BOOK REVIEW | "CLOSE-UP ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: BILLY WILDER, NORMA DESMOND, AND THE DARK HOLLYWOOD DREAM" BY SAM STAGGS
the greater AMERICAN media culture and the incestuous community of HOLLYWOOD in particular has a long history of SELF-CANNIBALISM and callously discarding outmoded GENRES, DIRECTORS, STARS and FILMS to the over-piled trash heap of history. with his legendary film SUNSET BOULEVARD (PARAMOUNT, 1950), emigre screenwriter / director BILLY WILDER very much examines the created media figure of the "has been" and the extreme lengths to which people will go to get ahead in HOLLYWOOD and by extension, AMERICAN CAPITALISM.
in his book CLOSE-UP ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: BILLY WILDER, NORMA DESMOND, AND THE DARK HOLLYWOOD DREAM (ST. MARTIN'S GRIFFIN, 2003), writer SAM STAGGS examines the history of the production of this landmark film. far and away the most interesting aspect of this film was its staggeringly poignant sense of INTERTEXTUALITY, whereby casting decisions placed a meta conversation on top of the narrative. this happened when the character of NORMA DESMOND, a washed-up former silent film star outmoded in the age of "talkies," was played by GLORIA SWANSON, a washed-up former silent film star who suffered a similar career fate. ingeniously her butler who steadfastly stands silent sentry throughout the film in her stead is none other than silent-film era director ERICH VON STROHEIM, who directed SWANSON in QUEEN KELLY (UNITED ARTISTS, 1929), of which some footage is utilized in this film. one of the famous lines from SUNSET BOULEVARD is the line "I am big. It is the films that got small." in which DESMOND essentially contends that the transition from silent film to talkies was in essence an ABERRATION and effectively a DENIGRATION of a higher art form.
for me it is that concept of TECHNICAL INNOVATION manifesting in an apparent act of ARTISTIC DESECRATION that has long held fascination with me. it is a dynamic that is beyond poignant in the modern digital era where CONTENT and VIEWER ATTENTION is king, and ARTISTRY and INTENTION is of secondary or even a distant tertiary concern. i noticed this all the time when taught middle and high school stateside and students had little knowledge of CINEMA CULTURE or LITERATURE. its one thing to have not read MOBY DICK, but it is another to have never heard of the book at all. and to tell you the truth, i never blamed them since they are coming of age in a mobile technological ecosystem that has no bearing on the experience of past generations. to expect them to have the attention or drive to seek out past forms of entertainment makes little sense. they are native to a new format with a new set of SOCIETAL NORMATIVE EXPECTATIONS and CULTURAL MORES.
the bigger question, and this gets back to SUNSET BOULEVARD, is what is the value of the outmoded medium, the forgotten actor or a film of previous era in this new media environment. does it dissipate into the ether? technology will always move forward with new attendant modes of communication and artistry. same deal if you expand that metaphor out to the lived AMERICAN experience in terms of economics and the labor market in the age of automation. it feels like we live in an era of SELF-CANNIBALISM, whereby all that comes from before is rendered useless and of no value. much like the career of the washed-up DESMOND awaiting her close-up with MR. DEMILLE, we are all awaiting our moment to bask in a glory outside our own mediocrity and human frailty in this modern era where we are churned and mined for content and metadata.
i read film historian VITO RUSSO's THE CELLULOID CLOSET: HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE MOVIES (HARPER & ROW, 1981) while still in undergrad in the early 2000s. its themes regarding IDENTITY and REPRESENTATION in the media very much resonated with me at the time.
i should backtrack and say that a running thread throughout much of my academic career as an ENGLISH major devouring literature and film was the relationship between the author/auteur and the audience. the read/viewer completes a loop set out by a creator whereby SIGNALS are interpreted and assigned VALUE. part of the interesting thing about interpreting art in a college setting is how diverse audiences divine diverse meanings. i knew this phenomena implicitly from my time growing up abroad, but my college and graduate experience, as well as my years as a teacher abroad only further cemented such. with THE CELLULOID CLOSET i was presented with meanings regarding MEDIA REPRESENTATION in film culture culled from a segment of society i was not familiar with at the time: the GAY community.
