‘Babylon’ vs ‘The Fabelmans’: The Escapism That Cinema Yields.

If there ever was such a strong case for the love of cinema and the movie theatre, it would ironically be found in two movies that were unfortunately rushed to digital release. Damien Chazelle’s coke-fueled, insane three-hour epic ‘Babylon‘ and Steven Spielberg’s most personal work in the form of ‘The Fabelmans‘, an auto-biographical view of his life through the lens of fictional characters. Chazelle has provided an endless ocean of inspiration during my teenage years with films like ‘Whiplash‘ and more importantly, ‘La La Land‘ which has undoubtedly changed the course of my life. Spielberg, on the other hand, is someone who I’ve always respected but truly have found a new admiration for him in the past few years. He is one of the very few people who bring the genuine magic of disbelief and wonder to the big screen. Naturally, I was very excited about these two releases. I had seen ‘Babylon‘ at the beginning of the week and I had already bought tickets for Sunday followed by a screening of ‘The Fabelmans‘ and this double-feature may have just been the single most important double-feature in my entire life.

there are major spoilers for both ‘Babylon‘ and ‘The Fabelmans‘ featured in this essay.

As someone who loves movies and escaping into the lives of these new and exciting environments, these two spoke to me in a way that I couldn’t really ignore or let flee away. I am now seriously considering filmmaking as a career and the fact that I’m even saying it out loud to myself or even writing it, feels surreal and terrifying but I can’t stop thinking about these two movies and how they impacted me. I have been stuck to my desk, twirling my hair, lost in thought as the ‘Babylon‘ score plays loudly from my speakers. I can’t really think of anything else and in the words of Paul Dano’s Burt Fabelman, “You can’t just love something, you also have to take care of it.” So I’m going to write about it and start by making sense of why these movies mean so much to me.

When it comes to movies like these, there is almost always two sides of the same coin being explored, the art and the artist. ‘Babylon‘ talks about both of them in quite extensive fashion putting them through the wringer that is the beginning of the talkies and the unspoken devastation that it led to for silent film stars. ‘The Fabelmans‘ moreso talks about the artist and their intention with the art they’re making and how it makes them feel. I thought about the order in which I would be watching these two movies. I decided to go with ‘Babylon‘ first as not only does it makes sense chronologically but also having seen it before I know that it’s a more pessimistic view of Hollywood. I didn’t want to leave this double feature feeling horrible. Yes, despite that great epilogue, ‘Babylon‘ is still very much a tragedy in my eyes and I think that’s what Chazelle intended. It’s the journey of an inspired man getting his dream job and then being put through a literal hell and coming out of it broken and mournful to slowly sitting back in that theatre chair and become a watcher again, a member of the audience. With ‘The Fabelmans‘ being next, I expected an endearing drama that would leave me ready to pick up a camera and get ready to film, and to the movie’s credit, it never really tells anyone that it’s easy to do that. It never lies about how hard that process is, in fact, it’s pretty mindful of the real world but even then, it’s not monotone in its view of a passioned soul. It did leave me invigorated and inspired, ready to admit to myself that I want to give it a go and make mistakes and learn from them. Both of these movies provided something to hold onto yet both said different things about the arts, cinema, and how it relates to our protagonists. They share a unique thread tied with cinema and the escapism it provides and I thought it would be a great theme to explore given how drastically different they are from one another. To start, comparing let’s visit Chazelle’s deranged ‘Babylon‘.

Acting as a foil to the optimistic and hopeful ‘La La Land‘, ‘Babylon‘ is the darker companion that sheds light on the darker aspects of Hollywood and how it basically operates like a machine. If ‘La La Land’ was about aspiring to follow that dream and passion, ‘Babylon‘ will explore the inevitable fact that an actor’s days are numbered. It’s about the bigger picture, that no matter how many times it happens, an actor’s life is immortal because even as they pass on, they will live through their work forever. That being said, ‘Babylon‘ isn’t just inherently about cinema even if it does focus on it more than ‘La La Land‘. Cinema shares a sizeable share of the film with Hollywood and how contrasting their forces are for our protagonists. Manuel/Manny Torez is fascinated by movies, he is totally aware of the bigger picture that cinema plays and he desperately wants to be a part of it. He is completely in awe when he visits those sets with Jack and we as an audience feel that same magic with him, there is a contagious excitement being felt. The sunset sequence has this exhilarating uncertainty in it. Will Jack make it through this last take? Will they get the shot just in time? It captures that precarious thrill but of course, they get the perfect shot, complete with a butterfly landing on Jack Conrad. From then on, however, the movie starts shifting from the wonders of filmmaking to how toxic and terrible the industry can be. We can see this being explored through Jack and even moreso in Nellie Laroy. Conrad was always aiming for the future but when the future came, he found that his time had run out, he had fallen out of love with it. There wasn’t any control that he had that could justify his role in this business anymore. Nellie who was incredibly gifted was shut out by Hollywood for rejecting what an actor should look, talk or behave like. They both end up literally dying by the end as a result of what Hollywood has done to them. It circles back to that beautiful scene with Jack and Elinor about an artist’s ego and how they think Hollywood needs them when it’s very much not the case.

