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Guy Rundle

Babylon, Elvis, Blonde, The Fabelmans — why can’t modern films evoke the Hollywood-era spirit?

Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s three-hour homage to the spirit of early Hollywood, begins with a version of the old joke about the man who cleans up the elephant shit at the circus for terrible pay, who when asked why he doesn’t leave, replies, “What? And leave showbiz?”

In the mid-1920s in the desert hills outside Los Angeles (a title tells us it’s Bel-Air, now an upmarket area of leafy cul-de-sacs behind Beverly Hills), two men are pushing an elephant up the slopes for delivery to a party at an isolated, Spanish-medieval-style mission. One of the men is Manny Torres (played by the smoulderingly handsome Diego Calva), who will go on to great things, i.e. producer tortured by his compromises. He’s the one the elephant doesn’t shit on in one of the half-dozen glutinous scenes of vomiting, pissing and evacuation.

The party that ensues has been the centrepiece of the film’s publicity: wild-haired Margot Robbie in a couple of red ribbons serving as a dress, crowd-surfing on her back across hundreds of partygoers, half of them semi-naked, dancing to stomping jazz from a live band. The scene goes for 20 minutes and it’s all welcome; Chazelle — the director of La La Land, the delicious musical-film of two people trying to make it in contemporary Hollywood — has an eye for the fast-moving and multi-layered, and his team of designers and art directors a genius for expressive detail, with the mansion’s baroque fixtures, the shining hair, the two-toned shoes, the sequinned dresses falling to the floor, the sweat flying off the Black jazz band, and the piles, mountains, of cocaine.

It’s all an exaggeration of wild early Hollywood, but it’s the right choice, the excess of decadence serving to wipe away the residual notion that the 1920s were all bobbed hair and the charleston. Aaaaaaand, it’s not all downhill from there. But when the dawn breaks and Robbie’s character, Nellie LaRoy, a gate-crasher, staggers into the morning sun, having gained an acting role — equally well shot; has any human being ever looked as alluring as Robbie does in this film? (Yes, women tell me: Calva) — we can see where the long way down from the Hollywood hills begins.

Babylon has some great scenes to come, but eventually it cannot live up to the promise of that phenomenal first scene, nor survive the lack of anything resembling real character or drama. This celebration of the spirit of Hollywood cannot live up to what Hollywood created: a system capable of generating compelling stories from the thousands of writers, actors and directors who flocked to it over decades, and who were, by the very nature of things, overwhelmingly mediocre in their talents. Babylon could have done with the attentions of the cultural Taylorism it portrays as Hollywood’s fall: teams of writers deployed by a no-nonsense producer would have found the drama for the director to build around, and the entirely separate editing department would have got it down to a sizzling, relentless 100 minutes. If you see it, recut it with your thumb or feet — leave or stop watching after Robbie fights with a rattlesnake in the desert. Trust me, you’ll see a better movie than I did.

Babylon is the worst such offender of the four films on display here, but it’s not the only one. This quartet of “celebrations” of the spirit of the movies and music of high-modern mass culture are all defeated as genuine, no-excuses-needed entertainment by the fact that the process they celebrate has vanished — and nothing has taken its place, in cinema at least, that makes it possible for journeyman culture-makers to avoid the disaster of straying well beyond their individual competence. They all fall short, and in doing so fall below the level of entertainment that more modest and constrained takes on the subject matter avoid. The big wobble that runs through them appears to come from a recognition that not only has the heroic superstardom of an Elvis died, but so too has a certain zone of culture, where drama met spectacle, and whose ideal vessel was the 100-minute popular release movie. The trouble is, it’s dying within these films too. 

They all fall short in their own way. Elvis by Baz Luhrmann is everything you’d expect from Australian (and world) cinema’s Poiter Pan: half an hour or so of a dizzying, accomplished, full-tilt history of Black and white popular music in the US, of Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s, and Elvis’ explosion onto the scene; of the more colourful, variable and alive place America was before it became a chain of Starbucks and Walmarts from sea to shining sea; and then… nothing. The film runs out like all Luhrmann’s films, with the life of the central character never developed as a struggle against self, or within the life of a couple, or to impose a will on the world.

What one gets instead is shoutiness, and scenes of conflict endlessly repetitive and going nowhere, which play to Luhrmann’s strengths and those of any great visual director: the ability to pattern vision and action across time and space, in a manner that gives the drama an extra dimension, without undermining it. Scorsese is one master at this, and the two great examples of it are Goodfellas and Casino, which is why they are ceaselessly rewatchable.

In Elvis, there’s no drama for the director to even risk undermining. Elvis Presley, the Graceland Oedipus, who escaped his fate as the slim-hipped, rock-n-roll love god by becoming a gospel-yodelling, nappy-white-jump-suited, elephantine manbaby, dying mid-shit on the throne after a peanut-butter binge, is surely a man with a struggle, and it’s one that personifies the fate of mass culture in the period, the American passage from appetite to nausea. Visconti could do it justice. Or Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Or John Waters. But not, sadly, our Baz, with his characteristic ersatz. It’s like a two-hour video clip for the Stray Cats. It’s becoming the world style (‘This is the Baz Luhrmification of everything!” my companion yelled out in Babylon, with a half hour still to go. This review is pretty much a footnote to that).

