To begin with, a personal note:
I have watched Sunset Boulevard countless times. It’s the movie I go to when I’m sick, or stressed, or just experiencing that vaguely scattered feeling that sends you searching for something that might guide you back to neutral. Sunset Boulevard has become a part of me, and it’s been years since Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has held any particular surprises.
And yet every time I watch it, the strangest thing happens.
The feeling tends to first creep up during the New Year’s Eve party where Joe—having fled the house on Sunset after realizing the scale of Norma’s manipulations—happens to encounter Betty for the first time since their disastrous first meeting in Sheldrake’s office. It grows stronger when Joe starts sneaking out at night to meet Betty on the backlot, and it comes to an agonized peak when Betty arrives to rescue Joe—both from Norma and from his own worst instincts—and take him away from all that suffocating decay. Each time I watch this story I know so well, I find myself believing that this time, somehow, these two might actually make it. This time Joe might not play the cynical heel and shove Betty away. This time he might take her hand and they might escape together into some brighter future.
It must sound like I’m exaggerating to make a point. People say these things, but they can’t mean them, especially not in a story that so famously opens with the protagonist’s bullet-riddled corpse before being retrospectively narrated by his embittered ghost. I can’t expect you to believe that the feeling I’m describing is deep and true. All I can do is swear that each and every time, my chest constricts, and my head swims, and I achieve a vertiginous sense that Billy Wilder might have created the one movie powerful enough to suspend the laws of narrative immutability.
Next, a pair of trivia items:
- Prior to filming The Shining, Stanley Kubrick screened Eraserhead for his crew. As the story goes, Kubrick hoped Lynch’s ambiguously abstract nightmare might convey a sense of the mood he hoped to evoke with his own austere foray into horror.
- Prior to filming Eraserhead, David Lynch undertook the same exercise with his own crew, but for his mood-setting feature, he chose Sunset Boulevard.
In Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley attempts to extract some explanation for this choice from the eternally taciturn Lynch. What storytelling intersection could there possibly be between an acidic showbiz satire and an absurdist phantasmagoria of paternal anxiety? True to form, Lynch offers only, “It was just a black-and-white experience of a certain mood.” Rodley posits his own theories—maybe the prologue of Wilder’s film suggests the entire story operates on last-gasp hallucinatory logic akin to the dreamy surrealism of Eraserhead—but Lynch insists that searching for such a specific connection would be folly. “Obviously there’s gotta be something similar because I love it so much. But I don’t know what it is.”
I would argue the fact that even Lynch couldn’t fully identify the connection between the projects is essential to the function of that connection. When I try to link Wilder’s film to Lynch’s and Lynch’s to Kubrick’s and Kubrick’s back around to Wilder’s, I don’t see a line. I see a daisy chain, a delicate braided loop that flows seamlessly from one point to another, one that might well fall apart in your hands if you try to grasp it too forcefully.
But maybe you’d like to risk it. Maybe you’d like to try and name the threads coursing through these seemingly dissimilar works, three terms that describe three seemingly diffuse concepts that all lead back to the same place: the unique capacity of film to evoke some of the mind’s most indescribable sensations.
If so, you’ve come to the right party.
I. The Gothic
In his “Great Movies” essay on Sunset Boulevard, Roger Ebert described the “gothic flamboyance” of Wilder’s film, and in so doing, he aligned it with a centuries-long aesthetic tradition. The term first emerged as a school of art in the aftermath of the Age of Enlightenment, when Horace Walpole appended the subtitle A Gothic Story to his 1794 novel The Castle of Otranto. More such novels soon followed from writers like Ann Radcliffe and Clara Reeve, stories of haunting and turmoil that grappled with the shockwaves of an explosion in human understanding—and thus a painful new awareness of the limits of that understanding. A century later, another wave of gothic horror emerged in fin de siècle Europe—The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and other tales of and vice so monstrous that the laws of nature must be suspended. These turn-of-the century horrors expressed the clash between hope and melancholy that lingered in the air at the dawn of the 20th century, a sense of uncertain dread tied once again to rapid advances in knowledge and shifts in culture. Given the cerebral nature of these anxieties, a particular type of story was necessary to make them manifest, and tales of outrageous terror ably matched the awe of life in a world many readers no longer recognized.
It doesn’t take much scratching at the showbiz-satire surface to reveal the gothic horror within Sunset Boulevard. In this story of a postwar film industry sacrificing its heritage on the altar of taste and profit, we find a cobwebbed mansion that may as well have been airlifted in from Transylvania within which dwells a forgotten star who’s equal parts Orlok and Heathcliff, twisted by bitterness that gives way to howling tempers and passionate jealousies. Her manservant, the former auteur who’s thrown aside his own identity to forever serve his former muse, is as morbid a figure as Renfield, while the dead chimpanzee lurking in the background of one sequence (her deceased lover, as Wilder was quick to inform anyone who’d listen) adds the dash of lurid grotesquerie that elevates the eerie to the gothic. Yet for all the overt aesthetic signifiers with which Wilder decorates his story, the macabre imagery is ultimately a signpost to deeper thematic resonance. If gothic fictions explored the existential dread of shocking cultural shifts, then the famously mordant Wilder grasped those implications with both hands, “[using] gothic elements,” as Morris Dickstein wrote in 1988, “to give his picture of Hollywood a mythic dimension beyond the reach of satire.”
Gothic stories are preoccupied with death, but their dread is derived less from the shock of characters killing and being killed than from all the messy consequences of rupturing the natural passage between life and death. In gothic stories, as Carol Margaret Davison wrote in her 2017 book The Gothic and Death, spirits are unsettled by “sins requiring exposure, recognition, and appeasement by way of mourning rituals and memorialisation processes.” There may be only one traditional killing in Sunset Boulevard, but the plot rests on the more intangible execution of Norma’s career. The traditional life cycle of stardom has been interrupted by executives and audiences who treated a woman’s life like a commodity, and that lack of proper mourning and memorialisation for a lost voice sets off a chain of events poisoning not just her own story but—at least so we can thematically extrapolate—the story of Hollywood writ large, which seems to have passed the tipping point from artistic idealism to industrial decay with the unjust sentencing of Norma Desmond.
This sense of immediate horror standing in for greater unresolved sin similarly infuses Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, as classical a gothic text as pop culture was graced with in the second half of the 20th century. Like Norma Desmond, Jack Torrance is driven to desperation by his own creative failures, which compound and gnaw at him as he prowls the halls of his cavernous keep. And like Norma, the violence to which Jack ultimately succumbs is linked to violence with which he’s only tangentially involved, not just the prior murders within the walls of the Overlook Hotel but the indigineous burial ground on which it was built. This latter desecration is mentioned only briefly in the film, but Kubrick’s co-writer, Diane Johnson, has mentioned the director’s intent that this assault on a sacred space be the hotel’s original sin, and the interpretation is afforded significant bandwidth in the documentary Room 237. Reporter Bill Blakemore, one of several obsessive Shining analysts called on to explain a personal theory to documentarian Rodney Ascher, discusses his belief that the blood seen repeatedly rushing out of the hotel’s elevators is “the blood on which nations are built,” and that the film is “a movie about the past. Not just any past—the past, I mean past-ness.” Though his theory, like all those surveyed by Ascher, is debatably supported by the film, Blakemore believes Kubrick’s work transcends such narrow readings of textual intent. “That’s the essence of great art,” he declares. “It’s like a dream. It’s boiled everything down to an emblematic symbol that’s got all of life in it.”
For order to be restored to a gothic story, some inciting injustice must be exposed and set right, and though Kubrick’s film may only hint at the full breadth of suppressed crimes and indiscretions that manifest as the Overlook’s supernatural horrors—the suicide of the woman in room 237; the taboo affair between the hotel’s owner and his dog-costumed lover—Stephen King’s source novel is devoted to the incremental exhumation of all these secrets and more, an investigation that consumes Jack during the Torrances’ winter sojourn. This sort of focus on investigation led to the outgrowth of detective fiction from within the gothic genre, and so gothic roots eventually manifested in the 20th century detective stories we call noir. That classification is often applied to the moody and cynical Sunset Boulevard, but Wilder’s film bears few hallmarks of traditional gothic mystery. Thus, Dickstein argues, the genre is less endpoint than doorway: Wilder “reaches back through noir to its primary source, the expressionism of horror and gothic.”
Expressionism (or the gothic flamboyance described by Ebert) is a key color on Wilder’s palette in Sunset Boulevard, and the excesses of that subgenre—faces contorted in grotesque terror; impossibly-canted architecture bathed in impossibly dark shadow—are appropriate equivalents for the gleeful unsubtlety of gothic fiction. A light touch has no home in a gothic story; some feelings are too powerful to be evoked in anything but the most extreme terms. This salacious grotesquerie began to grow and mutate as gothic filmmaking entered its postmodern phase in the second half of the 20th century—in a 1966 Film Quarterly essay attempting to identify a “New American Gothic,” Stephen Farber described the chief signifier of gothic horror as “a richly decadent but hypnotic visual lavishness that will beguile and thus bewilder the eye,” one he saw appearing in increasingly unusual forms. “Gothic expressionism represents the need for surprise,” according to Farber, “the wild search by our talented moviemakers for a valid film art.”
