Despite being cast by online critics as a critique/love letter of the film industry, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” (2022) brings to center-stage another interesting trade-off.
On it’s face, yes, it’s about Hollywood. The graphic drama teases out the transition from a debauchery-ridden, almost circus-like, film industry - exemplified by a full 40 minutes of mansion parties and drugs - to the glamorous, artistic art it continues to aspire to be.
There’s definitely an opinion on the role that technical innovations play in our lives (maybe a slight dig at AI), as the transformation from silent films to “talkies” leaves victims in it’s path. However, “Babylon” makes it clear that the real tectonic shift occurs in the collective mindset of the audiences, industry and artists.
It’s also obvious that blaming the Hollywood industrial machine is a part of the films intention. Just follow the fate of the main characters, such as Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who realizes he cannot adapt his acting style to sound and kills himself or Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who is suddenly too vulgar for the big screen and laughed at by the “big wigs”.
However, in my opinion, a more interesting lens thru which we can judge Babylon is the trajectory of the characters as they rise to the top.
In that, there is a lot to be explored in this movie about what it means to truly master a craft.
Take Brad Pitt’s character. Jack is a master at what he does, even if he spends almost every waking minute drunk. And it is clear that it is not a random act of talent. He is the only character with such profound appreciation for his craft that he foresees the “need” to strive for a higher artistic calling. Jack “discovers” Manny (Diego Calva) and he is one of the few industry insiders that keeps an open mind when “talkies” are taking off.
Nellie also exemplifies the unique single-mindedness and confidence that is proper of only the best. In her first scenes on camera, she perfects what would have been a mediocre prostitute scene in a mediocre film, by her sheer will to control teardrops. The director is entranced and so is the audience: “cry once, cry twice, cry a bigger tear”. It is all willfully executed in the name of perfection. And again, it’s not luck. Nellie resorts to icing her nipples, learning lines, doing it all in the name of being the best at what she does.
It’s the same with other main characters.
The musician who would not miss a note, even if elephants are literally in the room.
The (wannabe) studio executive who stole an ambulance to catch 20 minutes of sunlight.
It’s that kind of determination that inspires us and has made Hollywood great, but it’s also self-sacrificing.
None of the characters had a functioning family (I quickly lost count of Jack’s divorces) and all of them had a naivety about them, symptoms of people who prioritize achievement in only a single aspect of their lives.
Asymmetry in their greatness - a necessary condition for greatness in anything, we are meant to believe - is ultimately their undoing. Jack’s life ends when he cannot be at the top, Manny’s idea of love leads him to exile, Nellie -the eternal optimist- dances to her death and Sydney loses it all, caught-up in a child-like innocence that led him to believe his hard-work alone would end oppression and racism.
Consider the supporting characters, each mirroring one of our heroes, that allows us to contrast their actions with another, more “balanced”, world view.
Don Wallach harbors no false hope in his current stars - he knows he needs to adapt and quickly let’s Jack loose. In contrast Manny tries to mold a “new and improved” Nellie LaRoy.
Reggie, the other trumpeter in the band (who clearly has a family), goes so far as to complain about the 9 hour rehearsals. Sydney is unfazed sleeping in a chair.
Lady Fay Zhu works multiple jobs, which allows her to move to Europe after being fired. Nellie LaRoy succumbs to critics.
And finally Elinor, the cockroach that she is, survived the transition to “talkies” because she faced the truth head-on. She had no pretention that she needed to be the best. By the time we arrive, the world had bent her into balance and mediocrity (she says during a scene: “I knew Proust, you know”). Jack, with no other thing in his life, prefers to die than to live as a second-best.
Sure, I might be over-analyzing the movie (in the end, Hollywood is obsessed with itself, and it’s entirely possible that Babylon is really only about the victimization of actors), but I can’t help it that I still had a crucial question in my mind after the drawn-out final scene: is greatness in a craft, actually incompatible with any kind of balance?