Moving Pictures & Roving Eyes
‘All right Mr. De Mille. I’m ready for my close up’
Rewind. Norma Desmond, in the film Sunset Boulevard, speaks her final words as, once again, she advances inexorably on the camera. So close, the focus fails and the film ends. In effect, she meets herself finally as pure image, the boundary between body and external image dissolved. It is as if, in her insatiable need to live up to her image, or rather to live as her image, she must consume any vestige of her lived in body. She merges her look with that of the camera, evaporating into it. It’s a delicious moment, a classic scene from a classic Hollywood movie. Director Billy Wilder’s deft orchestration of image and metaphor allows for different readings but, for me, the overwhelming metaphor of the film is consumption – consumption of the self, consumption of another. Even Norma’s house can be understood as standing in for the (ageing) female body that takes in the young man and holds him there, sucks him dry and finally destroys him. She spits him out, leaving his body to float like a dry husk in that big pool of hers. [Wilder, 1950]1
Why speak of this particular Hollywood film? I was brought up on a diet of television and movies and the American landscape, California in particular, has been familiar to me for as long as I can remember. Long before I ever travelled to the States, this part- imagined landscape shaped a kind of ‘neutral’ ground in which I played out my idle fantasies. 2 So when I drove around California for the first time and experienced a kind of deja vu, I felt as if I had travelled to a place in my memory, as though what was once inside me now surrounded me. It was not so much the feeling of having been there before, rather I had stepped inside the space of my own (unspecific) fantasy. I encountered a mess of fragmented memories at each intersection, at each vista, unsure if I had actually seen these places depicted somewhere or if they were part of a conglomeration of real and imagined images that inhabit my memory. All the same, it felt as if I had stepped inside a gigantic movie, one shot in glorious Technicolor, naturally.
The feeling of being ‘inside’ memory, a memory shaped by and through fiction is a curious one. One of my strongest impressions is that my body felt more than usually visible, which means very little in itself. But the overall impression of the body feeling utterly out of place, kind of the wrong way round, led me to speculate on how much Hollywood imagery I have incorporated over the years and how, somehow, I have come to think of it in terms of being inside me, inside my body. It, the landscape, the object of my fantasy, now seemed to be looking back at me, it seemed to enfold me physically within it. Memory and vision, body and place now seemed to have no boundary, as if everything was reversible, as if I had stepped through the surface of the vision of my memory. French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in talking of the distinction between the visible and the invisible, considers the relation between the flesh and vision:
‘The superficial pellicle of the visible is only for my vision and for my body. But the depth beneath this surface contains my body and hence contains my vision. My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this body and all the visibles with it. There is a reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other.’ [Merleau-Ponty, 1973, 138]
My experience of this confusion, probably initiated by the shock of recognising something that I had never actually seen before, prompts me to question how fictional memory impacts on the visible and the invisible. 3 Fictional memories merge with factual – memories derived from actual experience become representations, remembered imperfectly, reshaped with every remembering, begin over time to lose their distinction to memories derived from fiction. The way I identify myself is shaped out of different permutations within this conceptual landscape through the primary vehicle of vision. My confusion of vision, place and sensation, initiated by a powerful fictional memory is perhaps better understood as symptomatic of questioning of identity. What kind of identification am I formulating for myself when I allow the fiction to overpower that small part of me that insists upon rationality?
I look and I see a back alley, some gang kids lurking at the end; I look out across the desert, the empty road like a grey ribbon disappearing into the heat haze; I’m looking over a small bay, a flock of aggressive seagulls circle overhead. These are scenes – I greet them with a shiver of recognition but I have never been here before. How can I be here in this scene now? Out of my usual environment, my estrangement from the culturally inscribed habits and roles I play at home, it seems to me that, now, who I think I am is constructed through what I see, how I am seen and where I am in the world, at any given moment. Of course this is fantasy – I have to go home eventually – but the idea of stepping into my own movie, serves as raw material for the performances and images that I make. I see the fiction and it is in me just as I am inside of it. To borrow a phrase from psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel (1897- 1945)‘That which my eyes pierce will pierce me. Just as I pierced it with my eyes, so the first thing it will pierce will be my eyes.’ [Fenichel, 1953, 387] 4 My understanding of this experience counters the concept of an alienation between subject and object, or indeed between fact and fantasy (in memory). Speaking of the relation between subject and object rather than defining a gap between them, Merleau- Ponty writes ‘...since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.’ [Merleau-Ponty, 1973, 139] My narcissistic identification with the Californian landscape is merged with a similar identification with particular characters, or films as a whole. All of which brings me back to Sunset Boulevard.
