Damien Chazelle’s Babylon Is A Story Of Identity And Assimilation Amid Hollywood Chaos

Fables are often used to package hard truths in easily digestible packages, thereby providing a cogent lesson to the viewer through plaintive metaphors (the script partly accomplishes this by using history, amalgams of real figures like Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Anna May Wong, and so forth, as a starting point for this alternative-narrative). Like a Brothers Grimm fable, Chazelle also gives us real truths in a gruesome package. If you leave “Babylon” disgusted, that’s the point. You should be disgusted with Hollywood. No one wants to be that actress, or Arbuckle, for that matter — insulted and rendered disposable. In this anti-fairytale, they placate to the fear, planted by an apathetic system, to assimilate to the dominant culture, with the hope they can withstand the possibility of burning out or being discarded. We witness the imperative choices burdening people of color primarily through the eyes of Manuel.

He contributes to the mythology: In one scene, he retrieves a camera for a large set piece. Unnecessary death has occurred, Conrad is near-puking from his drunkenness, and the director (played by filmmaker Spike Jonze) is at a loss. But once Manuel appears with the camera, the scene is shot — an Edenic sunset and perfect kiss occur in an unbelievable composition — and the anticipated movie audience is none the wiser to the destruction behind the art.

Others also contribute to the myth building: Nellie is filmed by a Dorothy Arzner-inspired director, Sidney plays the accompanying trumpet, Lady Fay, while writing inter-titles, dubs Nellie “The Wild Child,” and Jean Smart wraps Nellie’s work in rapturous words.

It’s the kind of creative spirit that Chazelle clearly loves about Hollywood. And the industry is initially welcoming of this quintet’s unconscious collaborative spirit: Their unique talents makes each indispensable to the star-making, box office hit-crafting process. They become all the more necessary when two changes happen. The introduction of sound with “The Jazz Singer” disrupts the order of Hollywood: White performers like Conrad and Nellie are forced to adapt, though Sidney, by way of his trumpet-playing and luck, moves from the periphery to becoming a star of jazz shorts. Meanwhile, Manuel becomes a studio head. The enactment of the Hays Code, however, limits the opportunities Manuel and Sidney believe they’ve gained.

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