Hollywood sure loves to celebrate itself.
The pomp of awards shows aside, the film industry has shown a recent affinity to the many eras and films that have made it what it is today – and numerous contemporary directors have jumped on the bandwagon.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood fictionalizes Hollywood in the late ‘60s. Saving Mr. Banks and TV series The Offer go behind the scenes of famous films (Mary Poppins and The Godfather respectively, as if those films could be any different). Mank and Trumbo explore famous screenwriters from classic Hollywood. Then there’s 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist and this year’s Babylon, which depict the silent film era’s transition to “talkies.”
There’s clearly a lot to chew on: The history of Hollywood would make an excellent textbook or even a college course (fun fact: I once took a class on the American gangster film, so you could say I know my way around an Italian restaurant).
But are these stories worth being told on the big screen to wide audiences, or are they starting to reek of self-importance? That’s been up to the moviegoers to decide – and recently, they’ve grown bored. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is not the problem (it’s a solid film in its own right), but it’s rather a symptom of Hollywood thinking it’s worth an entire subgenre of cinema.
Babylon hyped itself as a three-hour epic, sort of like Lawrence of Arabia meets The Sound of Music and possibly Chazelle’s opus in a filmography already featuring two of my favorite films (Whiplash and La La Land).
Yet, Babylon encapsulates the exact opposite feeling of cinema during the time period it portrays, and that’s bumming out audiences.
Babylon is vulgar. It’s dirty. It’s obscene. It’s like Boogie Nights if Charlie Chaplin made pornography. It even takes the drug deal scene from Boogie Nights and makes it creepier. From a technical standpoint, it’s a marvel, but its direction and thematics leave much to be desired. Variety called it “exuberantly messy,” while Time accuses it of “self-congratulation” and “willful ignorance.”
But Chazelle’s gritty realist filmmaking is nothing new and in fact a logical step in his career trajectory. First Man was a rough transition from La La Land‘s bittersweet tale of found fame and lost romance to a movie without a heroic lead – just humanity at its most brutal and intense.
That’s exactly what Babylon is: a party film about the broken, mortal people behind Hollywood’s shiny, timeless classics. It’s a worthwhile offering in spite of its bloated runtime and overly ostentatious direction. Margot Robbie offers the best performance of her career, Brad Pitt is excellent as always, and the cinematography and original score are among the best of 2022 (Justin Hurwitz will certainly be in the running for the Oscar).
But unfortunately, between mixed critical reception and a miserable opening weekend, it’s been a failure in most other ways.
Babylon made just $5.3 million in its opening weekend, struggling to keep up with Chazelle’s previous two features (La La Land exceeded these numbers in just 200 theaters and First Man made more in its first day alone).
The flop can be attributed to a variety of factors: the flu and COVID, winter storms across the country, and the fact it’s a three-hour movie that’s rated R. But for a film expected to gross $12-15 million in its opening weekend, that number is a bad sign. With $250 million gross needed to break even, things aren’t looking good for one of Hollywood’s premier directors.
I can’t help but wonder if this is more than a greater struggle for movie theaters to put bodies in seats. But the new Black Panther and Avatar sequels are currently racking up the millions and are expected to reach close to one billion (Avatar: The Way of Water has already surpassed it globally).
It’s not that audiences don’t want to see large-scale epics, it’s that they don’t want to see this large-scale epic.
I get it, too. Just as I’ve gotten burnt out on comic book movies and endless action sequels, the fetishizing of classic Hollywood is starting to wear on me — not that there aren’t good stories there, but it’s being torched to death (no offense to Rick Dalton). As one Letterboxd user puts it, Babylon “makes the eternal mistake of reminding you of much better movies you could be watching, only in this case it’s like a hundred of them.”
Why watch Mank when you can watch better films written by the titular character, like All About Eve or Guys and Dolls? Why watch Hail, Caesar! when you can watch a real biblical blockbuster like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments? Even with Babylon, Singin’ in the Rain (a film it references more than once) is a much more likable tale of the transition to “talkies.”
The problem isn’t that David Fincher and Damien Chazelle are putting out subpar films, because their newest works are still good. But for directors creating deep legacies within cinema, their love letters to Hollywood aren’t going to be remembered the same way as their strongest contributions to it. I’m worried that Babylon will end up a footnote in Chazelle’s masterful career, when it could’ve been one of his defining moments.
It’s the same way that the current generation of moviegoers is being robbed of its own identity, because we’re getting eight Spider-Man movies in 20 years and a Fast and Furious sequel every time we blink. Overall, we’ve been getting a lot of regurgitation of the past and not much innovation.
The “what’s in the box?” scene is Fincher’s contribution, as is Chazelle’s observatory space walk. The Coen Brothers gave us Anton Chigurh and Llewyn Davis, and Steven Spielberg has given us, well…Indiana Jones, E.T., Oskar Schindler, and Private Ryan, just to name a few.
Spielberg’s new film, The Fabelmans, succeeded where Babylon failed, however. It’s a masterwork not because it cheaply played to the nostalgia of Jaws and Indiana Jones, but because it was an engrossing story of mid-20th century middle America – warts and all. It didn’t try to be Spielberg’s previous works and instead presents one of the defining period pieces about classic suburbia.
The Fabelmans came from a deeply personal place in Spielberg’s life, and Seth Rogen (yes, he can act in dramas too) recalled seeing the director in tears during shooting. The characters are his family members with different names, but they’re much more than that, too.
A semblance of spontaneity from his mother, a quirk of advice from his grandfather, a bully in need of understanding: They’re all interwoven into a complicated tapestry of southwestern America, of Jewish America, and that’s before you even get to the filmmaking career.
New studies show that audiences are getting tired of Marvel’s endless franchising of characters, and that’ll happen when you churn out 30 films in 15 years – for cinematic fast food, that’s one Big Mac after another. In November, one-third of Marvel fans said they were tired of the studio’s constant releases, and I don’t blame them. But how can I play holier-than-thou as a movie fan when my favorite auteurs are stuck basking in the glory days of old Hollywood?
Perhaps the obsession with cinema is something directors simply need to get out of their system. Hollywood is in a constant state of transition, and that’s created some instability as of late.
There are fears about the future of movie theaters (Christopher Nolan is having nightmares as I type this), and most movie stars from the ‘40s and ‘50s are gone. The Golden Age of Hollywood is something eventually no one will have lived through, which became apparent to me as I lost my grandparents – who grew up watching Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchcock.
So I get it, we don’t want to lose the spirit that’s made cinema the magical thing that it is. But with so many talented filmmakers currently upon us, I hope they realize that they possess the magic themselves – and their time to create the next chapter is now.
Damien Chazelle is among the many creative minds keeping Hollywood alive. But Babylon tells us of a Hollywood that’s long gone, just like the ancient city, and it’s clear that – despite being one of the year’s technical wonders – this story has run its course.
Featured Image Credit: Babylon (Paramount Pictures), Damien Chazelle (Paramount Pictures), The Fabelmans (Universal Pictures), Hail, Caesar! (Universal Pictures), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Mank (Netflix)