During this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, director Damien Chazelle gave audiences an exclusive peek of his new film. Those next few minutes were absolutely incredible. A cornucopia of drugs, genitalia, and gore unapologetically sprawled across the big screen. It looked loud, raunchy, and bombastic, which was a direction no one had expected him to take, especially after his previous film First Man — an ambient tale of cosmic nihilism.
Chazelle turned to the astounded audience. “It’ll be big,” he promised with a sheepish, cheeky grin.
And, indeed, he delivered. What can only be described as a sexed-up Tolstoyan epic, Babylon is so massive that it completely surpasses expectations. The film is set during the tumultuous but opulent early days of Los Angeles, a decade before Hollywood attained its mega-power status. In this rising industry, there is only one bolded and underlined name: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an egomaniacal titan of the silent screen. He befriends henchman Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and addict slash wannabe starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Together, the trio attempt to conquer the primordial movie world, only to suffer tragic Napoleonic deaths.
Twitter critics have cheesily dubbed Babylon a “love letter to cinema” or, even more groan-inducingly, a “cacophony of demented depravity.” Emphasis and meaning seem to be derived from Babylon’s spectacular and dazzling mise-en-scène. However, I ask that we look beyond — or more correctly, look below — the enormous defecating elephant and mid-air, cocaine-fueled orgies. Despite Babylon’s maximalist sheen, the core of the film presents a much simpler, pedestrian line of inquiry: how does one grapple with modernity?
The challenges of modernity
In his study of modernity, Georg Simmel describes the transition from a concrete past to a technologically unrecognizable future as an invasive reconfiguration of society’s tradition-bound networks. Technological innovations uproot the natural rhythms of consumption and demolish existing modes of production. Changing economies obfuscate the once articulate split between public and private life. Prevailing attitudes completely remodel the iconic nuclear family. Maybe to Simmel, the rush to abandon the old and adopt the new was a spectacular danger that could erode the Anthropocene; the flare of modernity, while so attractive for a momentary thought, was perhaps something to approach with caution rather than reckless enthusiasm.
Babylon hits a similar tone. Set in the 1920s, the dawn of modernity, the film examines the change to the cinematic landscape as various technological, economic, and political developments nudge the industry toward a shiny, chromatic future. On one hand, it echoes naive, mainstream sentiments by framing the talkie — non-silent films — as an exciting push forward, glazed with a sense of wonderment and mysticism. This spirit is best captured when Torres goes to see his first audio picture. Upon witnessing the miracle of sound, the entire diegetic audience bursts into applause: a magnificent reaction that rivals the infamous Lumière legend.
On the other hand, Chazelle presents a counterargument in his depiction of changing production methods. Sound posed a myriad of problems for industry professionals. For one, the immobile and sensitive technology made filming painstakingly complicated. Audio was notoriously difficult to modulate and getting it right demanded every minutia to be considered.
Adding a third dimension to cinema also completely uprooted acting practices. Now that every little timbre — the scuffling of fabric; a post-divorce sniffle; or the sloppy, wet kisses that fade out medieval romances — was acutely captured, any single mistake could be picked apart by audiences and critics. Actors needed to elevate their technical prowess. A pretty, expressive face was no longer sufficient for Hollywood.
These encumbrances were unpleasant and difficult to overcome. As Babylon demonstrates, cinema’s thrust into modernity was almost paradoxical: it was a move toward progress, yet, in that same vein, the growing pains felt like a regression back to zero. Like an injured babe learning to walk again, filmmakers woefully stumbled to adapt to the reinvented medium.
The losers of modernity
While some excellent actors successfully jumped onboard modernity’s ark, others weren’t even thrown a lifejacket. Among the unlucky few are Conrad and LaRoy. Failing to adapt to the new climate, each character experiences a maddening spiral that results in their drowning.
Conrad undoubtedly takes the highest fall. The dashing blond was once an enigma. A man with enough gravity that, within seconds of opening a door, he became the centripetal force that magnetizes horny femmes and bros desperate for his nod of approval. However, in Babylon, the advent of audio turns Hollywood’s biggest star into a B-grade extra. Hopelessness, disillusionment, and depression engulf him. Besieged by the bleak future, Conrad decides to end his life with a silver bullet.
Whereas Conrad begins at the top, LaRoy’s journey starts in the pits. Her ephemeral claim to fame comes from being the ‘wild child’: a 1920s synonym for ‘manic pixie dream girl’ with the essence of kitschy thrift store erotica. Sexy but tawdry. LaRoy’s crass eroticism turns her into a household name, earning her big roles and entry to crazy cocaine bashes — where she out-sniffs everyone. But as cinema’s prestige increases, LaRoy’s signature grime is scorned and washed out by cleaner Mary Sues. Her bull-like nature, combined with her inability to adapt to sound acting, causes LaRoy’s career to take an Icarian splash.
Through their tragic descent, Chazelle demonstrates that modernity is a two-headed hydra. Echoing Simmel’s self-conscious moderate voice, Babylon recognizes that while modernity brings brilliant and necessary progress, it can be just as destructive, leaving behind a long trail of bodies. Conrad’s and LaRoy’s stories remind us to be critical of modernity’s sweet seduction: its siren song can very well be the beginning of our end.
The message is especially resonant in today’s fast-paced, changing techno-social world. Online platforms — the poster child of modernity — have revolutionized what it means to be famous. No longer is an aspiring ingénue at the mercy of the depraved sinful hubs of Hollywood to gain millions of doting fans; instead, they can post a TikTok. With the right aesthetic, she can go viral in just a few seconds. Stardom has never been so accessible.
However, as Conrad and LaRoy have shown, fame is fleeting — perhaps even more so on the internet. Just a wave of the algorithmic wand can take down seemingly invincible influencers. Or tomorrow’s new trendy platform will spur a mass follower exodus, transforming once popular accounts into billowing ghost towns.
Babylon is a valuable Archimedean point for the digital future. As society continues uploading, the familiar world is set to change. Although each innovation brings us closer to this riveting ‘utopia’ of Lana Del Rey nightcore and “get ready with me” videos, it is important to keep in mind that each pawn forward comes with a conditional set of destructive processes. The invention of recordable audio killed some of those in silent film. I wonder which industry is the next to implode by modernity’s grenade.