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Babylon is absolute fire, and everyone in it is burning.

The first widely available film stock in America was made with a nitrate base. Highly flammable and barely stable, this nitrate film, used from the earliest days of film production until the introduction of safer acetate films in the 1940s and 1950s, became more dangerous over time if not cared for properly: it released flammable gas as it decomposed into a sticky substance, then a powder. In the final stages of its decomposition, it was capable of spontaneous combustion, igniting history if it got hot enough on a summer’s day.

Countless movies were lost this way. There were fires at a Fox movie vault in 1937, at MGM in 1965, at the National Archives in 1978. In the silent era, fires in projection booths were common, as the heat from the projectors often it was enough to ignite the nitrate film. running through them.

As for the nitrate film from that era that survives? Much of it has fallen into decay. In Bill Morrison’s 2002 avant-garde film DecasiaScenes from silent-era movies are collaged in their eroded state, as images that once held great emotion or intrigue are overcome by the rot of time.

And yet, the movie stars who once drew people to these movies dreamed of immortality.

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A director and crew meet behind a camera in the 1920s as the sun sets in front of them in the California desert in a scene from the film Babylon.

Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

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Immortality is what everyone wants in Babylonthe divisive new film from Damien Chazelle, acclaimed writer-director of Lash, the the earthY First man. It starts at the top: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is Hollywood’s biggest movie star at the height of the silent era, watching his kingdom with pride, knowing he is feeding the dreams of ordinary people and has built something last. Nellie LaRoy (perennial Harley Quinn Margot Robbie) has nothing more than a name of her own choosing and the conviction that she deserves to be as big a star as Conrad. And Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a rich waiter who dreams of making something that will last, like a movie.

Babylon follow the fates and fortunes of these three and others around them as they diverge and intersect over the years. It begins with an extended party, a raucous bacchanalia attended by all three: Jack as the guest of honor, Manny as a sidekick, and Nellie as the killjoy. His story is the same one that Hollywood continually tells about itself and the people who hold it up: a story about big dreams and the big life that could follow for some people who are crazy enough to believe they could come true.

Via BabylonThe 188-minute runtime of Nellie and Manny watch their stocks rise. The former becomes the star she always believed she was, and the latter becomes a studio executive, all through a lot of determination and a little bit of fortune in the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, change is on the horizon, as the 1927 premiere of the jazz singer It throws show business off its axis, and Jack Conrad’s world begins to fall apart. Then everyone’s world follows, because fame is fickle and fleeting, and no one gets to be at the top forever.

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Nellie and Manny dance close enough to kiss at Babylon movie opening party

Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

This is a song that most movie lovers can sing by heart, and Chazelle has been singing it in one form or another ever since. Lash, his breakthrough film. His stories are about extraordinary people who dare to dream, who crawl from the rubble, literally, in some cases, to realize that dream and be exalted by it, even if it costs them everything else in their lives. In Chazelle’s cinematic vision, art is more vital and beautiful than life itself, and the people who are excited about art, whether in Earth orbit or behind a drum kit, are the noblest of souls. .

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A message like this (pursuing fame is an act of arrogance, and artists are transcendent in their silly vainglory) depends heavily on its messenger, and Babylon dances on a razor’s edge from its first frame. However, Chazelle, along with her editor Tom Cross and composer Justin Hurwitz, are among the most successful dance couples making movies right now.

There is a musicality to Chazelle’s films, as he, Hurwitz and Cross use the visual medium of film with the improvisational vigor of jazz musicians, and Babylon its sensational. The cuts are syncopated so that the audience moves. The color palette is bold and coppery, blurring the line between the images on screen and the horns that feed them. The camera lingers on the performers and performances: a spectacular manic dance by Nellie LaRoy at the film’s opening party/orgy, a drunken climb up a hill by Jack Conrad, completely lost, just before he miraculously collapses. recover to deliver a perfect shot. The hardening of Manny’s brow and lips as he assumes the role of an executive and does whatever it takes to convince the shakers that he belongs in the room with them.

Trumpeter Sidney Palmer plays the trumpet with his band, all dressed in tuxedos against the gold glitter and balloons of the debauchery that surrounds them in the movie Babylon

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Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

However, for all BabylonGlory in art and artists, in Hollywood and dreams, all would be in vain without a compelling reason. why. This is where the movie is most volatile. Its title deliberately evokes hollywood babylonKenneth Anger’s notorious (and largely fabricated) 1959 account of the golden age of Tinseltown, a book that helped cement in the public consciousness the idea that the glitz and glamor of show business was an integral part of a sordid sexual womb. drugs and violence, often at the cost of women and queer people caught under its sensational gaze, and the tabloids that preceded or followed the book’s publication.

