Last night, I saw "Sunset Boulevard"
, the latest film in the Motion Picture Academy's "Great To Be Nominated"
film series, in which the Best Picture runners-up--Best Picture nominees that had the most Oscar nominations but didn't win--are given their due. The series is presented by Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's Program Coordinator of Educational and Special Projects--likeable, possessed of a formidable knowledge of film history, and passionately devoted to the movies. As is common in the bitter ironic struggle that is Life, the runners-up are sometimes of higher quality than the winners.
The print of "Sunset Boulevard" was in excellent condition, almost literally without a speck of dust on it. The image was of very good quality, the grain almost imperceptible, with a wonderfully wide range of tones. The only possible flaw was that the print seemed just a little dark--as evidenced by heavy shadow areas or dark costuming becoming featureless black shapes. This might have been the result of the projection--the long throw length of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, or an ever-so-slightly dim lamp--but I doubt it. The projection at the Academy is almost always first-rate. I don't expect to ever see a better print of the film. But, oh, to have seen a brand new nitrate print in 1950!
"Sunset Boulevard" is timeless not because show business has remained unchanged for half a century, though this is true ("There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five"), but because the human ego has remained unchanged for half a century. "Sunset Boulevard" makes a fine companion piece with "Citizen Kane", timeless not because politics has remained unchanged for half a century ("You supply the prose poems, I'll supply the war"), but again because the ego--perhaps specifically the "American" ego--continues to remain a central problem in our lives. Both movies inimitably depict how insatiable is the ego's need to be rescued by a material condition outside of itself, and how when it does get what it most craves, it only hungers all the more.
Norma Desmond and Charles Foster Kane cling to fictional personas they have created for themselves, ego constructions which once briefly afforded comfort but now sustain them like an astronaut's space suit on a hostile world. In an effort to keep out genuine illumination--which would be death--they applying layer after layer onto their own facades, until they become fossilized beneath it all, the layers upon layers producing the appearance of a thing distorted and inhuman. They are fighting for their lives, the dread and terror of being nothing, nobody--which is something we will all eventually face--chasing them into the next illusion and the next and the next.
Illustrating this in the movies is no easy feat. When the rare film does pull it off--once every twenty years--it shines. Most Hollywood movies, most narrative entertainment of any kind, depict a pursuit of ego gratification which results finally in the ego's success, often in a surprising but not unpleasant way, and as a result happiness and stability prevail. Life is not like this, but we don't go to the movies to see life.
The only escape route for Norma Desmond--and for Joe Gillis too--is the surrender of all that they desire. How wonderful that Joe Gillis saves his soul by denying the girl he has fallen in love with. His story begins with "Please, just let me keep my car" and ends with "I don't want to keep anything". How horrifying that Norma Desmond upon being threatened with words ("Words! Words! Words!") even hinting at the truth, flees into the whirlpool of her own ego forever. And how strange that the people enjoying life the most in "Sunset Boulevard" are the young Hollywood dreamers at Artie's New Year's Eve party who, if asked, would say they are nowhere near getting what they really want.