In 2006, director Richard Kelly, fresh off the massive success of Donnie Darko, released a movie entitled Southland Tales. It now stands, like Ozymandias in the desert, as one of the greatest wrecks of all time.
Southland Tales is two hours and forty minutes long. Its plot — which involves the Third World War, Cheri Oteri as the leader of a terrorist cell, two identical twins who will destroy the universe if they touch each other, a party on a blimp, a drug that gives Justin Timberlake psychic visions of himself lip-syncing to the Killers, and, apparently, the idea that slowing down the ocean’s tides will cause the earth to rotate backwards and thus end time — is completely impenetrable. It is impossible to know what’s going on at any given moment, let alone why you should care. Every actor you know is in this thing: Aside from the Cheri Oterrorism, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a porn star trying to launch a debut album entitled Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is interesting for the first, and last, time in his life; Amy Poehler wears a fake nose while yelling “I don’t want to be a housewife! I like to SUCK DICK!!!!”; Wallace Shawn has Kewpie doll hair. The list goes on.
For each of the 144 minutes the viewer spends watching Southland Tales, they are aware that they are watching either the best, or the worst, movie ever made. It’s one of those two extremes — it has to be, because it’s definitely not in the middle — but you can’t tell which one it is. Take the Justin Timberlake lip-sync number:
Is this bad? Is it good? Why do you hire a singer and then have him lip-sync someone else’s song? Why this song? Why am I delighted? Are the sexy nurses a metaphor for drug addiction? Or the horrors of war? Are we interrogating American masculinity, the idea of war as that which makes men, the fetishization of conquest as opposed to its grim reality (Justin Timberlake pouring beer on his head) and if so, is that why the nurses are sexy? Or is it just a fun visual? Is this what it looks like when Justin Timberlake “sees God?” Is God a sexy nurse? Is God Brandon Flowers? Why have I been unable to get this scene out of my head for the past eighteen years? What is happening????
If you can’t tell, I admire this immensely. There are thousands of just-okay movies out there. It takes something — hubris, confidence, truly massive piles of cocaine — to make a Southland Tales.
Thus, we come to Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. It is — as every would-be cinephile on Twitter has pointed out — his Southland Tales, the moment when his overstimulated, anal-retentive, man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown sensibility skids on a sharp turn while driving up a mountain of cocaine and turns into a glorious flaming wreck. Everything this movie is trying to do, it does perfectly, and everything it’s trying to do is clinically insane. Flappers do piss play! A live alligator runs amok in a Goth club! Margot Robbie crams an entire Jell-O mold into her face! An elephant chases naked ladies through a house party! Tobey Maguire is a crime kingpin with meth teeth! And somehow, after all that, the last scene is still shocking: It’s the most purely off-the-rails, self-indulgent, bad-taste exercise you can imagine, and in fact — if you’re trying to imagine it — your imagination probably can’t go far enough.
Babylon would be one of my favorite movies of the last few years, if not for that final scene. If I think about it long enough, it becomes my favorite movie because of that scene. Bad and good have nothing to do with a movie like Babylon; it just happens to you. Underneath it all, though, I think the movie is saying something interesting. It’s just that the tits and alligators tend to draw focus. Let us, then, approach Babylon in all sobriety, and see what happens.