‘Babylon’ Themes, Explained: Damien Chazelle Unpacks Old Hollywood But Is His Anger Misplaced?


Known for making some of the most celebrated Hollywood films of the past decade, Damien Chazelle debuted with “Whiplash,” which commented on the pros and cons of ambition through the toxic relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer and his teacher. It was a box office and an awards season favorite. He followed that up with “La La Land,” which explored jazz and cinema through the doomed relationship between two star-crossed lovers, which opened to critical acclaim and box office success. Then he took off to space to understand the concept of loss in “First Man.” That didn’t rake in the big bucks, but it was and is still highly appreciated for taking such a globally recognizable figure and making him feel so relatable. He made a Netflix miniseries titled “The Eddy,” which fared fine. And now he’s here with “Babylon,” where he has explored all kinds of debauchery, violence, and complexities that entail during the process of filmmaking. So, let’s talk about the themes coursing through the film’s drug-infused veins.

Major Spoilers Ahead

What’s The Point Of Setting ‘Babylon’ In The 1920s?

“Babylon” takes place between 1926 and 1932 and shows the transition from silent films to talkies through the perspective of Jack Conrad, Nellie LaRoy, Manny Torres, and Sidney Palmer, amongst many other characters. Conrad is a superstar of the silent film era. Nellie is an up-and-coming actor who is starting out in the silent era but finds herself at the helm of the emergence of the talkies. Torres starts off as an assistant doing odd jobs at Kinoscope Studios and eventually becomes a studio executive there. Sidney works as a jazz trumpeter at Hollywood parties, graduates to being a part of the live background score orchestra, and then becomes the star of his own musicals. But since all of them are in this evolutionary phase, they have a tough time figuring out who they are and where they fit in this ever-morphing industry. By the end, three out of the four main characters essentially sink into oblivion while only Sidney finds his niche and, I guess you can say, survives.

What’s the point, though? We’ve watched stories like these for as long as cinema has existed and for as long as someone has decided to retrospectively view the journey of the medium. What’s so new about digging into the guts of Old Hollywood? Well, in my opinion, Chazelle feels that Hollywood is going through a transitional phase right now. Filmmakers have to decide if they want to be a part of spandex-wearing cinematic universes, resort to OTT-only releases, or keep pursuing producers to give them money to make standalone films, which won’t do good at the box office unless they have got that blockbuster appeal. And, to be honest, that frustration is understandable. However, making this primal scream of a film feels performative coming from Chazelle because, unlike the characters in his film, he’s a White man who got an $80 million deal after giving a massive box-office flop. He doesn’t have a reason to cry about the state of the industry now by trying to relate to a time when the industry went through a similar change. He can just use his privilege to get a prestigious project and stay relevant.

What Is Damien Chazelle Trying To Say About Hollywood Through Queer And POC Characters?

My main contention with “Babylon” is that Chazelle uses queer and POC characters to make this statement about Hollywood both chewing up and spitting out talented professionals while also providing millions with a livelihood. And the reason why it feels weird is that he kept his most cohesive and celebratory projects for cis-heterosexual characters. But the day he woke up to the dark underbelly of Hollywood, he turned towards a queer woman, a Mexican immigrant, and an African-American man. Why? Yes, we know that queer actors, Mexican actors, African-American actors, Native American actors, and essentially everyone whose skin isn’t some shades of White are the victims of inequality to this day. What’s the point of highlighting that aspect of the industry without providing a solution? Or does Chazelle think that writing these roles, where queer and POC characters suffer the most horrible ordeals ever, is his way of promoting diversity and inclusivity? If that’s the case, no matter how well the intention is, it feels wrong because he comes off as a White man trying to empathize with the plight of those who aren’t as privileged as him in the worst way possible.

If you contrast the arcs of Nellie, Manny, and Sidney with that of Conrad, his fall from grace seems like a true-blue tragedy. Nellie and Manny come off as the architects of their respective downfalls. Sidney chooses stoicism over, well, any other option. So, do you see the difference in Chazelle’s perspective when it comes to depicting a White man versus anybody else? In Conrad’s case (who is ironically being played by Brad Pitt, whose image is being constantly polished to erase the abuse allegations against him), there’s a sense of sympathy. But in Nellie, Manny, and Sidney’s case, there’s a sort of pity. And I don’t think anybody needs that from a White director in this sociocultural atmosphere. I’d rather have queer directors, Mexican directors, and African-American directors celebrate the characters who exemplify the real-life people that paved the way for them. In doing so, we are not only highlighting the change that the industry has gone through but also championing the people who have contributed to that change without belittling them in every other frame like “Babylon” does. It pains me to say all this as a fan of Chazelle’s work, but it needs to be said.

Is The Chaotic Anger Of “Babylon” Directed Towards The General Audience And Critics?

Despite being a movie about movies, the general audience shows up on the screen a sum total of four times: when Nellie sees herself on the big screen, when Manny finds out about the advent of the talkies, when Conrad realizes he is done, and when Manny watches “Singin’ in the Rain.” And then there’s the columnist Elinor St. John, who is a stand-in (read: punching bag) for film critics and film journalists. As far as I can tell, both the audience and the critic are positioned in a way that they can appear as oblivious to the process of filmmaking as humanly possible. Even though Elinor is given front-row seats in a movie production, she seems disinterested in it, while Conrad and Manny pull off the impossible right in front of her eyes. As for the audience, they are just there to react in awe or disrespect because, much like the critic, they are even more alienated from the filmmaking process. They don’t know anything about the blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting a single shot, be it on an open field or a sound stage, because the magic of moviemaking doesn’t allow them to.

This framing of the general audience and critics brings me to the point I’m trying to make: Damien Chazelle’s anger about the film industry and every good and bad thing associated with it is misplaced. His career isn’t as sprawling or as divisive as many others directors’ are for him to send a hate letter to the people who keep the lights on in a studio. “Babylon” is the first time that he has managed to split both audiences and critics down the middle. Even then, not a single soul has bashed the craft on display. That’s why it seems to me that Chazelle’s latest venture is a desperate attempt to tell the world that he has seen enough and knows enough about movies to educate us about it. Maybe he has when it comes to White characters, but he is way off base when it comes to queer and/or POC characters. Hence, in my humble opinion, he is the one who is in need of an education about his place in this ever-changing industry instead of us. He needs to accept the fact that he isn’t the controversial and disliked director that he thinks he is. And he needs to be critical of his community before assuming again that he is capable of telling the stories that are not for him to tell.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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