A dazzling return to classic cinema?

Tom Jolliffe looks to Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s next star-studded film, and wonders if it could be a movie like they once did…

When Martin Scorsese lamented an evolution in cinema that was leading to a dearth of the cinematic style of yesteryear, he caused something of an uproar. Increasingly, others have followed suit, wistfully wondering if the big-budget show is limited only to superheroes and IP movies. Ironically, many critics of the MCU/Disney movie model are stars of these images. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II among others, although they have starred in reboots, remakes and comic book movies, have also decried a monopolization of cinema by the MCU and. Al.

Every once in a while a movie comes out to surprise you with genuine throwback sentimentality. Top Gun: Maverick might not be quite what Scorsese would classify as “cinema,” but its old-school approach and minimal use of CGI and singularly focused storyline felt like a great action blockbuster of yesteryear. The man from the north didn’t quite catch a mass audience, but was still an awe-inspiring old-school epic of the scale of ’50s Hollywood bravery and Euro/Asian cinema brutality. Other filmmakers still have an appreciation of pre-1980s Hollywood and world cinema that pervades their work, but Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann, for example, perhaps veer into pastiche or over-the-top homage.

Damien Chazelle is part of a new breed of filmmakers who seem to seek to advance cinema by looking back. Whiplash might not have quite suggested that it would become a kind of bastion to reinvigorate dormant genres, like the musical (The Earth) or the historical film (first man). Whiplash in fact, had the cachet of old-school European cinema in its approach.

Chazelle kicked off the starting line with indie success with meticulous filmmaking and an intense focus on characters and his increased budget levels appear to have sparked a shift to shooting on film rather than digital. It’s an expensive process, some might say indulgent, but the results are hard to dispute. Film simply looks more dazzling to the eye, whereas digital can often look too clean.

Whether first man went a little under the radar, despite critical acclaim, and then his new Babylon is boosted by additional star power. While Ryan Gosling is undoubtedly popular, he’s been slightly usurped at the box office by a one-two combo from Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Babylon released its first trailer and at least visually the results are spectacular, while Robbie also almost looks like a good bet at the Oscars just from the trailer.

There’s just something that feels warmly old-fashioned about the style of filmmaking, even if the subject matter can reach extremes that you certainly wouldn’t have seen in classic Hollywood cinema. What Babylon potentially represents a beautiful fusion of the grandiose cinema of a bygone era of Hollywood but also of European cinema. The film certainly evokes a Powell and Pressburger production with nuances of David Lean, but it also has Fellini and Antonioni in its DNA.

Among many films mentioned by the trailer, that of Fellini 8 1/2 immediately came to mind. It is first and foremost a film about cinema. Chazelle’s opus focuses on ’20s Hollywood, just as the industry was exploding to the heights of excess, glamor and superstar appeal with silent-era superstars like Chaplin. This glitz and hedonism continued for decades to come, even as on-screen production code carefully controlled the moral standing of the films.

Chazelle’s trailer teases gorgeous wide shots, tracking shots, careful blocking, and plenty of kinetics (whether it’s physical comedy movement, dance, or more). Due to its plan construction, it has a definite pinch of Fellini who, alongside several other filmmakers of the time, definitely influenced stylistic trends in the long term.

Then, in addition to scope and compositions of something like 8 1/2, the cinematography is beautifully vibrant, bursting with color. It evokes the cinema of the Technicolor era. Shooting on film no doubt helped that, but on top of that, the colors are heavy, bold primaries, and the production and costume design is certainly lavish (and beautifully complementary to the lighting and coloring).

There have been recent trends in filmmaking when it comes to cinematography. One trend is to desaturate and create an almost monochromatic wedge of gray colors (this also seems to be a very popular move on TV). It may have more to do with color grading, as filmmakers tend to opt for removing contrast and color from an image, or oddly enough, turning down the brightness (or leaving the film looking log, as if it had not been touched).

The flip side of the coin boosts the color to aggressive extremes, which in high-res digital is almost eye-sore. It can be even grittier on movies with an overabundance of CGI or the use of motion blur. Everything is starting to look fake. Sure, Technicolor didn’t look natural, but it had a hand-painted warmth and sense of reality. The introduction of color film then felt more real, while maintaining a very distinct film aesthetic, different from what the eye sees. It’s what makes movies feel so definitely “movie.”

It’s also why so many 4-8K digital movies, or modern frame rates (like 30 or 60 fps, rather than the atypical 24 fps) sometimes look like influencer videos/news footage. Traditionally, especially with distinct grain film, your eye almost fills the void. You are part of the process. While it should essentially look more natural, 60fps actually has the opposite effect and looks unnatural. What’s odd, and a definite trend about Netflix and Amazon productions, is that very simple films shot with regimental sharpness are all the rage.

All that glitz, glamor and energy will get the movie this far, but with Chazelle at the helm, on a three-fight winning streak, you can assume it won’t succumb to excess. There’s definitely an air of mystery about how the film will pan out. The outline has enough blur to leave surprises. There have been plenty of portrayals of Hollywood excess and sometimes the movies themselves succumb to excess and a lack of cohesive storytelling. Again, hopefully Chazelle won’t succumb to this.

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

Roberts has long awaited a return. Among his perpetual output of small roles over the past 20 years (in movies with titles like MMA Cop 2 and Amityville Bigfoot), he had some notable roles on television, but also in auteur cinema. Despite a career that didn’t last as long as expected in his early days (where Roberts had three Golden Globe nominations and an Oscar nomination), Roberts still gets the occasion to intermittently remind us that he’s a great actor. at his time. It is suitably viscous in The black Knight. He is enigmatic in a brief but effective scene in inherent vice (playing the character who essentially acts as a catalyst for the story). The fact is that some very great directors have recognized this quality, or still remember the burning talent of Star 80, king of the gypsies and train out of control. Among an intriguing selection of cast members, seeing Eric Roberts again in a major picture is definitely enjoyable.

They really don’t make enough movies like this anymore. Babylon is a very distinct throwback, even down to the towering runtime and I’m sure Chazelle will remind people of how well the movies were made. Are you looking forward to Babylon? Let us know your thoughts on our social media @flickeringmyth.

Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 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 information on the best personal site you will ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/

Kimberly B. Nguyen