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Thoughts on Sunset Boulevard

I seem to be watching most films at the BFI now. I used to think – especially during the pandemic – that there was no difference between watching a movie on a laptop in your bedroom and watching one projected onto the big screen, surrounded in the darkness by a crowd of strangers. There’s a hollowness when you watch a film alone, something lacking. To enter into a room, let an audio-visual experience cast its spell over you, make you laugh and cry when it pleases, and then finally emerge back into the world a changed person, is something that film is uniquely equipped to do, and it’s an experience I keep returning to again and again, like a drug. A classic film at the end of a busy day at work is a solo treat I relish, (in the same way someone might treat themselves to a solo dinner trip, or a new pair of shoes). 
Anyway – I digress. I’ve lost my train of thought, caught up in the smoky allure of Norma Desmond, as we all were, us wonderful people in the dark. What does it mean for someone to live their life so entirely and completely for the screen? To position, contort, and expose their body’s surface completely for the viewer’s pleasure (viewers who can also include the one being filmed!) In Sunset Boulevard, we are too quick to disregard Norma’s detachment from reality as some quirk of the past – some dusty relic from Old Hollywood. The film’s climax, however, shows just how dangerous such a life is. Yet, even when she murders the protagonist, Joe (spoiler!), she controls and captivates our emotions so fully in the aftermath that we are almost ready to forgive her for it!
This is a film about films: the writing of them, the production of them, and their legacies. I thought I recognised Buster Keaton as one of the “waxworks” (embalmed in the silent-film era) playing cards in the gothic mansion, but I didn’t realise how many stars of silent film appear: Erich von Stroheim, Cecil DeMille, and, of course, Gloria herself. So, when she announces her “return to the screen” (mirroring her 2nd real-life comeback following an 8 year absence), we start to wonder where the similarities truly end. In a 1969 interview with Sight and Sound, Swanson pointed out the silliness of trying to equate the two: ‘I am not a recluse, I certainly haven’t shot anybody, and they’re not floating face down in my bathtub. When you remind people of this, then they realise how silly it is of them to say this…’
The movie has a dryness and an acerbity that still makes it play very modern. There’s a satisfying laughter-to-minute ratio, mainly through Joe’s voiceover, and through the film’s many one-liners. There are times where you wonder if some of the drama in the film is given the necessary weight that the subject matter would seem to demand. Reading James Agee’s 1950 review, I noticed how he picked up objections to the film’s ‘lifeless’ quality, before going on to argue that Charles Brackett and Wilder, as ‘first-rate observers’ of life couldn’t have written (and indeed shouldn’t even try to have written) a more psychologically rich screenplay. Admittedly, you do end the film with the uneasy feeling of having watched a tragedy but not with any of the associated emotions of emptiness or loss. But that’s beside the point – the film’s strength does not lie in a final flourish, but in the amalgamation of interesting scenarios which propel the film from start to finish, and keep you watching in anticipation, right to the awful, grotesque close-up at the end.


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