AVA 3001: Topics in Film and Media Arts
23 May, 2005
Hollywood style and Sunset Boulevard
The classical Hollywood style of movie making, sometimes called invisible, is an artful way of hiding film technique at the service of the narrative. What I am about to prove is that Sunset Boulevard (1950) conforms to the classical Hollywood style. I have written the following assuming you, the reader, have already watched Sunset Boulevard. I warn you, there are several spoilers in the pages that follow. If you did not notice the camera angles and lighting in Sunset Boulevard, then you should already be convinced that Sunset Boulevard conforms to the classical Hollywood style.
It looks odd when people in movies gaze into mirrors at forty-five-degree angles and talk with telephones at their chin. The last time I saw someone in real life hold a phone away from his mouth, he was whispering something to me about the person on the other end. Why do we see these types of things in Sunset? Muffled voices and obstructed sight of action cause greater disruption to narrative. For example, we see a frame with Norma Desmond and a mirror. In the mirror, we see her reflection while she fixes her face. Supposing the Hollywood style did not exist, we would instead see just the side of Norma's face or the back of her head with a cinematographer in the mirror. One might say, "What is she doing? She touched her face I think. Who's the strange guy in the mirror?" Filmmakers now have better techniques to capture action involving mirrors and mouthpieces.
Readability is always on the filmmaker's mind when making decisions regarding mise-en-scene. In Sunset you will notice (or maybe you won't) lighting and sound don't always obey the rules of real life. They do follow, however, the Hollywood style. When Joe pulls into the garage at Norma's mansion, the car on stilts is uniformly visible. Later under the garage roof in the moonlight, faces appear just as visible as if they were on the surface of the sun. These scenes still seem realistic but more importantly allow the audience to stay focused on the story, not on why someone's voice is coming out of the garage walls. This same concept applies to background noise in Sunset. Take the two different party scenes. Both scenes start with a strong presence of the background music. As important dialogue begins, the background noise kindly simmers down so we can hear better. Is this true to life? Does the audience notice?
Editing in Sunset Boulevard also conforms to the Hollywood style. To be honest, I didn’t really notice which I took to mean that it did. It's a lot harder to focus on editing when it's discreet. If you do get a chance to snap out of the fantasy, you will notice the employment of the 180-degree rule, eye-line matches, and all the other important editing techniques. Pick almost any scene and you'll see the 180-degree rule in action. After Joe Gillis visits his agent on the golf course, he sees two money collectors. At this point, the camera first looks at Joe's face then cuts away to a point-of-view shot then back at Joe to catch his reaction. Not much later, Joe is in the room over the garage and the camera cuts back and forth between him and a midnight burial.
Another interesting use of style shows up in this scene. First, a low-angle shot pictures Joe. When he looks down at the burial, we see Norma in a high-angle shot from Joe's point-of-view. Later, low-angle shots of Norma at the top of the stairs contrast this position. In the first scene, Joe feels in a position of power having just found a solution to his money problems but by the end of the second act, Norma holds a life-threatening amount of power over Joe. The context in which these shots take place creates an unconscious meaning for the audience.
Continuity editing plays an important part in understanding any narrative and Sunset Boulevard follows that Hollywood tradition. Let’s see what would happen if continuity was not preserved. When Joe stops at the pharmacy to buy cigarettes for Norma, the narrative follows so the viewers understand how he got there. Imagine seeing the same story only without the conversation about cigarettes. Then consider what the narrative would be like if we didn’t see the gun on Norma’s bed. All of a sudden, she has a gun in her hands.
The overall narrative structure of Sunset is linear hinging on a flashback. The opening scene starts with a voice over which then moves the narrative into the past. By the third act the timeline catches up to the first scene and continues on in a linear manner. This structure is common among film-noir movies and in the classical style almost exclusively found employed in noir.
The Conclusion: Sunset Boulevard conforms to the Hollywood style. Let me close with the examination of one last example of mise-en-scene form. Take the scene in which Joe shows Betty around the mansion. In this scene Joe shows Betty the pool out back. Since it is night time, Joe has to turn on the pool light in order for Betty and the audience to see. This act serves the narrative in two ways. In the scene in which it is acted it serves to move the narrative forward. In the scene in which Norma kills Joe, the light serves to aid readability. There was no reason to have the pool light on. No one was swimming that night. The act of Joe turning on this light in an earlier scene is only one of many ideal examples of the Hollywood style.