Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s sprawling magnum opus, is a riotous affirmation that cinema is still a maximalist medium – and always has been since its inception. While not a direct adaptation of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, it revels in the same larger-than-life vision of the Los Angeles film industry as the perverse pleasure-principle of the American unconscious. At close to three hours and a quarter in length, it’s also a tribute to the unrivalled majesty and sublimity of set pieces on the big screen, and features some of the most ambitious sequences to be filmed in Hollywood in many years. We start in Bel Air, 1926, in desert that has only just been made over as agricultural land. A lone figure occupies the frame, and is gradually joined by a few more, all of whom are employed, it turns out, in transporting an elephant up a hill for a party at the house of a studio mogul. At first they tow the elephant, then they push it, and finally they drag it, while it showers them with distressed excrement, as the camera pulls back further and further to accommodate its enormous girth.
This preamble sets the stage for a film that relishes the corpulence and grotesquerie of Hollywood. The first man we see in the film is overweight, but still no match for the elephant, while the party is ushered in by an even fatter man instructing a woman to urinate on him, before the first great tracking-shot is propelled by an equally large woman smashing her way through a riotous crowd, an enormous balloon body floating above it all. Even the camera feels corpulent, much as the film itself, at over three hours, is gleefully overweight. This is fatphilic cinema, cinema that fuses itself immediately with the gigantic body of the elephant, which some of the partygoers use as a cinematic distraction, parading it in through the front door so that they can discretely remove a woman who has died of an overdose out the back.
From here, Babylon subsists on epic set pieces – and physical sets. The first of these is this party, which Chazelle presents as the inception point of cinema, the mythical moment when the medium was birthed straight from the Los Angeles desert. It’s here that we meet the main players in the film – aspiring actor Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie, established actor Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, and studio assistant Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva. Their paths intersect against an eruption of primal cinematic energy that can’t yet be contained by the screen, let alone the infrastructure of movie theatres, which hasn’t been standardised or streamlined at this point in time. To capture that porosity, Chazelle clutters this party with more and more bodies, orchestrating one collision after another, as Manny confides to Nelly that he wants to be “bigger, better, more important.” As the characters move from one pile of drugs to the next, the sheer fact of watching it gives you a contact high, and often reminded me of Gaspar Noe’s Climax, since it feels as if the entire film could be set at this escalating party – or as if the entire film is in fact set at this escalating party, and everything else is merely one of the drug-addled fever dreams that overtake and consume the characters as they do in Noe’s film. It’s decadence as only silent cinema could conceive of it, invoking both the vivid orgies of Intolerance and the lavish pleasure-gardens of Metropolis.
As the intensities of this party coalesce, then, we seem to be witnessing cinema dream of itself and its future at its very point of origin. All the guests at the party seems prescient that movies will change the world, like a second Big Bang, unleashing an explosion of such volatile possibility that everyone is entranced by it, but nobody can satiate their taste for it, let alone figure out a single or stable way to contain it. Whenever they try to discourse about cinema, or look at it directly, its sublimity overwhelms them. Time and again, Jack, in particular, pontificates about the possibilities of cinema, onto to be whisked back into the whirlwind of the film, starting with him falling of a balcony into a pool just before the opening credits roll.
Chazelle thus imagines the earliest days of cinema as a collective apprehension so great that it defies or displaces the screen. This brings us to the second great set piece, a day of shooting in the California desert. Here, the borders of the screen become completely malleable, as the director in the film, and Chazelle himself, cram more and more bodies into the shot. Beyond a certain point, the film shoot grows so massive that it is no longer commensurate to the movie it is producing, and so becomes a free-floating spectacular event in and of itself, closer in spirit to a 70s happening, both for the actors, who treat it as a real fight (one man dies) and for film critic Elinor St. John, played by Jean Smart, who watches it all unfold from a nearby hill, and reviews what she sees as if it is the finished film itself. Whether it’s a crew of cheaply hired actors swarming Manny, and momentarily creating a real-life western, or the cursory instructions to Nellie to simply “flirt with men” during her debut scene, this sequence breaks down all distinction between film and life, and brims with the volatility of celluloid, until the friction between bodies feels like it could set the film itself alight at any moment. Perhaps that’s why I felt overheated during the screening, despite being in a giant air-conditioned multiplex, and even had to take my shoes off – for the film exudes an unbelievable body heat.
Not only does this day of shooting subsume any possible movie back into itself, like a journey that displaces its destination as it moves towards it, but it also consumes the technical equipment being used to shoot it. All ten cameras are destroyed in the scenes they’re documenting, the last trampled by a horse just before sunset, and so many cameras have been destroyed in this way that when Manny goes to rent one out, he can only get it for half an hour. Cinema here yearns for a vision so spectacular that it turns apocalyptic, and destroys every camera in existence, which is what the day of shooting approximates in its final moments, when Nellie finally nails her part right as a fire breaks out on set, and the smoke mixes with the sunset to become the “magic” factor the director needs for his climactic shot of Jack too. As buildings explode in the distance, and the entire set becomes one flammable surface, Chazelle fades to the liquid volatility of celluloid itself spooling through a projector.
