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‘Babylon’: A Love Song To The Lawless Years Of Hollywood | ☆☆☆☆☆

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It was the happiest moment of the 20th century, one with unbounded excess and debauchery. The interwar period of the roaring twenties brought a moment of cultural rebirth in Paris, New York, Chicago, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. The pioneers of cinema had arrived, fleeing Thomas Edison’s patent claims and seeking a place with as many hours of sunshine as possible to shoot movies outdoors. The industry required young bodies, beautiful faces, talented people and tireless work, in exchange for huge profits, fame and glory. On the mountain that borders Los Angeles, the huge Hollywood sign advertised a new development. The studios had flourished at its feet: in the 1920s cinema was already the fifth-largest industry in the United States, but that neighborhood of Los Angeles still was home to empty lots, crops and animals. On the other side of the mountain, in the valley, were the orange groves and the immense estates. In that ecosystem, depravity, art and business came together. Many directors, descendants of the original filmmakers who arrived in California, have paid homage to that moment. The latest is Damien Chazelle with Babylon.

In Babylon, which critics in the United States have not received warmly, the director of La La Land uses almost no real names. The references are so obvious, though, that unmasking them becomes an exercise in film history trivia. The protagonists are a Mexican immigrant eager to prosper, an actress with a wild side who is capable of doing anything for success, and a handsome star who sees the end of his career approaching. It takes place against the backdrop of Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the arrival of sound swept away the established paradigm.

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, in 'Babylon'.
Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, in ‘Babylon’.

Chazelle has said that he began pre-production of the film by watching a marathon of classic and contemporary cinema surrounded by his collaborators. He screened titles like Intolerance, by D. W. Griffith; Pandora’s Box, by G. W. Pabts, and Wings, by William Wellman, the first film to win an Oscar. Curiously, he does not mention more obvious references: Good Morning, Babylon (1987), by the Taviani brothers, or the sacred text of cinephile gossip, Hollywood Babilonia, which turned its author, the experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, into the empire’s designated myth-maker. Chazelle shares with them the biblical reference to Babylon, the city of a thousand languages and a symbol of human ambition, as well as the portrayal of that libidinous era.

John Gilbert in 1927.
John Gilbert in 1927.

Historically, Babylon is just as lax as Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series. Some characters have the advantage of being portrayed by good actors. Jack Conrad, the heartthrob played by Brad Pitt, draws from Rodolfo Valentino, Chazelle says, as well as Douglas Fairbanks, who died in 1939 at the age of 56 without succeeding in sound films, and John Gilbert, who died at the age of 38 in 1936. Pitt and Gilbert’s Conrad share several characteristics: a marriage to a theater actress who despises the cinema, the mustache once obligatory in leading men, the alcoholism and the laughter he provoked while filming his first romantic film with sound. That failure ended his career.

Clara Bow, in a silver dress, in an undated photo.
Clara Bow, in a silver dress, in an undated photo.Hulton Deutsch (Corbis via Getty Images)

Emerging actress Nelly LaRoy was inspired by Clara Bow, the first “It Girl” in history. Emma Stone was originally cast to play her, but due to the delay caused by Covid, Stone left the project and Margot Robbie took her place. She has further emphasized the character’s animalistic side, without forgetting Bow’s essence, her iron determination to leave her family’s poverty behind and her strange experience with sound (Chazelle steals an anecdote of Bow blowing up the recording system on the set of The Wild Party). Her career’s beginnings, sneaking into a party and stealing the show the next day at her first shoot, is more reminiscent of Joan Crawford. The wild heart, says Chazelle, is born of Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, who fought against the hegemony of Hollywood – and lost. The third protagonist, the Mexican Manny Torres, brilliantly embodied by Diego Calva, is inspired, according to Chazelle, by immigrants like René Cardona, a Cuban who in the 1920s became the youngest executive in Hollywood, and Enrique Vallejo, a Mexican who began in cinema as Chaplin’s cameraman and ended up as a director and head of production. Max Minghella gives life to the only character who appears under his real name, Irving G. Thalberg, the mythical head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the innovative producer of immense talent, a so-called “wonder boy” who died at the age of 37 at the peak of his career.

