Unbridled, operatic excess and cacophonic hedonism beneath the shimmering golden rays of the Los Angeles sun. Enter the chaos while the light dances off your dazzled eyes, visions of spinning celluloid and bright lights infecting every corner of the mind. The intoxicating allure of cinematic immortalization, destined for singular purpose and stopping at nothing to fulfill it. The beauty of motion and the bliss of sonic energy, it was always love at first sight. Cinema, magnetic and unrelenting, a gravitational force that grabs hold and will not let go. We are destined for it, and it was destined for us. It’s a joy to be a part of it. Ain’t life grand?
A manic, jazz-drenched, choreographed rise and fall of an empire, fitting for Damien Chazelle’s aptly titled Babylon. A journey of towering ambition and its subsequent collapse, displayed with dazzling bravado as it grabs you by the collar on a whirlwind journey of staggering proportions. Opening with a face full of shit, a urine soaked carpet, mountains of cocaine scattered across crystal tables and naked flesh, copious amounts of alcohol, a layer of stagnant tobacco haze, and bodies purely committed to following the impulsive flow of desire, its madness is only matched by feverishly upbeat and unrelentingly uproarious jazz, playing at a constant frenzy until the last guest has exited the party into the breezy sunrise air. This is the film’s first deep breath – nearly thirty minutes into Chazelle’s three hour epic – as Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Manny Torres (Diego Calva), and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) all stumble out of a night of limitless excess in a daze, a few short hours of rest available before they’re all due on set.
Chazelle may be just as enthralled with those gratuitous nights as his characters, but there is a tangibly vigorous obsession with the days, an insatiable hunger to capture the raw energy and captivating allure of making a movie, every moving part flowing in unison, mad machinations intersecting and interlinking as everything comes together in an unrelenting flurry of chaos to commit a few magic moments to celluloid. Everything about it seems impossible, the way it’s all woven together so seamlessly, how effervescently light it is as it continues to sail upward towards its empyrean dreams, the most effortless landing on a wispy cloud as it slots its dailies onto the projector, sun-scorched crew members cheering with the energy of their success.
Though carrying forward an obsession with the jazzy fluidity of Jacques Demy and the cotton candy sunsets of Los Angeles, Babylon takes the nostalgic idealism of La La Land (2016) and infuses grim reality, beyond saccharine stardom and into a world where the façade begins to bend and crack, where the weight of a changing cinematic landscape and a meteoric rise to the top eventually cannot be sustained. Chazelle strips the precision and rosy tint from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and tells the story of cinema’s transition from silence to sound with an ever-increasing tension and a slowly derailing structure, a background hum of impending collapse that seems to constantly threaten the reality of the characters as it cares less and less about its once seamless weaving and becomes unraveled into glorious disarray. Yet its submission to untethered mania feels pointedly effective, the film carried purely by its own energy as it releases itself to pure expression while it all comes tumbling down.
It’s easy to find its later act turns uncharacteristically messy, but the mess is as joyous as when it was once carefully put together, the ballistic energy of Whiplash (2014) and its rapid crescendo miraculously blended with the somber atmospheric drift of First Man (2018) descending to the lonely lunar surface. Passion and ambition has always haunted Chazelle’s characters, but here it is so markedly visceral, this oblivion of self-destruction for the sake of cinema. As it descends further and further beyond its once gloriously hedonistic opening it only grows more and more unsettling, the once kaleidoscopic sunsets now dipped in alarming shades of crimson, the shine wearing off the gilded streets and showing the broken world of profit-driven exploitation below.
Reality is neither the nights nor the days, reality is the end of the road. The realization that we are finite and that our ability to create is finite, particularly in a world infested with bureaucratic noise and untold, unseen horrors, a malevolent cosmic karma here to reap the excess that we have sown. For some, there is no solace in a world without expression. For others, maybe love is enough to fill that void. Maybe the only thing to do is to recreate that once innocent, dazzling magic and dance into oblivion. By the time each of these cosmically intertwined beings reach the end of their journey there is so much vast landscape to cover, so much excess put to film that it’s hard to know where to turn, but the dense saturation of it all allows Chazelle to end it all with the year’s most potent love letter to the medium he adores so much.
Through all the noise we are drawn to it like moths to a flame because cinema calls like no other, a captivating magic that immortalizes and expresses our greatest fears and our greatest joys. Our love for it unfiltered and untethered, free expression of the mind scattered into a thousand instants and flashes of memories that imprint upon us. Cinema lasts. It means something, deeply within ourselves and in our collective consciousness. We commit ourselves and all of our faults and all of the glory of life to film and we become infinite. If Babylon makes anything clear, it’s that life without film is shit.