Babylon It builds on this sensationalism, first with its title, then with its opening party, an orgy that culminates with an elephant parading through a mansion to distract itself from the body of a girl who overdoses after a date sex. As Nellie and Manny’s fortunes rise, staying in the game forces them both to make compromises that undermine their humanity. Nellie burns bright and hot, turning to drugs and gambling. Others, like burlesque singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), lose her livelihood due to her unbridled appetites. Manny’s naked ambition leads him to treat other marginalized people as springboards, even going so far as to ask black trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) to perform in blackface to appease southern markets, keep a shoot on schedule. and save his life. bosses money

The beautiful collision between Nellie and Manny at the beginning of Babylon marks the start of their respective ascents. As the film moves towards its conclusion, it entangles them in free fall again. His rapid descent reaches its nadir when Manny embarks on a journey to Hollywood’s version of hell, hosted by loan shark and creepy thrill-seeker James McKay (Tobey Maguire, one of the Babylon‘s producers, playing beautifully against type). In his hands, the salacious orgy of the film’s opening meets its horrifying opposite.

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Manny nervously watches as James McKay (played by Toby Maguire) incredulously holds some money in his hands as the two stand in a creepy basement surrounded by nasty guys in the movie Babylon.

Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

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Babylon is long enough to make viewers wonder, multiple times! — if sensationalism and navel gazing are the only gimmicks in the movie. The film echoes the sensational shock and awe of the star machine, inviting the audience to marvel and recoil at the wonder and horror it has wrought. But Chazelle is adept enough to suggest, more than once, that she’s playing something deeper and more challenging.

On the broader reading, Babylon is a secular paean to cinema as a unique community medium, bringing together the collective hopes and dreams of all who experience them. The film celebrates cinema as the ultimate goal, a worthy reason for these messy, broken people to blow themselves up in the act of creation. In one of the film’s best scenes, Jack Conrad confronts entertainment journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) about a negative profile she wrote. In response, she Elinor tells him the truth of the matter: neither of them matters. The movies yes. There will be other stars and other journalists, but they are all at the service of what the ray of light projects on the big screen.

This story, however, has been told. We have seen it in bona fide classics like Singing in the rainand in more recent works such as the winner for Best Film 2011 The artist. Both movies deal with similar ideas and are set at exactly the same time. Chazelle has even already delivered a loving tribute to Hollywood in the the earthhis musical about an aspiring actress who sings about fools who dream. Babylon, in all its sound and fury, is redundant. And then Chazelle does one last bold turn: she acknowledges this in the text.

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Manny stands in a trench coat under the awning of a movie palace, in front of classic Hollywood marquee signs in the movie Babylon

Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

In an amazing finale, Babylon combines bombast and tragedy in one fell swoop, embracing Chazelle’s swagger as an artist by allowing her to insert herself into the cinematic canon, while striving to earn her place there at the same time. In his final moments, he is not content to simply tell another story about the rarefied few who dreamed and built an empire where countless others could dream along with them. Instead, she weeps for what was destroyed to keep that dream alive and for what was forgotten so others can hope to be remembered.

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BabylonThe biggest moments for Nellie, Jack, or Manny don’t happen during the big events. They are the calmest scenes, tracing what happens in the wake of their burning parabolic arcs. These are the people who are forced out of business or choose to leave: the queer people forced into hiding to bolster the studios’ public image, the outcasts forced to endure humiliation so white actors can pursue immortality.

This is the Babylon of the film’s title: the burnished image left behind after the people who built it are gone. It’s easy to get caught up in movie magic and only see Jack Conrad or Damien Chazelle, and if that’s all you see in Babylon, disgust can come naturally. But Babylon he also cares about what goes on on the periphery of Hollywood’s white heroes. Chazelle shoots her stars with a wide enough lens that it’s not hard to see who’s left on the periphery and the roles they have to play. Keep an eye on those people as they come and go, and Babylon it becomes a cacophonous dirge for them, weeping for their anonymity in all the beauty that came at their cost. The nitrate of him caught fire and left us with lovely little lies to live forever.

Babylon opens in theaters on December 23.

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