A Dazzling Throwback to Classic Cinema?

Tom Jolliffe looks ahead to Babylon, the star-studded upcoming film from Damien Chazelle, and wonders if it might be a movie like they used to make…

When Martin Scorsese bemoaned an evolution in cinema that was leading to a dearth in the cinematic style of old, he caused something of an uproar. Increasingly, others have followed suit in wistfully wondering if the big-budget spectacle is purely confined to superheroes and IP movies. Ironically, many of the detractors of the MCU/Disney model of filmmaking are stars of said pictures. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II among others, despite starring in reboots, remakes and comic book films, have also spoken out about a monopolization in cinema by the MCU et. al.

Occasionally a film steps out to surprise you with a genuine throwback sentimentality. Top Gun: Maverick might not have been quite what Scorsese would class ‘cinema’ but its old-school approach and minimal use of CGI and the singularly focused storyline felt like a great action blockbuster of yesteryear. The Northman didn’t quite pull in a mass audience but was still an impressively old-fashioned epic of 50s era Hollywood bravura scale, and Euro/Asian cinema brutality. Other filmmakers still have an appreciation of pre-1980’s Hollywood and World cinema which permeates their work, but Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann for example, perhaps veer into pastiche or exaggerated homage. 

Damien Chazelle is one of a new breed of filmmakers who seems to be seeking to progress cinema by looking back. Whiplash may not quite have suggested he’d become something of a bastion for reinvigorating dormant genres, like the musical (La La Land) or the historical film (First Man). Whiplash in fact, had the stamp of old-school European cinema in its approach.

Chazelle fired off the starting line with an indie smash with meticulous filmmaking and intense character focus and his step up in budget levels seems to have triggered a move to shooting on film over digital. It’s a costly process, some might say indulgent but the results are hard to argue with. Film just looks more dazzling to the eye, whereas digital can often look too clean. 

If First Man went a little bit under the radar, despite critical acclaim, then his new Babylon comes bolstered with added star power. Though Ryan Gosling is undoubtedly popular, he’s slightly usurped as a box office pull by a one-two combo of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Babylon released its first trailer and at least visually, the results look spectacular, while Robbie too almost looks like a good Oscar bet from the trailer alone.

There’s just something that feels warmingly old-fashioned about the style of filmmaking, even if the subject matter may verge to extremes you certainly wouldn’t have seen in classic Hollywood cinema. What Babylon potentially represents is a beautiful fusion of grandiose cinema of a bygone age from Hollywood but also European cinema. The film certainly evokes a Powell and Pressburger production with shades of David Lean, but it’s also got Fellini and Antonioni in its DNA. 

Among a number of films which the trailer evoked, Fellini’s 8 1/2 immediately sprang to mind. Firstly it’s a film about film. Chazelle’s opus focuses on 20s era Hollywood, just as the industry was bursting to peaks of excess, glamour and the allure of superstardom with silent era superstars like Chaplin. That glitz and hedonism carried through into the next few decades, even if on screen, the production code was carefully controlling the moral standing of the films.

Chazelle’s trailer teases glorious wide shots, tracking shots, careful blocking and lots of kineticism (be it the movement from physical comedy, dancing or more). From its shot construction, it has a definite pinch of Fellini who, alongside a number of other filmmakers of the time, definitely had a lasting influence on stylistic trends.

Then on top of some of the scope and compositions of something like 8 1/2, the cinematography is beautifully vibrant, popping with colour. It evokes Technicolour era cinema. Shooting on film has undoubtedly helped that, but in addition, the colours are primary heavy, bold and the production and costume design are certainly lavish (and beautifully complimentary of the lighting and colouring).

There have been recent trends in cinema as far as cinematography. One trend is to desaturate and create an almost monochrome bilge of grey colours (this seems a really popular move in TV too). It’s perhaps more to do with grading, as there’s a tendency for filmmakers to opt for taking the contrast and colour out of a picture, or oddly, pull the brightness down (or leaving the film with a log look, as if it hasn’t been touched).

The flipside is bolstering the colour to aggressive extremes, which on high res digital, almost hurts the eyes. This can be even more grating on films with an overabundance of CGI or the use of motion blur. Everything begins to look fake. Technicolour of course didn’t look natural, but it had a warmth to it and a sense of hand-painted reality. The introduction of colour film then looked more real, whilst retaining a very distinct film aesthetic that’s different to what the eye sees. It’s what makes movies feel so definitively ‘movie.’

It’s also why so many 4-8K digital films, or modern trending frame rates (like 30 or 60 fps, rather than the atypical 24fps) sometimes look like influencer videos/news footage. In the traditional ways, particularly with the distinct grain film has, your eye almost fills in the gap. You become part of the process. Whilst it should in essence look more natural, 60 frames per second actually has the opposite effect and feels unnatural. What is odd, and a definite trend on Netflix and Amazon productions is that very plain-looking, regimentally crisply photographed films are in vogue.

All that glitz, glamour and energy will take the film so far, but with Chazelle at the helm, on a three-for-three winning streak, you’d safely assume he won’t succumb to overindulgence. There’s definitely an air of mystery about how the film will play out. The outline has enough vagueness to leave surprises. There have been plenty of depictions of Hollywood excess and occasionally the films themselves succumb to excess and a lack of coherent storytelling. Again though, Chazelle will hopefully not succumb to that.

Pitt and Robbie aside, Babylon has an interesting and eclectic cast too, with Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Diego Calva, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Li Jun Li, Flea and….AND…the one…the only…Eric (mf) Roberts. If I’m being honest, just as much as the old-school aesthetics and delightfully nostalgic-looking old-school epic feel, the other big selling point for me is a triumphant big screen return for Eric Roberts. 

Roberts is long overdue a comeback. Among his perpetual output of bit parts over the last 20 years (in films with titles like MMA Cop 2 and Amityville Bigfoot), he’s had a few standout roles on TV, and additionally in auteur cinema. Despite a career that didn’t span as many expected in his early days (where Roberts had three Golden Globe nominations and an Oscar nomination), Roberts still intermittently gets the opportunity to remind us that he’s a great actor on his day. He’s suitably slimy in The Dark Knight. He’s enigmatic in a brief but effective scene in Inherent Vice (playing the character who essentially acts as a catalyst for the story).  The point is, some pretty great directors have recognised that quality, or still remember the burning talent of Star 80, King of the Gypsies and Runaway Train. Among an intriguing selection of cast members, seeing Eric Roberts back in a major picture is definitely pleasing. 

They really don’t make enough films of this ilk anymore. Babylon is a very distinct throwback, even down to the imposing run-time and I’m sure Chazelle is going to remind people just how films used to be made. Are you looking forward to Babylon? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth. 

Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/


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