CAUTION: SOME SPOILERS
Babylon: Anachronism Number One: 1932 and Jean Smart‘s columnist has given Brad Pitt (the John Gilbert character) a career-destroying review. At their last meeting she says that if the Big One hit… One year too early. The Long Beach Quake – our first jolt as a metropolis – 1933.
Babylon: Anachronism Number Two: 1952 (Coda): Manny returns to Hollywood, after twenty years, with his family. After showing them the entrance to Kinoscpoe Studios on Melrose, he goes to see a movie. In the lobby, there are posters of Marilyn in “Niagara” (1953). Again, one year too early.
As you can see, director Damien Chazelle is a careless filmmaker who doesn’t care much for facts and does not respect the historical record. He’s also well-known in the business for his questionable taste. So questionable that the master of rock-jazz fusion, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen has been quoted as saying that Chazelle’s first feature “Whiplash” “has nothing to do with actual jazz unless you consider it to be a species of martial arts.”
If Whiplash was bad, then “La-La-Land” was downright insulting. Our cool jazzman was played by Ryan Gosling. However, we all knew that his character was just a mouthpiece for Chazelle’s cockamamie ideas on the subject of jazz. In one outrageous scene, he tells poor Emma Stone that jazz originated “because people (in New Orleans at the turn of the last century) were crammed in there, they spoke five different languages, they couldn’t talk to each other. The only way they could communicate was with jazz.
So, it is no surprise that Chazelle’s fifth feature, His version of those heady years between 1926 and 1932 when talking pictures superseded the silent movie as America’s dominant art form – His version of “Singing in the Rain” – is an unsupervised mess. Historic characters from Hollywood’s past, such as Irving Thalberg (the head of the production at MGM), mingle with prominent historical characters whose names have been changed (Brad Pitt’s fading silent star Jack Conrad, who does not make the transition to talkies, is based on John Gilbert, Margot Robbie’s fading silent star Nellie LaRoy, who does not make the transition to talkies, is based on Clara Bow, Li Jun Li‘s Chinese American actress, who has to leave the US for Europe to get work, is based on Anna May Wong and Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John is based on Hearst columnist Elinor Glyn) who mingle with fictional characters such as Diego Calva‘s Manny, a Mexican American film assistant who loves Nellie and aspires to have a more significant role within the film industry.
This crazy mixture spins around, giving off a medley of weak sparks. Meanwhile, the historical boo-boos (see Anachronisms One and Two above) accumulate. Chazelle has a crazy romantic view of what filmmaking was like in the silent era. We get a quick tour/montage of a desert location where it appears that hundreds of silent movies are filming simultaneously. They butt into one another, and there is an on-the-set orchestra to set the mood! Horses are killed by the dozen, and there is the occasional human death. But it’s all in a (fun) day’s work. Oh, and everyone is stoned out of their minds from goodies either consumed on the set or during the previous evening’s Bacchanalian orgy, which takes up the movie’s opening forty minutes – seeking some deep meaning, Chazelle presents the opening credits at daybreak deep inside the movie.
All this “innocent fun” is contrasted with the soul-destroying inflexibility of the new sound era. And Chazelle, in his usual style, hits us over the head with an upsetting and insensitive scene where Nellie is put through her paces, making her first talkie. In a badly misjudged move, Chazelle has the movie’s unfortunate cameraman/cinematographer locked in a suffocating box where he dies of exhaustion/heart attack. This minor character is given no respect. He’s there purely to get a reaction from the audience and to inspire a profanity-laden outburst from a colleague.
I had no problem sitting through the movie’s bloated 180-minute running time. Not, I think, because there was so much going on, but because, through all of this nothingness, five actors manage, against all odds, to make lasting impressions. Pitt and Smart (see above) have a great scene together, even if the director almost destroys it by not checking California’s seismic history. Calva is also impressive. With those big haunting eyes, you think he holds the key to whatever Chazelle is getting at, even if he doesn’t. Li Jun Li also has a few impressive moments, one of which is with Pitt, who anchors the film with one of his best performances.
Margot Robbie’s Nellie is more problematic. God knows she gives it her all, arriving with a bang at the opening party and never letting up until she is transformed into a small caption on the back pages of the Hollywood Reporter. Unfortunately, Chazelle does not know when to pull back, and, what we end up seeing, is an actress being exploited by her director. Has any leading lady ever been subject to so many indignities?
But I won’t think about that now. I will think about that tomorrow.