Monday, January 30, 2023

Hollywood is Burning: BABYLON

Damien Chazelle’s approach to Hollywood history in Babylon is right there in the title. He’s clearly winking toward Kenneth Anger’s gossipy book Hollywood Babylon, known for salacious rumor-mongering that cemented all manner of misinformation and falsehoods in certain corners of cinephilic imagination. Chazelle, like Anger, is interested more in the shock value, in the hurtling sensations of exposition and exhibition, than in getting the detail right. In this new three-hour epic of depraved farce and nihilistic sentimentality, Chazelle is piling on the excrement of scandal and sensationalism. It opens in the late 1920s, with an elephant pushed up a hill by a lowly assistant at the request of his hitherto unseen studio boss. We get an extreme close up of the frightened animal loosening its bowels. The sound design goes all in on the wet plops as enormous turds rain down onto the poor man below. Hollywood, the movie says in this opening sequence, is a lot of wading through muck to get to the top. It’s also, as we see in the next scene, with cavorting partiers engaging in kinky sex and snorting drugs and wailing to cool jazz trumpets, about having such a wild time it’s a wonder the movies ever get made at all. By the time the elephant literally crashes the party, distracting the revelers from the dead woman carried out the back door, it’s clear this is a movie about how sordid Hollywood can be. But Chazelle’s style, in its amped-up whip-pans and pretty people and pounding score and opulent period design and constantly forward-chugging montage, is so intoxicated with the slick surface pleasures of the movies that it practically says any human destruction or scatological peril in the cause of such spectacle is worth it.

This confusion results from a simplistic story—Singin’ in the Rain without the jokes—spread out over a long, rambling episodic structure—Boogie Nights’ plotting without the well-worn melancholy. The actors almost pull it off anyway. Amid a sprawling ensemble, Brad Pitt plays a Don Lockwood type floating along as a silent idol, drunkenly stumbling around behind the scenes until his cue when lights and camera assemble a perfect take where his eyes smolder and visage cuts through the chaos. Margot Robbie is a fresh-off-the-bus nobody who wiggles and winks her way to sexpot status as a silent comedienne. They’re connected by love and business to a striving Mexican immigrant (Diego Calva) who wants to work his way up to studio executive someday. The stars are burdened with tabloid melodrama lives, and that ends up taking their careers on the ups and downs you’d expect. Ultimately, the only smart characters opt out entirely. (Although, as also the only characters of color, they don’t always take that option by choice.) The others meet nasty ends of one sort or another.

Chazelle views the struggle of old Hollywood from the 20s through the 50s with a grand sweep and cynical eye. He clearly loves the movies—he’s an obvious case of millennial Turner Classic Movies and Karina Longworth love—and his film drinks in a period look, though it sloshes anachronistically from time to time. He also thinks he’s being clever re-staging some Singin’ gags—an extended bit with a talkie’s mic problems, for instance—but in a more protracted, profane way that’s lesser than the original. It’s all a mad jumble—loud and flashy and propulsive, but also thin and trite and tiring. That’s the strange paradox of the project. It’s at once a watchable display of pyrotechnic filmmaking, and a wearisome confusion. Chazelle’s as strong a talent as we’ve had debut in the last decade, as demonstrated in the false glamor of La La Land, the elegiacally technical First Man, and the hard-charging percussive Whiplash (still his best). Here he stages inventive and breathless sequences of excess—parties out of control, sojourns into boozy despair and snakebitten foolhardiness, and behind-the-scenes farce whipped up like Noises Off strung out and tweaked up. He has Movie Stars swanning about with broad vaudeville-by-way-of-Cassavetes performances in striking garb in enormous sets and flashy lights, all set to a booming, driving, jazzy score from his usual composer Justin Hurwitz (easily his best work). It’s all very capital-M Movie in a glitzy show-off display of technique. But his imagination behind the camera outpaces the writing, which dwindles off into the blank-headed pastiche of better pictures before circling the drain.

This confused push-pull is never more evident than the film’s ending. The final stretch—in which a gangster pitching a movie (a goofily committed cameo from a recognizable actor) takes an exec to a near-literal hell, conflating a trite addiction drama’s beats with the showbiz milieu as if moviemaking itself is a drug—finds its rock bottom in a literal geek show in improbably dank quarters. Then it pivots to a future reverie in which a character, years after surviving with his sanity by leaving the business entirely, goes to see the classic movie that the movie’s been aping all along, and, as he weeps at the wonder of it all, Chazelle’s film drifts into an ecstatic montage of “Hooray for Hollywood” proportions like Chuck Workman broke into the editing bay with one of his Oscar tributes. As the score works itself into a clanging frenzy, we see quick flashes of everything from Un Chien Andalou to Avatar. All the pain and abuse and bodily fluids behind the scenes, all the bodies ground up to feed the machine, all the contortions asked for the genius of the system, lead to this. (Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this?) The movie’s exaggerations and excesses add up to nothing but an argument that we might hate the process, but the final products can be transcendent magic. I suppose it’s fitting that this movie feels the same. I disliked a lot of it, and wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

Monday, January 2, 2023

25 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2022


25. Quigley Down Under (1990, Simon Wincer)
24. Less Than Zero (1987, Marek Kanievska)
23. So I Married an Ax Murderer (1993, Thomas Schlamme)
22. Witchhammer (1970, Otakar Vávra)
21. The Epic of Everest (1924, JBL Noel)
20. Hooper (1978, Hal Needham)
19. Cleopatra (1963, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
18. Mrs. Soffel (1984, Gillian Armstrong)
17. When Women Kill (1983, Lee Grant)
16. The Whole Shootin' Match (1978, Eagle Pennell)
15. The Willmar 8 (1981, Lee Grant)
14. Gerry (2002, Gus Van Sant)
13. Sweet Charity (1969, Bob Fosse)
12. Out of the Blue (1980, Dennis Hopper)
11. The Parallax View (1974, Alan J. Pakula)
10. Witness (1985, Peter Weir)
09. Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka)
08. Crossing Delancey (1988, Joan Micklin Silver)
07. The Newton Boys (1998, Richard Linklater)
06. Deep Cover (1992, Bill Duke)
05. The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale)
04. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
03. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
02. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini)
01. Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)