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TIFF.40 - The Review - Curated for you.

 

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NOV 8, 2015  –  ISSUE 08
TheREVIEW
"I *am* big. It's the *pictures* that got small." — Norma Desmond (from Sunset Boulevard)
Guest curator
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james franco
Actor. Writer. Director.
@JamesFrancoTV
Last year I directed and starred in an adaptation of Steve Erickson’s Hollywood novel, Zeroville. It is about a man, Vikar, who's so devoted to film that he gets Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor tattooed on the back of his shaved head. He comes to Hollywood in the 1970s because he has an almost religious obsession with movies and stumbles his way into the business, first as a set builder and then as an editor. One of the book’s best scenes is when Vikar catches a burglar breaking into his home, but the burglar turns out to be a bigger cinephile than even Vikar. They discuss movies like Sunset Boulevard. Here’s the scene:
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Craig Robinson as the burglar & me as Vikar in Zeroville
The conversation covers a lot of ground (A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift, hot turkey sandwiches, JFK, My Darling Clementine). But it seems like they could have kept talking. Here's how that might have gone...
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Vikar
Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece, by a master director, Billy Wilder.

Burglar
No doubt, fool. Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Wilder was a fucking genius. But Sunset Boulevard is a perfect film. It’s like a diamond, and it will never get old. 

Vikar
I agree, but why do you think that is?

Burglar
Film as a medium quickly outmodes its products, and movies can become passé within a short period. Constant technological advances make movies look old, fast. And when movies try to capture the ever-changing cultural moment, they quickly age as time passes from the given moment.

Vikar
Okay, but Sunset Boulevard was portraying its present. It came out in 1950, and that’s when the story takes place, I think.

Burglar
Thas right, motherfucker. Sunset Boulevard deals with an actress who has become obsolete, but the movie itself is timeless. The movie is like a fucking time capsule for Hollywood. 

Vikar
What does that mean?

Burglar
The conflict between deterioration and timelessness is at the core of Sunset Boulevard’s narrative: Norma Desmond is a fading silent film star in the new world of talkies, but the way this conflict is captured — through the use of narration and flashback — and the fact that this conflict is what is being captured, allows the film to exist in a non-temporal universe, where it will never become obsolete. 

Vikar
I’m lost.

Burglar
On one level, as time passes, the sets, costumes and actors in the film will get older and stranger, until they become as old and foreign as men's tights from the Renaissance. But despite that the spirit of the film and the performances will stay forever fresh. 

Vikar
Why?

Burglar
For two reasons: because the film and the characters address the very issue of technical obsolescence, and because the film is a virtual fucking black hole of recursive references to Hollywood and to itself. The film’s design, sets, the camera work, the costumes, the behavior may look old fashioned to an audience fifty years after it was made, but that is exactly the feeling that William Holden’s character Joe Giles has about Gloria Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond. Obviously Giles doesn't have the perspective on the movie that an audience does, but his character comes closer than most to melding with the audience’s point of view. 

Vikar
We see her though his eyes. I get it.

Burglar
As a dead, omniscient narrator, he occupies a unique middle ground between the audience and the characters on screen. In effect, this position allows for an ironic commentary on the film, and a sense of awareness about itself. It sets up an additional screen between the audience and the action, one among several, which further removes the audience. The narration, in large part because it is delivered by a fucking dead narrator, implicitly tells the audience that what they are watching is abnormal.

Vikar
But we always know film is just a film, it’s not real.

Burglar
But our emotions don’t know that. Film is so real in its presentation that it can make us forget we’re watching a film. It can make us laugh, cry, get angry, or even pass out. I heard motherfuckers were passing out during The Exorcist.

Vikar
And in 127 Hours.
 
Burglar
Okay, but we’re supposed to be in the 1970s right now, don’t reference something from the 2000s.

Vikar
Okay, sorry.

Burglar
So, Sunset Boulevard tempers this natural mimetic nature of film by preventing the audience from becoming engrossed in the world of the story. Often what makes a movie feel old is the contrast between what seemed natural to an audience of one generation, and how unnatural it feels to a later generation. A dress that looked contemporary in the 1950s might look ancient in 2008.
 
