Babylon: The Work Of Genius That You’ll Never See
Disclaimer: This contains minor spoilers to the 2022 film, “Babylon”, which you will probably not see and if you do, it will be on AMC 10 years from now and you’ll stick around to watch the 5 hour broadcast because your drug dealer once mentioned that it was “pretty dece”.
By the end of the extravagant 30+ minute opening sequence of Babylon, I knew that I needed to write about it immediately. What about, I had no idea. I spent the entire length of the movie trying to figure out what I was going to say, how I was going to start and what my over-arching thesis could be. By the time the lights went up, I was alone, jaw agape, with no thesis but rather a sharp panic attack that still hasn’t fully left me. In writing about Babylon, I failed before I was even able to begin. I realize now that this is totally appropriate because that is the essence of the film. The production was doomed from the start and the film itself is quite aware of it.
Babylon is, for all intents and purposes, a failure.
It’s also a wonderful, staggering work.
Everybody loves a good disaster story, especially when the disaster crashes at the box office. We just want to see Hollywood fail and can’t help but revel in stories about the sloppy production of Cutthroat Island or Bonfire of the Vanities. Babylon isn’t one of those movies. There was no major set drama and leading into release, the reviews were raving. And the reviews are justified. The award nominations are rolling in. The film is a triumph, damnit! There’s just one problem: nobody wants to see it. Which on paper, makes little sense. An admired director making a lively period peice starring two of the biggest names in Hollywood. How does that equate to box office poison?
One could easily blame the length. Babylon is long. Like, really really long. It clocks in at 189 minutes, which appears to be an act of defiant vanity by both the creators and the studio that didn’t make them shorten it. But then I crunched the numbers are realized how wrong that statement was. The top 5 grossing films of 2022 average out at 151 minutes, way longer than what the typical moviegoer of yesteryear was willing to sit through. Even Avatar: The Way Of Water, which is pummeling Babylon into submission, clocks in at an obscene 192 minutes. So no, length is not at all the problem.
The problem could be all in the timing. Damien Chazelle initially pitched this movie in 2010 and nobody wanted to touch it. They said it was too grand and indulgent. A few years later, the same studio greenlit The Wolf Of Wall Street, a 3+ hour, overindulgent period piece. It grossed over $400 million worldwide. Turns out, what Damien was pitching was exactly what the world wanted. By the time he was able to make the film, times had changed drastically. Americans are still yearning for escapism, but instead of seeing rich people be frivolous, they’d rather see superheroes save the world over and over and over again. We don’t want to feel bad because the characters made disastrous choices, we want to feel bad because of what we ourselves did to society or the environment (which I’m assuming is the moral to Avatar 2 (I haven’t seen it and probably won’t because it’s too long (my limit is 191 minutes (fight me)))). The production of the film was halted for Covid and I have to believe that if only they could’ve made it a year sooner, it’d be a success.
But ultimately, it isn’t a success. It must’ve became very apparent to Damien before the movie even wrapped that it would tank. It gets to a certain point, at around the 2 hour mark, that it becomes self-aware. The characters begin to fail and disintegrate because they can’t adapt to the new standards of society. While they once had lavish parties, they were later forced to fit in with the stuffy bourgeoisie. Mountains of coke turned to platters of caviar and our protagonist had no choice but to projectile vomit all over the rug. This scene in itself made a huge statement to me. While we once revered Leo for crawling out of a car whacked out on expired quaaludes, we now stick our nose up at Margot Robbie just trying to have a good time. There was a time and place for that excess and the time isn’t now. But the film got made anyways.
I’m of the opinion that Chazelle knew he was in deep shit and instead of wringing his hands, he went balls to the wall. His vanity is almost commendable. He literally dares people to watch this. Within the first 2 minutes, an elephant shits on people and Fattie Arbuckle gets pissed on by an underaged girl. IN THE FIRST TWO MINUTES! OF A 3 HOUR MOVIE! I would say that there were walk-outs after the golden shower, but the only people there were me and a homeless man that was trying to stay out of the rain. It sounds like I’m making all of this up. I’m not. This is also part of the film’s genius. I went into it knowing that it was a failure and was given a story about the biggest people in Hollywood failing. The failed movie about failure didn’t fail to fail.
Which in a way harkens back to a little film called Boogie Nights. An overly-ambitious epic comedy about a transition time in Hollywood that was regarded as before its time. In Babylon, our Dirk Diggler is named Manny, a starry-eyed servant to a studio executive that gets swept up in the fast life of the film industry and becomes a person way bigger than himself, only to be humbled greatly in the end. Roller Girl is played by Margot Robbie, who is the talk-of-the-town nobody starlet with the rocket strapped to her back and a crippling drug habit. And instead of Burt Reynolds, we get Brad Pitt as an established industry icon that gives our protagonists the opportunity for fame but then has a sharp downfall as he becomes dissatisfied with advancements in technology and the public’s taste at large. In too many ways, Babylon is a spiritual remake of Boogie Nights. You have the bit character that is always burned by women and ends up committing suicide. You even have protagonists at their wits end, in dire money trouble, trying to rip off a dangerous kingpin. But instead of the kingpin’s henchman being a teenager that sporadically lights off firecrackers to make the scene tenser, it’s Ethan Suplee who sporadically hocks loogies. Once again, on paper it sounds wonderful and is wonderful. But do you really want to see it? Guess not.
Things just aren’t as fun as they used to be. The world has become a serious place very quickly. While the film paints that picture well, it also reminded me of how I fell out of love with filmmaking. When I first started messing around with a camera, the sky was the limit. I could shoot what I wanted, whenever I wanted, however I wanted. This attitude was well-alive in the silent film era. The movie projects the literal wild west, as countless pieces are being filmed at once in a vast desert. It’s extremely chaotic and even more fun. As soon as sound was introduced, everything changed for our protagonists. Suddenly, they were confined to stuffy studios where people die of heat exhaustion. We sit and watch as the same scene has to be redone over and over again because the sound wasn’t right, which eventually boils over into an all-out fight. That was the part of filmmaking that I came to learn and despise. So much needless work, so many wasted man hours, all for something that will probably end up in the trash. In the film, leading roles were being taken up by Broadway actors, just as content creation has been taken over by amateurs with a phone. The characters fell out of love with cinema the same way I did, for all the same reasons. Also, the characters just weren’t that good at acting or film making. And neither was I. Art imitating life imitating art imitating whatever, you get it.
Opinions will wildly vary, but I believe that Babylon is a great film. Everything from the art direction to the music to the cinematography to the acting was nothing short of excellent. If this were expanded into a 6-part HBO miniseries, it’d be a runaway hit and the creators would be forced to make an ill-advised second season despite the story being completely over. Instead, this is a film that is going to be revisited years from now, when we’re all mentally in a better place and be held in high regard. But for now, we have to refer to the ending. Our hero sits down in a movie theater and is brought to tears as their own life is being ridiculed on screen. Then the film flashes forward and the character sees visions of cinema that has yet to come. This includes a clip of, yup, Avatar.
In the end, the filmmakers were so aware that Avatar was going to murder it in the box office that they decided to include a clip of Avatar.
This is why Babylon is a work of genius and you’ll never see it.
So I guess that’s my thesis. Cool. I’ll see myself out.