The first film would be about an oncoming train. It’s not true: L’Arrivée d’un train and Gare de La Ciotat (1896) by the Lumière brothers is more of a moving snapshot than what we now understand as film and was not the first of its kind. Yet everyone knows the story of the first film of a thundering train and the audience that appeared in front of it (that story turns out to be wrong, by the way).
The idea of a first film about a train that seemed so real that audiences cowered in fear is perhaps so persistent because cinema is still trying to create that mythic experience. Babylona crazy epic about three people in the film industry in the 1920s and 1930s – when the cinema went from silent films to talkies – is the latest attempt to do so. And in the film by director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, whiplash) Hollywood itself is the thunder train.
At first glance, it seems Babylon perhaps a love letter to old Hollywood, where everything was messy and dirty and exciting. As there was still plenty of improvisation on set. When you could still be discovered as an actor because you danced exuberantly during an orgasmic party where you talked to yourself.
But Babylon seeing it as just a love letter is a somewhat short-sighted interpretation of what Chazelle is trying to do with his wild, three-hour tale. He certainly evokes a sense of nostalgia for the lost glory of classic Hollywood at times. But in the end, it is precisely this nostalgia that Chazelle criticizes here.
Like in La La Land Chazelle first presents the dream of Hollywood, the place where anything is possible, only to have it crushed afterwards. “Where would you like to go if you could go anywhere?” asks aspiring movie star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) at the aforementioned party for jack-of-all-trades Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), who is in charge of an important movie producer’s lavish parties. “A movie set,” he replies.
When we show up on set the next day, Chazelle introduces it with a long camera shake. We are in the pre-studio era, when movies – dozens at a time – were still shot on an open plain. We see two white men in blackface followed by a stereotypical portrayal of Asian women. At the same time, extras strike for better pay.
A few years later and Hollywood has changed completely: now films are made with black actors, such as jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). The lavish, coke-fueled parties have given way to proper gatherings over hors d’oeuvres and conversations about literature and art.
But it’s all apparently so late Babylon (something directly lost). Hollywood absorbs its detractors not to learn from their criticism, but to silence the criticism and keep going. Hollywood is like a train. A train must run. It doesn’t matter who’s in it, it doesn’t matter who falls off, it doesn’t matter who gets crushed.
Babylon is thus mainly a critique of the film industry. However, this criticism does not always come across well. During the preview of the film last week, the audience had to laugh out loud several times, precisely at the moments when the dark side of filmmaking is shown. It is difficult to determine whether the laughter comes from an extremely demented audience or from the film itself, which tries to depict the margins of the film world and the victims of constant renewal, but cannot reflect on all the suffering in its thunderous pace. he tries to criticize at that speed.
Babylon is messy, excessive, reckless: the film jumps from one scene to the next to show that nothing really matters in Hollywood. In her first ever scene, Nellie cries on command. She cries, the director yells ‘Cut!And then she’s fine again. “Why are you so good at crying on command?” asks the director. “Oh,” replies Nellie calmly, “I’m just thinking about home.”
As long as she can cry on command, no one cares about Nellie’s home situation. And when the silent film becomes the talkie, Nellie is pushed aside because of her annoying voice. When she eventually dies at a young age, we only see it in a newspaper clipping.
There is no ‘first movie’. Instead, cinema is a steady movement forward, an accumulation of firsts and firsts that constantly reinvents the medium. In the daring, experimental ending, Chazelle presents an overview of the film history of the last decades.
Cinema is art, but it doesn’t care about the people who made it possible. The apostates, the broken, we don’t see when we stare at the screen in the dark. Also not in Babylon.
Direction Damien Chazelle
Of Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo
Can be seen in Arena, Cinecenter, City, De Uitkijk, Eye, FC Hyena, Filmhallen, Kriterion, De Munt, Pathé Noord, Rialto VU, Studio/K, Tuschinski
After success movie as La La Land (2016) and whiplash (2014), the French-American director Damien Chazelle received a mega budget for his latest project: about 78 million dollars. But with a mixed reception and a disappointing opening weekend in the US, where the film grossed just a paltry $3.4 million, the film looks set to end in the red. Babylon is about flops in Hollywood, but seems to have turned out to be a flop in itself. Though it may well be that the film, which was praised for the acting of its star cast, will still win awards in the upcoming awards season.