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The adolescent pyrotechnics of Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” and James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

click to enlarge Australian actress Margot Robbie in director Damien Chazelle's "Babylon," which the entertainment media is calling her second big bomb of the year.

Australian actress Margot Robbie in director Damien Chazelle's "Babylon," which the entertainment media is calling her second big bomb of the year.

Damien Chazelle was criticized for his 2014 feature, “Whiplash,” which portrayed a jazz conservatory as a living hell, in the same mono-tonally violent, absurdist key as the long basic training sequence that opens Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” The film was accused of being mechanical, more reflective of a macho fantasy than anything having to do with the creation of jazz. This accusation is true, but it does not exactly explain why the film holds people or why it made Chazelle a breakout American filmmaker.

Art-making as a militaristic exercise may be a contrived conceit, but it echoes an insecurity that particularly men seem to have about attempting to excel in the arts. Creative pursuits are maddeningly subjective — beholden to shifting whims. Your brilliance may be my flatulence and vice versa. Someone who masters basic training has accomplished a tangible task, mastering objective physical and mental skills. Or, if an artisan makes a chair, we know by using it whether it works or not. The same cannot be said about, say, Charles Mingus’ “The Clown” or Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” even if disliking those albums strikes this writer as personal lunacy.

By reducing jazz to a mastering of physical skills, namely a realization of a man’s sadistic obsession with a drumbeat, Chazelle turned jazz into a palpable endurance test to be passed, in effect bypassing the concern of subjectivity. Chazelle rendered jazz unambiguously quantifiable. This is a dubious achievement, but Chazelle’s subsequent movies have shown this fixation—with art as fashioned and quantified by means of physical trials—to be a defining obsession. He wants to be the next Martin Scorsese, and if he doesn’t have the talent he will, by golly, compensate with feats of endurance.

“Whiplash,” a hothouse coming-of-age kind of psycho-thriller, has more in common with Chazelle’s lush, indulgent “Babylon” than may at first meet the eye. The limitations, and even the fleeting strengths of “Babylon,” can be explained via “Whiplash.” Both films are so rigorously dominated by Chazelle’s endless flexing—by his bottomless need to assert himself as a swinging dick maestro in the Scorsese vein—that he can barely rouse himself to tell a story, to live in the moment. This self-consciousness is why his films still feel like juvenilia. “Babylon” is ostensibly set in the 1920s and ‘30s, as silent movies gradually evolved into “talkies,” upending many actors’ careers and paving a new route for cinema, but it has little actual interest in that subject matter. That backdrop is a pretense, a justification for Chazelle to mount his own macho spectacle. Specifically, he wants a “Boogie Nights” or a “Wolf of Wall Street” to call his own.

For all the talk of the extensive research that Chazelle did while prepping his screenplay, there’s little sense of “Babylon” being set in the past. I can’t pretend to have any idea what it was like in Hollywood in the 1920s, but one often gathers, as one does even now, that Hollywood debauchery and entitlement were veiled by innuendo and PR jargon. Drug addictions and fluid sexual practices have often been hidden behind staid, moralistic fabrications about stars’ personal lives; fabrications which eventually came to influence films themselves, once production codes were implemented to satiate the government’s budding paranoia about the lawlessness of filmmaking.

In his research, Chazelle apparently found the lawlessness but missed its surrounding social context. As anyone who has sown insane oats at length can tell you, lawlessness without the counterpoint of order is surprisingly boring. Chazelle revels in the snorting of opiates, in blackout drinking, in casual sex, in vast, absurd expenditures of wealth and power without showing any of the repressive social forces with which these behaviors were in dialogue. Astonishingly, even the Great Depression isn’t mentioned. Chazelle’s carnival Hollywood exists in an echo chamber of other movies.

I can feel you asking: Fair enough, but does Chazelle deliver the goods on his own terms? By the standards of modern Hollywood movies, which are as puritanical in their way as the pictures of the 1950s, “Babylon” is raunchy. Its vision of Hollywood as an amoral free-for-all has a charge—for a while, until you realize that’s all Chazelle’s got. The movie has been marketed on an image of Margot Robbie, as an unhinged Clara Bow surrogate, floating on a crowd of partygoers in a red dress. Robbie wears the hell out of that dress—she’s very sexy. But a beautiful woman in sexy clothes doing blow and getting loaded is all there is to the character, and Robbie plays Clara Bow v.2 like she plays every other role: with that Joisey accent that turns everyone into Harley Quinn.

