The title of Damien Chazelle’s newest release, Babylon, brings to focus the film’s deeper meaning and perspective on the movie business. Boasting an all-star cast including Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva, the 3-hour epic follows a variety of artists as they attempt to navigate the decadent world of 1920s Hollywood and achieve success during a time of great change for the industry. What’s more, following the success of Chazelle’s other films including Whiplash and La La Land, Babylon has been one of this year’s most anticipated releases.
The film offers mixed messages regarding the nature of Hollywood – a place that both produces immortal stars for the ages and tears those same stars apart – matching Babylon’s divisive early reactions. It’s certainly true that audiences felt divided about the film, and not just because of its lengthy runtime. Some viewers felt that the movie was a mess – inconsistent and overly chaotic – while others found the same aspects to be intentional and thoughtful. However, looking through the mess one can find a possible answer hidden in the film’s title and the symbolism it references.
How Babylon Connects To The Bible
The city from which Babylon draws its name was the capital city of the ancient Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia. In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, the famed Tower of Babel is constructed there. From this place, God scatters people across the earth and confuses their language. Babylon has associations with the Hebrew word Balal, which means to confuse by mixing. Over time, Babylon has come to be a symbol of a wicked city, fallen from God.
Although Babylon is not based on a true story, the context of history – both of Hollywood and this ancient city – plays a major role in creating the film’s meaning. In the Bible’s final book, the Book of Revelation, Babylon becomes an explicit symbol of doom and for many could be thought of as a dysphemism for The Roman Empire. And yet, despite all these things, the real city of Babylon had an immeasurable cultural impact on the ancient world. In short, both Babylon and Hollywood, at least in this metaphorical sense, are to be considered places evocative of both the highest heights and lowest lows – extreme excess and inevitable doom.
Why Hollywood Is Damien Chazelle’s Babylon
No doubt, Babylon is clear on Hollywood being what one might call a city of sin. The film, in its investigation of Hollywood’s history, attempts to create unmatched energy and intensity. The story is filled, and quite frankly centered around, the debauchery, partying, and excess that can be found in the city’s movie business. Margot Robbie’s role in Babylon features countless moments of drug use and indulgent behavior.
However, what makes Babylon’s message all the more interesting is its constant reverence for filmmaking amidst the chaos. At multiple points in the film, Brad Pitt’s character passionately argues that the movies are “high art.” All of the film’s central characters seem to urgently acknowledge that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something important.
Babylon takes place during a period of major change for the film industry: the transition from silent films to sound or “talkies.” Many of the characters in their attempt to climb the Hollywood ladder face both a rise and a fall. The old guard of Hollywood is replaced by new talent and the whole machine keeps running without concern. One remembers the Tower of Babel – people brought into the construction of a massive project before being cast out, lost and confused.
What Babylon’s Title Says About The Movie Industry
The ending of Babylon provides one of the biggest clues about the film’s meaning in this regard. In this scene, years after his exit from the apparent unrelenting chaos of the movie business (the rise and fall), Diego Calva’s character, Manny, goes by himself to a movie theater and dozes off. He’s woken up by the sound of dialogue claiming that The Jazz Singer, the first picture with sound, is the “problem” with things.
In an emotional moment, Manny reflects on the bigger picture of his place in movie-making – the constant death and rebirth of the industry. The scene features a wildly paced montage of abstract colors and iconic movies that range all the way up to James Cameron’s Avatar. In the end, Manny is left in cathartic tears.
Almost every major Damien Chazelle movie has tied in some way to a discussion about the arts at large. In an interview, Chazelle noted why it was important to him that Babylon be both “merciless and beautiful.” The film industry (and perhaps even the grip of capitalism in a larger sense) as seen in this light by the story is bigger than all of us, magnificent, and yet will still chew you up and spit you out without a second thought, continuing on to affect the next generation of artists and audiences alike. Babylon’s energy and coded symbolism offer a chaotic, fun, and thought-provoking take on the brilliance and horror of the Hollywood world.