All great art is mysterious in some way. It holds back its essence from the audience. Its greatness is elusive and hard to pinpoint, forcing us to accept it as a whole. It does not lend itself well to partial analyses or limiting interpretations. With each viewing or reading or listening, great art expands. Much like the Mysteries of Faith, its meaning becoming clearer while at the same time suggesting newer and deeper levels as yet untapped by the audience, perhaps even unimagined by the artist himself. With every answered question, thousands more arise. Great art, like God, is an infinite exploration.
For no other medium is this more true than for film. Film being the most incarnational of all the arts, it is therefore the most Sacramental. It involves both sight and hearing, as well as our intellect, our emotions, and even to a certain extent our will. Literature excites our minds and our emotions, music stimulates our ears, a sculpture or painting is attractive to the eyes, but only in film are all of these brought together in synthesis. Like the Divine Liturgy, it involves the whole person, the key difference being that the Liturgy requires a person’s participation while film requires an audience. This is why video games will never be art. They ask the audience to actively affect its outcome, more like a sport than art.
Whenever people ask me what my favorite movie is I usually role my eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. How are you supposed to choose from potentially hundreds of films one you unequivocally prefer to all others? Questions like these really try the experienced moviegoer’s patience. That said, explaining this to someone who has merely asked an innocent question is quite possibly uncharitable, so I’m always forced to give an answer. I figure the best way to judge what your favorite movie is not which you enjoy watching the most or which fits in the nicest with your worldview, but rather which continue to draw you back wanting more and more. Which invite repeated viewings over a life-time? Which never cease to reveal their mystery to you in ever more dynamic ways?
There are several films that fit the bill, but for me the one I continue to return to over and over again is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. On top of being perhaps the most perfectly constructed screenplay ever written, it is grotesquely atmospheric, inhabiting a world all its own. In terms of genre, Sunset Blvd. is a pretty standard film noir. The essence of film noir is the Mystery of Evil – how evil creeps into, usually very subtly or in the guise of good intentions, the lives of ordinary people. It is the genre, probably above all others, which truly recognizes the fallen state of man and his need for redemption. The noir, pulp fiction of the 40s and 50s has been compared by some to the Christian eschaton because, as we can see from Double Indemnity to Laura to The Postman Always Rings Twice, in the end evil is exposed for what it is. The perpetrators pay their comeuppance and all is right with the world.
For an hour and forty-five minutes Sunset Blvd. is true to this model. Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), a good man but perhaps too cynical, accidentally falls into the lap of forgotten star of the Silent Era Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Ceasing the opportunity, he offers to help her edit a script she has written for her “return” to the silver screen. But her delusions of grandeur soon begin to infect Joe too, and their relationship devolves into a kind of mutual vampyrism, each feeding off the other and using him or her to their own selfish ends.
The film reaches its climax with Joe dead in the pool and Norma completely lost in her own fantasies. In the standard model, this is where it all should end. The drama is done. The man we thought was good has been destroyed by the thing he most feared – becoming a has-been. It’s a morality tale à la Julius Cæsar about ambition and its consequences. But avast! there’s still five minutes left. In this short epilogue we see Norma completely turned within herself, totally unaware of her surroundings, believing herself to be back on the set making pictures for those wonderful people out there in the dark. Then she poses and says, infamously, “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.” Of course there is no Mr. DeMille and no close-up.
For me, this quick little denouement is what puts Sunset Blvd. over the top. In these last five minutes we find out the movie was really about Norma the whole time, not Joe. That the murderous has-been has become the object of compassion and pity, not ridicule and scorn. She’s one of our babies. One of our own children. Is she damned in her delusions, or has her madness become her salvation? The film doesn’t tell us. The answers aren’t there. Norma is to Joe what Flannery’s Misfit is to the grandmother. Both are the Sacraments, the vessels of Divine Grace to those they kill, but their own fates remain a mystery.
All my favorite movies have a little something extra like this. What is in Marcellus’ case in Pulp Fiction? Why does Blondie let Tuco live at the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? Was Hausu just a dream and just what exactly is that blue rose in Fire Walk with Me all about? It is these little unanswerable questions which lead us deeper into the film and illuminate its many depths. A lack of mystery a bad film does not make, but it does keep it on the level of the mundane. It does not lead us to truth. If we’re lucky it “uplifts” us, but never more than that.
“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” – Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose