Sunset Boulevard ★★★★½

[MySpace Film Challenge, Season 4]
[Recommended by Lindsay]

For ages, all I’ve wanted to be is a composer. There is nothing more alluring than creating your own music and sharing it with the world. To me, that meticulous process of selecting a note - oh, so carefully - writing it down, and then choosing from so many different notes and rhythms to make an entirely new harmony, was simply a rewarding experience. Passion, in essence, cannot be explained by our minds, but must be explained by our souls. In my soul, I feel an utter joy at completing a piece of music that I’m satisfied with. Even if it will never be heard by anyone except myself, there is that sort of fierce pride that you have put something out there in the world. The feeling that you matter.

Norma Desmond desperately wants to matter. I suspect she experiences the same passion that I do, and while she is no mean likable, there is also a tragic realism to her character. She was a movie star for years and years, only to be forgotten when the talkies sprang up in the late 20s. As her producer recalls, she was only difficult to work with “in the later years”. Perhaps this was the stress, perhaps the knowledge that she indeed was fading. But somewhere in her self-centered and paranoid heart, Norma has a passion for the art of acting itself. The art of creating your own character through your body, voice, mannerisms. Part of it could be for the money and the fame. But few truly successful artists don’t love what they do.

I admire Norma for that. In fact, I admire every character in this movie for that. Joe Gillis, who started out in the middle of nowhere (Ohio :) ) doing god knows what, before coming to Hollywood and trying to make it big. Yes, he wants money, but he wants a challenge too. A way to flex his original ideas and to show the world who he can be. Betty, a young woman who works as a script reader, wants to forge new paths as well.

And there is the enigma of Max as well. Billy Wilder, in his ingenious dark twists, sprinkles small references throughout this entire movie, and one of them is the miraculous casting. Not only do stars such as Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson make cameo appearances, but Erich von Stroheim’s haunting performance as Max stands out to me. To those who don’t know, von Stroheim was a relatively famous director, mostly of silent films, probably best known for his 1924 film Greed. Letterboxd shows that he made ten films from 1919-1933. Only one has over 5,000 views, and the rest are under 3,000. That’s certainly not uncommon or unexpected in this day of age. But it certainly serves as a reminder of the labors of hundreds of filmmakers, producers, writers, and actors… most of which lie forgotten in the dust. It must be terrible to be forgotten. Stroheim was hardly ever a household name, but now even some of the giants of filmmaking - Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, FW Muranu - are fading from public eye. Hell, Martin Scorsese, who I’m sure plenty of people now recall as “the guy who said Marvel movies weren’t cinema”.

Gloria Swanson herself was a fading film actress, and gives one of the greatest performances of all time, yet it is in von Stroheim’s eyes that I see the most resigned sadness and acceptance. That our passions and our works, in a couple years time, will have faded into the wind. It’s a tough world out there, and if you don’t make it you may never recover.

It’s also probably with a sarcastic self-awareness that Billy Wilder wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard. He was hot off Double Indemnity and had just won best director for the Lost Weekend. And he was nowhere near finished, going on to win best picture for the Apartment and a year before make one of the greatest comedies of all time, Some Like it Hot. Back in the day, I’m sure he was as much of a “hit director” as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are today.

For those who still know and love his work, he will never truly die. But it’s foolish to claim that he has not faded in canny resemblance to Norma Desmond and Erich von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton etc etc etc. Lives leave ripples. Your ripple will fade out. Make it worthwhile, make it meaningful. Make it full of love and passion.

In that way, Sunset Boulevard reminds us all of that one Shawshank Redemption quote - “Get busy living, or get busy dying”. Shawshank is the much more optimistic and life affirming film. But it shares a close link with Sunset Boulevard in that it pushes its viewers to live life to their fullest while they can. It makes we want to stop writing about composing and simply compose. Do what I love. Give it a shot. Be creative. Now is my time, before I have to worry about money and success and fame. None of us will live forever, and so nothing can truly live forever. Norma Desmond forgets this, but can we truly blame her?

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