Sunset Boulevard [1950)

This is the story of O.J. Simpson.

This is the story of Phil Spector.

Too much foreshadowing?

Scramble.  Scramble.

Scramble the meaning.

This is Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon come to life.

Fifteen years before anger published.

In France they have Angers.

And every George is a multiple.

Georges.

But what passion!

Yes, dear friends…

Sunset Boulevard is one of the strangest films ever made.

If you want to know from whence Mulholland Drive came, start here.

SUNSET BLVD.

Mulholland Dr.

If you’re really daft (and I am), you’ll think you’re watching that guy who played The Professor on Gilligan’s Island in one of the best films you’ve ever seen.

But there’s a big fucking difference between Russell Johnson and William Holden.

Or is there?

Just let the wind blow through the bellows of the pipe organ for a moment.

And imagine yourself in a dream so dark it could be a nightmare.

But it’s merely spooky.

The great art.

Has mystery.

What was director Billy Wilder groping for?

Never mind, for a second, the bursting cast.

Every extra a novel in themselves.

Just the story of Sunset Boulevard is enough to make a thinking person stagger into the intersection on the Rue Campagne-Première.

But there are so many intersections…

Mon ami.

It starts bad.

Like a second-rate Raymond Chandler ripoff.

But it compels you to stay with it.

A little underwater photography.

Novel.

The adjective.

So much hinges on Paramount Pictures.

The gate.

The arch.

And how criticism can thwart a career.

The straw that broke the needle in the camel’s eye.

It’s like something out of Breathless or Dr. No.

The precipitous turn.

Kicking up dust.

Before the boulevard was broken dreams and crack vials.

Syringes.

Just ordinary fascism.

Triumph over violins.

And we trace the line.

A shoulder.

A chin.

A palazzo.  A collection of post-Impressionists.

Because we want to know.

For nothing could be more mysterious.

Lost a husband to the Spanish flu.

Lost two more, too.

But one lives as a ghost.

And his monocle groove is strangely vacant.

Erich von Stroheim.

Unreal.

Whether in a Jean Renoir picture or here.

Whether behind the camera or acting in his own film.

In two places at once.

Like Schrodinger’s cat.

But nobody remembers Schrodinger’s chimpanzee.

And a little coffin.

And the steps Stroheim has to take to stand in a hole.

This is the story of Michael Jackson.

This is the story of Emmett Miller.

Not gone, but forgotten.

And it is the true way entertainment worked.

When mass media was born.

At a million miles an hour.

1900.

Or 1898.

Churning out pictures.

From the dream factory.

And wax cylinders.

And who cares about these young girls…we can always find more.

But Buster Keaton sits in for Miller.

Because there is nothing more sad than a sad clown.

The waxworks…

The rogues gallery.

It could have been Elektra.

But it had to be Richard Strauss.

1909.  1911.

Great silence on one coast.

And great noise on the other.

Direct from Europe.

This is the story of Thora Birch.

The greatest star who ever was.

And I am just a humble servant.

Max.

There will be Max.

Always a sadness over beauty.

When beauty is counted in but one way.

One dimension.

3-D clustered, but without 4 time.

But you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.

And actors are all full of nothing.

Must empty out.

Each time.

To fully fill.

May the best shell win!

So that she stalks the shit outta him.

Like some Transylvanian octopus.

And Igor schleps his stuff in the middle of the night.

Like some dream from Dreyer’s Vampyr.

What the fuck?!?

Poor William Holden is living in the decline of the West.

The sagging tennis court.

The bowling alley in the basement we never see.

Because it would be like the Biltmore on hard times.

Truly grotesque.

Decay.  And decadence.

Taken separately.  Different connotations.

A piece of rotting fruit in the trash.

And champagne supernovas of drunken, naked excess.

But they are one and the same.

When rooted word-wise to rot.

Gloria Swanson is the hysterical car-wreck-of-an-actress here.

You can’t look away.

