If you enjoy visiting this blog, and also like keeping up with at least some movie news, maybe you were wondering if I would review Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. It’s set during the silent era and all, and isn’t that my wheelhouse? And isn’t it true that silent era-themed films don’t come along every day?
The thought “Maybe I’ll sort of consider possibly checking it out at some point, maybe” briefly crossed my mind, yes. But the misgivings were strong. The trailer didn’t make it look that great, having that extremely self-conscious “This ain’t your great-grandmother’s 1920s!” vibe and all. Doing a takedown of the historical anachronisms would be something, I guess, but did I really want to sit through 3 and a half hours of that? (What’s odd is that many of the clichés Chazelle claimed he was avoiding were historically inaccurate to begin with, so…why not move in a historically accurate version for a change? It would blow people’s minds–just saying!)
Then I found out about the elephant poop, spraying right at the camera, no joke. And the vomit. And the urinating. And more vomit. And mountains of cocaine for some reason (there were some morphine addicts in the silent era but usually because of doctors’ prescriptions). And just the sheer, ugly, dirty maliciousness of it all.
Guys, I can’t. And not just because I’m disgusted with the idea of seeing silent Hollywood portrayed through that lens, but also because I’m not the film fan equivalent of those guys who’ll sweat their way through a super-spicy meal and insist, through fits of coughing, “It’s not that spicy.” No, friends, I will happily proclaim that I am very squeamish, and I cannot see this movie. If there’s one or two gross out scenes in a film, that’s one thing, I can usually look away or fast forward in time–heck, I’ve watched Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd multiple times that way, no lie (ear plugging was also involved). But Babylon has a freaking avalanche of gross out scenes, of precisely the type I can handle the least. So no. NOPE. CAN’T DO IT.
The above paragraphs make it pretty clear what I’d probably think of Babylon, anyways. And there’s no way I could top this glorious review, “Babylon Is So Bad It Will Hurt Your Brain,” which a friend shared on Facebook recently. My favorite section–the writer really “got” silent Hollywood:
The film is so visually ugly, it conveys nothing of the ocean-cooled, orange-tree-scented paradise that was Southern California in those days, which inspired 1920s comedy genius Buster Keaton — who was not at all inclined toward poetic speech — to say reverently, “The air in California was like wine.”
So many photos of young Keaton and frolicsome fellow movie stars of the 1920s — Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Louise Brooks — convey not only charismatic youth and the zany, exuberant dress styles of the time, but the physical exhilaration of sudden wealth, ease, and sexual freedom in sunny, wide-open landscapes. They still have an erotic charge a hundred years later.
Chazelle’s weirdly anti-sensual film is so insistent on the opposite qualities that at first it seems that his whole project is to shit on early Hollywood in the most literal way. His first scene — involving the arduous delivery of an elephant as exotic entertainment to an orgiastic party at a producer’s hilltop mansion, culminating in the terrified animal defecating directly into the camera — seemed to subtly hint at such an agenda. And once we get to the party, a young starlet urinating on a naked, obese film star — presumably evoking comedy film star Fatty Arbuckle, who giggles childishly that “it tickles” — makes it clear that the supposedly sexy party will be no more enjoyable to watch. It’s strenuously unpleasant, the whole thing.
Ugh, those descriptions alone…
Anyhoo, when Babylon bombed I assumed talk would die down pretty quickly and we could all move on to something more useful, like re-watching Top Gun: Maverick or popping in a season of The Office for the 50th glorious time. But as writer Farran Smith Nehme lamented on Facebook: “…The discourse goes on and on, and for our sins, Babylon opens today in Europe.”
This discourse would bother me less if there weren’t a suspicious number of articles insisting that Chazelle did tons of really in-depth research. According to my historian friends this seems to be somewhat true, to a point. But look, all I’m saying is it’s really easy to read a couple articles on a starlet and then stick someone who looks like her in a movie. I can do that! So can you! Also, some people are either praising Babylon as a positive (?) example of Hollywood taking a risk on a non-franchise movie, or else lamenting the fact that a risky non-franchise movie bombed, setting off fears that the movie industry shall rarely take such risks ever ever again, I suppose.
But I suspect that in a few months the discourse will have largely died down, and I honestly can’t imagine Babylon popping up in discussions as often as The Artist or the latest The Great Gatsby. It’s just too disgusting, people. And some of us really liked La La Land and would prefer to forget about this latest travesty as soon as possible.