Manny and Sidney knowing this, made it out alive by running away. At the end of the movie Sidney is playing for himself in a band and he is content. Manny finds himself returning to the movies not as a studio executive but as a viewer and what movie does he end up seeing? None other than ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and just like that, we as an audience are right there with him again looking at something familiar. Endearing and simple yet it’s magical at the same time. At that moment he is finally able to start looking at movies with awe again. He sees the stories of Jack and Nellie being represented and for a while, it’s like they’re alive again. He starts crying, remembering another life, one he is glad he has left behind. A while later, the iconic musical number starts playing, and the camera glides over the audience watching it, feeling delighted in their escapism. The camera circles back around to Manny who is in complete awe and in that moment he remembers why he fell in love with movies, to begin with. He reunites with his old self. He gets this giant smile across his face, eyes fixated on Gene Kelly as he dances and sings in the rain and at that moment, Manny has escaped. It’s why the movies are here and when that message clicks, they start showing the evolution of cinema in that bold ending sequence. In chronological order, we go through decades worth of moments that enamoured audiences everywhere and enabled that escapism. In the end, ‘Babylon‘ is more about the actor and the viewer rather than the actual art itself yet it is the impact of the art and how much it matters they decide to end it on. The power that cinema enables to just let go of the real world and follow these characters on their own journey for two hours. It is something I truly value, and it’s why I found ‘Babylon‘ very profound in that sense, the journey to get to that message and the lengths it goes to, to convey such a simple yet all too familiar feeling. That being said, as wonderful and grand as ‘Babylon‘ is, Steven Spielberg on the other hand has a much more subtle and vulnerable approach in ‘The Fabelmans‘.

The Fabelmans‘ offers a much different perspective on the escapism that cinema provides. Within the first few minutes, you are transported into this oddly nostalgic, warm and endearing atmosphere. In my review of the film, I described it as a time when a child’s first movie was treated as an event. It was an undeniable treat getting to see a director as acclaimed and beloved as Spielberg envision his first trip to the movies as an actual scene. It is also very endearing on the level that he still gets it, the overwhelming space a movie takes in your head after it impacted you on a level like that. I love how animated younger Sammy feels, like a 1950’s child in a cartoon. He’s picking apart the train crash sequence and replaying it over and over, it’s all he can think about. It’s funny because that’s how this movie made me feel after seeing it. It is something so personal and so overwhelming that you don’t know what to do with it. In Sammy’s case, he wants to recreate it, to gain some sense of control over it. This naturally develops into a passion following Sammy Fabelman into his teenage years for the remainder of the film. To him, this is a natural instinct, filming, coming up with new tricks to improve, absorbing other people’s art and getting inspired, it’s his entire life. Once he finds out about his mother’s secret affair through his recordings of their family camping trip, he isn’t able to say it with words. He uses filmmaking to process it, he couldn’t even tell his mother that he found out, instead, he shows her the footage he spliced together. Everything that happens to him or around him, he is instantly filming or thinking of how he could use it for a project. It’s why he’s so ashamed that he gets the thought of filming the genuine emotion of his parents announcing their divorce right as they’re saying it. The fact that it even occurred to him haunts him.

The Fabelmans‘ doesn’t quite use cinema as a means to escape like ‘Babylon‘ did through the eyes of a viewer. It portrays an artist’s escape to their art form and how they surrender to it and create a whole world for themselves and feel safe in it. That is how Mitzi put it at the beginning. Sammy doesn’t use filmmaking as a means to ignore the real world, he uses it to process it, to feed his soul and that hunger to create. He wants to enamour people with his movies, to make someone else feel the same way he did when he saw that train crash. This is why he constantly clashes with his father Burt because he simply doesn’t understand that this is how Sammy processes life. It goes back to the artists versus the scientists debate that the movie explores. The escapism depicted here is much more subtle. It’s the same notion of surrendering to the art but whereas ‘Babylon‘ does it through the eyes of a viewer, ‘The Fabelmans‘ views it through the eyes of the artist themselves. It’s all encapsulated in the scene where Sammy is editing his western movie, where the guns are firing but they’re clearly fake and so he uses pins to put holes in the film reel to make it look like the guns are actually firing. He wants to put the audience through the best possible experience, to fully escape into a new place and believe what they are seeing is real while the camera is on.

In the end, it is very clear to both ‘The Fabelmans‘ and ‘Babylon‘ that cinema is important. Despite ‘Babylon‘ being this extravagant, loud and eccentric epic and ‘The Fabelmans‘ this very vulnerable low-budget drama, they both understand the passioned soul. Both Chazelle and Spielberg’s view on cinema and filmmaking was equally compelling and enriching to see. The theme of this essay revolved around the escapism that cinema provides and while the two couldn’t be any more different, the parallels are there. ‘Babylon‘ is all about the viewer’s perspective and how it fits into the bigger picture. It puts audiences as the entire reason why this art form is always alive and well, how they keep these movie stars and the crew’s work alive. ‘The Fabelmans‘ on the other hand is about the artist and how they escape into their work and manoeuvre life’s emotions through it. It’s about the desire to make something that is bigger than you, to gain control over emotions you never felt before, and to tap into that magic from behind the camera. I think that having these two movies in theatres right now is incredibly exciting. These movies have done so much for me already, I have seen both of these movies three times each at this point. I can safely say that in the future, these two are the movies that got me to admit to myself that I want to make movies. I am eternally grateful for these Chazelle and Spielberg and I hope that one day I can be so lucky as to do what they do. If anyone here has had a similar experience with these two movies, I’d love to talk!

Babylon‘ and ‘The Fabelmans‘ are now available for online purchase. Give them a watch, if you haven’t and if they’re still showing at any theatre near you, show them some love.


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