Spike Jonze, in a tank top as Otto, Erich von Stroheim’s alter ego, in ‘Babylon.’
Spike Jonze, in a tank top as Otto, Erich von Stroheim’s alter ego, in ‘Babylon.’

Other alter egos appear in camouflage. Jean Smart stars as a gossip columnist with career-destroying power, evoking Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Chazelle points to another reference: Addison De Witt’s character in About Eve. The director who launched the young actress to fame, the filmmaker who discovered the fire in LaRoy’s eyes, is a tribute to Dorothy Arzner (played by Olivia Hamilton, Chazelle’s wife). Spike Jonze, who is uncredited, plays Otto, an outrageous director with a German accent, clearly based on Erich von Stroheim. And in Babylon, the singular actress Lady Fay Zhu, who dances in a tuxedo flirting with men and women alike, reflects the legendary figure of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-born star in Hollywood. Like her, she is bisexual and lives in her family laundromat, and they both know they don’t fit in with their times.

Anna May Wong in the 1930s.
Anna May Wong in the 1930s.Pictures from History (Pictures From History/Universal )

The industry’s jump to sound sent half of the film industry into obsolescence: stars who did not speak or whose accents were intolerable, who had succeeded only because of their magnetism on the big screen, and creators who floundered amid the cumbersome technical process of sound recording. The 1920s, as Babylon depicts, were times for debauchery. Some careers ended poorly: no comedian was more famous than Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, who in 1922 was accused in three high-profile trials of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. He was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but he never worked again.

Margot Robie and Li Jun Li, who plays Lady Fay Zhu, in ‘Babylon.’
Margot Robie and Li Jun Li, who plays Lady Fay Zhu, in ‘Babylon.’

Arbuckle was the discoverer of Harold Lloyd and mentor of Charlie Chaplin. Curiously, in a city that has not bothered to preserve its iconic buildings, the interiors of the first sequence of Babylon, when an orgiastic dance takes place in a large hall, were filmed at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, a venue that Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks created to launch their company, United Artists. The exterior of that mansion, away from everyone and everything, safe from prying eyes, was shot at Shea’s Castle, in the hills of Palmdale, 60 miles from Los Angeles. The castle was erected in the 1920s, commissioned by a businessman named Tommy Lee, who, aware that it took two hours for his guests to get there by car, built a landing strip nearby for flights from Los Angeles. Babylon also includes sequences in the mansion of Busby Berkeley, the filmmaker of great kaleidoscopic musicals, whose home adjoins Arbuckle’s.

Li Jun Li, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Damien Chazelle at the London premiere of 'Babylon.'
Li Jun Li, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Damien Chazelle at the London premiere of ‘Babylon.’Scott Garfitt (Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)

Of athat era, little remains: 90% of American silent cinema has disappeared. At the end of Babylon, one of the characters slips into a screening of Singing in the Rain, a masterpiece about that dramatic shift in the industry. As the classic song says, there’s a tear for every smile in Hollywood.


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Danish shipping giant Maersk ‘lobbied’ to be excluded from global tax deal

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BUSINESS

The Danish shipping giant Maersk held meetings with Denmark’s tax and maritime authorities to advise them on how best to shield the shipping industry from the OECD’s global minimum tax deal, according to a Danish media report.

Published: 8 February 2023 16:21 CET

The revelations, reported by broadcaster DR, come as the company on Wednesday reported record profits of 203 billion kroner, on which it paid just 3 percent in tax. 

They are particularly damaging to the company because of the claim last year from Maersk’s then CEO Søren Skou that his company was open to paying more tax, so long as it was through a global agreement via the OECD, precisely the sort of agreement the company was behind the scenes trying to exclude itself from. 

“It seems as if Maersk is playing a double game,” Lars Koch from the poverty charity Oxfam, told DR after he was presented with the evidence. 

“We can see from the access to documents the number of meetings and close and confidential dialogue”, he added. “Here they agree and inform each other about what Denmark should argue in these international negotiations on a tax agreement and they work actively to safeguard Maersk’s interests by exempting the shipping companies.” 