Elvis illustrates a problem that also ruins fellow-Australian Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, but in the exact opposite fashion. This is another three-hour film, the duration too short to have the narrative possibilities of a miniseries and too long to have the poetic compression of cinema. Norma Jean Baker had a lot of rough times in her journey to becoming Miss Monroe and then Marilyn, but she had some great times too, and a lot of wild, free times, making some entertainment that was also art, and she had, of a type unique to the place and time she was in, some fun. In Dominik’s film, she has less fun than Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Made over entirely as a victim of the patriarchy, passed from one group of men to another, from studio to the Actors Studio to the Kennedys, a film that seems to want to be a feminist statement instead turns the icon into a blonde cipher, and the drama of her life into a big-budget version of a Victorian government anti-gendered violence ad (which now amounts to 40% of the state’s cultural product).

What on earth happened to the Dominik of Chopper, who managed to bring to life both the violence and uproarious energy of pre-Wheeler-Centre-and-magic-coffee Melbourne, a city where the St Kilda baths were a tacky nightclub, streetwalkers hung around the Route 15 tramstops, and Pentridge was so frequently escaped from that prison authorities may as well have installed turnstiles? There Dominik (and Eric Bana, and far more the latter than the former I’m now thinking) managed to capture Chopper Read in all his Promethean destructiveness, his self-wrecking swagger. Here, Marilyn is either subdued and subjectless, vacating herself as she’s fucked by studio executives, manhandled by boys, or deals with her mad mother, or her exuberance is joylessly manic. There’s not much in between. It’s a real slog, the sort of movie a man makes to impress a new girlfriend majoring in gender studies.

And, like Babylon, it’s psychologically anachronistic, condescending to the past, and constructs the folk of 20th-century modernity as having either the shamelessness of post-’60s culture or the intense capacity for outrage at, and trauma from, oppression and discrimination as people do currently. People thought the deal was shitty for almost everyone, but they simply didn’t, en masse, centre their lives around feeling wronged by it. The system could not have reproduced itself if the thousands of actresses who had to fuck a studio boss for a job felt it to be the same sort of wrong, as it is now seen and felt to be, in such a way as to make the recent challenges to systematic sexual harassment and shakedowns possible.

In Babylon, a Black movie star — the bandleader in the opening party scene gone onto greater things — is asked to darken his skin with cork to match his skin tone to the hired band in a movie being made for the Southern Black movie circuit. He does it, but trembles deeply at the insult as he plays, before then walking out of the studio forever. Well, maybe that happened once. But in general, the Black stars of Hollywood — part of a whole separate system for a segregated market — put up with a great deal more crap than that to keep their careers. Their mansions were smaller than others, but they were still mansions. Yet they couldn’t stay at a motel or eat at a top restaurant. But they didn’t, as a rule, walk out from a slight at their identity to go back to penny-ante club gigs, as this character does.

Chazelle can’t really step outside the current cultural framework of identity imperatives, so for all the film’s visual brilliance — his 1920s LA looks exactly like it must have been, for the first time in cinema history: a sprawling half-Mexican cowtown becoming the American dream city, Art Deco among the bean fields, gas station wooden shacks and fetid boarding houses — the film can’t capture how people really were, the pastness of the past. Since that is its clear aim, even down to having Manny Torres relive the film’s earliest scenes in his mind, now in Hollywood black-and-white, it’s a substantial falling short. The attempt to make Torres’ memories fuse with the present’s fast-fading cultural memory of the period turns history into sentimentality, the opposite of important. 

Surely among all this, Spielberg can pull something off? The Fabelmans is the autobiographical tale of Sammy Fabelman, the favoured son in a New Jersey Jewish family of the 1950s, who’s given a kiddie movie camera to assuage his youthful terror at a train-crash scene in the movie — and who then lives in the world almost exclusively through the medium. Well, it’s a lot smarter than all the others, and it has actual character, as Sammy records the process of his parents’ marriage coming apart.

Sammy’s exciting, inventive mother (Michelle Williams, red-mouthed, in a dyed blonde bob, always a type to watch out for) goes half-crazy torn between the real attractions of family life, the lost possibilities of musical performance, and her love for her mildly spectrumy husband’s warm and lively workmate. The family scenes are expressively overacted, and the clichés are multiple, from the visiting Russian uncle who clutches both fists across his chest and talks of “zer struggle of love and arrrrt”, to the high school jock, who ceases his tormenting of Sammy after Sammy’s high school muck-up day movie confronts him with his own futile self-regard, a sort of Hanna-Barbera version of John Updike’s “Rabbit” Angstrom. 