Bride of Frankenstein.  Hell, Frankenstein himself.  Sex changed.  Sexless.

More hideous internally than externally.

And more nuts than the peanut gallery of an old picture house.

But no locks.

Perhaps a lock of hair…

But no gas.

No blades.

No.

It’s quite a spooky thing to be trapped in such luxury.

Such trappings.

Camelhair.  Vicuña.

What the hell!

She’s paying, right???

Tails.

For godsake, man…Valentino danced the tango here!

But now the tarantula hums.

Manipulative receives new meaning.

An actress.  A star!  And that Roaring Twenties, gilded, cocksure, brassy optimism.

Unfazed by decades of disuse.

“She’s doin’ the ballet on/both of her wrists”

Goddamn…

If Echo & the Bunnymen were around in 1950…

William Holden has been sucked in.

To a vortex.

And it ain’t no fun.

No funny business.  No funnymen.

Plenty of echoes.

Of his past life.

Mingled with her omnipresent portraiture fecundating the stale mansion.

“He could die happily ever after”

Bob Dylan knew about the pillars.

And the pillory of fame.

And so C. B. DeMille was a natural choice.

To depict the heartbreak.

Of a washed up life.

Hate to break it to you, kid…

But the diva is in denial.

Yes, the bitch is back.

Take Elton and a whole gaggle of crocodiles…and the Isotta Fraschini with the leopard seats.

Several leopards died for your ass(es).

How’s the weather up there?

And so she rides a white swan because she’s born to boogie.

With the swagger of Bolan.

Norma Desmond.

Monomaniacal about beheading the past.

On a platter.

American montage shows the unwieldy devices–to make young again.

Strobo-oscillo-sonic skin tauteners.

Franju had a less frightening story sans yeux.

Face without eyes.

Ah! […]

But the eyes have it all!!!

The fire of once-great dominance.

Champagne.  Caviar.

The eeriness of Sunset Boulevard is that Gloria Swanson WAS once a great star (sort of).

And even more so, Erich von Stroheim WAS (REALLY FUCKING WAS) a great director!

And so Billy Wilder managed to tell their stories.

Only the names were changed to protect the guilty.

Devotion till the end.

Love for cinema.

Love for a woman.

A woman is a drum.

Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him???

Jealousy.

Jalousie.

Film noir.

Horizontal shafts of light.

But shadows all the more prominent.

This is our Rembrandt.

Our chiaroscuro.

How insensitive…

Norma with bitter, vindictive precision.

And then the curtain is pulled back on the waterworks.

And the fucking Pompidou explodes in hideous reds of dysfunction.

Yes.

Come and see where I live.

In a lonely place…

Maybe it’s better you don’t know me.

But he really wants to say, “Will you marry me?”

On this night.

What sadness.

We think such overwrought misery only exists in the movies.

But the intersections of real life sometimes make such tragedy possibly.

And we shouldn’t wish such on our worst enemies.

She can’t stand the shock.

But cinema is the ultimate beauty.

So fragile at the end…

We give thanks to see such a picture.

To see Stroheim one more time.

“Alright, boys…  Let’s rev up those cameras!”

To see the silent era stagger down the stairs one more time.

Like a wrought-iron flower.

With a green patina.

Nickelodeons penny on the dollar.

Kicked to the curb.

Save for Langlois.

She just needed one more shot at youth.

It was too much, too soon.

One last shot in the arm of that excitement!

That camaraderie of Hollywood.

Before it became a drag.

Her youth.

Memory is scary as hell.

-PD

Blind Husbands [1919)

Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.”  Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor.  The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question.  One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.

One thing is certain:  after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director).  Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong].  So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film.  Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).

There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture.  One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed.  Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days.  Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt.  Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head.  As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer.  Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).

Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak.  His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.

Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I.  Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies).  It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation.  Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).

Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout.  Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy.  The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed.  The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain.  That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures.  Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me.  Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.”  Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.

-PD