The broadcaster report was based on internal documents obtained from the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority. 

The documents show that in June 2020, representatives of the company held a meeting with the Ministry of Taxation in which they they discussed strategies on excluding shipping from the OECD agreement on minimum tax. 

Soon afterwards, the industry lobby group Danish Shipping (Danske Rederier), where Maersk plays a leading role, wrote to the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority warning that the OECD proposal “creates considerable uncertainty in our hinterland”.

Then in June 2021, a representative from ​the Danish Maritime Authority thanked Danish Shipping for supplying it with arguments it could use to push for shipping to be excluded, saying, “it was extremely well done. A thousand thanks for your efforts.”

Finally, when shipping was exempted from the OECD agreement in July 2021, a representative from Danish Shipping thanked the Danish Maritime Authority for “the orientation and for being aware of the special challenges of shipping”. 

Mette Mellemgaard Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of tax, admitted that her company had tried to influence the process.

“We were specifically concerned about how these rules would be implemented, and we had a concrete concern that it would create an increased distortion of competition,” she told DR. 

“For us, it is absolutely crucial that we are not put at a disadvantage compared to other shipping companies around the world. That is why global agreements are the most important thing for us.”

Rasmus Corlin Christensen, a researcher in international tax at Copenhagen Business School, said that Maersk’s double game was quite “striking”.

“On the one hand, you support and work for global solutions, the shipping industry included. But at the same time you can see that, at least when it comes to the global reforms that have been discussed in recent years, they did not want the shipping industry to be covered.” 



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The Whale: Fatphobia on the screen: Society ‘would really prefer for fat people not to exist in public’ | Culture

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Contemporary TV fiction does not shy away from polarizing topics. From the capitalist nightmare of Severance (2022) to the mental health issues of Euphoria (2019,) shows increasingly incorporate social debates into their plot lines in response to a growing interest. Gone are the years of the 1990s escapism of Friends and The Office’s controversial canned laughter. Now, for a show to succeed, it must actively participate in the cultural conversation.

This trend is particularly reflected in awards like the Golden Globes, which recently recognized socially engaged productions such as Abbott Elementary or The Bear. Despite this progress, most of these shows haven’t yet broken one of the last taboos in fiction: the lack of body diversity and representation of fat characters.

Anti-fatness is an accepted, widespread discrimination – tiny airplane seats, body-related comments – and fat people remain culturally marginalized. Society “doesn’t like talking to fat people, looking at fat people, believing fat people [and] listening to fat people,” says Lyla Byers, a researcher at Virginia Tech. “We would really prefer for fat people not to exist in public.”

As a result, obese people can suffer serious health consequences. “When I was a child, I suffered medical violence; I was very thin but a pediatrician put me on 18,000 diets,” says Spanish actress Laura Galán Montijano, who starred in the award-winning Piggy (2022). “She was obsessed with my weight, she used to weigh me every week.”

Even some medical terms like “obesity” or “overweight” are problematic, based on a non-inclusive metric: the body mass index (BMI). “BMI was never meant to be used to measure individual health,“ says Byers. “It’s way too simple a measurement for way too complex an issue,” adds Jennifer Graves, author of Framing Fat, a book that challenges the dominant weight discourses. “There are still significant civil rights issues that fat people face in terms of lack of protection against discrimination in the medical system.”

Laziness, stupidity, gluttony or having low sexual capital are some of the concepts associated with fat people, according to Jeanine Gailey, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. “The cultural messaging is that fat is the worst thing one can be,” Gailey says. These stigmas are internalized by producers, who fail to include diverse perspectives. “When [women] are not desirable according to beauty standards, we’re not featured on screen,” says Montijano.

Laura Galán Montijano in a scene from the movie 'Piggy.'
Laura Galán Montijano in a scene from the movie ‘Piggy.’