There’s a possibility that this is a very smart movie indeed, deploying the clichés of the genre as a sort of pastiche autobiography, true to our late postmodern period itself. Given that Tony Kushner is a co-writer with Spielberg, it’s worth considering. But it’s more likely that the case that Spielberg, capable of creating magical fairytales of modernity with a fluency that cannot be surpassed, galumphed into a realist story well beyond his abilities to render it, and Kushner’s to save it. One or both of these writers has added a half-dozen speeches of “zer love and zer art” type, which sit outside the naturalism of the story, and at least give a thematic form. Though it is better than the character-drama scenes in Babylon, which are a 12-year-old’s idea of how adults relate, The Fabelmans is as hopelessly clunky as you’d expect from a film kid who needs a magical mediating object — a shark, a lost alien, AI adults, revived dinosaurs — to make original entertainment, and historical events to be faithful to, to make effective adult drama. 

The trouble is Spielberg doesn’t do “zer art” per se, much as a steadily declining culture has declared him to be “zer artist”, and cannot render scenes that an art film director could easily do. A scene where Sammy’s maddened mother dances in her nightie before car headlights on a family camping trip suggests Truffaut. While another where Sammy accidentally captures his mother’s canoodling in a film background is Blow-Up, but both scenes are utterly ham-fisted and there’s no indication that Spielberg is excited by them. Entertainment is an art, but not Art, and entertainment is what Spielberg does. His works consume themselves in the process of us consuming them; rewatching Jaws is a nostalgia act, a memory mcguffin of the first time you saw it.

The adult films have faded fast, especially Schindler’s List, which now has considerably less gravitas than, say, the 1979 TV miniseries Holocaust (viewable on YouTube, and well worth a look). Lincoln is just a sketch around Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, essentially a backdrop to a one-man show. Empire of the Sun works because it’s a knowing child’s-eye view of a war. That and ET are the two parts of the autobiography Spielberg has already made. Munich stands alone as a fusion of adult and child drama, because Kushner provides the politics and popcorn Nietzschianism, and Spielberg does an inch-perfect pastiche of a cool tempo 1960s-’70s euro spy-thriller, a pop-art object better than the originals. Poor kidult. He was so desperate for this movie to work, as overblown as all the rest here, that the showing begins with a two-minute direct address to the audience by Spielberg himself, telling us what it’s about and how personal and different it is, practically an instruction on how to watch it. No wonder. Spielberg’s least fantastical movie is the one we have the greatest difficulty suspending disbelief over. 

What the hell has happened here, that four such hoorays for Hollywood come out at the same time and are all clunkers? The guess would be that filmmakers, whose natural medium is entertainment, have felt the need to make reflections on the art form that has made them, because the art form itself, and the historical situation that gave it meaning, are coming apart in real time. These guys are not so much mere cineastes, as simply cinema, blank film running through a gate, and their attempt to capture what’s happening cannot be completed within their capabilities.

Great movies about movies can still be made. The Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar (2016) is a brilliant counter-story to the usual Hollywood myth, in which MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix — a real-life “fixer” remembered as a philistine and a thug, the figure the US “new wave” filmmakers railed against — is constructed as a Christ-like figure whose chivvying, bullying and subterfuge hold the whole studio system and the culture together. On the way, he adopts a starlet’s illegitimate baby, and saves a clueless Roman epic star (played by George Clooney) from his faked kidnap by screenwriters — blacklisted as communists, because they are all communists, sinister jazz-listening types lounging in Eames chairs — with a $100,000 ransom that the screenwriters then deliver to a Soviet submarine surfaced off the California coast. It’s hilarious and knowing and fresh and satirises its own affective moments, without undermining them.  

But, well, the Coen brothers are smart. They’re filmmakers as culture by other means. In an earlier era, they’d write wooden novels, teach at the New School and do long middles for The New York Review of Books. Now there is, or was, enough of an “art”/knowledge class market to try such ideas out on screen. Like Wes Anderson, they come to cinema to do something that cineastes cannot do. The gap between their fleet of foot films and the lumbering elephants led up the mountain by the filmmakers here is deeply embarrassing to the former. Babylon’s evocation of the productive chaos of silent cinema, a half dozen silent shorts being made on one chaotic lot in the LA wilds, noise and gunfire and improvisation contrasted with the grim factory of the sound era, is wildly inaccurate but brilliantly rendered. But it’s also a false derivation. Someone like Chazelle is nothing but the studio system and the regularised, patterned, generic culture it made.

Studio Hollywood wasn’t a fall; it was a rise. Now, its distinct product, the dramatic/symbolic, 100-minute entertainment movie has come apart, deconstructed by the capacity of long-form, small-screen series to do drama at greater length, gaining character and story, but losing the poetry. The films survive on spectacle without drama, increasingly niche art products, and pop-art Dada stunts like Robbie’s new Barbie movie, which all straight men will watch, like cats watch goldfish. Nothing better illustrates cinema’s transcendent role in our culture these decades past than that no one from within cinema, no matter how talented, is able to make a good movie about it as it starts to come apart for the last time. You’d give up on it altogether, but what? Leave showbiz? 

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