So as I come to end of this post, I can’t resisting adding that Nellie LaRoy is a terrible silent film star name. “Nellie” was a country girl name, and “LaRoy” suggests “worldly temptress” or something like that–no budding starlet in her right mind would smash those together. There, it’s off my chest. And that’s enough mental energy on Babylon for today…moving on!
I agree with you, Lea… this is why I no longer watch ‘contemporary’ films.
It’s also why I don’t want to go to film festivals with modern films, you never know what imagery you’re going to see…
I’m not at all squeamish and have watched some pretty graphic material in terms of both sex and violence, but Babylon just looks annoying and pretentious. So many things are going against it for me… and tbh, it isn’t even the elephant doo doo. I could handle elephant doo doo. Here’s what immediately made me decide to just wait for my local library to get a copy, rather than shell out 12 dollars at a theater:
1) The settings and costumes look like a Gen Z Roaring 20s themed party and not the actual period. Tbh, when I first saw sidebar ads of this thing, showing Nelly crowd-surfing in her red strips of cloth, I thought this was about antiquity or something. I did read an article in which Chazelle claimed Nelly’s hair was supposed to stand out and he justified it like “not all stars had bobs then.” Yeah sure– some had long hair or Clara Bow’s wild hairdo, but even Bow’s hair is still very 20s and not 2020 beach waves.
2) The ads make the movie look obnoxious as hell. And I’m not even talking about the party scenes alone– the “icy nipples” schtick is presented like a really bad SNL skit. Those ten seconds exhaust me– that’s the film’s “comedy”? It reminds me of the things I found funny when I was 12.
Upon reading reviews, it sounds like the film doesn’t even appreciate the silent era as much as Chazelle claims. Imogen Smith says the film makes both late era silents and early talkies look primitive and bad, and after three hours of gutter viewing, we get a syrupy montage of “movie magic.” Tbh, montages like that disgust me more than elephant feces. They almost always come off as manipulative… that and they remind you of the good films you could have watched instead.
Also, it seems the side characters are apparently more interesting than the actual leads. Never a good sign. About the only thing that draws me to the film is the idea of Tobey Macguire as a gremlin-faced gangster. That could be amusing– I can only imagine the potential for future memes.
I will say this: I plan on trying to watch Babylon once I can do so in my own home. Imogen Smith, Farran Smith Nehme, and Tim Brayton are basically the only critics I regularly bother with, and they don’t form a solid consensus– Brayton likes it a lot apparently (he gave it 4 out of 5 stars), while Smith thought the movie was trash (I haven’t read FSN’s take yet but she seems to be very eh from what I can gather).
If I can finish it, I’ll probably write a review lol. If, anyway!
The whole “this ain’t great-grandma’s 1920s” look is trying way too hard and being way too obvious about it. We get it, Chazelle, no one has a “1960s Halloween flapper costume dress,” which is what the tiered fringe dress cliché is actually from. Wow, minds are blown. Here is your cookie.
Trying to recreate a certain period and being bad at it is one thing, but I can’t see the point in being so anachronistic that it looks more like a ludicrous joke than anything else…
There was probably a rare gal or two somewhere who didn’t go for bobbed hair in the 1920s, but they would’ve worn it up, and usually mimicked the look of shorter hair with strategic buns and such.
I can tell you that Farran thinks it’s trash, too!
One more tangent before I depart.
I hate, hate, HATE the idea that film lovers are obligated to watch non-franchise films regardless of whether or not they appeal to us.
“Well, you hate superhero films but skipped Babylon!?? Clearly, you want only Ant-Man movies till the end of time!!”
Pretty rich, considering the only movies I saw in the theater last year were The Northman (I love Rob Eggers) and Top Gun Maverick (went with a group and was pleasantly surprised). I haven’t seen a Marvel film in the theater since Endgame and a viewing of Spiderman Far from Home on a library disc convinced me the MCU is officially void of interest.
I go to see movies because they sound appealing or interesting. Chazelle isn’t owed my money because he’s not making Ant-Man 7: Electric Boogaloo.
People shouldn’t be shamed for avoiding a movie because they’re squeamish or because they don’t want to sit through a movie that was marketed as an obnoxious fever-dream for three hours.
And like I said– maybe I’ll like Babylon. Maybe the trailers misrepresent the film. Maybe it’s a secret masterpiece, the puzzle piece that explains the mysteries of God, the universe, and Louis Le Prince’s disappearance.
Or maybe it’s trash. idk.
