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

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist [2008)

The great director Samuel Fuller said in a cameo during Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou that, “Film is like a battleground.  Love.  Hate.  Action.  Violence.  Death.  In one word…emotion.”  Writing about film is often an intellectual parlor game.  Drop the right reference.  Sound erudite.  But one must confront the emotion of film with the emotion of criticism…in a harmony of pathos.

This film makes me cry.  We’ve all heard a similar phrase, but perhaps never applied to this new classic from director Peter Sollett.  When this film came out, I needed this film.  It restored my faith in the romantic quest–to find a soul mate.

From the opening titles this film hits all the right notes.  Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s prescient use of music in her films.  To not only employ the proto-shoegaze of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” (The Virgin Suicides), but also follow it up with some MBV (Lost In Translation) before Kevin Shields and company mercifully reformed a few years later is, in a word, genius.  However, Peter Sollett and crew (editor Myron Kerstein and music supervisor Linda Cohen) score a coup right off the bat which sets the stage for a brilliant cinematic experience…intertwined with the trappings and longings which a life in music (whether as performer or enthusiast) weaves into our thoughts and very being.

Simply put, “Speed of Sound” by former Big Star member Chris Bell is my favorite song off of his posthumously released masterpiece I Am The Cosmos.  To know that someone else felt the same way about this particular composition is really what Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is all about.

Chris Bell was a homosexual heroin addict in the deep South (Memphis) who got kicked out of his own band, ended up working at his dad’s hamburger restaurant, and (like Marc Bolan) died when his car collided with a tree.  That such a sensitive soul was subjected to such unbefitting circumstances and then layed down the tracks at Château d’Hérouville for the sublime strains which open this picture is truly touching.  Sure, “In The Street” by Big Star (from his time in the band as co-writer) was used as the theme for That ’70s Show, but the song placement for “Speed of Sound” long after his death is a tribute to both his genius and the artistry of Peter Sollett and his team.

But here I have up and gone on a tangent…and deviated from my goal of emotion for emotion.

Reset.  A few days ago.  My birthday.  I walk into Barnes & Noble with a fistful of dollars.  I look at almost every DVD in the joint.  Criterion, action, sci-fi/fantasy, thriller, drama, comedy…even family!  And I come out of the place with one film:  the one under review.

The reason is simple.  Kat Dennings is an acting goddess among (mostly) prattling girls.  With this film she took up the reins which Thora Birch strangely released after Ghost World.  Peter Sollett has made a timeless film of equal to the cinematically stunning aforementioned Terry Zwigoff gem.

But back to Dennings.  There are moments in this film (very few) where her acting might be termed hesitant, but in retrospect I believe this to be part of the Norah character which she was conveying with the utmost thespian delicacy.  For the vast majority of her screen time, she shines like the new star which she is.  I imagine that I’m not the only one who came away from this film wishing that her character was real and that I might meet a Norah around the next corner (just as Thora Birch had made me believe that Enid Coleslaw was really out there somewhere).

A word about Michael Cera.  I didn’t think much of his acting on first view, but I realize now that his droll comic timing might just presage his emergence as the Woody Allen of this generation.  He is, without a doubt, talented beyond many of his peers.

Kudos to writers Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (as well as to screenwriter Lorene Scafaria) for working the Where’s Fluffy? idea into this tapestry (almost like a nod to The Residents…mysterious anonymity in rock music).  Likewise, the supporting cast here is essential and outstanding (particularly Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron).  Also indispensable is Jonathan B. Wright in the small role as Lethario.

Two final bits about this music-infused juggernaut…  The Electric Lady Studios portion (particularly the potentially unwieldy orgasm segment) is director Sollett at his finest.  As the VU meters monitor a keyed mic in the main room we are brought the irresistible symbology which the auteur has been tracing throughout this hipster Easter egg chase in a yellow Yugo…perhaps zipping past the parking garage where Warhol’s Factory used to stand…speeding with exhilaration over the Velvets’ old stomping grounds…the deli where Max’s Kansas City once stood (but now with a mile-long sneeze guard around its salad bar)…maybe past the empty hole where the Mercer Arts Center once stood before it collapsed.  Director Sollett takes us “into the red” at just the right moment…just as Lou Reed knew when to step on the stompbox after delivering the line “and then my mind split open” in the song “I Heard Her Call My Name” from the classic angst-fueled White Light/White Heat album (1968).

Last bit…Mark Mothersbaugh delivers just the right dose of simpatico for this journey to the end of the night.  Thank you friends.  I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.

-PD