Norma and me
So I’m driving up and down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Starting in downtown L.A. it works it’s way westward towards the ocean. As it sweeps and curves down through Hollywood it goes through poor Mexican/Filipino/Korean neighbourhoods with their tacky stores and sweatshops, through porno land and out into richer pastures. It’s much whiter out here, the houses are grander, larger, more discrete but no less tacky. Out here, where Hollywood becomes Beverly Hills, it becomes unreal, fact and fantasy start to merge in the mind’s eye. In my fantasy, I’m William Holden playing Joe Gillis, careering down the boulevard, tyres screeching, trying to escape the bailiffs on his tail.
The world turns to black and white. The film is Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson, Hollywood diva par excellence and William Holden, established heartthrob and leading man. His is the voice that narrates the story. But he reveals to us that we are listening to a dead man, seeing through a dead man’s eyes. The director is Hollywood legend Billy Wilder and the film features other Hollywood legends playing either themselves or fictional Hollywood legends. Clever casting merges the fictional with factual and we are presented with Cecil B. De Mille as himself, Hedda Hopper as herself, Erich Von Stroheim as a fictional character, based loosely upon his actual self, all inside a self conscious fiction. Snap back to glorious Technicolor reality, I’m driving but craning my neck, peering up all the driveways just in case I can glimpse that house, the one in the movie. It might still be there, the actual one they used. 5 But it isn’t, or at least I couldn’t spot it. I drive on to the beach.
I admit to taking pleasure in indulging such fantasy, being in the places where fictions were created as if I can somehow enter the film, just as it has entered me. Perhaps in my fantasy I am not Joe but the camera. Sometimes I film these journeys as if I could somehow film the film, or at least the search for the film in the vague hope I could catch a ghost of something that never really happened. Back in London I watch the film again – a far more satisfying experience – and I realise that I have been disingenuous. In my fantasy I am really Norma, neurotic murderous Norma Desmond. A creature so obsessed with her own image, with her own incarnation of movie star/diva, that her relationship with the real world is destroyed and replaced by utter fantasy. Her deranged narcissism is given full vent, nourished by being enveloped in images of herself, and she is utterly alone. Yet all about her is decay – her fame has faded, her house is decaying and her beauty crumbling. She is in the final stages of her madness and to sustain her fantasy she must be loved, but consummate narcissist that she is, she can only understand love in terms of incorporation and fantasy. She can only love that which loves her but to do so she feels compelled to consume the object of her passion – in this case Joe Gillis as the embodiment of Norma’s love for Norma. When he refuses to continue in the masquerade and tries to leave her she has only one resort – for after all ‘no-one leaves a star’ – she must kill him. Mercifully for Norma, this does not bring her
back into any sort of reality but it consolidates her fantasy, and her insanity. When the police arrive to question her, the only words she hears are ‘the cameras are here’. The cameras of the paparazzi, assembled to capture the arrest of a star, become movie cameras for her, and she is once again making a movie, alive onscreen once more.
My guilty pleasure in losing myself in this movie is discomforting – I enjoy the performance of tortured diva; too rich, too glamorous, too famous, yet grotesquely revelling in her excess. Is this not symptomatic of my own narcissism? Shouldn’t I be ashamed of myself for wanting to watch? For wanting to be Norma just for a moment. There is something joyful about her wanton disregard for dignity and for reality. But the ugliness of excessive vanity and the descent into insanity is, for me, where the frisson of pleasure is felt most keenly, where her (Norma) and my narcissism are exposed. Archly melodramatic, Sunset Boulevard lets Norma off the hook in the end. Her absorption into fantasy, into madness, means that she is once more in the place that makes her happy. 6
‘...they were all her pictures. That’s all she wanted to see.’ 7
Narcissism: noun [mass noun] excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.
Psychology: extreme selfishness with a grandiose view and a craving for admiration, as characterising a personality type. Psychoanalysis: self-centredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder. [Oxford, 2001] 8
In the Freudian model, identification is shaped primarily in two ways: identifying as (transitively) and identifying with (reflexively). It has two basic modalities, hysterical and narcissistic, which are analogous, respectively to the transitive and the reflexive. In the extreme, total (hysterical) identification with another is a psychotic condition. For example, if I believe that I am Napoleon, or for that matter, Norma Desmond, then I would clearly be quite disturbed. But identification usually occurs reflexively, or partially and from many sources, so that when I define my subjectivity as ‘I’, this ‘I’ is actually an accretion of partial identifications.9
In my Sunset Boulevard experience, I identify at times with Norma, with Joe and with the camera (along with other less specific partial identifications such as the American landscape, road movies and so on) but my reverie is easily interrupted by everyday life because it is only partial (and transitive). I know that I am not Norma, that I am not a camera, and I already knew that I was unlikely to find or see anything that I sought, not anything concrete that is. I am not exactly sure what prompted me to chase celluloid shadows through a Hollywood landscape, but I had allowed myself to over-identify with Norma, or with this movie as an accumulation of other movies, my over- identification edged knowingly towards the hysterical. Fast cut to the clear blue skies and sunshine of Santa Monica and Norma was, of course, nowhere to be seen. There was just me, sitting in my car feeling foolish, but still feeling as if I had lost something. 10
1 Sunset Blvd, film directed by Billy Wilder, 1950. Starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis. Writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures.
