from my VHS collection
I'm pretty sure it was the start of my junior year of college, so this would be September 1992. I was still in the process of arranging my course curriculum for the year, and as I recall, there was an African-American Studies class that I had my eye on taking. At least, I think that's what it was... but that sounds about right, so I'll go with it. I couldn't make it fit into my schedule, however, most of which was already filled up. Switching around other classes simply didn't work, and I was running out of time. I needed a humanities class of some sort to meet the minimum amount of credits necessary for the semester.
I flipped through the school catalog one more time, desperate to find something that I could make fit into my schedule, At this point I was willing to take anything. Then I saw it: a Film History class. I'm pretty sure I had considered taking it before, but there were other things that took priority. Now I reconsidered it. Watching a bunch of movies and talking about them? How hard can that be? Plus, it fit. So I took it.
I lucked out in that my pal Roberta was also in this class. Rob was one of my best friends in college. She was adorable - this tiny, sexy, funny geek girl who read EC Comics and worked in airbrush. I still think about her now and then. If only she didn't have a boyfriend at the time...
The school theater was the setting for the class. The teacher - and unfortunately, I've forgotten his name - was this huge, obese man who often times got around in one of those motor chairs. He tended to be quite formal in his approach to the class; not a stern disciplinarian, but no Mr. Warmth either. He'd talk about each movie before we watched it, providing a historical and cultural perspective for each one (which I may or may not have actually listened to), and for homework, we were required to write about each movie.
Rob and I would sit in the upper rows of the theater and trade quips during the movies. Sometimes we'd be joined by this European girl whose name might've been Una or something like that - and no, I don't remember what part of Europe she was from. I do remember that she'd often have these intricate designs painted around one eye. Most of the time, though, it was just Rob and me. I don't recall socializing with anyone else in the class.
Slowly but surely, I found some of these old movies pretty interesting. I don't remember everything I saw, though I do recall getting pissed off at the ending of Bicycle Thieves. (I didn't quite grok Italian Neorealism at the time.) Usually, whatever we wrote about the movie afterward was deemed acceptable by the teacher; the point was to have some kind of opinion backed up by what we saw in the movie - to write a review, basically. Though I liked what I saw, it still wasn't quite enough to want to learn more about movies on my own.
Then one day the teacher screened Sunset Boulevard.
My perception of Sunset Boulevard has gone through a number of filters over the subsequent years: film historians and their takes on it, other movie fans, the gay/camp interpretation, etc. Some of them have been harder to reconcile with my own take than others, but whatever; I try not to think about it. I remember how the movie made me feel and it had nothing to do with any of that.
In the simplest terms: I would not be writing these words today and you would not be reading them if not for Sunset. In fact, I imagine a fair amount of my life might be different. I may have still ended up in video retail, but not for seven and a half years, I don't think. Obviously WSW wouldn't exist - and I wouldn't have met the friends I've made through it. I'd probably still be writing about comic books, god help me. And I'd probably stick to watching mainstream Hollywood stuff. I've given this some serious thought, and I don't believe I'm exaggerating by much.
How to describe what seeing it the first time was like? I'd seen weirder movies before. Within the class, I'd seen older movies before. I'd seen more dramatic movies before. It wasn't any of that. Part of it may have been the classroom environment - being told that this was an Important Movie and why, but I was being told that about every movie, every week. It wasn't like this one was put that much higher over the others in terms of significance. It wasn't the acting or the writing or the cinematography alone.
My reaction to Sunset was different. It was like - I didn't realize old movies could be like this. It spoke to me the way the other movies in the class didn't, and I just knew it. When I did enter video retail a few years later, I binge-watched old films in order to maintain my standing among a staff of film experts, but I wanted to learn more - and Sunset was the reason why.
Joe Gillis was a character that confounded me - in a good way. He was no dummy, but he seemed perfectly willing to be taken in by Norma Desmond, knowing her real intentions, knowing her state of mind. He struck me as a contradiction: on the surface, he was the very image of the square-jawed, upright he-man that embodied Hollywood movies of this time period, or so I always imagined, and yet he was letting himself be manipulated by an old woman to the point where he almost seemed to enjoy it. I remember not knowing what to make of him - but I couldn't turn away from his story...
...and of course, it was impossible to turn away from Norma herself. I've since learned much more about Gloria Swanson, how her previous life as a silent film queen helped inform and shape the character of Norma, but I knew none of that at the time. I used to think all classic movie characters were like her, all fire and thunder, but her melodramatic nature was a sharp contrast to everyone else in the movie, and it was that contrast which caught and held my attention.
Billy Wilder. When I think of him now, I find it remarkable that he, a foreigner, was able to make films that spoke so directly to the American experience: Hollywood, the jazz age, corporate culture, journalism, etc. I know now how great an influence the earlier director Ernst Lubitsch was on him, and I've seen movies of his too, but that doesn't diminish my admiration for what Wilder accomplished - especially now, in a time when spectacle is given heavy priority over dialogue. (I will say that I do wish Wilder had attempted science fiction or fantasy at least once. He probably would've made it a comedy, perhaps with someone other than his usual collaborators, IAL Diamond or Charles Brackett, and preferably with either Jack Lemmon or Fred MacMurray.)
Sunset came at just the right time in my life, too, when I was becoming more open to more complex, more morally ambiguous kinds of storytelling, in different media. This confluence of mature storytelling would eventually leave its mark on me, when a year later, I began self-publishing comics featuring shades-of-grey-type characters (as best as I could at the time, anyway). Not that I think this is the best, or even only way to tell stories - it's just where my head was at then.
I feel like the films of Billy Wilder in general and Sunset in particular are a part of me now. Wilder is the kind of writer I aspire to - one who can balance comedy and tragedy in equal measure, regardless of genre expectations; who has a keen understanding of human behavior and of how far you can push people in certain situations; and who has a few things to say about the world. In Norma Desmond he created a character larger than life yet impossibly frail - and Gloria Swanson knew just what to do with her. As much as I love Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Swanson should've gotten the Oscar for this once-in-a-lifetime performance... but ultimately, it doesn't matter. Roles like this, and movies like this, stand the test of time - and always will.
Other Billy Wilder films:
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three