Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sun Also Sets

I'm entering into potentially treacherous territory here. Sunset Boulevard, besides being a critically lauded classic movie, is Shocho's very favorite movie. (I should add "of all time," just because I know it'll get under his skin.) I almost didn't want to watch it, knowing that even if I liked the film, there was no way I'd enjoy it as much as he does. But what the hell...

Sunset Boulevard is the story of a struggling Hollywood writer who, through a series of random events, happens to find himself in the run-down mansion of a former silent film actress. Loaded with money and loaded even more with self-delusion, she enlists his help in writing the screenplay that will mark her "return" (don't say "comeback") to the silver screen.

Artistically, there's a lot to commend about this movie. It was made in 1950, and though a fair number of films were made in color by that point, this one is shot in black-and-white -- the only appropriate choice for its subject matter. Director Billy Wilder and his cinematographer John F. Seitz make brilliant use of it too, giving us an avalanche of carefully composed images drenched in harsh light and impenetrable shadow. Nearly every frame looks like a work of art.

But past the looks, my appreciation for the film started to drop off. This movie might not feature a hard-boiled detective, but it's a film noir through and through. Knowing Shocho's tastes, this must play a huge part in why he loved the movie so much. If you know my tastes, you'll know that I really don't go for this sort of thing.

This movie is stuffed full of the trappings of film noir, all magnified by the age of the movie and the cinematic conventions of the time. The dialogue is awkward and stilted, the acting alternately dead flat or manically hysterical. The voice-over is a lazy device used to tell the audience things that would better have been shown.

And yet, there's something about the context here that makes me forgive it all a bit. In essence, this plot and these characters are almost perfectly crafted to fit within these stylistic conventions. The main character is a struggling writer, and it's he who gives the film's narration. So if it comes off self-consciously poetic, too considered to ring true, too cumbersome and strange? Well, there you have it, he's not a very good writer.

By the same token, you have aging actress Norma Desmond, a forgotten icon of the silent film era. If in performing her Gloria Swanson seems preposterous, false, positively out of this world? Well, the character is an actress, one decades out of practice, and from a time when you had to gesticulate wildly and contort your face impossibly, because all the films were silent.

So there's a certain logic to it all that I have to applaud. I don't like the conventions of these movies, but they're perfectly utilized here. The pieces all fit; I nevertheless was not very entertained by what they added up to. I'd call it a C+, all told. If you're a fan of the genre, I can see why this is regarded as one of the best, and you should see it if you haven't. If you have a harder time liking films from decades past, you'll probably want to pass on this one too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No need to apologize to me, Doctor. I'm pretty sure your favorite movie isn't on my Top 100 either. I think it's cool that you're watching movies called "classics" just to see what's going on there!