Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sunset Boulevard: on Monkey Funerals

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.


SteveQ said...

My life is just one g-d- monkey funeral after another. Got some good stories, though.

Sunset Boulevard balances between noir and black comedy in a very German expressionist way. It also makes me think of Grey Gardens.

When I try to decide whether a film really is noir, I look for the "striped light from venetian blinds looking like a cage." That cliche is almost always there.

Kate Gabrielle said...

I think I have always thought of this one as film noir... mainly, as you said, because of the dead body & voice over.

I have just as much curiosity as the next person, but I would have hightailed it out of there when I saw the monkey funeral!

Raquelle said...

Monkey funeral... I'm going to remember that! I don't know how I missed that the first few times I've seen this movie.

kda0121 said...

I must admit that I never thought of Sunset Boulevard as noir, though it fits the criteria nicely. I also never really thought about the "monkey funeral" as funny. More bizarre and almost surreal, but not funny. But now that you mention it, there is a black, macabre facet to it.

Many film buffs already know this tidbit, but there was originally a different beginning to the movie. Instead of Joe Gillis lying face down in the pool, the opening had a dead Joe in the city morgue, telling the other corpses around him his tale. It previewed very badly and they changed it. I am not certain but I think some DVD editions my have this alternate beginning.

Kittenbiscuits said...

I've always thought of it as noir, but there is quite a bit of black comedy. Some of Joe's narration is quite humorous and of course, the "monkey funeral" is creepy and absolutely absurd.

Gloria Swanson was such a beautiful woman and looked incredible for her age. It's amazing how they made her look, at times in this film, so incredibly freakish.

kda0121 said...

When I first saw the movie in my teens, I thought Gloria looked like an old lady. Now that I'm 55, she looks pretty darn hot.

Anonymous said...


Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

I've been sucked into "monkey funerals" much less interesting than this one, sad to say!

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