it still blows my mind how much subtext i missed from the likes of HOWARD HAWKS, DEREK JARMAN, NICHOLAS RAY, GREGG ARAKI, JAMES WHALE, BILLY WILDER, JOHN HUSTON and STANLEY KUBRICK among many others. there was definitely a CODED LANGUAGE regarding MANNERISM, DIALECT and general AFFECTATION that went way past me at the time. what was also lost on me was the unfortunate longstanding history of depicting HOMOSEXUAL men as effeminate self-hating sissies who were undeserving of affection, loyalty or respect. this was in part a cruel legacy of the PRODUCTION CODE of the 1930s that was initiated to "ensure" a level of MORALITY in entertainment, but like any standard bearer of NORMATIVE CULTURE, only served the hegemonic interests of an AMERICAN body politic that despised all that threatened the status quo. thus HOMOSEXUALS were brutally depicted along with ethnic minorities, women and all elements of "foreign" cultures.
the fact that some were able to utilize CODED LANGAGE and IMAGES to bypass the censors and address the experiences of a minority audience in a mainstream film is super fascinating to me. VITO's book is basically a catalogue of examples that showcase the evolution of HOMOSEXUAL depictions in film over time.
in a post-MARRIAGE EQUALITY AMERICA, this conversation may appear quaint, but this is the type of book that really makes you consider how far we have come as a culture in the past century and why it is so utterly disappointing and beyond depraved that there are current elements in our society that want to take us back to this closeted time. THE CELLULOID CLOSET and the documentary that shares its name should be required reading/viewing because it provides evidence about how ostracizing and traumatizing any segment of society effectively degrades us all. as a society we should be more aware of how the AMERICAN experience is lived by all elements of society, not just the CAUCASIAN perspective. this book helps introduce such a unique perspective in a novel way.
i could not recommend it with more enthusiasm. it is desperately needed in our current cultural and political moment.
there is so much to be impressed by with the life and career trajectory of legendary screenwriter / director BILLY WILDER whose singular filmography includes the likes of SOME LIKE IT HOT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1959), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (PARAMOUNT, 1944), THE APARTMENT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1960), STALAG 17 (PARAMOUNT, 1953), SABRINA (PARAMOUNT, 1954), ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951), THE LOST WEEKEND (PARAMOUNT, 1945), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1955) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (PARAMOUNT, 1950). towering of his achievements in my opinion was his preternatural capacity as an GERMAN-speaking AUSTRIAN emigre to pick up on the cultural nuances and subtle inflections of the AMERICAN DIALECT and seamlessly spit them back out at us, all within a decade of arriving on stateside shores in the early 1930s.
in his definitive biography ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER (HYPERION, 1998), film scholar ED SIKOV very much digs into the creative and linguistic marvel that was WILDER, especially with his early run of hard-nosed films that take together made a sober, unblinking assessment of AMERICAN culture and society in the post-WWII period. it really is quite the achievement considering he was essentially passing judgement on his new home when he was still very much an OUTSIDER. and it is that unique mix of unmatched talent (of which he put to use beforehand when collaborating with the likes of GERMAN directors ERNST LUBITSCH and ROBERT WIENE) which allowed him write and direct with authority, as well as his status as an IMMIGRANT that makes his films so unique. he is in essence able to assess our culture so accurately in part because of his OUTSIDER status.
i read ON SUNSET BOULEVARD and several other books on WILDER (and FILM NOIR in general) back in my undergraduate years as part of a senior thesis on his early cycle of noir films which included DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. in my opinion, ACE IN THE HOLE is his masterpiece as it caustically and unflinchingly calls out a then-nascent media culture that sought to exploit human suffering by creating media events that would garner media exposure and thus profits. it is a prescient film that is beyond relevant to today and has not lost its edge in the last 70s years. it was also a commercial flop and the last film he made with any sort of imbedded conceit or claim about AMERICAN culture and society writ large. it was the last film he made that had any real stakes.
as someone who after completing this undergrad project went on to teach overseas for several years, experiencing cultures as an outsider, it was the example of WILDER that i largely took to heart. i believe that when AMERICANS move overseas they feel an understandable need to impart judgement on their new unfamiliar surroundings. my thought was always to gather as much information as possible and engage with the local community. only after gaining their trust and understanding would i ever voice an opinion on states of affairs. i choose to believe that WILDER did not assimilate like he did without a genuine sense of innate curiosity and wonder about his new home. its very much an expanding of one's consciousness as anything else.