And, when fiction does introduce fat characters, they are often reduced to old-school stereotypes, from the bullied girl of Debby Ryan’s Insatiable (2018) to the idiotic, slothful Homer Simpson. “Many people in society watch these shows or these movies, internalize these portrayals and believe these things about fat people,” says Ariane Prohaska, a researcher at the University of Alabama. “It leads us to treat fat people differently and to treat ourselves differently, in a way that makes us believe that we have to constantly be improving our bodies.”

Reducing obese people to caricatures especially affects traditionally marginalized minority groups, such as women, people of color and the LGBTQI+ community. “Body size intersects with other dimensions of oppression,” says Prohaska. “So, women of color, particularly Black women, face a lot of stigma.” Big Shirley, a recurring character on the television show Martin, is a classic example of a problematic portrayal of fat Black women on TV, as is America Ferrera’s character on Ugly Betty.

Fat white women have managed to diversify their roles in American fiction thanks to the work of actresses like Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham. But “Hollywood Fatness” is not representative of the US a whole. Chrissy Metz, for example, said in 2016 that as part of her This is Us contract, where she played a woman struggling with eating habits, she had to lose weight. Later, however, she retracted her comments. “Gatekeepers, the people who are behind the scenes deciding what stories Americans are going to buy, tend to be white, wealthy and male,” says Virgie Tovar, a writer and expert on body discrimination. “This creates a cycle of the same kinds of stories being told over and over again.”

When it comes to queer men, fiction narrowly focuses on the body cult that characterizes part of the community through masculine, beefy characters such as those in Élite (2018,) Smiley (2022) or in the last season of American Horror Story. “It really is paradoxical that the diversity the LGBTQI+ community demands is not practiced within it,” says Roberto Enríquez, critic and creator of Queer You Are (2021.)

In the show, Enríquez self-fictionalizes his own youth through Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González, who embody the double discrimination the director has suffered because of his sexual orientation and his body. “I was clear that, if I was going to do the show, I was going to do it my own way,” says Enríquez. “They had to be fat characters because that was the story I was telling, how they face life with those bodies, how they face rejection and desire.” In an interview for ICON, Sánchez spoke of the danger of stereotyping fat people. “If you’re fat, they make you do fat things. ‘I fall down and break the chair because I’m fat; I’m fat and I eat four pastries in 10 minutes.’ The fat guy always has scenes where he is binge-eating.”

Actors Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González.
Actors Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González. Pablo Zamora

If LGBTQI+ stories are still disruptive, triggering far-right censure, those that incorporate artists with non-normative bodies, away from the imposed canon and with plots beyond those of physical obsession, have an even greater subversive impact. “Queer bodies and fat bodies are seen as excessive, so when you have queer fat bodies, they are doubly destabilizing,” says Jason Whitesel, a sociologist at Illinois State University and author of Fat Gay Men, which examines fat stigma within gay male communities. “Most of our shows are put together by people who think the queer community is best represented by thin or muscular people.”

Even though fat suits are still employed by the entertainment industry, fiction has progressed from the rather cringeworthy “Fat Monica” episode of Friends. In The Girls at the Back (2022,) Mariona Terés plays Leo, a millennial woman who plans a trip with her friends after one is diagnosed with cancer. Terés, with a leading, cliché-free role, believes that many things have changed in recent years, albeit slowly. “We are seeing different bodies on screen, but we have to keep changing the clichés,” she says. “The next step is a fat woman playing a sexy character, in a romantic relationship with someone, and normalizing that her body is beautiful, that she can eat whatever she wants and fuck whoever she wants.”

María Rodríguez, Mariona Terés, Itsaso Arana, Mónica Miranda and Godeliv van den Brandt in the opening episode of 'The Girls at the Back.'
María Rodríguez, Mariona Terés, Itsaso Arana, Mónica Miranda and Godeliv van den Brandt in the opening episode of ‘The Girls at the Back.’JULIO VERGNE/NETFLIX (JULIO VERGNE/NETFLIX)

Besides expanding the narrative complexity of fat characters, fiction must increase their range of roles away from one-dimensional supporting characters haunted by their physical appearance.

“What I hope is that diversity is broadened in all senses,” says Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy. Without financial support from production companies, projects with leading fat characters will struggle to be developed. “When you’re looking for funding, some people won’t support you because they consider it a personal project just because you’ve put a non-normative character in the leading role.”

