Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” depicts the journey of the world of cinema approximately dating from 1926 till 1952, twenty six years almost three decades in a span of three hours, it shows how Hollywood traversed it’s journey from silence to sound aided by the advancement of technology. The film however not only emphasizes on the journey of cinema but also on the journey of actors, producers, directors, makeup artists and crew involved in a film.
The film opens with an air of decadence evident in a drug-fueled bacchanal at a Kinoscope Studios executive mansion and the whole of Hollywood swaying in a mad trance portraying the debauched life of these Hollywood artists. The two important actors whose life the film showcases are Jack Conrad who is already an established actor and Nellie LaRoy who is a newbie in this world of cinema but successfully bewitches everyone around with her charm, flamboyant dancing, declaring herself to be a star from New Jersey. Nellie’s vaulting ambition and Jack’s vaulting pride, overconfidence is symbolized by the elephant with which the film opens and which later on appears at the end of the party to help Manny aka Manuel Torres (a Mexican immigrant), carry away Jane Thornton, the young actress overdosed with drug, distracting the partygoers.
We see Nellie quickly replacing this actress Jane Thornton in a Kinoscope film and gradually becoming the star or the “it girl”, while Manny secures assistant jobs at Kinescope befriending Jack Conrad after driving the drunken Jack home from the party. This one party in a way changes both the lives of Manny and Nellie, who snorting cocaine in that party together dreamt to be a part of this world of cinema, which gave them a kind of ecstasy- “I just want to be part of something bigger… ..Movies are sad sometimes, Movies are fucking happy”(Manny), “They make you feel something”(Nellie). However when both of them are exposed to the world of cinema, they come to terms with reality, with the struggle of the artist to survive in this competitive world where one has to prove themselves better than the others at every step. Nellie LaRoy though emerges triumphant establishing her mark yet with the advent of sound films, she finds her career at the downfall unable to navigate her way to the needs and expectations of such films. Whereas on the other hand Jack Conrad also gradually falls from his zenith of success and his rising popularity declines with time.
The power of time has a huge impact throughout the film evident in Jack’s conversation with the columnist Elinor St John who follows his career and later on does a cover story about Jack’s fading popularity, when Jack confronts her, she states, “Your time has run out, there is no why, Stop questioning it, it’s over. It hurts. No one asks to be left behind. One day every person on every film shot this year will be dead, and all their ghosts will dine together. A child born in 50 years will stumble across your image flickering on a screen and feel he knows, like a friend though you breathed your last before he breathed his first”, the body of an artist is transient and it decays with time but artists achieve their immortality through their art, Elinor through this conversation implies the same notion, that though Jack’s fame is fading, he will forever live through his art, his films. He is gifted with this art so he should cherish it as long as he lives yet fame is a part of one’s identity and when one loses it, they start questioning their worth, the meaning of their existence, Jack Conrad is a victim of this fame that ultimately leads to his doom.
Time and change goes hand in hand and “Babylon” depicts the revolutionization of Hollywood, when Hollywood finally learns to speak however in order to sustain this change, one has to change themselves as per the requirements of the age, Nellie and Jack were unable to adept or upgrade themselves with time and therefore they couldn’t survive, traces of racism is seen in the treatment of the African American Jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer by Kinoscope films where he is compelled to blackface for Southern audiences, moreover traces of othering seen in the treatment of the Chinese American lesbian cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu who is ousted from her job as a Kinoscope title writer by Manny without any valid reason, yet the irony is we see both of them surviving with changing times despite the hurdles beset on their path.
From elephants, crocodiles, lizards to rattlesnakes, animals are an inherent part of the film, whenever there’s a chaos we see animals in the film except the lizard which is a metaphor of Jack’s debased life, both his existence and presence was reduced from an elephant( symbol of power) to that of a lizard in the world of cinema, Jack’s gazing of the lizard crawling from his window pane therefore is an anticipation of his forthcoming death.
This journey of Hollywood from libertine to less libertine reminiscences the journey from chaos to cosmos, the narrative of the film through the help of chaos depicts the evolution of this world of cinema with its share of ups and downs.
The ending of the film when Manny after his return to California visits a nearby cinema hall to see the film, “Singing In The Rain”, the film depicts through a montage, the transition of Hollywood from silent to talkies, in the glimpses of these montage we find the reference of films like Matrix, Jurassic Park, works of famous directors like Ingmar Bergman, Charles Chaplin, Luis Buñuel along with the fusion of different colors accompanied with the background score of a fast paced Jazz trumpet, a century- spanning series of vignettes from numerous films moves Manny to tears and takes all cinephiles across the world on a nostalgic ride leaving them breathless and spellbound.
As Jack Conrad said, “It was the most magical place in the world”, I feel it still is, being a cinephile I often escape to a parallel universe through the medium of cinema and it gives me immense pleasure all the time, however one should be able to refine one’s perspective and themselves to compete with the changing times.
The film derives its name from Babylon, the ancient Chaldean capital and Biblical city of Apocalypse, the name means Gate of God, I guess Hollywood in the film is a representative of the city of Babylon, as something divine yet elusive like God. Nonetheless in all Babylon pays a homage to the dynamism of cinema with changing times and for every cinephile the film is a treat to their eyes and soul.