February 2023

Arts & Letters

Wince upon a time in Hollywood: ‘Babylon’ and ‘Aftersun’

By Shane Danielsen
Damien Chazelle’s cacophonous reimagining of silent-cinema Tinseltown, and Charlotte Wells’ beguiling film about mourning

A girl arrives in Hollywood with a dream… perhaps you’ve heard this one before? It’s 1926, the heyday of silent cinema, and the aspirant in question is one Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a foul-mouthed beauty from New Jersey with an appetite for every variety of excess. She’s a star and she knows it – she just needs someone else, someone powerful, to recognise it. So, crashing a Bel Air party in a borrowed car, and dressed in little more than a few artfully placed scraps of silk, she dances like Salome, makes out with a succession of strangers, hoovers up a small mountain of cocaine, and is finally hoisted aloft on the outstretched arms of revellers, the undisputed belle of the ball.

And what a ball it is! Naked people are everywhere, screwing in various combinations; a jazz band is (ahem) “cooking”. There’s even a bare-chested little person – classic movie shorthand for debauchery – riding a giant inflatable penis that ejaculates torrents of champagne over the partygoers. Meanwhile, in an adjacent room, an immensely fat man lies naked beneath a woman who hoists up her dress to piss on his face. Nellie doesn’t know these two people even exist – her attention’s understandably elsewhere – but their brief assignation will be the key to her making and, eventually, her destruction.

Welcome to Babylon, writer-director Damien (La La Land) Chazelle’s prurient, maximalist riff on Hollywood’s gilded age. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is: the film cost US$80 million and most of it is on the screen: a succession of crowded, cacophonous set-pieces, packed with hundreds of extras and boasting at least four narrative through-lines, none of them original. It’s loud, hectic, hectoring, and as close to unbearable as anything I’ve seen in years.

As the title implies, it’s inspired by filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s 1959 tell-all book Hollywood Babylon, which enshrined Tinseltown gossip and innuendo as historical fact, and has since been almost entirely discredited. (Anger, talented but eccentric, later described his research methods as “mental telepathy, mostly”.) Nellie seems inspired by Clara Bow (she’ll later allude to dallying with an entire football team – one of the book’s more despicable slurs) and the fat man is surely a thinly disguised Fatty Arbuckle, since the woman relieving herself on him, an actress, is shortly thereafter found nearly dead, à la Virginia Rappe. She must therefore be replaced on-set the following morning, because the show must go on and (the film’s astonishing revelation) filmmakers are essentially ruthless, amoral bastards. Hence, Nellie’s big break.

Years ago, in an early issue of the film journal Projections, various directors were asked what project they would make if money were no object. A surprising number responded saying that, were that the case, they would be unable to function. The artistic imagination, they pointed out, can only operate within limits; indeed, it’s often those boundaries – of time or resources or both – that make the art possible. Shaping it, giving it purpose and form.

Babylon appears to be the opposite: a project without limits, where money was plentiful and nobody said no and one man’s limited imagination was allowed to run wild. Its subject is the moral void that excess inhabits, and Chazelle unwisely matches his storytelling to that theme. This is a film that begins with a shot of an elephant defecating into the camera, then maintains that tone for the following three hours. The party sequence described above lasts for 28 raucous minutes – the film’s title doesn’t appear onscreen until half an hour in – and that sense of overload, that manic, cokehead energy, doesn’t let up until the final credits. Worse, it adopts a smirking condescension to its period that’s especially irksome, given that it displays no more moral rigour (and a good deal less invention) than what it’s critiquing.

On the contrary, Chazelle seems little more than a Film Bro, big on flashy technique and brashly unconcerned with trifles such as subtext or nuance. There are long single takes here, accomplished with a craning steadycam, that practically grab you by the shirt and demand you applaud their virtuosity – even as, dramatically, one scene after another falls flat. The one sequence that actually does work, as Nellie and a film crew try to acclimatise to the new technical demands of sound recording, isn’t even original – it’s stolen wholesale from Singin’ in the Rain. Another, towards the end, rips off the Alfred Molina sequence from Boogie Nights so shamelessly that Chazelle owes Paul Thomas Anderson a co-writing credit.

Robbie is not good in a badly underwritten role, playing Nellie basically as a flapper Harley Quinn. This is the second bomb she’s starred in recently, following David O. Russell’s misguided Amsterdam, and in each case the problem is the same: the mistaken belief that energy and volume can compensate for a lack of interiority. Brad Pitt, meanwhile, seems on autopilot as Jack Conrad, an alcoholic matinee idol who seems loosely modelled on Douglas Fairbanks. Only Olivia Hamilton, as a no-nonsense director who may be modelled on Dorothy Arzner, emerges from this farrago with any distinction.

One could of course get hung up on the film’s countless anachronisms – Robbie’s shaggy hairstyle for instance, which no woman wore before the late 1960s, or her entirely ahistorical wardrobe. Or the bebop jazz that trumpeter Sidney (Jovan Adepo) plays about two decades too early. Or a drunken Jack misquoting the last line of Gone with the Wind, a full seven years before the book was written. But these, apparently, attest to the brio of its “visionary” maker, who felt that such liberties made it more truly his own. Alas, the result just feels half-hearted, neither dutifully authentic nor properly, gleefully subversive, like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

One moment in particular exposes Chazelle’s cluelessness, as gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) counsels a gloomy Jack on the waning of his stardom. Yes, she says, his career is over – but his image will live on: “In a hundred years … anytime someone threads a frame of yours through a sprocket, you’ll be alive again. A child born in 50 years will stumble upon your image flickering on a screen, and feel he knows you. Like a friend.”

