Babylon: the stories and people who inspired Damien Chazelle’s film

In babylona film that is both atypical and timeless, Damien Chazelle draws a parallel between the Hollywood of 100 years ago and that of today. Two eras crossed by a sense of urgency and desperate feverishness specific to periods of great technological transformations, where old certainties are shattered, replaced by a new imposed reality. “I wanted to observe under the microscope the beginnings of a new art form and an industry still in its infancy. More so, I liked the idea of ​​examining a changing society. In the 1920’s, Hollywood has undergone a series of rapid transformations, some of which look cataclysmic. A few people survived, but few escaped unscathed. This is what we would call today a rupture.”

In this story that places the Mecca of cinema at the gates of sound and voice, Damien Chazelle frees himself from codes. From the first minutes of babylonthe director opts for an eccentric and delirious caricature, a fever dream reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald and follows in the footsteps of Kenneth Anger, avant-garde filmmaker and author of the book Hollywood Babylon. Published in 1959, the book compiles myths, urban legends and half-truths. The most shocking Hollywood scandals are listed there and the list grows with the rhythm of the following editions. Kenneth Anger presented himself at the time as a historian, but the decadent accounts he shared are now widely considered to be pure inventions.

His book is quickly considered fiction, apart from a few real facts – the assassination of filmmaker William Desmond Taylor or the tragic career incident of Fatty Arbuckle – which the author places before his distorting and nightmarish mirror. Nobody should come out babylon thinking that the Hollywood of a century ago is the exact replica of that of Damien Chazelle. The liberties taken by the director nevertheless contribute to building an excessively palpable atmosphere (which inscribes the final message of the work – which we will not reveal here – in perfect continuity).

For the characters, the film also likes to mix fiction and reality. Thus, figures like that of the producer Irving Thalberg, played by Max Minghella, the couple William Randolph Hearst/Marion Davies or the audacious director of photography James Wong Howe roam like cocaine addicts on the stake of vanities. Each character combines easily recognizable personality traits. The main character of the actress, played by Margot Robbierecalls the mythical Clara Bow in her inclinations to self-destruction, as in her particularly terrible childhood (Margot Robbie was also inspired by it and sought to reproduce her New York accent).

Certain details of the character also evoke other It-girls of the time, like Lia LaPutti or Alma Rubens. brad pitt brings to life the perfect silent leading actor, largely inspired by John Gilbert, whose catastrophic transition from silent to talking is legendary, and Douglas Fairbanks, probably the very first superhero of cinema. For his part, the character of Manny Torres embodied by Diego Calva could represent actors such as René Cardona, who arrived from Mexico and faced a California that was particularly hostile towards foreigners, before becoming one of the cogs in the dream industry.

In the fantastical allegory of babylon, each presence is an evocation for the attentive cinephile spectator, from the imitation of Erich von Stroheim – behind whom Spike Jonze hides – to the pseudo Elinor Glyn (with a touch of Louella Parsons) played by Jean Smart, passing by the resurrection of Anna May Wong as Li Jun Li. In this big party, everything seems familiar and yet everything is foreign and old-fashioned. Contrary feelings advocated by the director himself: Damien Chazelle describes his film as “a hate letter to Hollywood, but also a love letter to movie theater”. Something to toast and cheat death for a while longer.

Originally posted on QG Spain.