Chazelle throws everything he can at the screen: shitting elephants, puke, piss, alligators, orgies, suicides, and a den of torture that threatens to turn “Babylon” into a Rob Zombie movie when you least expect it. But there’s something tame about Chazelle’s eagerness to shock and awe. He’s like a little boy learning curse words for the first time. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is shocking because Scorsese establishes the protagonist’s casual comfort with outrageous acts of cruelty. That casualness—a blasé, nihilistic attitude toward human suffering—is beyond the scope of Chazelle’s sensibility. That sort of understanding requires an interest in humans, and this director is too busy trying to out-spectacle everyone.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is shocking and it’s a turn-on. Scorsese is honest about the dangerous exhilaration of reprehensible behavior. The other exhilaration of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” for cinephiles at least, resides in seeing the maestro nearly top his Mount Rushmore: “Goodfellas,” which is a similar act of steady escalation that captures the romance of a certain kind of life while also talking straight about its unforgivable brutality.

Together, these films set a huge challenge for a filmmaker. As Pauline Kael wrote, Scorsese is the star of “Goodfellas,” and the director-as-rock-star routine is catnip to nerds and alpha bad asses alike. What aspiring shock-jock directors, like Chazelle, always miss about Scorsese though is his interest in humans, in granular social details like food and jewelry and methods of speech. Underneath Scorsese’s swaggering camera gymnastics and bursts of rock music and violence is anthropological compassion. Chazelle can mount a proficient tracking shot in the tradition of Scorsese, but he can’t build the social foundation that allows that Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas” to be so amazing. In that scene, you felt a bad, tormented man showing a trapped young woman a different life. You understand that temptation and lure of immorality. Since Chazelle has no interest in social textures, his camera moves are just that…moves.

“Babylon” doesn’t have a plot. It’s Stuff Happening—a collection of tall tales that Chazelle assumes will burnish his bad boy cred. Robbie, as self-conscious as her director, whips up a storm of repetitive sound and fury. Brad Pitt sleepwalks through the film as a fading star, evincing a pro’s understanding of underacting as a way to survive such a desperately maximalist work. In the tradition of people of color in modern American movies, Diego Calva is straitjacketed by a role that’s blandly virtuous, as the outsider who becomes a Hollywood insider. Jean Smart has a “For Your Consideration” moment as a gossip columnist, and there’s a diverting episode with rattlesnakes and an astonishingly tactile set piece involving the shooting of a scene before sunset. When Chazelle runs out of ideas, he resorts to quoting “Boogie Nights” wholesale. You may get flop sweat thinking of all the work that went into making a movie of such agonizingly little import or impact.

James Cameron’s ego may be easy to mock, but he makes super-productions look easy and effortless. “Avatar: The Way of Water” has been in production for something like 50 years and cost two or three trillion dollars to produce, and yet it moves with a finesse that should be the envy of someone like Chazelle, let alone the hacks behind what we call a blockbuster these days. This cannot be overstated: James Cameron still makes movies that move. “The Way of Water” has none of the stilted, cut-and-paste, expository bluster that makes Marvel movies feel like classes in multiverse semiotics at Nerd Camp.

The action scenes are brawny and the middle hour of “The Way of Water,” a break from the narrative that allows the audience to swim with surprisingly poignant whales, induces legitimate awe. The plot alternates between the skeletal and the nonsensical, and no, Cameron still hasn’t reconciled his Earth Day messaging with his fetish for violence and hardware. I can live with those conflicts, but Cameron’s lack of conceptual imagination is grating: all these resources, all this effort to create a fictional Earth surrogate, and the film boils down to a stand-off on a sinking boat that suggests “Titanic” by way of “Under Siege.”

It’s as if Cameron, lost for years in the vistas of his Pandora and the demands of who-knows-how-many “Avatar” sequels to come, started longing for the primitive pleasures of the 1980s-era action that initially burnished his legend. I don’t blame him, for all his might and daring Cameron has never topped the comparatively lo-fi “Aliens.” Yet we can’t take him for granted or write “The Way of Water” off either. It is a true achievement of spectacle: of color, composition, and soaring battles of cause-and-effect propulsion that shame the imaginations of even unfettered adolescents. Chazelle, an apprentice, can’t admit that his impulses are essentially adolescent, while Cameron doubles down on this tendency, electing himself King Conan of his own realm.

“Babylon” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are both currently playing in theaters.

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