Tucked into the lap of the tributaries of the Euphrates River, the city of Babylon once towered. Hammurabi, who conquered the entirety of Southern Mesopotamia, made Babylon his capital as the extent of his conquest had now made the fertile city the center of the new Babylonian Empire. He erected government buildings, centralized a bureaucracy to manage the empire, prioritized the cult of the “solar calf” god Marduk (later “Bel” after “Ba’al”), and mandated that steles marked with his Code be placed throughout the city such that all can know the law. Though Hammurabi’s Code is now synonymous with “eye for an eye” punishments, it’s seen by historians as a radical improvement from royal whims or the unpublished codes of Sumer. Here, in Babylon, it’s even rumored that Thales, visiting from Miletus, may have taken inspiration from the region’s swelling culture of scribes, astrologers, magicians, bureaucrats, and historians, and transmuted their ambitions into philosophy. The Hebrews to the west mythologized this culture of cultures into the Tower of Babel, a story which sought to both explain the diversity of their neighboring empire and denounce the arrogance of their lofty goals.
Coming from a small desert tribe, such a story could also be seen as a folk people warning their children against the lures of city life. Within a millennia, the Neo-Babylonian Empire held the people of Israel captive in Babylon, threatening them with a dissolution of their culture and religion in favor of metropolitan life in the city translated as “the gate of the gods.” When writing the Tanakh generations later, the Hebrews paid special attention to Babylon’s elaborate architecture, the Hanging Gardens and palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, and Daniel, who dared keep the desert tribe’s identity in face of death. Where the Babylon of old gave meaning to the Hebrew word bālal (”confusion”), this Babylon was remarkable for its excess, especially for a people who had humbly relied only on Yahweh for mere manna. By the time the Council of Carthage canonized Revelations in 397, early Christians had already thought the author’s “Whore of Babylon” to be not nominally but metaphorically true. “Babylon” continued to carry these Hebrew characterizations, but by centering a prophetic, sexual evil — the evil — in a city, Christians would forever associate city life with Babylon and Babylon with worldly sin, a place as distant as possible from its metaphysical antipode, Augustine’s City of God. Now, only scholars care about the steles and cylinder-seals that founded the very concept of city life. For others, Babylon lives on, appearing in the cities they commute into.
In the 1920s, the city of angels might as well have been “the gate of the gods.” After all, Christian eschatology warns against tricksters assuming the names of godly things, only to inverse them into the unholy (upside-down crosses, upside-down pentacles, 666 to God’s 999: the language of esoteric magical practice is very much alive in Christianity). Debauchery amongst the new industry’s elite is well-recorded, though always penned with a hint of irony, gossip, exaggeration, one-upmanship, contention, rabble-rousing, or slander. One decade previous, the “movie people” were kicked out of the proto-Hollywood studios of Jacksonville, Florida by a newly-elected local government simply for staying out late and staying out drunk. Los Angeles was partially chosen as the moviemaking hub thanks to its Wild West history and its corrupt DA, which, in turn, self-selected who might choose to move there. Mansions on the hills or outside the city proper would guarantee privacy for all kinds of funny business, much of which affected serious business. It’s at this intersection that Damien Chazelle’s new Babylon begins.
Chazelle, known for his love of jazz (Whiplash) and old Hollywood (La La Land), asks his muses to share the spotlight as his tale of silent-era sin gives way to sound — loud, loud sound — and death. Parallel narratives meet at parties and on sets, so describing a unified plot for Babylon would be a fool’s errand. But, characters can be followed. Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American man, works his way from personal assistant to below-the-line work to producer to studio executive through sheer ambition and hard work: he is Chazelle’s purest soul (skirting ever-so-close to “noble savage”) and is only tempted by love. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), mostly based on Clara Bow, won’t take no for an answer, climbing the actress ladder through spunk and sex appeal until her Jersey accent and working-class behavior kicks her off the ladder during the sound years. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), modeled after John Gilbert, is the top star of his era who prefers alcohol to drugs and a fifth wife to free love; since he’s at the top, there’s only one way for him to go. Finally, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a trumpet player in a jazz band, finds work in Hollywood after the advent of sound, only to find out what can be asked of Black actors in exchange for the limelight. Nearly every scene is packed with ancillary characters, but it’s these four whose fates are interwoven at the opening party sequence. This Dionysian rite, lasting a full half-hour before the opening title card, introduces Chazelle’s world as one of Disneyfied salacity. Though with obvious homages to Eyes Wide Shut (masks, bare breasts, and an immediate OD that must be dealt with discreetly), the background actors may as well be Mr. Popper’s Penguins, gyrating sexless wobbles against their partners as if a middle-schooler’s play-humping was assigned as routine office work (but remember to smile!). When Manny first brings a raucous Nellie into the mansion, he directs her to the drug room, where each substance is treated like an invention of Mr. Wonka. This is a cartoon of Hollywood’s naughty period where archetypes sometimes fall into the realm of pure simplicity and spoken clichés are given the gravitas of Aeschylus or Shakespeare. Where is Babylon?
