With the topic of film noir coming up recently on this blog, I've been thinking about what constitutes "noir." I've seen Sunset Boulevard (1950) on numerous lists of film noir, though I've mentally never categorized the film that way myself. Maybe because the movie is so funny. But it does have most of the trappings of noir: a mystery, a body, a voice over and a dark view of the world.
On my most recent trip through the film, the thing that struck me was what motivates Joe Gillis (William Holden) to stick around after things start getting weird at Norma Desmond's house. I think it has to do with the monkey funeral that he witnesses shortly after moving into the room above her garage. The kind of person who would hold a big funeral for her ancient pet monkey is the kind of subject a writer, even a failing one, can't resist. Joe sticks around because he tells himself that Norma would make a fascinating topic for a screenplay. And she does, as the movie attests. I have coined the term "monkey funeral" for any time that you stick around in a potentially unhealthy situation just because your storytelling compunction or artistic sensibilities won't let you leave. This is different from a "train wreck" in that there has to be at least a small potential that there will at least be a great anecdote born out of the experience, whereas the main pull of a "train wreck" is simple morbid curiosity.
Of course, there are the material advantages that Joe gains by sticking with Norma: debts are paid off, rent is no longer a concern and he's swimming in fine clothes and gold cigarette cases. Yet, I think he bristles under these attentions and he does not actually begin sleeping with Norma until he gets sucked in emotionally. Norma's New Years Eve suicide attempt should be another monkey funeral, but at this point, I think Gillis feels something, even if it's just guilt.
Anther thing that struck me this time through is that Norma really has her moments of being charming. It's not such a bad life lying around watching her put on little skits. Swanson is at her most attractive when she dumps the ridiculous get-ups and and buckets of makeup to dress up like Charlie Chaplin. Gloria Swanson's performance is especially brave, because they must have gone out of their way to make her seem every inch the desperate older woman trying to hang onto her youth. As Joe tells her, "there's nothing wrong with being fifty Norma. It's only when you want to convince everyone that your twenty, that it's sad." And yet, Joe proves her right by leaving her for a younger woman.
Eric Von Stroheim gives a great performance as well, more or less playing a looking glass version of himself. Max is a great German director who becomes so attached to his younger protege that he is willing to give up his career and any personal life to protect her. It's difficult to understand that kind of a sense of responsibility, which is what makes it such an interesting and watchable tale. Joe Gillis was right. These people are fascinating.
Bridget Jones's Dairy (2001)
7 years ago