In other words, Babylon presents cinema as a form of creative destruction, in which the cinema’s ultimate dream is of its own annihilation. The first evolution in this destruction comes with the arrival of sound, which only enhances the cacophonous cramming in of bodies. Jack first hears about the prospects of sound cinema at a urinal, from an executive who pointedly looks at his genitals, and contemplates it as someone thunderously defecates in the stalls, before discussing it at home as his wife smashes plates in rage at their marriage. Sound also contours the next great set piece of the film, a day of shooting that is just as visceral and volatile as the desert sequence, but in the diametrically opposite way. Now that sound is a factor, everything has to be controlled and studio-bound, as Nellie repeats the same line over and over again, each time with a different sonic glitch, making it even harder to translate the vital cinematic energy of the opening party onto the big screen. With nowhere to go, the cast and crew turn this energy inwards, growing more and more histrionic until the director gives the most hysterical monologue of the film, which is really saying something. They get the next take right, but it turns out that it wasn’t recorded, since the cinematographer has finally succumbed to the accumulating heat of his shooting station, itself a microcosm of this chambered hysteria, and died of unregulated cinematic volatility.
Since its sweep is so great, and depends so heavily on these set pieces, Babylon admittedly struggles at times to nail a compelling throughline, or a single point of focus. Some (or much) of the connective tissue can be a bit tedious, but that blurrily distended vision is also what creates the film’s power, since it gives the impression of squinting at something too big to be seen from a single vantage point. Chazelle’s ambition is nothing less than to evoke the entire history of cinema in a single film, both prophetically, from the vantage point of its moment of inception, and retrospectively, from the perspective of our putatively post-cinematic present. Like an entire film shot in epic CinemaScope, Babylon falters a bit whenever it attempts a close-up, although this also means that the individual stories never escape from the flux of it all either. Instead, they emerge and end quite incidentally, as impossible to extricate from the film as the film itself is possible to separate from the cinematic sweep it evokes and enacts.
Of course, the difficulty of this kind of maximalism is that it creates a pressure to continually maximise, lest the film become too repetitive, or lose its initial frisson. Amazingly, Chazelle manages to achieve this, by way of two closing set pieces that both mirror and exceed the opening two. The first of these sees James McKay, a mob boss played by Tobey Maguire, take Jack and Manny to the “last real party” in Los Angeles – a descent through an old railway tunnel that encompasses successive Dantean tiers of freak, fetish and s&m displays, until we arrive at the degree zero of spectacular exploitation, the occult heart of Hollywood, in the form of a strongman who eats live rats for an adoring crowd. This is Babylon’s vision of future underground cinema – it could almost be a out-take from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising – as a site where all the atavistic cinematic energy of that opening party can remain unregulated.
By contrast, the second set piece takes place in the mid-1950s, when Manny returns to Los Angeles, having left the film industry behind many years prior. Cinema has never been as standardised as it was mid-century, and so the chaos of the silent era seems like a distant dream now, especially when Manny watches it replayed as period piece in Singin’ in the Rain. For a brief beat, the screen, and the theatre, seems to have successfully reined in the volatility of cinema’s mythical inception point, only for Singin’ in the Rain to become a mere pitstop between the silent era and our own, where film has once again dissociated itself from a hegemonic fixation on the big screen. As Manny watches the title song of the musical, Chazelle returns to the beats of the Bel Air party, only to collapse them into a montage of cinema from the silent era until now, up to and including Avatar. From there, Chazelle moves to abstraction, the primordial soup of cinema, celluloid bubbling and bleeding, like the screen is corroding before our eyes, before ending with a series of bright colour fields that give way to credit sequences from different eras morphing and melding, much as Babylon itself seems to possess ending upon ending upon ending, so uncompromising has its maximalism become.
All of these endings are testament to the fact that cinema can never end, or that cinema is always ending and beginning at once, in a perpetual state of creative destruction, as this final formalist sequence abruptly condenses once again to the final verse of “Singin’ in the Rain” as Manny hears it in the 1950s. If the opening party was the Big Bang of cinema, then this is the Big Crunch, and the two turn out to be the same thing, since film, for Chazelle, contains its inception and its apocalypse at every instant, if you know how to look at its universe in the right way. The birth and death of cinema is always there in our very moment of watching it and experiencing it – a message that could so easily be naff if Chazelle didn’t break through and find this new frontier of maximalism in the raw ingredients of film, destroying the syntax of his own film in order to collapse it into, and commune with, the cosmos film provides us.