It’s a pretty speech, well delivered by the reliable Smart, but it’s also absolute nonsense. As film historians such as Kevin Brownlow have documented, nobody working in early Hollywood believed for a moment their legacy would endure, or that movies were anything but a fleeting divertissement. There was no thought of film preservation and no notion of cinephile culture; movies were made quickly, consumed and forgotten, each new release supplanted by the next. With the result that half of all American films made before 1950, and more than 90 per cent of films made before 1929, are now lost forever.

But it’s the final sequence that really made my blood boil, as Chazelle runs a montage of clips from various canonical movies, from The Wizard of Oz to Bergman’s Persona and even Avatar, and intersperses them with this one. As if he’s calling time on a grand tradition to which Babylon is both heir and culmination.

I mean, for Christ’s sake.

Movies matter, declares Nellie, because they’re a way for people to transcend their mundane circumstances. (“You don’t have to be in your own shitty fucking life. You can be in their life.”) Okay, but what happens when those lives are shitty too? Babylon is many things – anachronistic period flick, tedious provocation, witless exposé – but above all it’s an A-grade bummer: a grim, interminable succession of substance abuse, joyless sex, blood, piss and puke. Weary of Oscar-bait “love letters to cinema” – Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes’s wretched Empire of Light – I hoped from its trailer that this film might provide an antidote. But Babylon, contemptuous not only of the medium but of its own audience, goes further than that. It’s a poison-pen letter to life itself.

I saw Aftersun, the debut feature from Edinburgh-based filmmaker Charlotte Wells, at Critics’ Week in Cannes last May, where word of mouth quickly turned it into one of the buzz titles of the festival. Confident and compelling, it suggested that Wells not only had technique to burn, but an innately cinematic sensibility. Like the short films of Lynne Ramsay or Cate Shortland, or Lucretia Martel with La Ciénaga back in 2001, it seemed to announce an exciting new talent arriving more or less fully formed.

I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, exactly, much less the Film of the Year, but that quickly became the dominant narrative. And I wonder now, eight months later, how its maker must feel – pleased to have made a hit, but burdened with the expectations of excessive praise, some of which has been frankly ridiculous. The New York Times’ critic, for example, claimed that “it’s hard to find a critical language to account for the delicacy and intimacy of this movie”, before crediting Wells with “very nearly reinventing the language of film, unlocking the medium’s often dormant potential to disclose inner worlds of consciousness and feeling”.

No, it’s not. And no, she’s not. (The reinventing part, I mean. It’s certainly true that the medium too rarely discloses inner consciousness – I mean, just look at Babylon – but that’s down to the imaginative shortcomings of most of its practitioners.) On the contrary, Wells is working in a long and venerable tradition of female coming-of-age dramas, mostly French, from Claire Denis’ Chocolat and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, right through to Katell Quillévéré’s Love Like Poison. The only real surprise is that she’s British.

But to point out that this is hyperbole – damaging hyperbole, since it only sets audiences up for disappointment (“It’s a good film,” one friend told me, “but from the reviews, I was expecting Ingmar Bergman or something”) – is in no way to downplay Wells’ actual achievement. She’s crafted something that’s both structurally audacious and emotionally lacerating, a fine-grained naturalism that evokes deeper social and psychological currents. But she’s not “reinventing the language of film” and nor should she be expected to.

Ostensibly the story of 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio, outstanding in her first film role), on a package holiday in Turkey with her young father, Calum (Paul Mescal), it also serves – obliquely, almost by implication – as a study of extreme depression. Apparently separated from Sophie’s mother, Calum is a man who has clearly disappointed some better notion of himself. He talks about getting a new place, where Sophie can come stay. He alludes to starting a new business. But none of it is convincing, even to himself. He pretends to be happy in order to keep his daughter happy, because he’s a good dad. But whenever he talks about the future, it’s clear he can see no place for himself in it.

Framing this narrative are present-day sequences in which the older Sophie (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall) reviews handicam footage of the trip with obsessive attention. As if trying to pinpoint the precise moment – some crucial detail she missed, or something she might have said – that could have altered the outcome. Like Henry James’s great What Maisie Knew, the film is about a child’s inability to properly decipher the codes of adult behaviour, but these competing perspectives, past and present, serve to efface the distinctions between memory and experience – the truth complicated further by occasional “third person” scenes of Calum alone, observational moments in which Sophie was either elsewhere or distracted. Ultimately, it’s a film about mourning, and its structure mimics the peculiar illogic of that state, in which thoughts, fears, suspicions and regrets are rendered indistinguishable.

All this, I realise, might make it sound like a chore; it’s not. Cinematographer Gregory Oke’s images have a beguiling tactility, and the performances – Corio’s, in particular – are never less than superb. It’s sad, yes, but also mysterious and surprising – and, in its bravura final sequence, unexpectedly transcendent. But to call it a career-defining masterpiece is to underestimate what Wells might do next.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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