No film this year has been as divisive as Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which is either a thrilling tribute to the silent film era or a self-indulgent mess of an Old Hollywood fable, depending on which critic you’re listening to. One thing that both its supporters and detractors mostly agree on is that the film has an impressive amount of research and callbacks to the silent film era — but beloved director/Facebook poster Paul Schrader disagrees, questioning the historical accuracy of the film in a Facebook post.
“‘Babylon’ is many things but well-researched isn’t one of them,” Schrader wrote. “After reading a number of planted articles about the filmmaker’s voluminous ‘research, I was scratching my head. Does any film historian agree [with] the film’s putative historicity?”
While “Babylon” references many films and actors of the silent era through its fictional cast of characters, the movie takes historical liberties in its presentation of Los Angeles in the 1920s and ’30s. For instance, the film presents cocaine as the reigning drug of choice among the starlets and directors of the period, as opposed to opioids like morphine.
In an interview with IndieWire, Chazelle said he began his research into the transition between silent and sound films 15 years ago by watching documentaries and silent film epics and visiting library archives.
“It was a little treasure trove I kept dipping into over many years,” he said. “The research was so addictive that it took a conscious decision to finally go, ‘It’s now or never. This should be the movie I should try to make now.’ So I have to close the book, look at these notes I’ve collected over the years, this dense mass of impenetrable stuff, and actually figure out what the roadmap through that would be. I have to take a machete to this and turn this into a story. So stopping one part of the process to begin another actually took a conscious gearshift.”
So far, general audiences have responded to the film’s depiction of the silent film era with a resounding shrug. The movie bombed at the box office over the weekend, making a weak $3.6 million on a roughly $80 million budget. Luckily for Chazelle, ahead of its opening, Paramount announced a first-look producing and directing deal with the filmmaker.
When he’s not on Facebook, Schrader is making movies; his next film “Master Gardener,” which follows his acclaimed “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” is set to release next year via Magnolia Pictures.
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