2 I’m not suggesting here that the American landscape is neutral, or even a universal given, rather that the continual stream of imagery set in America has created, in my imagination, a generic American place in which my own (filmic) fantasies begin.
3 The shock I speak of was a subliminal one, registered through a mild but perpetual sense of queasiness. However it was not unpleasant.
4 Otto Fenichel, born 39 years a er Freud, was part of the third generation of psychoanalysists (born in 1890’s and 1900’s) and like Freud he was forced to flee from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He wrote a comprehensive textbook on psychoanalysis, still considered to be a reliable benchmark for classical psychoanalytic terminology and ideas. For my purposes, his work on the scoptophilic instinct and incorporation is most pertinent as I am seeking a classical psychoanalytic perspective. He draws on Sandor Ferenczi’s (an earlier, pioneer psychoanalyst) work on introjection.
5 The address given in the movie is 10,086 Sunset Boulevard. In fact, the house used for the exterior shots was the John Paul Getty mansion on Wilshire Blvd. Sadly, it was torn down in the late 1950’s and is now a gas station.
6 My narcissistic identification with Norma both troubles and intrigues me. On one level, Norma is portrayed as an empty but voracious husk – surely I do not think this of myself? I am anxious to redeem the character of Norma from this simplistic reading – something draws me to her but it is something much more positive and complex. Although Norma has been forgotten by Hollywood, she is not unloved. Max, her butler, used to be her director and her first husband. Consumed and discarded by Norma, he still loves her. So much so that he will be her faithful servant, take care of her, just to be near her. He no longer has a career or even an identity outside of that of servant (but not slave) to Norma. Even Joe Gillis becomes fond of her despite his entrapment and her mania – he comes back when she attempts suicide and becomes her lover. His apparent sympathy – ‘poor devil’ – and Max’s love make us aware that there is more to Norma than googly-eyed self obsession. The ending too allows us to see Norma escape punishment as such. She is already lost to the ‘normal’ world, lost in her madness her fantasy has finally come true – she is once more Norma Desmond, ‘Star’, in her own never-ending movie. It is the only place she can find happiness because Hollywood, her image has eaten her up. For me, this redeems the film from what could be read as a misogynistic portrayal of femininity as defined in and through the image of ‘woman’ as young and beautiful. The film is more complex that that. That Norma escapes punishment (she is saved from the painful reality of the everyday world) at the end is unusual in a film so overtly melodramatic. In the genre of melodrama, transgressive women, women who sin in some way are punished, usually with death. But in Sunset Boulevard it is Joe who is punished, he is the one who dies. His sin was to fall in love with his best friend’s girl. The film places Norma’s dilemma centre stage. Age is the Hollywood actress’s nightmare and youth still determines who works and who doesn’t but as all actresses know, the camera can be deceptive. What the film does is to make an issue of the tyranny of the image. It shows how destructive Hollywood film can be, how dangerous it is to be lost in one’s own image.
7 Joe Gillis about Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
8 Definition of narcissism from The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 2001, pubs. Oxford University Press, UK
9 ‘Partial identifications in normal persons are of common occurrence. They reveal with particular clearness their character as a substitute gratification, since they usually follow upon a real object loss.’ Otto Fenichel in ‘Identification’ from The Collected Papers, [Fenichel, 1953, 107] See also Sigmund Freud ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, Standard Edition Volume 4,  and for the reading of identification as an ‘accretion’ see Victor Burgin, ‘The World Behind the Mirror’ from ‘In/Different Spaces’ 
10 As I wrote previously consumption is the main metaphor of the film and this implies loss through the destructive action of consumption. In Sunset Boulevard Norma loses her mind, Joe loses his life, Max loses the love of his life (Norma), Betty Schaefer loses her love (Joe) and Artie Green loses his girl (Betty) and his best friend (Joe). Even the monkey dies.