In Which My Grad School Adventures Get A Whole Lot…WILDER
Sorry I missed last week everyone. After the craziness of my New Orleans Wrestlemania weekend - which was fantastic by the way, thanks for asking - I had to immediately get into video shoot mode for a music video we shot last weekend, which gave me no time to devote to Tumblrizing. But no worries, I’ll cover what I did last week along with what I did this week. Also no worries because I can’t imagine that any of you were actually worried that I missed a week or even cognizant of it.
I’m in my fourth course of my masters program now, and this one’s all about the films of Billy Wilder, one of the all-time great Hollywood filmmakers and one of my personal favorites.
The films we’re discussing in class are in chronological order, so the first unit was naturally about Wilder’s first truly important film, Double Indemnity, the film that some call the start of film noir, and everyone agrees is at the very least one of the earliest and strongest influences on the film noir genre/style. I’ve actually reviewed the film for this blog before, but I’m not going to put the link here, because ugh, my early reviews are so painful to read. In that review, however, I did talk about the same topic I talked about in class, which is the fact that Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an everyman. He’s an average guy, wearing boring gray suits, working a mundane job as an insurance salesman, living in a dull cookie-cutter apartment. Sure, he’s good at his job, and based on his initial encounter with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he’s a good talker, but that doesn’t make him extraordinary. Even the casting of MacMurray in the role, an average All-American looking man generally cast as nice guys, adds to the impression that Walter Neff is just a normal dude. Andrew Sarris once complained that Wilder offers no motivation for Neff’s transformation into a killer, but what Sarris failed to realize is that there is no transformation. Neff the killer is Neff the everyman. Sure, Phyllis offers the opportunity to murder, but Neff is the one who hits on her first thereby initiating their relationship despite knowing she is married, Neff is the one who recognizes her murderous intentions and decides to join in with her anyway, Neff is the one who comes up with the specifics of the murder plan, Neff is the one who actually commits the act of murdering Phyllis’s husband, and Neff himself says that he’d been dreaming up schemes for defrauding the insurance company long before he met Phyllis. Film noir is largely infused with a post-war sense of lost morality, and that’s clear in Double Indemnity, where the killer isn’t some mentally-deranged lunatic or some down-on-his-luck criminal with a rough childhood; he’s just some normal guy who was willing to throw away his entire moral code with only the slightest of nudging. If Walter Neff can be a cold-blooded murderer, couldn’t any man be? I also talked some about how Phyllis is actually a subversive feminist revenge fantasy, a woman who manipulates men by adopting the traditional female roles of “caregiver” and “sex object” to undermine those men and get what she wants, and who only dies because she suddenly decides to submit to male domination, at which point she’s shot to death by a man, because men are the worst. Basically, Double Indemnity is great.
Next up was Sunset Boulevard, which is also quite great, and which also has a review somewhere on this blog that I find unbearable to read. In this instance I talked about something I’d never really focused on in the film before, which is the connection between Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Salome, the character she has chosen to play for her
comeback return to the screen. Norma describes her Salome script as “The princess in love with the holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold, dead lips.” This foreshadows the film itself, with Norma as Salome, Joe Gillis (William Holden) as “the holy man” she falls for, and when he rejects her, he dies, although instead of demanding someone else do it, she does it herself. Ironically, in the play Salome performs and is rewarded with the death of her lover, and in Sunset Boulevard Norma kills her lover and is rewarded with the chance to perform. In her final moments, Norma becomes Salome, not only in her mind as her madness consumes her and she believes herself to be shooting the film of her script, but in the final scene she becomes as mesmerizing in her movement down the staircase as Salome dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome is a predecessor to the femme fatale character, and Norma is one of the last great femme fatales of the main film noir cycle. By the way, someone in my class argued that Norma wasn’t a femme fatale, because she did not have the same murderous designs that Phyllis Dietrichson (perhaps the ultimate example of a femme fatale) had, but I argued that intentions weren’t what defined a femme fatale, but rather her effect on men, which is why even women who aren’t “bad” like Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Gene Tierney in Laura still count as femme fatales, at least in my view.
The third unit was on Stalag 17, which again I once wrote a review for, one that is again just absolute dreck, and even worse, I don’t really agree with it anymore. When I wrote my old review, I complained about there being too much humor in the film that didn’t drive the plot forward. Watching it again for class, I realize now that the element of humor that runs throughout the film is vital, not only for the audience but for the characters in the film themselves, who recognize the humor as much as we the viewers do. That is, they know they’re being funny, which is oftentimes not the case in comedy films. Stalag 17, however, is not a straight comedy film, it is a comedic drama. Comedy can serve the purpose of allowing us to laugh at the things that scare us or make us tense or uncomfortable. This is the case in Stalag 17, where we can laugh at the absurdity of the Nazis in the film or we can feel some ease seeing the prisoners-of-war finding ways to have fun despite their surroundings. In 1953, when the film was released, society was still dealing with the fallout from WWII and the implications of it, but this film allows the audience to laugh away some of those post-war concerns. It does not, however, ignore the realities of war, the hardships and tragedies of life in a prison camp. As such, the comedy in the film serves just as a much of a healing, coping function for the characters as it does for us. They use jokes and humor to keep up their spirits and fight against the depression that might otherwise set in and completely defeat them. In the middle of a grungy, muddy prison camp with little warmth and little food and little hope of rescue or escape, humor is all they have to get through their days. The film is, at least in part, about the power of comedy to help us get through tragedy.
Hopefully I won’t have to miss another edition of Grad School Adventures anytime soon, so expect another batch of Billy Wilder films next week. Until then, be good everyone!