Friday, May 18, 2018

Sunset Boulevard

This post will be short because it's end of semester and I'm in the midst of grading. I still have a pile of papers to read between now and Monday evening 11:59 when grades are due to the Registrar's Office. In between, this Saturday and Sunday, I will be joining fellow faculty members as we send our graduates out into the world -- to their joy.

But I want to speak in praise of the TCM project that brings classic films to movie theaters. The movies are in theaters for only two days. This month the movie was Sunset Boulevard.
On Wednesday, knowing the 2 o'clock matinee would be my only chance to see it, I jumped up from my desk and headed for the multiplex in the mall.

I arrived too late to hear the narrator -- face-down in the swimming pool -- identify himself as the person who was about to tell us how he ended up there. What can I say? I was counting on ten minutes of coming attractions, and I stopped for popcorn. But I was there when the flashback began.

The longer I watched, the more I regretted missing the swimming pool scene. Seeing this classic black and white film on the big screen was a revelation. As many times as I had seen the movie, there were some things that simply didn't register until I was completely focused, sitting there in the dark, both watching and listening.

Joe Gillis (William Holden), the narrator and the dead man in the pool, is an unsuccessful writer. I knew that, but somehow I had never really listened closely to what he says about that in the opening scenes of the movie. The conversation he has with his agent before he dumps him. The look on his face as he listens to a studio reader (Nancy Olson) rip the movie script he is pitching apart -- unaware that he is the person who wrote it. The decision that he should give up, admit defeat, and go back to the newspaper in his hometown where he will be greeted by smirks. Maybe the first time I saw the movie, I was not yet writing. Maybe after I became a writer, I simply nodded and stopped listening. But on the big screen, Joe Gillis trying to evade the repo men who are trying to take his car was  a reminder about the benefits of having a "day job".

If he hadn't been broke, Joe Gillis would never have taken a job as a script doctor for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the silent movie queen. He wouldn't have become her reluctant live-in lover while escaping in the evening to collaborate with the studio reader (who knows he is capable of much better work than the script he pitched). There is so much in this movie about being a writer that I'm sure I will use a clip the next time I'm asked to speak about the writing life.

There is also a marvelous scene when Gloria Swanson takes her live-in script doctor shopping for new clothes. And the scene when they visit the studio where she once reigned. And the scene that anyone who has seen the movie remembers when Swanson comes down the stairs with newsreel  cameras rolling. What I hadn't noticed on the small screen was the expressions on the faces of the reporters who clear a path for her.

Watching this movie in a theater as it was intended makes me wonder if: (a) I should mortgage my house and build a home theater, and (b) what it would be like to see my own characters come to life on the big screen. Not that I wouldn't be happy with a made-for-television movie. I think. Maybe not. Sunset Boulevard also offers some thought-provoking commentary about movies and movie-making.

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