This postmodern form of the gothic is the one found in Eraserhead. Lynch’s film isn’t so much an example of the tradition as a pointed disruption, as Aaron Taylor put it in a 2000 article in The Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Like Wilder, Lynch takes hallmark qualities of the genre and inverts them—as Wilder reframed the imprisoned damsel as an over-the-hill writer, so Lynch reframes the fearsome beast as an ineffectual infant, thus implicitly questioning the assumptions underlying the archetypes. This sort of revisionist gothic, as Taylor writes, “warns us to be suspicious” of our typical modes of reading these stories. What does it say about the viewer if an abnormal infant or an aged star becomes a figure of revolting menace? And it’s in this reframing of our preconceptions, this alienation from the familiar, that Lynch’s film comes to embody another key element of the gothic tradition
II. The Uncanny
Sigmund Freud, of course, didn’t use the term “uncanny” to describe the discomfort of seeing the familiar made indescribably strange; that honor goes to his translators. In the original German text of his essay, he used the word unheimlich, which translates more literally as “un-homely,” an upending of the familiar comforts of home. The term has robust resonance with the gothic, which so often concerns comfortable spaces pervaded by unplaceable dread, and it suffuses Eraserhead, in which a family dinner shifts into the ineffably dreamlike thanks to multiple characters’ unexplained fits, and every door of an apartment building seems to seethe with unspoken threats. In addition to the abundant aesthetic uncanniness—perhaps best epitomized by the hammerheaded baby, a practical effect that has remained mysterious for over 40 years—the film’s deeper themes of personal alienation are exaggerations of the everyday alienation Lynch experienced as a new father, a common but no less uncanny realignment of one’s self-perception from flawed individual to ostensible authority.
In his essay, Freud focuses considerable attention on the uncanny feeling of estrangement from the self, an unconscious anxiety of identity that can be triggered by anything from a surprising shadow to an unexpected glimpse of one’s reflection, all of it representing unconscious anxieties over the security of one’s understanding of their place in the world. The mental dislocation of parenthood explored in Eraserhead reappears to power the unhomely angst of The Shining, as Jack nurses his morbid ambivalence over his own role as familial caretaker. Kubrick underlines Jack’s uncanny agony via the mirrors that confront him with his own accusatory image, and expands reflection into a motif throughout the story, from the identical Grady twins to Jack’s photographic doppelgänger that ultimately appears in a photo from 1921. This unnatural imagery is borrowed directly from Freud’s essay, on which Kubrick drew heavily during preparation for the film—according to Johnson’s recollection, Kubrick set out to make “the scariest movie he could,” and to do so, he wanted to understand “the underlying psychological mechanisms” involved in human discomfort.
Uncanniness may be less overt in Sunset Boulevard than in either Lynch’s film or Kubrick’s, but it courses beneath the surface of any Hollywood story. It’s there in the bizarre experience of encountering a movie star in real life—the familiar made unfamiliar as a two-dimensional image is granted a third; the unfamiliar made familiar as a stranger is reconfigured into a known quantity—not to mention the shock of seeing an eternally young figure made suddenly old that confronts Joe upon meeting the used-to-be-big Norma. And though Freud wrote his essay too early to consider the uncanniness of seeing one’s own videotaped image, anyone who’s walked into a store and caught a glimpse of themselves in a closed-circuit monitor can attest to the stomach-dropping discomfort of becoming the observer of their own experience. It’s exactly this bizarre feeling that Norma revels in as she holds command screenings of her past films for Joe, gazing at her own ageless self. Recording technology has long been fodder for gothic terror—Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera derives creeping dread from the advent of phonograph cylinders, a more tangible iteration of the mythic fear of the stolen voice—and this particular type of everyday doppelganger anxiety echoes another of Freud’s beliefs: that the uncanniness of seeing one’s double represents confusion over the distinction between body and soul. If movie stardom promises immortality, then is the “true” self the temporary one drawing breath, or the eternal one on the screen?
In Freud’s view, this sort of mental alienation evokes the hazy sense of powerlessness one feels in a dream. The ability to lull an audience into an unbroken dream state is among the greatest goals for any storyteller, but for as pleasurable as the experience of sustained illusion may be as a viewer, an intense identification with events that one is powerless to impact can produce agonizing discomfort—the desire to shout “Don’t go in there” as Danny Torrance follows that mysterious ball towards room 237, or to grab Joe Gillis by the shoulders and force him out the door with Betty before it’s too late. And it’s the camera’s ability to evoke inexpressible dream-logic that drew Kubrick to Freud. As the director told Spanish writer Vicente Molina Foix in 1980, he was galvanized by Freud’s notion that “the uncanny is the only emotion which is more powerfully expressed in art than in life.”
