Sunset Boulevard and Philosophy Goes to the Movies

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Lapointe, Julien


 I applaud Noel Carroll's effort to develop a novel reading of Sunset Boulevard as well as seek to propose new conceptions of what films as popular art can perform: i.e. "do philosophy," and specifically provide a discourse, for our putative enlightenment and moral betterment, on important existential questions or other issues pertaining to the human condition. At the same time, I couldn't help but be reminded of something I already know (or had read), as Carroll would say: "The great works of art are no less misused when they serve purposes of self-education or self-perfection than when they serve any other purposes; it may be as useful and legitimate to look at a picture in order to perfect one's knowledge (...) as it is useful and legitimate to use a painting in order to hide a hole in the wall." Or so thought Hannah Arendt (Between Past and Future, "The Crisis in Culture," p. 203).  I'm not sure if this qualifies as a "no-argument argument," a "banal argument," or an "excessive argument" (to these modest eyes, it is at the very least a "Kantian argument"), but it certainly sits uneasily with any hope to define the value of a work of art in terms of its philosophical content -- or even, that art can ever have any viable purpose whatsoever. 
But I digress. I can't even begin to encompass, in so short a blog (and with so many other competing blog entries to complete under deadline), a thoughtful reflection on such an immeasurably large question. Rather, I simply want to touch on one issue raised by Carroll's eloquent and provocative disquisition, and make a minor qualification, if I may.
This is that the central theme Carroll highlights in Sunset Boulevard, so adeptly with his citing of the film's use of horror imagery -- that Hollywood makes monsters of its stars -- strikes me as being more predominantly of the order of social criticism, than philosophy per se.  Of course, this depends on what we mean by "philosophy" and whether it has any compatibility (or overlap) with the practice of social criticism. I write "more predominantly" because I want to suggest a degree of emphasis or focus, rather than mutual exclusivity. And I want to argue that something can carry important philosophical implications, without necessarily qualifying as philosophy.
Caroll argues that the film "does philosophy" because it presents a series of views on the human condition. Now, I could say that if statements on the human condition (or which imply an understanding of the human condition) count as philosophy, then my two year old son is a philosopher every time I admonish him to share his toys with the other kids at the park and he responds "no." But this, I would think, will not strike Carroll or anyone else as an intelligible counter-argument. Certainly there can be, there must be, philosophical implications to any number of gestures, actions, statements, convictions, beliefs. And Carroll might very well agree here and rebut that Sunset Boulevard confirms this and more, by presenting a thesis, or at least, a series of consciously developed propositions on the meaning of life (and death), and that its filmmakers do so with the full awareness of the implications of various scenes, images, lines of dialogue etc. (Which, with all due respect to anyone's child, is not necessarily the case with any number of headstrong toddlers we might encounter at a park).
However, for me, Sunset Boulevard seems deeply invested in evoking a specific place and milieu -- it belongs to the class of films known as "Hollywood exposé," as Carroll helpfully points out -- and how a certain class of individuals function and exist within that milieu. It is therefore about relations between individuals (i.e. society), and how they are situated within and with regards to an identifiable economic and cultural institution or mode of production (i.e. Hollywood).  Notions of mortality, death, and the human urge to deny death, may undergird and account for, in part, how Hollywood is able to make monsters of its celebrities, but the very terms of its theme, its very wording, involve a sharply delimited time and place. 
The line Carroll cites about how a woman should be content to look her age (or words to that effect), sounds in and of itself like a moral maxim; in the context of the film, it is specifically addressed to an aging starlet, who is the latest casualty of a celebrity culture that itself arises out of certain social formations (and image-making, and modes of cultural production) of mostly the twentieth century, and in a capitalist nation at that. To pursue the matter briefly with an example: one could find similar or comparable insights in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, but I have never heard of a book vendor who stocks that title in between Foucault and Gadamer on their book shelves.
Now someone might here rebut that philosophy can just as readily engage with particulars and specific locations, places, as history, sociology or political science -- one need think only of political philosophy. But I would maintain that the tendency in political philosophy is to extract abstract generalizations from concrete situations: what is liberty? what is freedom? what should be their limitations or applications? I don't mean this as a critique of Sunset Boulevard, but for me its critique of life, humanity and the world stays very much within the carefully chosen confines of Tinseltown. Its critique may, and must, be meaningful to the lives of people outside of Hollywood. Still, its content engages with, and exclusively with, Hollywood. Simply put, the theme Carroll adduces as evidence of its philosophy is, Hollywood Makes Monsters of its Stars -- and Maybe of Us All; not: Art Makes Monsters of the Human Self and Condition.
This might seem like splitting hairs, or a very minor distinction to make. It nevertheless is an important one, for me, because it speaks to how we might classify the content of Sunset Boulevard and how it engages with the world. And I would add that I still find the idea of films as practicing philosophy to be an alluring one. It can help explain why some of the films of Errol Morris, particularly The Fog of War, provoked aspersions and criticisms from elements of the Left, while I've spoken to admirers of the film who insist that its political and historical subject matter is largely ostensible. I hope it won't be taken as faint praise when I say that I look forward to Carroll's reading inciting further inquiries along this line (if it has not already done so). I enjoyed his presentation and how it helped clarify my own appreciation of Wilder's film. 
p.s. I await the day when, in discussing the cinematic rarity of films narrated by a dead person (or near dead person), someone notes that Sunset Boulevard isn't the only example of this, but points to the opening scene of Monsieur Verdoux as well!

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