Archive for February 22, 2023

Good God

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2023 by dcairns

We finally caught up with BABYLON. A very hard artifact to account for.

“I’m not as angry as I thought I’d be,” Fiona began, after the three hours had gushed over us.

“‘I’m not angry, just disappointed,'” I finished for her.

We’d read some highly magnificent takedowns of Damien Chazelle’s film, so we can’t claim to have come to it unprejudiced. Still, I was rooting for it to be better than its reputation, and I was trying to make sense of the filmmaking decisions. But they defy sense. Here’s my best attempt at working out the thought processes and thoughtless processes that resulted in this misshapen specimen of cinematic teratology.

Firstly, I’ll admit that the cinematography is often breathtakingly beautiful, even by the high standards of this age, when digital colour correction has made an almost obnoxious degree of beauty attainable even by hacks. The music and sound design are also pretty great, and maybe Justin Hurwitz’ sort-of-anachronistic but catchy and pleasing score hints at some of the effects the film is aiming at and missing: it’s an invention rather than a recreation, it has little to do with 1920s and 30s music, but it transports us to another time and place — an imagined time and place rather than an actual one. Put it this way, it’s a more effective soundtrack than MANK’s.

It’s tempting to blame Baz Luhrmann, but maybe we should blame Fellini first? Chazelle may well be familiar with the maestro’s work, or he may merely have seen and misunderstood films influenced by it, but the ahistorical approach of SATYRICON, which must have been infuriating for classicists as BABYLON can be for most film buffs or scholars, provides a kind of mind map for BABYLON’s weird choices.

And SATYRICON begat GANGS OF NEW YORK, “a western set on Mars” just as Fellini had described his opus as “Flash Gordon set in the past.” If you throw out what normally constrains a period movie — the requirement to produce a commercially acceptable (for the period you’re actually shooting in) version of supposed historical accuracy, then you need some other creative guardrails so it’s not anything-goes masturbatory anarchy. Scorsese, making GANGS, no doubt had some kind of a vision, but he couldn’t achieve it as he was forced to make the film “about” a romantic couple he evidently had zero interest in. A bizarre case of history repeating itself: Scorsese struggled with the squaring the same circle that had defeated Julien Temple on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS — what interests you is just voyaging plotlessly through a world, but there’s a large and voluble productorial presence squatting on your shoulder barking instructions gleaned from Syd Field or Robert McKee.

MOULIN ROUGE! came out the year before GANGS, couldn’t have influenced it, but probably influenced BABYLON. Anything goes. Chazelle, to give him his due, is a bit better at organizing his mismatched materials than Luhrman, who at every stage of the creative process seems to be merely throwing shit at the wall. In a film called MOULIN ROUGE! our first entry, with our protagonist, into the titular and exclamatory venue, might seem to be a moment of some dramatic import, but Luhrman can’t wait the required three minutes for Ewan McGregor to get there, so he flashforwards to the joint purely in order to ruin the moment. Fiona likened the film’s affect to have glitter shot into your retinae for two hours, which is fair — the Cuisinart approach to montage is a big part of what’s so offensive — but the sheer ineptitude of the story certainly enhances the repulsiveness — are we actually meant to be on the edge of our seats worrying whether Nicole Kidman will be shot or die of consumption? I came to the conclusion that a bullet would be quicker, and would allow the villain to be punished, so it would be preferable all round.

What oddly enough isn’t a problem with MR! is the wild anachronism. Cinema can do that — you can justify pop songs and the fancy dress of two centuries if your big idea is simply to generate excitement, and your big insight is that the Moulin Rouge was an exciting place. You could actually take the costumes further into craziness if you wanted.

And so, in BABYLON, Margot Robbie (in full Harley Quinn mode) attends a movie premiere in a chorus girl costume rather than a gown, a peculiar choice which is likely to work only for audiences who have no idea of the film’s period. Her hair is a tangled mop of wrongness for most of the runtime. The maze of open-air sets is authentic for 1914, not for 1926.

A lot of the weird choices are not just ahistorical but illogical.

Brad Pitt’s character is supposedly a fake Latin lover, but he acts under the name Jack Conrad. A character decides to pay off the mob with Monopoly money. I think a lot of this illogic accounts for the way we felt nothing — the melodrama all fell flat. Because we couldn’t believe any of it. But then, the characters are mostly obnoxious — Robbie’s Frankensteinian assemblage of Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and others, is so obviously a nightmare when she first rocks up to the party that it’s incomprehensible that Diego Calva’s protag, Manny, wouldn’t slam the door in her face. Sure, she’s beautiful, but so is nearly everyone in this film, save the fat guys Chazelle keeps serving up for our mockery. (Fellini’s freakshow aesthetic had both an innocence and a measure of sympathy, at least by comparison.)

