a profession and finding nirvana. It is obsessed, not with history or sex, but art — the one role of any significance with a real-life name is Irving Thalberg, a figure whose imprint is visible on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Perhaps the whole movie hinges on a scene where Conway meets a hack writer-critic (Jean Smart) who might, on the one hand, be an industry rag career-maker, but for a moment takes on the movie-breaking transcendent role of something like The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect. The important thing to know, she says, is that the roles that both of them are playing are essentially archetypal, and are doomed, or destined, to recur in eternal fashion.
Taken one way, Chazelle’s boom-bust narrative resembles any criminal line-up of star cash-in biopics. But in the way he would have it, this fantasy, which reaches warp speed in an early sequence that takes place on a kind of Hollywood backlot-of-the-mind, and terminates in an Irma Vep-derived triumph over the aging of cinema, is one that equivocates, or bridges, the enchantments of golden-age industry and the cynicism that, as Bogdanovich said in Targets, all the good movies have already been made.
It’s a project that, for all its sharp elbows thrown at anticipated criticisms, is most apparently nervous at the thought of being thought too high-minded. Its vulgar sense of humour, concerned with nervous reactions (sweat, vomit, shit) and baseness as a form of truth-telling, finds its appropriate climax in a sequence that dovetails with the philosophy of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Unlike what the poison pens of Alfred Hayes or Nathanael West wrote, the fatalistic quest here isn’t one out of Hollywood. No, the crystallizing moment is when one of our protagonists, instead of lurking by the exits to take a quick poll of audience ecstasy, sits with the masses and gets lost in his own reaction.
Yet Chazelle tries to twist his way into something even more resonant: collapsing the history of Los Angeles’s most lucrative successes into a minute, he presents something like a continuation of Gloria Swanson’s identification with the screen in Sunset Blvd. There, she is assured of her towering stature, no matter what plane of reality she’s on. Accordingly, what Chazelle offers as the pinnacle of moviemaking is images designed to make their witnesses feel pathetically small.