Sunset Boulevard is similar to 'Odo the shape-shifter' in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: at first glance, its structure and meaning seem so solid, but, look away for a second, or return to the film at different points in your life, and you discover that what you thought was certain has turned into something else entirely. Is this a movie that exposes the despair beneath the glitter of Tinsel Town', or does it merely use Hollywood as a metaphor for deeper questions about human aspirations and needs? Is it big, splashy and romantic, or is it bitterly cynical? For first-time viewers, only one thing can be said for sure: this great Billy Wilder masterpiece is a film noir, where all the characters are detectives, trying to solve the mystery of themselves. The rest is up to you, or who you are, or who you think you are.
It must be noted, however, that this book is not copping out and abandoning you to the shadows. In order to guide your thinking and response to this amazingly rich film we have been persuaded to purchase the exclusive rights to some yellowing scraps of paper, which were discovered stuffed down the back seat of Norma's old limousine when the Desmond mansion was demolished in the 1960s. These fragments are believed by experts (i.e. us) to be the only surviving pages of a much longer testament written by Max (Norma's devoted butler), who outlived the silent movie queen by a number of years and who lived on alone in the house, which the faded star bequeathed to him in her will.
Read Max's testament and compare it with your own responses to the film. Specific points to consider are offered at the end.
... so not too long, I'm afraid, Mr von Mayerling; those were his exact words, and who am I to argue with the medical profession? I must write my final thoughts, here in the cobwebbed kitchen of the house I still think of as yours, Norma, as ours, just as the monkey was ours, our poor chimp-child who was buried on the very day when our nemesis turned his car into our driveway.
Yes, I must write. There are so many fleeting feelings to be captured, and what feelings we had together, you and I. When a life perishes, so does a world . ..
... it was Gillis's fault. He was like the prince who enters the tangled forest, discovers the princess and wakens her to new life. I knew as soon as you scanned him with your eyes - and, just then, you were not thinking of that new suit, my dearest - that the sleep we had shared was over. What did he want? If it had only been your money, I would have understood. Yet that New Year's Eve when he ran away and came back - damn him, he was kind. Or so you told me. You were always confident that you had him in your power; the flick of a dollar bill, you said, that was all it took. Yet did he hope for something more from you? And what was it you hoped from him?
... I told Gillis, I warned that interloper: 'Madame has her moments of melancholy.' He did not listen, or care; he thought me a mere ghoul. Yet in my own mind I was an emperor. To serve you - you had brushed my face with your hand, who had melted into my camera, who had shown me the face of life at 16 transcendent frames a second, even though you later withdrew your enchantment and propelled me into the outer darkness - to serve you was to know the true intimacy of distance. Later, I was sometimes asked why I, the once great Max von Mayerling, had been prepared to be your lackey. I did not weary myself by telling them the truth: that I was nothing without the idea of you; and you were nothing without someone who remembered how great the idea had been.
Yet that idea: it bound us together, did it not, although we confused the reflected light of stardom with the inner illumination of love. That was our triumph and our doom, my darling: you devoted your energy to gaining, then attempting to regain, that world, not to mastering your heart. I merely wished to realise myself in you at whatever cost to my soul.
... and throughout those long years, before the gunshot rang across the swimming pool (how I would have loved to have squeezed the trigger!), I knew, even if you did not, that we had cast ourselves adrift in a golden boat, with advancing age lapping at our bows. Each day in this house, we grew madder together, yet, when the parasites finally swarmed through the corridors, it was only your madness they released fluttering into the sun. They did not notice me calling out 'Action!' They failed to notice that, in that one word, I was reviving the old, happy balance of our relationship, the balance between the watcher and the watched. I walked down that stairway with you, in spirit at least; I accompanied you in madness, right to the very end.
Oh, I have lived and searched too long. At night I only have the consolation of your face; I imagine that it is my own, that I have never really had another.
Who was Joe Gillis? White knight or gigolo? I saw the young woman on that final night; it was clear she was manipulative and uncertain of her emotions. He was bluffing when he considered running away with her; he was bluffing when he walked away from the house towards the pool. He would have turned right round, then or later on the road; at heart, he distrusted happiness. He was afraid of it: we all were - him, me, you, the girl - because, at heart, we hated ourselves.
Life, I have heard, can be strangely merciful. Yet tell me now, I must know now: did any of us all those years ago deserve mercy? ... we started out big, and we just got smaller and smaller . ..
Some Things to Watch out for and Consider
• Consider the themes and issues surrounding relationships and the characters' image of themselves. In particular, ask yourself:
Do you agree with Max's view of his relationship with Norma? How are stardom and love connected in this film?
5 Max in his testament is unclear about what Joe wanted. What do you think he did want? Did he get it? How does the power game between Joe and Norma operate in this film? Max made a comment on this. Judging from the evidence of the film, is he right? By the end of the story, how have the characters changed, and what inner journey have they completed? Is Max correct when he says all the characters hate themselves?
Do you agree with the last line of Max's analysis?
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