Ha ha–I’m guessing “trash” will win the day.
Much agreed that no one is obligated to see a movie unless it actually appeals to them. And really, what’s so bad about the umpteen Marvel movies, anyways? The majority of them are well made, well written, well acted, have great special effects, fun storylines…if you’re going to have an era of franchise blockbusters then let’s thank our lucky stars we had such good ones (the ones up until Endgame, that is). What does surprise me is how rare it was to see complaints until the last couple years or so. Usually two films come out that are sort of similar and everyone groans “NOT THIS AGAIN,” but there was very little of that during the height of the Marvel cinematic universe. That I encountered, anyways.
(Gee, maybe it’s because…THEY WERE GOOD FILMS.)
Robert Eggers is incredible, I agree. One of the few directors who doesn’t “modernize” the way characters act, or even think, in a period film. And the only director today I’d trust with that Nosferatu remake, by the way!
I think the issue most take with Marvel (and superhero/franchise fare in general) is that they seem to be the only movies people are willing to go to the cinema to see, leaving other genres in the dust. I’ve seen much hand-wringing over how movies like Babylon, The Fabelmans, The Whale, etc. haven’t been doing great while everyone rushes to see Blue Smurf Cats Part II. People did the same wailing and gnashing of teeth when Spielberg’s West Side Story remake bombed and everyone went to see the new Spiderman instead (as if a remake of a beloved classic was going to pack them in– fans of the original were aghast and everyone else didn’t care enough to bother with either version).
It’s kinda strange, considering there’s always been smaller, artsy dramas that don’t attract as many viewers…it’s not like that’s ever been a new thing!
It goes beyond smaller, artsier dramas not being big business, which they never really were in the US. That’s not really what I’m talking about and I should have used better examples. It’s that it’s getting harder to imagine a non-franchise movie hitting the box office top ten these days– not just arthouse fare, but mainstream-style dramas or comedies or live-action musicals or crime flicks.
Farran Nehme Smith once wrote an article about this issue called “Box Office Blues (https://selfstyledsiren.substack.com/p/box-office-blues).” If you haven’t read it, it’s a fascinating look at how non-blockbusters used to have more box office clout than they do now. (Well, really, it’s about how people claiming westerns were the pre-21st century equivalent of superhero movies in terms of prevalence is bull when you actually examine box office numbers– but what I said is included in Smith’s article as well.)
At any rate, I’m not here to complain about the MCU. I find the whole debate exhausting– and irrelevant to me since I rarely go to the movies anymore anyway. And definitely not to see Babylon either!
I read the Farran article you shared, I can see what you mean. She laid out a good case.
Chazelle peaked with “Whiplash”. There, I said it.
When I first heard about this film, I had such high hopes. What a wasted opportunity, and a waste of a fine cast.
Hubby and I saw a commercial for it. He thought I’d like it but I had misgivings from the way it was presented. I said I would wait thank you for the review so I didn’t waste my time and get bad memories of crap….. literally.
I did like the artist and I thought Elvis was fantastic. I couldn’t sit through the latest great dad space so seeing DiCaprio in this movie about old times kind of made me question because he seems to be in a lot of movies about a century ago that just don’t make any sense to me. I also wondered if it was based on the book Hollywood Babylon which I know is just a complete travesty
It sounds like it’s at least in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon, which is unfortunate. My guess is you made a good decision to pass on it!
I like silent movies and I like the way Lea Stans writes about silent movies, but it’s such a shame that she and some people don’t want to see this movie.
I don’t need to drop an anvil on my foot to know it will hurt.
No use making people feel bad for not wanting to watch something when their objections are in part that they’re squeamish or that the trailers aren’t appealing.
If you liked it, wonderful. It seems to be very love or hate, which is why I’ll watch it just to see– but then again, I get people who don’t want to.
Ik understand your reactions, but you must know that Lea S. only published the first sentence of a text, in which I try to explain why this movie is worth seeing.
? Not sure what you’re referring to.
If you mean your Feb. 2 comment was supposed to be longer, apparently something went wrong on your end. I simply hit “approve” on your comment, which only contained that one sentence.
But to spare you some time–I’m not going to see Babylon!
I did see it. Had high hopes that were quickly dashed. But in all fairness, Chazelle did warn us five minutes into the film that it was going to be a literal shit show.