Whispers of Hollywood vice became believable for the rest of America as drunken, foggy memories led to the unresolved court cases of the murder of William Desmond Taylor and Virginia Rappe. After that, they could believe anything. So, one man published anything and everything he heard from those days. Experimental filmmaker and general enfant terrible Kenneth Anger first published Hollywood Babylon in 1959. This infinitely readable piece of fan-fiction about celebrities’ sex lives is the obvious basis for Babylon, with some stories directly borrowed or alluded to, such as Nellie’s bringing the entire USC football team to a party (Clara Bow was said to have had sex with the whole team). But whereas Anger’s book was a celebration of Thelemic bad taste, Chazelle’s “adaptation” cannot celebrate nor chastise its characters’ behavior.
Indeed, the movie splits itself between party scenes and the runner’s high of movie production. Those who party hardest (namely Nellie) are rewarded immediately: they make connections at parties that land them roles as aggressive sexpots. But those who attune themselves to a Protestant work ethic (namely Manny) last long past the era of excess and steadily ingratiate themselves to the stately string-pullers. Chazelle shoots an early scene depicting silent studio work — dozens of movies being filmed side-by-side on a studio field, the camera whirling past each yelling director like Darren Aronofsky’s claustrophobic Mother! — to match the pace of the previous night’s bacchanal, stopping only to highlight the big-budget costume drama that Jack Conrad drinks his way through. It’s a scene that feels similar to his previous Whiplash since it also espouses that art’s worth is equivalent to the torturous work that forged it. And, oh, how they work: here, Nellie upstages a stand-in for Colleen Moore (Samara Weaving as “Constance” Moore) by pecking every man on set, improvising lewder takes, and crying on demand, effectively playing herself from the night before. Meanwhile, Manny runs errands for the production, including the impossible task of finding another camera and racing back before the golden hour fades. Pitt’s Jack Conrad, the best actor around, perfectly plants his kiss — his only task of the day. It’s a scene indicative of what’s to follow: relentless, noisy rabble for a supposed love of movies that never materializes.
Babylon’s best scene is stolen from Boogie Nights, a movie that serves as the spiritual foundation for this one. James McKay (Tobey Maguire, here a 1930s version of Boogie Nights’ Tom Jane) plays Virgil to Manny’s Dante as they descend deep into the “asshole of Los Angeles.” This trip takes place after the conversion to sound, this movie’s version of Boogie’s ’80s, and acts as the most definitive shift in tone. No more Disney-approved cocaine mountains appear; instead, permanent red lighting outlines early versions of BDSM clubs and late versions of freak shows. McKay, so pale from opium that he’s practically a vampire, says it’s the only location that still keeps the party scene alive. It’s perhaps the only wink from Chazelle that indicates anything close to a value system. The other folks are, well, complicated; this guy is bad. It’s a fun, terrifying scene, so thank you, Boogie Nights.
Otherwise, Babylon does not love movies so much as it loves The Movies, an institution made up of “play it again, Sam,” the stargate sequence of 2001, and the other sultry signs that are meant to evoke that true but trite refrain, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” It’s tough to believe that Chazelle would try to pick between Godard or Truffaut in a heated bar argument; easier to believe that he loves them equally, just as someone would love their own child and a stranger’s child equally. This brand of nihilism rears its ugly head in a closing montage as Manny, during a matinee of Singin’ in the Rain, is overcome with a sort of oneiromancy of future cinema, just as Daniel read the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. Though these quick flashes show that Chazelle has done his homework (name-checking even Ed Emshwiller and Lillian Schwartz), they show nothing of why these movies are great or important. It contains the logic the studio heads might’ve had for the casting of The Hollywood Revue of 1929: just throw everything we got at them. Since this universe posits that Manny might have worked on the production of the Revue, that might make sense. But, this destroys Manny; it turns our dewey-eyed optimist into a cynic who flattens every great work into a blob of hoity-toity content in a movie that somehow looks backward in a scene that reads the future.
The Hebrews and early Christians were not wrong to fear and demonize Babylon. Captivity is no small matter, and the excessive noise of civilization would not honor Jesus’ teachings like the simple, quiet ways of St. Francis of Assisi. But, Jeremiah 27:8 states, “If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand.” That Nebuchadnezzar later acted as the Lord’s vassal complicates this figure who once challenged the Hebrew God. The most thoughtful prophets and commentators do not summarily dismiss Babylon as a synonym of sin, but they can articulate what, specifically, was sinful in Babylon. They agree that mere captivity did not give meaning to the Hebrews’ stay in Babylon, nor did mere excess make the Hanging Gardens beautiful or evil. But for Babylon, mere sweat gives meaning to art and mere excess gives that art beauty. There is no Marduk of the Babylonians here, no spiritual sun dedicated to giving life to this movie, nor is there a Ba’al of the Hebrews, a false idol to align against. There is only Babylon, a city, now composed of relics and rubble, that once erected Etemenanki to the heavens for no apparent reason.