BOOK REVIEW | "CLOSE-UP ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: BILLY WILDER, NORMA DESMOND, AND THE DARK HOLLYWOOD DREAM" BY SAM STAGGS
photo & text by nacrowe
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.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
its funny, when my brother and i were both attending high school in KUWAIT roughly 20 years ago our middle eastern peers were largely naive about AMERICAN culture and pretty much anything that wasn't related to that isolated oil-rich hellhole. my brother had a binder that carried a printed out picture of JOHN TURTURRO's epic bowling nemesis from the THE BIG LEWBOWSKI (WORKING TITLE, 1998) and his KUWAITI classmates would ask him who that was. he'd cooly reply "that's Jesus" to which they'd inquire confusedly "THAT's JESUS?!"
THE COEN BROTHERS are masters of playing with genre expectations and THE BIG LEWBOWSKI is a great example of them experimenting with the cinematic form of NOIR films and their ROMAN NOIR literary antecedent. NOIR films were largely created in a post-WWII climate where the world order was being rebuilt and the role of men was being challenged and rethought along economic, cultural and social considerations. the literary analogue to this genre predates WWII. usually there is a single male who throughout the film is fighting a series of outside forces that include government agencies (of the secretive variety), the media and (of course) women. women in particular are depicted as agents of destruction, i.e. femme fatales, who use their sexuality to attempt to derail our hero from his goal. of course its bullshit, but its a construction that is dear to a genre that at its heart is questioning what identifies masculinity when their hegemonic influence is questioned in a patriarchal society.
what makes THE BIG LEWBOWSKI so interesting is that instead of a determined, idealized male protagonist that rises to the occasion to supersede these overwhelming forces, we are instead given JEFF "THE DUDE" LEBOWSKI, an aging inept stoner with no will to effect change on the world other than his commitments to his bowling league and listening to CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL. he is the personification of ineffective masculinity, yet he is the protagonist that meanders his way through a convoluted plot of outside forces that he inept to deal with any reasonable capacity. that is the core of its humor and humanity.
i think i identified with that character not for his slacker-ness but his being thrown into crazy situations, much like i had at that point survived NIGERIA and boarding school.
LEBOWSKI throughout the film is manipulated by more sophisticated and devious counterparts, including another high-achieving JEFFREY LEBOWSKI who is nonetheless crippled and cuckolded by his barely legal porn star wife. even his doppelgänger or mirrored-self is compromised. much like his inability to effect change, the film also just kind of ends where it begins, and endless loop of inadequacy and mediocrity.
a film that never really ends or begins. no character development. no lessons learned.
great film well worth watching on repeat. i have since i was a teenager.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
back in college i spent writing a senior thesis on BILLY WILDER, specifically his early FILM NOIR cycle of films. this was in part a compromise as my advisor originally told me that in order to write about FILM NOIR, i needed to watch a majority of the 520 films considered to be a part of the genre. NOIR films in general were a reaction to the psychic trauma and intense political/cultural upheaval that was the post-WWII period. these films examined power structures in all their manifestations, much like the ROMAN NOIR literature that inspired it, and served as a sort of existential crisis for american society to work through what society they wanted to create after such an intense overseas engagement. i got through 150 over a few months and was beginning to lose my mind.
then i saw at the suggestion of my advisor what became my favorite film of that entire genre, CHARLES LAUGHTON's unnervingly prescient THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (UNITED ARTISTS 1955). the film is a marvel.
this film specifically goes after how god, faith and country can be manipulated, how religion can be corruptly utilized for profit and to empower. PULITZER PRIZE-winning writer JAMES AGEE's screenplay unnervingly exposes the ease at which unbridled human greed can be wrapped in the sanctimonious garb of religiosity to prey on the weak, in this case children. this is the role ROBERT MITCHUM was meant to play and is his crowning achievement.
deftly shot and framed by legendary cinematographer STANLEY CORTEZ, who would later go on to collaborate with SAMUEL FULLER, with homages to GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM and their haunting use of low-angled chiaroscuro lighting, this film is a visually stunning.
this is film is also an anomaly as it marked the only film directed by notable film and theater actor CHARLES LAUGHTON, as it was a box office failure. much like ACE IN THE HOLE, it cut too deep at the heart of the american life and called into question a still taboo issue that hasn't been addressed in the era of mega-churches and televangelists swarming on unfortunates like flies on pigs in a stye. it is quite the achievement that a 60+ year-old film hasn't depreciated in relevancy one iota. sadly due to its initial commercial failure this also marks the only collaborative effort by all its principal participants, which is a real tragedy in and of itself as today this is regarded in the same breath by critics as ORSON WELLES' influential classic CITIZEN KANE.
easily one of my favorite films and should be required viewing for anyone interested in film in general. cannot overstate how great this film is.