Freeman Cebu Entertainment

‘Babylon’: The cynical sibling of ‘La La Land’ and a troubling ode to old Hollywood

Januar Junior Aguja - The Freeman

MANILA, Philippines — It’s hard to forget how much of a classic the 2016 film “La La Land” is. Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds, the film is praised for its homage to the musical films in the Golden Age of Hollywood set in a modern setting as it tells the stories of two dreamers trying to make it to Hollywood.

Chazelle re-explores some of these ideas in “La La Land” and takes them to the extreme with his latest film “Babylon”, this time set in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s when Hollywood was transitioning from silent films to the “talkies.” The film explores how the characters deal with their rise and downfall in the industry as their star power slowly fades to obscurity.

This continues the thematic pattern seen in Chazelle’s previous movies where characters try to achieve their dreams no matter what it takes. In “Babylon”, the characters try to be part of something that is bigger than them — which is Hollywood. The film asks, is it worth the personal suffering just to get where they are?

“Babylon” contradicts La La Land’s hopeful and idealist tone with its more cynical view of Hollywood. Some would argue that the film is actually a love letter to old Hollywood just like “La La Land”, while others say that this feels like a suicide letter to the industry.

The film has an ensemble of characters: a Mexican immigrant named Manny (Diego Calva), A-list star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), aspiring actress Neille LaRoy (Margot Robbie), along with two other supporting characters Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li).

It starts out with the characters participating in debauchery at a Hollywood party with drugs, smoking, orgies, gambling, jazz, and dancing taking place at the same time. The first half feels like it was paying homage to the time when Hollywood wasn’t so conservative and they could do whatever they want in their movies.

Manny was just starting out in the industry as a reliable assistant to a studio executive who slowly builds his network, including befriending (and developing feelings for) Nellie who wanted to be a star whatever it takes, and Jack Conrad, a bankable movie star for MGM, who sees Manny’s potential. Manny is also acquainted with Sidney, a rising African-American jazz player, and Lady Fay Zhu, a proud Asian-American lesbian cabaret singer that manages to make both men and women swoon.

In the second half of the film when Hollywood transitioned to talkies, there was also a societal demand for the industry to be more conservative, which had big consequences towards the characters. While Manny was able to make a name for himself, his peers struggle to adjust. Nearly towards the end, it seems like there is no way for them but to go down, or for some characters, leave tinseltown to avoid further failure.

“Babylon” explores these interesting ideas that might be critical to the current state of Hollywood by using old Hollywood as a setting to strengthen its point. One of these big ideas was how it tackled one’s fading star power, which somehow feels like a commentary on the criticism that most modern movies no longer have bankable movie stars that will urge viewers to watch them on the big screen.

The film’s Achilles’ heel is its lengthy three hours and nine-minute runtime. A lot of the scenes feel like it was trying to extend its themes a little too much. If the movie is going to be this long, they could have allocated more significant screen time to Sidney Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu.

They had so much potential to become fully fleshed-out characters in how they dealt with the fact that their minority backgrounds hindered them from succeeding in the industry at the time. Unfortunately, it seems like the characters were merely used as plot devices to showcase the lapses in Manny’s judgment when they don’t have his support because of the pressure to adjust to American society’s racist and homophobic demands against them at that time.

Despite its flaws, those who consider cinema as an art form will keep thinking about “Babylon”, whether they actually like the movie or not. It is very controversial within the film circles of the internet, with some hailing this film as an overlooked masterpiece, while others say it is a waste of time.

The most controversial scene of all was its ending, which showcases a montage of clips that may feel out of place for the time period. While the ending montage may feel a bit corny, it does have heart and shows how much Chazelle truly loves the art of cinema despite the flaws in the industry. It’s through the ending that viewers may see why Chazelle made the movie in the first place — he is saying that the beauty of cinema is great, but the Hollywood system sucks.

Its sentimental value cement “Babylon” as something that a filmmaker would make, and not a bunch of producers bringing in big names just to make it commercially appealing. It perhaps explains why this film massively flopped at the box office, but it’s incredibly refreshing for a high-budget film to explore how much Hollywood has changed and will continue to change as years go by. This film is able to bring that specific brand of grand scale that feels missing in any movie that is not a superhero story these days.

We need more films like “Babylon”, but it would be better with a shorter runtime or at least without excessive filler scenes in an attempt to bring its point across. For what it’s worth, the film is definitely going to be analyzed and discussed by cinema fans, both on the internet and in the academe, over the next few years. Three out of five stars.


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