Tracker Pixel for Entry

​Singin’ in the Hurricane: Chazelle Takes Us to Wild, Old Hollywood in ‘Babylon’

Cinema | December 18th, 2022

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

How many “Babylon” reviews and essays will at some point use the words orgiastic and overlong to describe Damien Chazelle’s raucous Hollywood fable? To date, the filmmaker remains the youngest winner of the Oscar for Best Director, which he received for “La La Land” during a ceremony enshrined in Academy legend for the embarrassing Best Picture envelope gaffe at the end of the telecast. That film, which also mines movie-mad dreamscapes, cemented Chazelle’s status as a top-tier storyteller following sophomore barn burner “Whiplash.” His latest, a wild and uneven quasi-epic that ogles stardom and cinephilia through the eyes of a group of characters during the tumultuous transition from the silent era to the advent of synchronous sound, is certainly hungry for attention.

The film’s length, a whopping three hours and eight minutes, could test the patience of ticket buyers who might opt instead to watch at home, where bathroom break pauses can be made on demand. “Babylon” goes big and refuses to be ignored, even if a much better, much shorter movie exists somewhere inside the messy sprawl.

Among the ensemble, Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt command the most scrutiny based on star power, but Diego Calva’s Manny Torres serves as the point of audience identification. Several other supporting players, including Jovan Adepo’s jazz trumpeter and Li Jun Li’s intertitle writer/chanteuse, seem at first to point in the direction of an interlocking narrative structure that never fully materializes.

Despite good intentions, Chazelle’s approach to the inclusion of historically marginalized characters of color partially backfires. Calva ends up with more screen time than either Adepo or Li – whose Lady Fay Zhu was based in part on Anna May Wong – but the climactic “Cinema Paradiso”-style montage that Chazelle offers as an affirmation of the magnificent, life-altering power of the art of the motion picture is something of a curiosity given the dark and grim critique of the soul-crushing production conditions preceding it. Are we supposed to sympathize with the once optimistic Torres, who grows increasingly bitter, disillusioned and unpleasant as he rises through the ranks?

For maximum enjoyment, movie lovers will make a sport of identifying Chazelle’s many homages and intertextual acknowledgments. Obviously, “Singin’ in the Rain” serves as inspirational sunshine to the “Babylon” thunderstorm, and Chazelle pays his respects in multiple scenes. The tragedy of the unfairly maligned Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is used as the basis for a sequence of events that will launch the career of Robbie’s “wild child” Nellie LaRoy. The ghosts of Murnau, Griffith, Wellman, von Stroheim and others haunt the productions mounted at the Kinoscope studio and the milieu surrounding it.

Chazelle pays tribute to more contemporary heroes, too. The influence of Scorsese and Altman is unmistakable and one scene straight-up copies the anxious “Jessie’s Girl” drug deal gone sideways in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” Pitt relishes the tragedy and the comedy in perpetual bridegroom Jack Conrad, his Clark Gable/John Gilbert mashup. Like Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – another metanarrative blending Los Angeles fact and fiction – Conrad never has to think about how incredible he looks. The actor wears the role of silver screen royalty like a finely-tailored suit.

With an explosive elephant, a golden shower, and cocaine-fueled, money-to-burn decadence, the Dionysian bender that opens the film is rivaled only by the frenetic sequence in which Nellie becomes an overnight sensation, summoning tears at will and upstaging the irritated headliner while a nearby battle scene rages before a different crew. Even though Nellie’s accent and affinity for sewer-mouthed profanity veer close to Harley Quinn, Robbie sinks her teeth into the role. To paraphrase the sentiments expressed by Jean Smart’s gossip columnist/critic Elinor St. John in the movie’s best speech, Margot Robbie will live forever. 

Recently in:

By Maddie Robinsonmaddierobi.mr@gmail.com This article discusses topics related to mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org. …

Homesteading stories shared by late local historianBy Michael M. Millermichael.miller@ndsu.edu The 53rd Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention convenes July 17-20 at the Baymont Hotel in Mandan, North Dakota. For further…

With Javier Quiroz and Kohlrabi SoupJuly 10 at 7 p.m.The Aquarium226 N. Broadway, Fargo (above Dempsey’s)The Wall Street Journal had this to say about “Black Banjo,” Tray Wellington’s full-length debut: “This is a record…

The WFF Unified School District?By John Strandjas@hpr1.com Both the Fargo and West Fargo School Districts are strategizing their futures. This is necessary, because of immensely challenging financial and geopolitical changes facing…

By Ed Raymondfargogadfly@gmail.comShould ‘The Chosen One’ be Sentenced to Spend Months at each Level?It’s not unusual on this planet, we have had hundreds of men and a couple of women who have used religion to become…

By Rick Gionrickgion@gmail.com Holiday wine shopping shouldn’t have to be complicated. But unfortunately it can cause unneeded anxiety due to an overabundance of choices. Don’t fret my friends, we once again have you covered…

By Rick Gionrickgion@gmail.com In this land of hotdish and ham, the knoephla soup of German-Russian heritage seems to reign supreme. In my opinion though, the French have the superior soup. With a cheesy top layer, toasted baguette…

HPR chats with Bob Carpenter of the Nitty Gritty Dirt BandBy Sabrina Hornungsabrina@hpr1.com When asked if it was fair to consider the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as “the godfathers of contemporary Americana” during our interview,…

Now playing at the Fargo Theatre.By Greg Carlson gregcarlson1@gmail.comPalme d’Or recipient “Anatomy of a Fall” is now enjoying an award-season victory tour, recently picking up Golden Globe wins for both screenplay and…

New Minnesota sculptures include artist’s largest trollBy Sabrina Hornungsabrina@hpr1.com According to Danish artist and environmental activist Thomas Dambo, “All trash is treasure.” So far, he and his team have built 138…

By John Showalterjohn.d.showalter@gmail.comHigh Plains Reader had the opportunity to interview two mysterious new game show hosts named Milt and Bradley Barker about an upcoming event they will be putting on at Brewhalla. What…

By Annie Prafckeannieprafcke@gmail.com AUSTIN, Texas – As a Chinese-American, connecting to my culture through food is essential, and no dish brings me back to my mother’s kitchen quite like hotdish. Yes, you heard me right –…

By Sabrina Hornungsabrina@hpr1.comNew Jamestown Brewery Serves up Local FlavorThere’s something delicious brewing out here on the prairie and it just so happens to be the newest brewery west of the Red River and east of the…

By John Showalter  john.d.showalter@gmail.comThey sell fentanyl test strips and kits to harm-reduction organizations and…

JANUARY 19, 1967– MARCH 8, 2023 Brittney Leigh Goodman, 56, of Fargo, N.D., passed away unexpectedly at her home on March 8, 2023. Brittney was born January 19, 1967, to Ruth Wilson Pollock and Donald Ray Goodman, in Hardinsburg,…

By Jim Fugliejimfuglie920@gmail.comMy articles here are about politics. I’m writing this before the North Dakota primary election. You are reading it after the primary. Advantage: readers. So I won’t speculate much on that…