Damien Chazelle’s newest movie has gotten a lot of love and hate, which made me excited to see it. Even in the screening I attended, several people walked out before the title card was shown. Personally, I enjoyed a lot of things about it. Using three characters as a way of tracing the history of movie making, Chazelle’s epic period piece is as chaotic as the trailer makes it seem. There’s a lot to say regarding how the script treats its main Latino character, and I think it could’ve used tighter editing in some scenes, but the three protagonists we follow ultimately show the beauty in filmmaking while not shying away from the ugly side of the movie industry.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether this film showcases Chazelle’s love or hate for Hollywood, but I don’t think it can be boiled down to one or the other. The director clearly loves his artform; at many points, we’re told that movies are perhaps the most accessible way of enjoying art. Brad Pitt’s character echoes this point when saying ‘my parents didn’t have the money to take us to see plays at the theater. We went to the cinema.’ But despite these popular possibilities, the industry of filmmaking should certainly be critiqued, and Chazelle definitely does that with this epic comedy-drama. Because it’s so focused on the artistic contributions of marginalized groups, as well as the industrial exploitation of certain people, it makes sense why Chazelle would choose a woman and an aging actor as two of the film’s main protagonists, also focusing on an Asian woman and a black man. These are the people who made Hollywood what it is today, yet many of their contributions remain forgotten. But I can’t say these characters were handled perfectly, especially the Mexican immigrant Chazelle used as his third protagonist.
Latinos have a rich and deep history in Hollywood. Despite their many achievements in acting, directing and behind the scenes work, discrimination was still an enormous obstacle. Few were cast to play Latino characters (many weren't cast at all once sound was introduced into film due to their accents) and many were kept in lowly positions by white higher-ups, reflected in a scene where Manny Torres asks for work on a movie set, and the man he’s assisting simply says ‘you’re where you belong.’ Despite Chazelle kind of capturing this, I think Manny’s arc overall rang a bit hollow.
We don’t really see him struggling against this racist discrimination. In fact, racism as a whole is kind of glossed over. Manny’s rise through the ranks happens in a single montage, and next thing we know he’s gained a wardrobe full of suits and an office with his name on the door. To top it all off, he does this at the expense of everyone else, telling a black man to make his skin darker with shoe polish for the sake of the lighting, firing lesbian talent due to ‘moral concerns,’ etc. For a film so clearly focused on the history of cinema, this portion seems disingenuous. Using a Latino character as a stand-in for the racism, sexism and homophobia of an industry that's largely led by white men seems like a way of obfuscating blame. There are moments where we see these white studio execs, but instead of showing them making those decisions, Chazelle hides the industry’s problematics behind a brown face. If he wanted to show how Manny’s ambition ultimately caused him to lose himself, that’d have required we see more of Manny’s moral struggle. Audiences need a more fleshed-out character for this to be believable. I think that would’ve been possible if the editor had been a lot quicker to cut certain scenes.
This film’s been branded as ‘overindulgent,’ which I think is fair. In party scenes so over the top they make the Great Gatsby look like a middle-school sleepover, viewers see the movie business for what it is: excess, sexism, racism and debauchery. I think the film captures the nuance of this duality—the problems of industry vs the beauty of art—fairly well, I just wish it navigated the questions of race with as much care as it took to capture all the hedonism of this time period. The party that starts the film feels like it's fifteen minutes, and I think it could be cut down by at least ten. I can see why that'd be hard: Chazelle clearly had fun with this budget, and perhaps got carried away by his enthusiasm when it came to pacing. The main issue is that these long, unnecessary scenes get in the way of the film further exploring the characters themselves, who form the heart of the movie.
Chazelle’s work has always been interested in the artistic process, be it drumming in Whiplash (2014) or acting/playing jazz in La La Land (2016), but Babylon is where the young, accomplished director turns the camera towards his own industry, and what he shows us is not good. Despite this, there seems to be something about art that Chazelle deems worth fighting for, and that’s something that really resonated with me. We live in a world where everything is turned into a commodity, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting through our art. It’s great to see a studio give this director such a big budget to do whatever he wants, and it’s even better to see him use that budget to basically give the industry the middle finger while still showing love for his artistic medium. We should all be glad a film like Babylon can exist in times like these, despite its many issues. Go watch it in theaters.