dir. Billy Wilder
[This entry is part of the Film Noir Blogathon hosted by Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. Incidentally, this blogathon is being run with the intention of raising money for film preservation. If you have the money and are so inclined, I urge all of you, my three faithful readers, to donate generously to The Film Noir Foundation's Film Preservation efforts. Movie addiction is my overriding OCD, after all, so it's always a bummer to lose any movies to the soulless bastard that is the passage of time. So yeah, we should totally make sure we can preserve what remaining films we have.]
People always get shit wrong. People never understand what stuff is really about, you know. I mean, do you know what I mean? I mean, it's like people see but they don't see, man. It's like...I'm sorry, not sure where I was going with that.
Anyway, when I heard about the above-mentioned Film Noir Blogathon, I realized it gave me like totally lots of noir avenues to travel. Maybe I could expound on slightly lesser known noir titles (Decoy, Too Late for Tears, Crashout). Or maybe I could write about smarmy character actor Dan Duryea, a man who excelled at playing douches in multiple noirs. Or maybe I could write about the way the dark noir mentality invaded the relatively light-hearted genre that was the Western, transforming it in the later forties and fifties, into a brooding, morally ambiguous beast. The possibilities seemed limitless. [Side note: Don't you love how I mentioned all of this, basically just to show off shit I want you to know I know about movies.]
But what did I decide to do? None of the above. Yes, instead of getting original, I decided to go and write about one of the most obvious noirs, Sunset Blvd., made by one of the most obvious noir filmmakers, Billy Wilder. But I had a good reason for my decision. Although this movie has been critiqued to death, I don't know that anyone has focused on my favorite theme of the movie: the joy of artistic collaborations.
[Artist's depiction of a successful creative collaboration.]
It could be personal bias tinting my reading of the film, but I would go so far as to say that the exploration of creative relationships (writing partnerships in particular) is the reason for this film's existence. Sure most reviewers of this film focus on its more decidedly noir aspects (gender politics, noirish camera-work stuff, crime-story-ish-ness, what have you, etc. and the rest), or on its place in the camp pantheon; but I feel they miss the point. (Ahh, that's where I was going with my first paragraph.) Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see where Wilder's masterwork fits in the noir catalog, but I propose that Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett were interested more than anything in penning an ode to creative partnerships. [Question: Is it kind of a cheat for me to take part in a noir blogathon by tackling a noted noir from a non-noir veiwpoint? Answer: I don't care.] [Side note: I make it a point not to read other pieces on movies that I review, for fear of subconsciously ripping them off. It may very well be the case that someone has already written about this topic, in which case I apologize for the redundant post.]
Because I don't write about myself enough on this here ol' blog (readers, this is your cue to roll your eyes), I suppose it would help here to give you an idea where I'm coming from—writing-partner history-wise. I've a long, storied writing-relationship history. For too long, though, I wrote on my own. Yes, I used to be under the illusion that I was king shit of fuck mountain—writing-wise—and deemed writing partners unnecessary. Either that or I just used to be embarrassed by my stuff and didn't want anyone to see it. I really can't remember which.
Luckily, though, my solo writing wouldn't last forever. A year or so after moving to New York, I joined a comedy group and plunged full force into creative relationships. I went from masturbation to ten-at-a-time, no-holds-barred cluster-fucks—writing-wise. This experimental time in my writing life was an eye-opener. Whole worlds of possibilities were opened to me. It was then that I realized I didn't want to write solo ever again—this blog being a major fucking exception, of course (Hey, even when in relationships you never get tired of masturbating—writing-wise).
I would soon learn oodles of stuff about creative relationships. Finding the right writing partner is sometimes harder and more rewarding than finding the perfect romantic partner. When working collaboratively, you've got to function as one brain, yet be distinct enough to be able to reel each other in when one partner's ideas aren't working. As soon as something veers off course, one collaborator must be able to grab the wheel and steer it back onto the road. I would also learn that, just as every romantic relationship has its ups and downs, every creative relationship has its bountiful and fallow periods. It is the ability to not dwell on, and quickly overcome, the fallow periods that defines a truly special relationship. [Side note: As soon as Hollywood sees fit to send wheelbarrows full of cash to my writing partner and me, you will be able to witness the fruits of our creative labor.]
I should note here that, reading about mathematician Paul Erdos a decade ago, was one of my biggest motivations to write with others. Indeed, in addition to being like one of the best people ever, Erdos remains one of my greatest inspirations. Before Erdos' time, math was regarded mostly as a solo activity. The standard view of a mathematician was that of the hermit in his attic solving formulas and whatnot. Erdos, however, learned what many in other creative/intellectual fields before and after would learn: two creative heads are better than one. Over the course of his lifetime, working with over 500 collaborators (and a shitload of speed), Paul "Wilt Chamberlain" Erdos was able to co-author more math papers than any other math-person. Truly, the man was a math slut; he stuck his math pencil on any math person's math paper he could find. For him, practical math-applications and the glory of math awards mattered not. He was in it for love of the game. Math for math's sake.
