Did This Old Elephant Joke Inspire Damien Chazelle's 'Babylon'?

Elephant in 'Babylon'
'Babylon'Credit: Paramount Pictures
People have found inspiration in weirder places. 

I was talking to a friend last night about the grind. You know, the unbearable weight of trying to make it in this town. It's like the magic of Hollywood also puts us through a ton of strife and for some reason, we still love it.  

That led to him telling me an old joke. It's about elephant poop and Hollywood. I pulled it from the New York Stagehand Glossary, but it goes like this:  

A man who spent 25 years scooping up elephant poop at the circus was complaining about his disgusting job. "I hate my job. I can't take it anymore," he said vehemently.

"Why don't you find another job?" said the friend.

Shocked, the man responded, "And what, quit show business?'"

If you've seen Babylon, you know that the opening scene follows the character of Manny Torres (Diego Calva) as he tries to get an elephant up a huge hill to a depraved party. While pushing the elephant up that hill, the creature takes a huge dump on him. 

Over the next three hours, we follow Manny to endure even worse things, all in pursuit of his Hollywood dream, which rises and becomes a reality and eventually falls. But all the time feels like magic to him.

Manny was easy for me to relate to, but after hearing this joke, I wonder if the very idea of the film spawned from this notion.

Hollywood can be a mind of shit. But if you believe in its magic of it, then it makes it all worth it.

I searched the internet for clues from Chazelle about the joke and the scene. I didn't find any. Maybe if someone knows him, they can ask.

But for me, this only deepened my love for a movie that I thought, while outrageous and, at times, vile, understood that even when you glance behind the curtain, there's a heartbeat and an energy that keeps Tinseltown moving, even after the legends you know die.

The only relevant interview came from a Q&A Chazelle did at a screening in New York City.

When asked about the elephant scene, Chazelle said, "I started with the idea of an elephant at a party. It felt appropriate as the type of thing that they would sometimes do at parties of this time, with everyone trying to top each other in how outsize and elephantine (excuse the pun) they could make their soirées."

"Then it was this funny thing of working backward from that and actually asking, practically speaking, 'How do you transport an elephant to a party?'" Chazelle said. "Especially if it’s in one of the big castlelike houses at the time, out in the middle of nowhere, up on a hill — it’s as impractical as possible for getting an elephant there. And what if everything that could go wrong does go wrong? The truck driver for some reason wasn’t aware that he was transporting an elephant, refuses to, then has to be bribed. Then they get the elephant going, but then they have to go up an insanely steep hill. Will they be able to make it? Then when it feels like things couldn’t possibly get any worse, well, that’s when the elephant suddenly has a bout of diarrhea."

As you can read, that's a clear answer to the scene's origins. But I still wonder if Chazelle knows the joke and if it factored in there.

Chazelle later expanded on dealing with Hollywood and the grind, saying, “There’s a lot of shit that goes into the industry, into the making [of a movie], and the lives wrecked to make this thing, but something comes out of the other end that is undeniable and that humanity will always have to show for itself.”

Maybe the joke is just a coincidence. Maybe I'm reading too much into something. But that seems exactly the kind of human reaction this movie wants us to have, so I'm happy to give it.

Let me know what you think in the comments.     

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1 Comment

...there's no business like show business!

January 24, 2023 at 9:41AM

Lee Albright
Owner-Albright Films