Although fiction lags behind a society that is largely critical of negative representations of fat characters in productions like The Whale, the industry will eventually accept that non-Hollywood bodies exist and deserve to be represented, with complex storylines and free from humiliating fat suits. “I do think we’re going to see more and more diverse people on screen,” says Terés. “It’s a slow road, but we’ll get to the other side.”

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German defence minister makes surprise Kyiv visit

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The brinksmanship has won plaudits from some who argue that by holding out, the German leader managed to get the United States to reverse its stance and send Abrams tanks — bringing about a bigger win for Ukraine.

But other analysts warn the weeks of delay may have left a deeper mark on Scholz’s international reputation, while also hurting Kyiv’s chances against Russian troops on the battlefield.

“The SPD chancellor has achieved one of his biggest aims: delivering battle tanks only in step with the Americans,” wrote Die Zeit weekly.

READ ALSO: Fact check: How much help has Germany given Ukraine?

Scholz’s “unusual and risky move… worked”, it added.

Conservative broadsheet Die Welt called it a “coup” for the chancellor. “Scholz has managed to get the US to change course,” it said.

‘Won’t be pushed’

In recent weeks, as allies and Kyiv alike harangued him for tanks, Scholz stressed the need for international coordination and ruled out going it alone on the heavy military equipment.

With an eye on public opinion, Scholz has been careful not to appear to be hawkishly leading the charge when it comes to military supplies to Ukraine.

Fielding questions at the Bundestag following Wednesday’s announcement, Scholz pointedly avoided playing up the powerful Leopards’ capabilities and how they could affect the outcome in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: What difference could Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks make in Ukraine?

Rather, he repeatedly underlined that it was and is “right that we did not let ourselves be pushed into this but that we rely on and also continue on
close cooperation”.

It was perhaps not a coincidence that Scholz’s announcement came after public opinion shifted slightl in favour of sending tanks, with 46 percent for and 41 percent against on January 19.

Directly addressing fears of Germans, who have favoured treading lightly around conflict zones since World War II, Scholz pointedly said he would ensure that any support for Ukraine would be provided “without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction”.

Asked later on ZDF public television whether his hesitation had led to a “loss of trust” among allies, Scholz rejected the criticism.

“Everyone knows we are making a big contribution, also compared to other countries, in terms of support for Ukraine — not only financially and with humanitarian aid but also with weapons.”

But some analysts said his concern for domestic politics may have cost Ukraine on the frontlines.

‘Embarrassing’

In the meantime, “several months” had been lost in the defence of Ukraine, while Scholz was “more concerned with domestic politics” and an issue he did not see as a “big vote winner”, Chatham House analyst John Lough told AFP.

Fears that moving too rashly would lead to an escalation in the war were exaggerated, too. Even without tank deliveries, “the Russians have escalated anyway”, for example by targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine, Lough said.

Amid the ruckus, particularly with neighbouring Poland accusing Scholz of dithering, analysts point to the damage done to Germany’s reputation.

Bild daily piled on the pressure at home, accusing Scholz of cowardice. But a day later, a high-profile defence ministers’ meeting of Ukraine allies last Friday still failed to break the deadlock on tanks.

The delay was “embarrassing for the German government”, said Lough.

READ ALSO: Germany gives greenlight for Leopard tank deliveries to Ukraine

Olaf Scholz

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) comments on the Russian attack on Ukraine during a press conference at the Chancellery on February 24th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Sudha David-Wilp, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, said moving in lock-step with the United States gave Scholz the “political cover he needed” to say “yes” to German tank deliveries.

But his short-term win was not “necessarily good for Germany because it has lost a lot of trust” with key partners, David-Wilp said.

The way the tank drama played out “clearly shows that the US needs to play a leadership role in Europe” and its security, while German leadership remained “elusive”, she said.

Yet, for all the apparent damage to Scholz, there might be a winner.

The unexpected US tank commitment means that officials in Ukraine have “all kinds of different kit now”, David-Wilp added.

By Sebastien Ash



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