[My work ethic/awesomeness inspiration, Paul Erdos. Yeah, he was probably wacked out on speed when this picture was taken.]
As mentioned before, Billy Wilder was, of course, no stranger to creative relationships. As opposed to Erdos, however, Wilder was a one partner kind of man. He didn't like to be unfaithful. His first long-term relationship was with the afore-mentioned screenwriter Charles Brackett. The two of them would learn that differences can sometimes be beneficial. Sure, it helps to be on the same page but opposite personalities can sometimes cause the writing to travel in unexpected, exciting new directions. The vulgar, wild Wilder was the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the urbane Brackett's Stuffed Shirt Von Upper-Crustington. Over the course of a tumultuous 14 year collaboration, the two would pen some of the smartest screenplays of Hollywood's golden era (Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, The Lost Weekend). Unfortunately, as with most relationships involving two opposing, combative types; although the partnership was exciting, it did not have long for this earth.
Which brings us back to Sunset Blvd. (Oh yeah, I forgot I was writing about that), Wilder and Brackett's final collaboration.
[Side note: This is the second week in a row that I'm writing about a movie I didn't rewatch. Not only that, it's the second week in a row that I haven't watched any movies. I know, I know, I'm falling off my movie-watching game. This is so un-nerd of me. I swear I have a good reason, though (Does no reason count as a good reason?). Regardless, Sunset Blvd. is a movie I've seen more times than I can remember. I can recount most of the details from memory. If I remember shit incorrectly, though, by all means correct me in the comments section. I swear I won't be offended. I also swear that I'll keep my swearing-at-you-in-the-comments-section to a minimum.]
The writing was on the wall with Sunset Blvd. In it, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a man alone in the world. What he writes is from hunger. In a funk like a motherfucker, this poor bastard can't sell any of his derivative screenplays. When repo men try to snatch his late-on-the-payments ride, Gillis lams it, finding refuge at the estate of one Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a woman who used to be big, used to be in pictures. After Norma asks him to read her travesty of a screenplay, the scheming Willis decides to help her rewrite the monstrosity. He falls into a purely mercenary relationship. As is the case with many studio-writers, he becomes partnered with a writer with whom he lacks chemistry, but stays because he needs the money and also just plain gets stuck in a rut. "Alright, we'll stay in this marriage for the kids."
Soon, however, Gillis falls head over heels—writing-wise and otherwise-wise—for script girl Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a woman who once trashed one of his earlier screenplays but is, as it turns out, a synced-in-every-way writing partner. The two are able to be blunt with each other in the way that only truly meaningful collaborators can be. Gillis soon sneaks out to writing-cheat on Norma with Schaefer damn near every night. She makes him feel young again. He realizes that she was what was missing his entire writing-life, the key to unlocking his full writing potential. But, alas, it is not to last. As is the case with many transcendent partnerships, it burns out just as quickly as it started. Yes, when Norma finds out that the ho-bag Gillis has been writing-cheating on her, she ices the two-timer but good. Gillis and Schaeffer's relationship is fruitful and exciting but proves too incendiary; it cannot last.
[Artist's depiction of a break-up.]
As mentioned before, Sunset Blvd. was the Wilder/Brackett collaboration's swan song, an ode/dirge to their partnership—their Blood on the Tracks, their Rumours (Not that Dylan or Fleetwood Mac ended their careers after these albums, obviously, but you know what I mean). Wilder and Brackett couldn't even complete it on their own; they enlisted Life Magazine scribe D.M. Marshman Jr. to help them iron out the screenplay. Although Sunset Blvd. showcases the horrifying/ephemeral nature of transcendent collaborations, it is in many ways also a celebration of such relationships. With this film, Wilder and Brackett were saying, "let's remember the good times as well."
After the dissolution of his and Brackett's partnership, Wilder had a lot of rebound lays. It was just too hard to jump right into another relationship so soon. Throughout most of the fifties, Wilder bounced around from writing partner to writing partner until finally settling once again in another long term relationship with collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Although this new relationship could be similarly combative, Wilder had learned what he needed to make this second marriage work. With such films as Some Like it Hot; The Apartment; and One, Two, Three, this collaboration would prove similarly successful. That's what really matters, right?
[I know I already posted this video before, but you should really check it out.]
[The awesome trailer for Sunset Blvd.:]