Vikar
You said we shouldn’t reference the 2000s.

Burglar
Shut up and listen. The narration in Sunset Boulevard implicitly tells the audience that this film isn't trying make them forget they are watching a film. The narration constantly reminds the audience they are not watching reality, and it asks them to constantly question what they are watching.

Vikar
I get it. The technical aspects draw attention to themselves.

Burglar
Now check this. Norma Desmond is an actress dealing with the very same problems of staying current that Sunset Boulevard deals with in a larger context. The film anticipated its own future obsolescence by travelling back into the past via Norma. Even though the story is set in the time it was made (around 1949), Norma Desmond is still living in the silent movie era of the nineteen teens and twenties.
 
Vikar
True. That’s the whole point.

Burglar
Right, but look a little deeper. She hardly ever leaves her mansion, and in the mansion she is encased in a womb of timeless illusions, such as fake fan letters, old movie memorabilia and whatnot. These illusions allow Norma Desmond to believe she is still a star in the silent era. They are created and conducted by her servant Max, played by the great director Erich Von Stroheim.

Vikar
Okay, so the mansion is like a time machine.

Burglar
Right, and by setting his contemporary film in the time machine of the mansion, Wilder achieves a space of “no-time,” where time is not only frozen for the character, Norma, but for future audiences as well. 

Vikar
Okay, I know this is one of your main points. But what does that mean?

Burglar
As time passes, the contemporary elements of the film get progressively sillier. The New Year's party scene at Arty Green’s (Jack Webb, who would go on to do Dragnet), and the dialogue/characterization of Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), get older and older because they represent youthful behavior of the late forties. Anything that seemed hip or natural then will invariable feel old fifty years later. But the opposite is true for Norma and her world. Everything inside the mansion is already timeless. It was timeless when the film was made, because they are images of a world that in 1949 was already decades old. Norma and her world are supposed to look old.  So compared to the contemporary aspects of the film, they are frozen in time; they never tried to capture the present, and thus were relatively unaffected as ‘the present’ of the late 1940’s became the past.
    
Vikar
And timelessness is exactly what Norma Desmond is trying to achieve.

Burglar
Very good, very good. And she does achieve it, but not in the way she plans. There has hardly been a transformation in the film industry tantamount to the change from silent films to sound films. Nothing that had such a sudden and dramatic effect on the people that made films. Many actors of the silent era were instantly put out of jobs when they had to use their voices to express emotion. Because dialogue was needed, writers were made a much more integral part of filmmaking. Directors too had a whole new beast with which to wrestle. . . 

Vikar
Telling stories with images and words, not just images.

Burglar
Riiiiiight. So, Norma Desmond is the encapsulation of that moment of transition, because she has never moved past it, artistically, mentally or emotionally. 

Vikar
But she wants to make a new movie, to become a star again.

Burglar
Good, very good. She traps a writer in the web of her mansion to write her a script, and she dreams about working with DeMille again (a former silent film director who actually made the the transition to sound). So in some ways, Norma is trying to escape her situation. She is trying to use the new tools. But her problem is that she is trying to use them to capture the past.
 
Vikar
What does that mean?

Burglar
She doesn't want to fit into the new world; she wants the new world to fit her. She wants Joe Giles and Cecil B. DeMille to help her make Salome, a film that should have been made 30 years prior. In the end she can’t get the new Hollywood to take her back to her glory days, but she gets what she wants in a different way. 

Vikar:
What do you mean?

Burglar:
Norma's own struggles emphasize the film's own meta-relationship to time. Norma is stuck in the age of silent films, and because technology has passed her by, she is searching for a way to return to the past. She is an outmoded actress, technically, and in public favor. She is obsessed with working with Cecil B. DeMille again because he is the one who made her best films. Norma Desmond is doing the opposite of what Gloria Swanson did by playing Norma Desmond. 
 
"I'm confused again."
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