Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Always wanted a pool (Sunset Boulevard)

As I may have mentioned before, the system by which films are selected week to week for the 1001 Movies Blog Club is fairly democratic. A different member of the club selects a new film when asked, from a specific chronological segment of the Master List; the host of the club coordinates it all, rotating the person selecting as well as the timeframe, to keep things nice and varied. And the selections are generally made more than a month out, but only revealed about four weeks in advance of when the reviews are due, so the picker has no idea what other two films his or her pick is going to wind up between.

Yet sometimes there are some wild synchronicities. Last week's pick was Grave of the Fireflies, which starts with a voiceover from the main character, establishing the time of the setting ("September 21st. 1945."). Later (like, the very next line of voiceover) the audience finds out that the narrator is dead and the story is a flashback leading up to his demise. This week's pick is Sunset Boulevard, which starts with a voiceover from the main character, establishing the place of the setting ("Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard.") and later the audience finds out that the narrator is dead and the story is a flashback leading up to his demise. Of course, in Grave of the Fireflies the dead narrator is a total innocent. In Sunset Boulevard, no one is.

Joe Gillis is not the kind of main character that any viewer should be rooting for. He’s kind of a deadbeat, far behind in his rent and dodging repo men coming for his car after not having sold any screenplays in a while. He’s also kind of a hypocrite, disdainful of the movie industry and the audiences yet trying to make a living dependent on both. But somehow, even knowing that Gillis is already a goner and we’re only going to watch him die in the end, we do get attached to him, smirking charm and selfish, doomed decisions and all.

By the same token, Norma Desmond is equal parts ridiculous and repellent, and shouldn’t be able to summon up the slightest affection in any rational observer. Nevertheless, something about her insinuates itself over the course of the film. Pity morphs into sympathy which grows into a strange, almost hypnotic fascination. To use another reference (with bonkers-level cognitive dissonance, I know, but bear with me), I recall an exchange in the middle of Howard Stern’s Private Parts wherein Paul Giamatti’s character (Pig Vomit) is being told about Stern’s ratings and how long people who love him listen to his show, far longer than most radio programs can hold people’s attention. Pig Vomit demands to know about the flip side, the people who vocally hate Howard Stern, and the underling informs him that those people listen to Stern even longer. Pig Vomit can’t comprehend why. Most common response: “I want to see what he’s going to say next.” So it goes with Norma Desmond; not a very good human being, but the perfect kind of movie character, insisting that the safely-removed audience hang on her every word.

So in the end it doesn’t matter if Joe and Norma are innocent or upstanding or admirable (they aren’t) because they get under our skin and make us love them and their decadent, topsy-turvy world. I put a great deal of the credit for this on the script and direction by Billy Wilder (I think I’ve just become the most recent convert to Wilder, and a zealous one at that) but no small amount is due to the actors as well. William Holden is great, and if that sounds like faint praise it’s only because Gloria Swanson is revelatory. Again, the lines blur; it was Wilder’s conceit to center the story around a former silent movie star who has become more than a little unhinged, which would have been a meaty role for any actress, but Swanson fearlessly fills (possibly even overflows) the role in all of its scenery-chewing grotesquerie and elevates it.

Sunset Boulevard could be yet another example to bolster up my theory about movie people loving movies about movie people, but it’s by far one of the darkest, as well. This is not a film about the redemptive power of cinema; quite the contrary, it’s about Hollywood’s ability to destroy dreams (and even lives) with illusions and false promises inevitably yielding to harsh realities. In the world of Sunset Boulevard, movies are expressions of creativity filled with imaginary figures brought into existence by flawed, flesh-and-blood beings, but for those people close to the process the danger always exists that they will be subsumed by it, that the lines between reality and fantasy will blur and they will pay a heavy price for it. At the very end of the movie, Norma Desmond is addressing the camera crews assembled to document her arrest, but she’s in a world of her own. And at one point she breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience - in a sense a non-existent audience, since she’s not making the picture she thinks she is, but in another sense she’s talking right at us. Then she approaches the camera lens and the image of her face melts into smears of light, all the lines blurred past the point of no return. Genius.

So, granted, it’s not a happy paean to the entertainment industry but it is a celebration all the same, almost as if the script can’t help itself. This is really my kind of movie, dense with references to other works. Gillis sarcastically apologizes for not having written The Naked and the Dead! Cecil B. DeMille plays himself! Norma Desmond’s bedroom has the freaking swan bed from Phantom of the Opera! I don’t know if all of the insider references are intrinsic to the film’s greatness, or even if they necessarily hold up over time (especially to non-obsessives) but I appreciate them all the same.

But speaking of holding up over time, I know it’s something of a criticism cliche to marvel at how the themes of something written half a century ago resonate today, but I was undeniably struck by that fact as I watched Sunset Boulevard here in sunny 2013. What ultimately becomes of child stars, and how the rich and famous end up inhabiting insular worlds of their own making, and why Hollywood believes it cannot sell and has no use for women past a certain age - these are the firstiest of first-world problems, I willingly concede, but they are problems that we still have virtually no answers for. For that matter, even outside of image-obsessed La La Land, we as a society tend both to be youth-oriented and to define success in terms of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Sunset Boulevard offers up some of the ugly consequences with deep and universal truthfulness.

I don’t refer to them here on the blog, but over on the 1001 Movies Blog Club site we all have to give numerical scores on a scale of 1 to 10 to each flick. This is the first time, I think, that I’m giving something a 10 out of 10. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this movie, no flaw I can detect which would merit subtracting even a fraction of a point. I would not change a thing about it, from screenplay to cast to cinematography to soundtrack. Sunset Boulevard is absolutely glorious and irreproachably worthy of its Must-See designation.


  1. Really nice write up. This one is just so good. It's interesting to me how of all the directors who worked in Classic Hollywood, it seems that Billy Wilder's films are the ones that seem to consistently stand up the best to modern viewers.

    1. Thanks! Wilder definitely had a particular gift for tapping into timeless and universal ideas. He also managed to consistently attract a lot of acting talent which certainly helped bolster the cause. It will be interesting to see, a generation or two from now, if anyone making movies in the late 20th or early 21st century manages the same kind of transcendent staying power, or if Wilder is still the undisputed champ.