Let me give it another try…
I like silent movies and I like the way Lea Stans writes about silent movies, but it’s such a shame that she and other people don’t want to see this movie. Yet Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a delightful homage to that wondrous medium we all love so much. A homage to silent film with beautiful behind-the-scenes shots of the complex process of film shooting, where drunk actors have to sober up, where a crucial scene has to be shot just before the sun goes down, where a sick actress is replaced by an amateur, who turns out to do better than the professional she replaces. You see how the sound film makes its appearance and is received with wide eyes by audiences who had never seen or heard anything like it before! This film is not a documentary about that period, like so many other directors, Damien Chazelle manipulates reality, using the elements of a time period to tell his story. Think of Quentin Tanrantino who, in Inglorious Bastards, has Hitler killed in an attack before the war ends. The orgies get completely out of hand, the mountains of cocaine are blown away, the scenes in the basements of a totally decadent mafia boss are downright scary and yes, there is “the elephant poop, spraying right at the camera, no joke”, apparently more confrontational than violence and murders in so many (silent!) films.
This film is basically about three vulnerable people in the film industry, who learn the hard lesson that it is the industry that calls the shots and that if they are no longer successful, the industry will drop them like a brick. There is the celebrated actor, who has success after success, but then finds that his acting style is outdated and that there is no future for him. There is the young woman who does everything she can to become a famous actress, succeeds for a while, but then, despite all the help she receives, cannot settle in the chic film environment, loses faith in herself and her abilities and finally succumbs to alcohol and gambling. And there is the young man, who also wants to become someone in the film world, but he also fails to do so. In the last scenes of this film, set in 1952, he visits Hollywood with his wife and daughter and shows them the entrance to the Paramount studios. A little later he goes to see a movie on his own and we, the spectators, only hear the sound of it, the sound of “Singing in the Rain”. We see him sitting in the room and tears streaming down his cheeks, tears for what was not, for what was lost, for what could have been. Throw all your prejudices overboard, go watch this movie, and enjoy something really beautiful.
Clearly we have far differing ideas of what constitutes ‘beautiful.’
Would you say the scene where a guy eats live rats in a filthy underground club referred to as the “asshole of Los Angeles” is “really beautiful”?
How about the closeup–so I’ve heard–of the elephant’s anus right as it lets loose?
Look, if other folks want to see Babylon I sure can’t stop them. If I personally want to see a film with a similar plot that’s undeniably beautiful and has an equally excellent understanding of the era, I’ll just rewatch The Artist.
I appreciate that you love this film so much– I’m even sympathetic to your views about historical accuracy in these kinds of movies (Singin’ in the Rain isn’t exactly a documentary either after all)– but I do take issue with this sentence:
“Throw all your prejudices overboard, go watch this movie, and enjoy something really beautiful.”
Using terms like “prejudices” to describe someone not being comfortable with graphic content sounds an awful lot like trying to guilt people into watching a movie. Some people are squeamish. That will affect their enjoyment, case closed.
Like, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a big favorite of mine. I find it philosophically profound, visually striking, and intellectually stimulating… but I totally get people who don’t want to see it because they’re squeamish about violence. On the other hand, I NEVER plan on watching Salo, no matter how good people claim it is, because, well, even I have limits on what I’m willing to spend two hours doing.
As the late, great Robert Osbourne once said, there’s something in the world of movies for everyone. Babylon is definitely striking a chord with some people… but it definitely looks like a “not for all tastes” deal.
The opening scenes of Baylon were the most repulsive 15 minutes of cinema I have ever endured, and I watched almost half of Hard to Be a God.
Hard to Be a God–my gosh, sir, I hope you didn’t need therapy after that!
It broke my brain so much I misspelled Babylon.
I didn’t make it through the beginning and won’t try again. It was gross. I decided to watch From Here To Eternity, instead.
Seems like a wise choice to me!
I agree that is a disgusting, no talent movie. I tried to watch it twice but became very bored and disgusted very quickly. It was like watching a bunch of pretentious posers pretending they know what it was like to live during that era. Brad Pitt well people say he’s the worlds sexiest and most talented actor alive, I beg to differ. He looks like a smelly, white trailer trash dude, comparable to Joe Dirt.
Well, I did finally see Babylon. Will be writing a review soon.
It’s– both better than I expected (Brad Pitt is really good and there are some interesting moments), but also every bit as abrasive and juvenile, if that makes sense. And no, I could never get used to the anachronisms, like my God.
The trailer alone drove me nuts, I don’t blame you! I’ll look forward to your review too, do share. 🙂