by Ben Burton
I love a trailer. Getting to the theater early to watch new releases is like being gently held. It is to be seen and recognized for what you are watching and shown a curated set of what’s to come. The last time I was in a theater, I saw trailers for Ant Man (gross), back to back old-people-go-wild comedies (80 for Brady & Book Club: The Next Chapter), and Cocaine Bear. This kind of discordance of theme, genre, and tone comes when these trailer curators have no idea who a movie is for.
What came next on that screen was Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, which, as the trailers suggest, has no ideal audience in mind. Babylon is a loveless love letter, a mean-spirited amalgamation of well-trodden Hollywood tales. Chazelle revels in '20s excess and ahistoricisms, but it’s still too neat and nice to embrace Kenneth Anger's wildness. Chazelle references a film constantly throughout the 188-minute runtime and decides to end the film with a glorified fan cam of that film’s best moments, like a magician revealing his cards. So it’s not for the film nerds, it’s not for any Pitt or Robbie fans (who serviceably play their character-less parts), and it’s not really satisfying for anyone who loves the 20s, old films, or really just movies in general. Babylon designed its advertising on social media platforms, pushing its star power, its sex, and its excess to engage the youth in the excitement of film with the implication that it would be in the theater.
When I saw it, the theater was basically empty — a few old couples, a few lone stragglers, and my enraged family. If any young faces saw Brad Pitt in a toupé staggering to algorithmic big band jazz and thought they just had to pay $15 to see it big and loud, they certainly didn’t show up. Deadline reported that Babylon had to make $250 million to break even. It made $3.6 million on its opening day. Babylon agonizes over its own demise, desperate about saving cinema and loving cinema and going to the cinema while creating something that actually only cares about its own demented, indulgent vision. Babylon wants to save cinema, but it only seems to give audiences another reason not to go.
The state of cinema, specifically that of the American awards gauntlet, has been subject of particular criticism this season for similar issues. Runtimes are long, subjects are dreary, and art seems inscribed with a classist capital A. What, you don’t like White Noise’s arch dialogue and disjointed structure? You just don’t get it. All Quiet on the Western Front just has to be that long — after all there were so many trenches. I’d make jokes about Bardo too, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who could be convinced to finish or tolerate it. Truly, this has been a year of the arcane and intricate auteurist cash giant, the Big Experiment, the ambitious well-financed genre switch. The problem with these behemoths is their self-conscious spectacle, their masking of shoddy and overfunded work with a criticism of the mainstream. Chazelle may argue that we need these films, his film (god forbid), because they are trying to save cinema.
Saving cinema has been on the agenda for a while, and for good reason. AMC is threatening priced seating, ticket prices are rising, and theatrical windows are tightening. In the finite ways Babylon works, it does because it’s in a theater. And yet, this is also the year of Avatar: The Way of Water. Here is a film that seems to follow the format of what was previously criticized: an over 3 hour, oddly paced, indulgent piece that tacks on to its purpose “saving cinema“. But The Way of Water made over 2 billion dollars. Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time, and its sequel is the 4th. Did Avatar 2 save cinema? What about Top Gun: Maverick last summer, which made 1.5 billion? Did that save cinema?
On one hand, we can see this success and conclude that cinema never needed to be “saved“. Alternatively, we can realize that the rhetoric of saving is both blunt and nonspecific. It may be better to say that the flailing theater chains are happy to fill their seats for the new Avatar as much as the new Ant Man, the new Baumbach, or the new Cronenberg. Cinema is saved by Avatar and Top Gun in as much as they show the medium is alive, selling, entrancing, and experimenting, but they also reveal the limiting tastes of an audience only willing to fill seats for the next sequel, serialized installment, or nostalgic flourish. These films are expensive, and the pressure of their success and commerciality means that for whatever aspects of the form are subverted or played with, it must always be in the name of commercial success.
The failed, bloated, auteurist nightmares from the year reveal that crafting an indulgent love letter to the changing of a medium and to alternative film styles and worlds will not inherently “save”. The repeated discourse of their failings negates their own paranoia that the end is near. Film is still a culturally relevant force. The Oscars may not be, Damien Chazelle may not be, but “film” is.
So how to really “save“ cinema? Does anyone know? It seems those least interested in self-conscious preoccupation with the question on screen are most successful at answering. Against the grain of these behemoth auteur films, there has been a softer trend. There has been a bevy of projects, not all necessarily box office or critically recognized hits, which highlight a world of experiment, film adoration, and protectionism, but alongside emotional delicacy. Aftersun deploys a child actor and Paul Mescal in a hangout movie with more emotional resonance and film reverence than in The Way of Water’s pinkie toe. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On transforms from a twee A24 YouTube joke into something surprisingly engaging, frank, and real. Pinnochio — the Del Toro film — uses a bizarre twist on a classic narrative to question how we tell stories about ourselves, and what makes a good man. Love or hate Everything Everywhere All at Once, but its success derives from its incredible earnestness.
Chazelle begins Babylon with an elephant pooping on a group of men trying to push it up a hill for an executive’s party. It’s as if to say, “this is the movies,” or rather, what goes into creating them. To him, film is composed of shit and tears and horror and sexual deviancy and evil and the beauty is what emerges from the concoction. But there is another way. There is love.