the example of WILDER showed that such a seamless ASSIMILATION could be done and at the very least, my experience as a newcomer is valid and gives me a unique PERSPECTIVE. not the only perspective, but a unique one.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i am a total fanboy of DIVINE and JOHN WATERS.
i mean really. if you check out any of their trashy EXPLOITATION filmography from the 1970s, movies like PINK FLAMINGOS (DREAMLAND, 1972) and DESPERATE LIVING (DREAMLAND, 1977) or even more obscure earlier fare like MULTIPLE MANIACS (DREAMLAND, 1970) and MONDO TRASHO (DREAMLAND, 1969) you will not be disappointed.
my favorite out of the bunch is FEMALE TROUBLE (DREAMLAND, 1974) which depicts the life of a BALTIMORE teenager seeking attention throughout her life and ultimately commits murder for the sole motivation of becoming notorious.
for me this film is a bitter take on TABLOID culture in much the same way as BILLY WILDER's ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951) eviscerated yellow journalism a generation before. WATERS saw the future of the AMERICAN SOUL and the lowest common denominator in cultural terms as the concept of infamy being a goal in and of itself predates today's online social media culture where people are famous for being famous and being "on brand." DIVINE is psychotic as all hell in this film and the DREAMLAND cast, as always, keep the film grounded in its debased underbelly like a more deranged and conked-out alternate versions of ANDY WARHOL's superstars.
the look, the acting, the humor and the caustic message about the nature of the media and the vacuous nature of seeking fame in this film is all textbook JOHN WATERS and is why FEMALE TROUBLE has been a touchstone of my movie-viewing habits since my teen years.
this film is required viewing in my opinion.
artwork by nacrowe
first full disclosure: my senior honors thesis in college was on this guy. so i'm biased. like really biased when it comes to film director BILLY WILDER.
the guy had a gift for dialogue, specifically his ability to portray the rhythms, cadences and spoken vernacular of the era, which was unrivaled and utterly baffling as he was an emigre who came to the america speaking german. the man who wrote DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) had barely a decade of speaking english under his belt when he began directing his english language scripts. that accomplishment alone is astonishing.
i love all of his early films and some of his later comedies, think films like STALAG 17 (1953), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), but what i really appreciate about the man was his edge.
being a displaced austrian jew that watched the dismantling of his childhood when europe fell under the spell of the nazis and their anti-Semitic sycophants, WILDER had an instinct for calling out injustice, even in his new homeland. at the early peak of his career he created two films that i hold in the highest regard, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. both provided a mirror to a growing celebrity-obsessed media culture that favored gross spectacle over human decency. both went after two aspects of mass culture goliath: film and newspapers.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is a case study of the corrosive effects of celebrity-culture, from those attempting to maintain relevancy to those attempting to achieve it. in a total master-stroke, WILDER casted silent-film era siren GLORIA SWANSON as essentially herself in NORMA DESMOND, with her butler/man-servant played by german silent-era director ERICH VON STROHEIM. not trying to spoil this film, but essentially using a has-been to play a has-been to make a commentary on an industry that both worships and discards its icons in equal measure was utterly brilliant and biting at the same time. pure wilder.
while SUNSET BOULEVARD goes after the film industry, ACE IN THE HOLE focuses its ire on that of the general public in the age of a burgeoning mass media culture. this film is essentially the first to question the responsibility of the media in producing a mass spectacle for ratings. a washed-up east coast beat reporter played by the iconic KIRK DOUGLAS finds himself reassigned to new mexico when he comes across the story of a local man that gets caught in the cave. rather than assist the victim or provide help, he milks the story for all that its worth with week's of exclusives designed to gain him relevancy and a shot back at regaining his reputation as a journalist. much like SUNSET BOULEVARD goes into the toxic horse-trading aspects of celebrity-culture, ACE IN THE HOLE digs deeper and exposes how we are all accomplices to the process. by following coverage we are tacitly responsible for the methods and means by which that information was acquired.
nothing has changed. at all. ACE IN THE HOLE was a flop, but in my mind it was WILDER's greatest moment made only the more incredible given his emigre status in the united states.