The Rialto Theater is one of the oldest movie theaters in California, in South Pasadena. It was built in 1925, but hasn’t been in business for years now. Director Damien Chazelle paid tribute to him in La La Land. It’s where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling discover the great classics. But at one point, in one sequence, we see it close its doors. The myth, the legend concluded. In conclusion La La Land it was this: a journey on the clouds that didn’t necessarily touch heaven, in which the spectator’s Virgil was the songs.
Babylon it is the reflection of that desire, it is the unbridled ambition that collides with the bitterness, the beginning and the end of a parable full of stars. It takes you back in time. Here we are in the second part of the 1920s, precisely in the transition phase between silent and sound. Maybe it wasn’t like that even inside La La Land? In the room where Armstrong once played the trumpet, the samba was danced in the film.
Chazelle highlights one of the central elements of his narratives: the breaking point, the transition. It is change, imbued with a romantic spirit, which destroys his heroes, erases generations to give rise to new ones. In the final of La La Land the two lovers, with a look, wondered about what could have happened in Paris, about what was not. An American in Paris it was used to return to the present, to underline the dreamlike dimension. And in Babylon? Madness and eroticism are exalted, one enters the firmament, but that melancholy remains.
Brad Pitt, who plays an established superstar, is told that he’s just part of the cog, that the system is much larger, and he has to learn to resign. As in Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart held Ingrid Bergman on the runway, and in the moment of her long farewell he said to her: “We will always have Paris”, the love and sensations of those past days. It is the same Paris as La La Land, nuanced, never reached. It is that Paris that now becomes Babylon, where everything seems to be able to materialize. Margot Robbie is the funny girl of whom one can say: “A star is born”, Diego Calva is the helper who reaches the top. That dream is reality, everything is excess, joy, hedonism.
The wild dancing goes on until morning, The Wolf of Wall Street it is sober in comparison. It’s a Hollywood Party, as Blake Edwards pointed out. In the 1968 film there was also a painted elephant, full of hippie writing, which everyone then had to wash so as not to offend Indian tradition. Babylon opens with the animal with the long proboscis that must be transported right to a luxurious villa, ready to break in at the height of delirium.
But let’s not forget the title. In the Bible it is written that the city dared to challenge God, building the Tower of Babel. For this they were punished, everyone expressed themselves through a different language, no one was able to communicate anymore. The “language” is that from silent to sound, it is the avenue at sunset that leads to the asylum Gloria Swanson. The focus of Babylon it is therefore about madness: the one that makes everything lawful, that overloads every shot, that destroys every rule.
At first glance it might seem like a film that has lost itself. The protagonists touch and then almost vanish, the narrative lines overlap, the duration is over three hours, the episodes multiply, everything is excessive, inflated. A chaos. Always on the inevitable jazz notes, which accompany Chazelle, ex drummer, since he passed behind the camera. One of the key moments of the film is the jam session, the flow. Babylon it is therefore a symphony, at times pure improvisation. If you don’t stop at the surface, you’ll find that everything is coherent. What Chazelle shows must not have a logic, he rejects any form of truth, the legend is printed. The legend of Hollywood takes the stage, not the news. And in dreams, everything is possible. Until you wake up, when your feet have to stop flying. Chazelle doesn’t pursue harmony, balance. Once again there is the desire, the invitation to point to the firmament, almost an obsession that became tangible in First Man – The first manwhen Gosling was Armstrong on the moon. Real menPhilip Kaufman would have ruled, who do the right thing (The Right Stuff).
But in Babylon there is no right or wrong, there are no heroes, maybe just some unwitting pioneer. The director gives form to nonsense, tries to make it art, caressing the incredible, deeply loving the big screen, in all its nuances. It is a journey between genres, which also leads to thrill, which does not dissociate itself from Fellini’s influences and chooses to be exhausting. But it is a candidate to still be one of the cinematic experiences of the year, for better or for worse. It is an unbridled cinema, courageous, pure ambition.
Certainly Chazelle had never gone so far. In an homogenized era, one must believe in delirium. And that’s what we are asked: to believe in it, to think that the Rialto can be eternal, that cinema lives and can overcome any crisis, that cinemas can be reborn. Is it a multiverse? We do not know. It sure is a duel, as in Whiplash, between pupil and teacher, obsession and talent. Also Babylon it’s a whiplash. It can hurt, repel, and then attract towards itself with ardor. It is a game of massacre, a bulimia of unmanageable situations that become epic, an epic of the gaze, an immeasurable act of love, the will to make imperfection the only existing code. Extreme, bold, Babylon it is ferocious, goliardic, desperate, complex. Take or leave.