This feeling of wordless communication, David Lynch has long insisted, is what draws him to Sunset Boulevard. Even as journalists have prodded him over the years to admit he’s adopted images and ideas from Wilder (particularly for his own similarly-titled Tinseltown noir, Mulholland Drive), Lynch has held firm that what appeals to him about the film is his inability to verbalize what appeals to him about the film. In a 1999 interview with Salon, Lynch espoused his conviction that contemporary films hold no secrets—“they just seem to be, you know, what they are.” But a viewing of Sunset Boulevard “makes me dream for a month afterward…there’s an abstract thing in there that just thrills my soul. Something in between the lines that film can do in a language of its own—a language that says things that can’t be put into words.” And though he doesn’t use the term, Lynch’s words come conspicuously close to describing another concept that emerged at roughly the same time as the gothic, another effort to grapple with the anxiety of post-Enlightenment awe.
III. The Sublime
Seven years before Walpole published the first gothic novel, Edmund Burke published the treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in which he argued that a simple admiration of beauty in art was insufficient to express the true power of aesthetic astonishment. Some images are so indescribable, Burke believed, that they dwarf our abilities to describe our own feelings, a vastness of sensation that evokes a sort of pleasurable horror. We’re confronted with our cognitive limitations, which poses an implicit psychic threat, but somehow fear is sublimated by bliss. This, as Lynch told Salon, is what he looks for in art; not the self-evident pleasures of beauty—what Burke described as “smooth and polished” works that “should not be obscure”—but the unspeakable allure of a dream-generator, his examples of which included not just Sunset Boulevard but Kubrick’s Lolita, Fellini’s 8 ½, and Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Lynch not only admires such overpowering art, as Russell Manning notes in The Philosophy of David Lynch, he embodies it in his own work: “Lynch’s cinema should be understood as his ongoing attempt…to be an encounter with the sublime.”
In her book Stanley Kubrick: Adapting the Sublime, Elisa Pezzotta argues that the uncanny imagery of The Shining produces its own sense of sublime awe—the ambiguity between the natural and the unnatural within Kubrick’s frame leaves the audience struck by their own inability to process the story, forcing them into a state of suspended perception that can only be experienced as sublimity. It’s this unsolvable quality of Lynchian and Kubrickian storytelling that motivates so many viewers to return for repeat viewings. For some, as with the obsessives featured in Room 237, it’s an urge to alchemically translate their wonderment into demonstrable certainty, but for the rest of us, it’s a desire to gaze into the maw of art and be “entertained,” as Burke writes, “with the promise of something more” than we can ever perceive.
At the conclusion of Room 237, Ascher asks one of his subjects why Kubrick might have made a film so intricately impenetrable. “It’s a way of opening doors,” his subject responds, “from a hermetically sealed reality into possibilities.” This would seem to be a perfect elucidation of the power David Lynch sees in Sunset Boulevard, and if his Salon interview isn’t sufficient proof, we can turn instead to the most overt use of Wilder’s film within his own work.
In Episode 15 of Twin Peaks: The Return, Special Agent Dale Cooper’s vacuous alter ego Dougie is finally, after more than a dozen agonizing hours of ineffectual puttering, transformed back into the bright and intrepid Cooper. And as the conduit for this transformation, Lynch chose not a surprising personal encounter or physical trauma but an accidental glimpse of Sunset Boulevard. Up late at night silently munching chocolate cake, Dougie begins idly mashing his fingers on a remote control until a wall-mounted television comes alive at the moment of Norma Desmond’s emotional reunion with Cecil B. DeMille. Dougie’s eyes go wide, and he’s suddenly infused with a purpose of which he’s seemed incapable to this point—yes, it’s DeMille’s utterance of the name Gordon Cole, which Lynch pilfered for the name of his own Twin Peaks character, that catches Dougie’s ear, but it seems hardly incidental that Lynch chose “a black-and-white experience of a certain mood” as the key to this ultimate inner door. If Sunset Boulevard is powerful enough to set David Lynch off on a month of dreaming, then it stands to reason it must be powerful enough to awaken a man trapped within his own uncanny netherworld.
It’s enough to make me wonder if David Lynch might relate to my feeling that Sunset Boulevard could be the one movie capable of breaking the loop of inevitability and, just once, end happily. It’s a hard sensation to plausibly express in words, but Lynch does believe this is one of the rare movies that speaks exactly such a wordless language. I wonder, too, if Kubrick could have related—in his interview with Foix, he cited H.P. Lovecraft’s belief that the purpose of storytelling is not to offer concrete explanation but to stimulate the imagination. And that nod to the master of sublime horror is enough to make me wonder if Billy Wilder could have related, too. There’s a distinct whiff of cosmic awe to the shattering power a camera holds over Norma Desmond as she glides towards it before disappearing into a soft-focused haze.
What did Norma see when she gazed too long into Mr. DeMille’s lens? And what did she staring back from out there in the dark?