In ‘Babylon,’ The Beauty, Power, and Danger of Nostalgia
Damien Chazelle's new film wields a powerful tool. Perhaps too powerful.
The following contains relatively minor spoilers for the film “Babylon.”
I can think of few current artists who understand the sheer power of nostalgia as well as Damien Chazelle.
All of the 37-year-old director’s feature-length films — including Whiplash, La La Land, and now Babylon — are nostalgic in some way or another. Whiplash’s characters are obsessed with the jazz greats of old, as is Sebastian in La La Land, a film that harkens back to the golden age of movie musicals. Babylon, which was released last month with more of a whimper than a bang at the box office, is perhaps his most nostalgic yet.
Set during the transition years between silent and sound films, Babylon is a sweeping three-hour-plus epic featuring all the glamor and excess of Old Hollywood. It tells the story of Nellie, an actress who was seemingly born to be a star but who peaks right as the transition to sound occurs; Jack, an establish star of the silent era; Manny, a scrappy underdog who finds success in the industry through a combination of luck and force of will; and a whole slew of other minor characters, all of whom have real-life counterparts from the era.
On the surface, Babylon feels like a monument to the era. It is understandable, then, that so many critics have called it nostalgic.
And yet, to call Chazelle’s work here “nostalgic” is to oversimplify it. Babylon isn’t just being nostalgic. Rather, it deploys nostalgia — as a tool, as a threat, as a weapon.
The film opens with an energetic, grand, fast-paced extended sequence telling the story of a single 24 hours in the silent film era. An all-night party of excess, jazz, drugs, and sex runs right into a day of chaotic filmmaking for the silents. Those first 35 minutes are so intense and ambitious that they hold you hostage, forcing you to fall in love with the golden age of Hollywood, or at least this idea of it, whether you want to or not. In many ways, the nostalgia created in that sequence is like a drug. You get an intense high — and foolishly believe the high will never cease.
It does cease, though. Chazelle’s filmmaking style is particularly effective at keeping you captivated, and in this case, he spends the next two-and-a-half-hours essentially forcing you to watch as the idea you just fell in love with slowly withers and dies. The rose-colored glasses are taken off. The glamor peaks and fades. The exuberant chaos of the silent era makes way for a stricter filmmaking system to accommodate for sound. The price for all that excess turns out to be, well, excessive.
That alone would be tragic enough, but Babylon is also the story of the people who fought to maintain the Hollywood they initially found success in, even as it changed around them. They cling desperately to a time that is already gone and past, and then destroy themselves trying to get back the high they once had.
It is not all tragedy, though, as the finale reveals. At the end of the day, plenty of great films have come out since the silent era. Plenty of great art continues to be made today. Nostalgia blinds them to that. It often blinds us to that. It is a compelling tool, and Chazelle wields an intensified version of it in Babylon to make the audience understand why so many people try so hard to return to the high of the past. We understand them, even if we know they are making the wrong choice.
After all, it is easy to be nostalgic for the art of old; it’s a lot harder to recognize the creativity and innovations in the art of now. The final moments of Babylon have been confused for a celebration of the former. In reality, they are a reminder of the reward that comes with the latter.
It is, of course, not a new idea that nostalgia can be dangerous for how it hides the past’s flaws and future’s potential. We see it every day in politics, how an ideal of American history is so quickly built, deployed, dismantled, then built again. We’ve witnessed the tragedy that comes when people try too desperately to cling to an idea of the past that never existed, and at the same time are blind to the bright spots the future could bring.
We’ve witnessed the effectiveness of the simple phrase: “Make America Great Again.” It carries with it no concrete examples of what that greatness is, but rather lets its audience imprint their own examples, real or (more often) imagined, onto it. That phrase alone, and the nostalgia it embodies, has become tangibly dangerous.
Dangerous because it is false. Dangerous because it blinds us to change. But perhaps more so than anything else, as Babylon demonstrates, nostalgia is dangerous simply because of its sheer power as an inescapable human emotion.
Any tool — dare I say any weapon — that powerful should be wielded with extreme caution. Often, it is not.
Happy New Year from Cansler Culture!
I was going to do a top songs of 2022 rundown like I did for 2021 but then, I didn’t. Instead, here are playlists for mine and part-time contributor Sam Signorelli’s respective Top 22 songs of ‘22:
That’s all for this edition.
Coming sometime this month: “Glass Onion,” “White Lotus,” and something about wealth (I don’t know I haven’t come up with the thesis statement yet. Let me know if you have thoughts on that.)
or just made a post about tanya mcquoid (R.I.P. to my hero 🥺😣😖😫)
include "triangle of sadness" in your glass onion and white lotus post!