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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sunset Boulevard

After a cloudy morning and a forecast of possible thundershowers, the sky is clear and the hot sun is back. I have returned from a brief errand trip, which involved dropping off a couple of DVDs at the library. One of these was Sunset Boulevard, which Kimmie and I watched last night.

It was the third time I'd seen the movie; I'd seen it once before Kimmie and I watched it maybe a dozen years ago. The digitally restored production was excellent. Again I had the happy experience of finding a movie I knew to be good to be even better than I'd remembered. As when I recently watched Risky Business starring Tom Cruise, it was such an absorbing experience that it seemed I was watching it for the first time. I know that Sunset Boulevard has been extensively studied, but I've not read those studies, so I'm going to make some observations of my own.

The 1950 movie, which stars William Holden and Gloria Swanson, was directed by Billy Wilder and written by him in collaboration with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr. Supposedly, Wilder and Brackett, who had been successful but mutually irritating collaborators before, had started a script in 1948 about an aging silent-film star wanting to make a comeback in a much-changed Hollywood. Dissatisfied with their progress, they brought in the film critic Marshman after being favorably impressed with his analysis of their earlier film The Emperor Waltz, and Marshman contributed the idea of a young gigolo character.

Whatever the case, I see in the story another cluster of elements around the theme of the Great Goddess. This theme was worked out thoroughly, in different ways, by J. G. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough and by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. As Graves observed, the essential story of the myth was that of the immortal Goddess and her two mortal consorts: the reigning priest-king who was, in effect, her husband, and the young man who would overthrow the king to become his replacement. The new king would, in time, be overthrown by his successor in the same way.

In the movie, the goddess is of course the screen legend Norma Desmond. The old king is her servant Max (Max von Stroheim), who, it comes out, was in fact not only her director at Paramount, but her first husband (she's had three), and therefore presumably the first occupant of the "husband's bed" which the young writer Joe Gillis (Holden) eventually comes to occupy. Interestingly, in this story the young protagonist is not seeking to win the goddess; he becomes "attracted" to her by money, because he sees her as a way of paying the finance company that wants to repossess his car. Gradually, without knowing it, he falls under her spell.

In a deeper reading, based on Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, the myth of the Great Goddess and her vying lovers is itself an expression of a phase in the emergence of ego-consciousness from the womb of the unconscious, symbolized by the Great Goddess. One stage of this is marked by the emergence of twin brothers, who are in a sense womb-mates of the Goddess, and who take on the qualities of light and darkness as part of the gradual separation of the world into opposites, which is the function of consciousness. This represents an earlier stage than that of the divine king who is the consort of the Goddess.

The Goddess image is strengthened by the fact that the movie project Norma wants young Joe to rewrite for her is Salome, the story of the biblical princess who performs the dance of the seven veils and orders the beheading of John the Baptist. The dance of the seven veils is actually a much older mythological motif, dating back to Sumerian times, when it was performed by Inanna, the queen of heaven, who had to remove her clothes in stages in order to descend into the underworld to rescue Dumuzi, god of vegetation, who is trapped there.

It becomes clear that Norma Desmond does represent the devouring dragon aspect of the Great Goddess after all: through her wealth, power, theatrics, and emotional instability, she seeks to draw Joe to her and keep him there forever. His independence and his artistic creativity become bound to her, sold for a luxurious lifestyle.

He sees the potential for freedom and creativity again in the person of young Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson), a reader at Paramount, who sees potential in him and wants to work with him at developing one of his ideas. She also falls in love with him, and he with her. She is like the captive princess in the Neumann analysis: the young, beautiful aspect of the Goddess, who represents the good things in life that the hero can attain if he can overcome the dragon and free her. Betty's captivity is expressed in the fact that she can't write the script on her own; she needs Joe in order to realize her own dreams.

But Joe does not slay the dragon; the dragon slays him. He does not have the strength to overcome her overwhelming power. In Neumann's terms, he does not make the transition to manhood; he is the adolescent who dies because he doesn't yet have the inner resources to defy the Goddess. Consciousness is snuffed out; it will have to await another rising, another hero, who may have more moxie.

There is so much more to say about this movie. To name only one element: Gillis shows up at the house and is mistaken by Max and Norma as the undertaker for their pet chimpanzee who has just died! The movie places much emphasis on this element, later showing a grotesque scene in which Max and Norma inter the chimp in the yard in a child's coffin. I could only shake my head in awe and admiration as I watched.

Yes, much more to say. The short summary is that this is one of the best movies ever made. It was a privilege to watch.

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