I couldn’t LIKE any of these people: it can’t be coincidence that Manny gets the bosses’ attention first by devising a means of smuggling an overdose victim from a party, and then fires the titles writer to avoid a lesbian scandal (the fact that the silent era is over and titles-writers are no longer required would seem reason enough), and persuades the Black jazz musician to black up. Obviously the message is that moral compromise is the way of the business, selling out your principles is the way to get ahead. There’s some sense that we’re being told a story, one which could end with Manny going a step too far and losing his soul, or crossing a line and getting in trouble for it, or finally discovering there’s something he won’t do (like Sidney Falco in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, who’s also a louse but a more entertaining one). But the story isn’t paid off in any of those ways, it’s just truncated.

To the Fellini-Scorsese-Luhrman vortex, the film adds more than a splash of BOOGIE NIGHTS — network narrative structure, a lot of the same story beats — and then great splatters of Farrelly Bros gross-out comedy, which become an insistent refrain. I didn’t spot any ejaculate but all the other bodily fluids seem to be accounted for, to the point where the absence of emission becomes an odd omission. The purpose of the buckets of shit, gore and vomit seems to be mainly comedic, and the decision to create the comedy in this manner is presumably iconoclastic in intent: Hollywood was not the pantheon of celluloid gods and goddesses, but a Pantagruelian horrorshow of malfunctioning flesh.

Chazelle has Luc Besson’s giftless approach to comedy: force the audience to laugh by applying a comic rhythm to fundamentally unamusing material. He has considerably more varied means of modulating the rhythm, mostly with the skilled sound design, so it’s not just characters looking at the camera with quizzical expressions (a gag Besson lifted from Landis and dots throughout his “comedy” sequences with wearying repetition). But after you’ve been nudged into laughter a couple of times, you do notice that nothing funny is happening.

Enough of the comedy revolves around the deaths of minor characters that this, too, erodes one’s abilities to care about major ones. If a cameraman expiring horrible in a soundproofed booth is meant to be humorous, why should we feel a sentimental pang at Manny’s romantic yearning, which is objectively less important?

If Chazelle is copying PTA, Scorsese, Luhrmann and, at least indirectly, Fellini, without understanding how any of them get their effects (I suppose we have to credit Luhrmann with “effects,” though I consider them all deleterious), we still cannot absolve Kenneth Anger from all blame.

If Hollywood Babylon impressed some part of the world upon publication, it was probably because the world suspected all these stories might be true, and that even if they weren’t, equally vile, tragic or absurd things would be. Nowadays, to me, the book interests mainly for the insight it provides into Anger’s psyche — a great deal of unexamined misogyny and self-hating homophobia seems to be mixed into it.

Chazelle seems to have been thrilled by the gossip, then presumably disillusioned a bit when he read further and discovered most of it wasn’t true. And then confusion set in. In interviews, Chazelle is unable to really explain what relationship he wants his film to have with the truth. He cites Kevin Brownlow as a more reliable source than Anger, but then basically says “But who knows what really happened?” All bets are off.

It’s hard to draw the line once you take that attitude. Once you take the view that Hollywood debauchery exceeded all rumour, and that the rumours weren’t being hyped by the yellow press for their own commercial reasons, you’re into a fantasy. Fantasy is an acceptable genre, though it’s probably good to examine what each particular invention is based on. And you probably had better make the individual characters’ stories meaningful. Romanticising suicide, celebrating alcoholism, leering over orgies with hypocritical disgust, none of that is going to wash.

There is evidence here that Chazelle could make a scary and effective horror film — the descent into the subterranean club is pretty terrifying. There’s a whole lot of skill being blasted like fire extinguisher foam at a cardboard infrastructure that inevitably grows soggy and collapses.

Chazelle’s confusion explodes into the fireworks display of the closing montage, comprised of these-you-have-loved highlights of the preceding three hours, enormous chunks of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, blipvert subliminals of all film history, with special care given to neglecting the silent era. It’s one of the sequences, along with the protracted snakebite farce, where the film’s macro-confusion as to what on earth it’s about spills into the micro-business of an individual scene. What I mean is, usually you can tell why a scene is happening, even if it isn’t working. But sometimes the scenes become simply incoherent. Why does Brad Pitt drop a reference to GONE WITH THE WIND a decade before the source novel was published?

I was really sad when Edinburgh Filmhouse closed, and what made it sadder was that one of the last posters displayed was for Andrew Dominik’s BLONDE, a film I despised. Somebody somehow got in and changed it, I’m glad to say. But it created in my mind a confluence, BLONDE = DEATH OF CINEMA. BABYLON seems, in its closing minutes, to be not just attempting a muddled rip-off of CINEMA PARADISO, but to be mourning the demise of the medium. But the medium deserves a better epitaph.