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Celluloid Cynicism

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s film noir series commenced last Wednesday with a screening of Billy Wilder’ s pitch-perfect 1950 Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard. The crowds stayed away, but all six of us movie mavens in attendance were enthusiastically glued to the screen.


After all, we were grateful because these cinematic artworks demand to be seen on the big screen. And while, yes, the DVD market has been very good to old movies and the people who love them, the small screen diminishes their power.


Besides, film noir's  violence and moral corruption are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s and 50s. (That is, unless I’m totally mistaken and the world has been on one whopping acid trip of optimism in recent years). There’s no “happily ever after” in these cynical tales. Sunset Boulevard takes jabs at everything from the studio system to the downfall of the great silent cinema stars.


During Hollywood’s era of the morally righteous Hays Code days, stories had to be told with great subtlety—sex and violence were implied but infrequently seen. The viewer had to do the guesswork.  Wild flights of imagination fill in the gaps as to what’s happening off a screen sanitized by the strict requirements. Thus, certain “mundane” actions—a furtive glance or a brief kiss—become endowed with powerful meaning so that a stagy gunshot has the impact of canon-blast. In Boulevard, aging actress Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, entices starving screenwriter William Holden's Joe Gillis to live with her. Their onscreen token embrace and kiss are all we viewers need to establish her sugar-mamma intent of hot seduction. 


This is partly why noir is so much fun to watch. Sorry, Tarrantino.


Then there’s the photography, which begs one to reconsider the aesthetic potential of Venetian blinds. Rooted in German Expressionism, the film noir environment is surreal with its low angles and ominous shadows that allude to the characters’ sinister psychologies. Yes, the protagonists are morally reprehensible, but they look fantastic—who cares about the horrible things that they do?


 (The film noir series is free to the public and continues with "Double Indemnity," which needs to be seen if only for Barbara Stanwyck’s bathrobe-clad entrance (May 7); and lastly, Bogie and Bacall in the 1946 cut of  "The Big Sleep" (May 21).  Image: 42nd St.Nocturne by Xavier Ja. Barile, courtesy of SAAM.)


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About Jesse Rhodes

Jesse Rhodes is an editorial assistant for Smithsonian magazine. Before he became an editorial assistant, Jesse worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office, where he was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.

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