“Babylon”: A Modern Funeral Pyre

Travis Weedon
2 min readJan 14, 2023

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In the cinematic tradition of Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon charts the rise and fall of a glorified yet ignominious subculture with visual aplomb and raucous depravity. But Babylon may be the last of its kind. The era it memorializes is in many ways its own.

The film follows two up-and-comers in the mid-1920s’ silent film industry — Margot Robbie’s drug-fueled hot mess with talent, Nellie LaRoy (the “La” is French), and Diego Calva’s Johnny-on-the-spot man of many talents, Manny Torres — and one aging star whose light has already begun to fade, Jack Conrad, played with debonair farce by Brad Pitt. A fourth, less threaded, strand follows Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a Black trumpeter who goes from leading bands at Hollywood shindigs to commanding the big screen in the emerging era of sound cinema.

Chazelle’s three-hour epic is a smorgasbord of cinematic delights and gross outs. Roving, balletic camera movements and sets the size of small battlefields, including one actual battlefield, impart a sense of scale and decadence to the filmmaking rarely seen in non-franchise movies these days. But the grandeur isn’t only gilded; it’s debauched to the nines; and Chazelle relishes as much in the excess and excrement as he does in the glitz and glamour.

It becomes clear by the end, though, that Babylon’s transportation to a bygone era is very much by way of the present. As Singin’ in the Rain once refracted the revolution of sound cinema through the sanitized, optimistic lens of 1950’s Hollywood, Babylon vivisects the same period with modern vice and vernacular. In lieu of wide-eyed optimism, it’s shot through with a knowing anxiety that every technological paradigm shift — whether it’s sound or streaming — leaves casualties in its wake, and films like Babylon itself may be the first to go. See it while you can.

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