It’s the Pictures that Got Small
Skipping down Sunset Boulevard with Jeff Bezos
Aug 12, 2013 · 5 min read
Like the rest of the world (not to mention the New York Times!), I was shocked to hear that the Washington Post had sold to billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for the barely-there price of $250 million.
The reaction seemed universal: This was an admission of old-media defeat, unable to compete on the newly-leveled playing field of the Internet. I asked a friend of mine who had worked at the Post a few decades ago, in its pre-Internet heyday, what he thought, and his response was brief: “Sad. Inevitable.”
Sad. Inevitable. The usual narrative around the decline of newspapers and most other mainstays of the past, rendered obsolete by technology and the relentless press of time. On Twitter, the usual people were saying the usual things and I had a few tabs open to add my usual two cents. But I had just climbed into one of those newfangled flying machines and found myself with a broad selection of movies to watch. There were shiny new releases available but a classic caught my eye, and that was it for me.
Forget about the Washington Post — there was a body floating facedown in the pool and, on a magic metal bird winging me back to New York, I was watching Sunset Boulevard.
“You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be big.”
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”
Well, so much for forgetting about the Washington Post. Courtesy of Billy Wilder some 63 years hence, it was back front and center in the form of Norma Desmond, faded silent-film star raging against the dying of the light, and the talkies.
Onscreen, she imperiously asserted her position to handsome, cocky Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter who was part of the new Hollywood — the one where movies were about words, and people speaking them. Horns, locked.
Sunset Boulevard came out in 1950, but, spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well. Norma, driven by delusions of grandeur and certitude that she remains a star, taps Joe to help rewrite her comeback screenplay (or, er, “return”). Joe sees some quick, easy money. But quick and easy is never as it seems — insert Amazon One-Click joke here! — and soon they’re enmeshed in a web of mutual dependence which soon becomes more. (As in, sexy more.) There are a few complications involving Joe’s friend Artie, his earnest girlfriend Betty, Cecil B. DeMille, and the weirdness of keeping your ex-film director ex-husband as your doting manservant, but the gist of it is that Joe tries to leave, Norma threatens suicide, Joe leaves anyway, and she shoots him on the way out. Sad! Inevitable!
Okay, it was especially inevitable considering the film opened with a body floating in the pool — but let’s face it, it didn’t have to be that way.
I found myself thinking of the Washington Post dressed up in turbans and caftans, just because that was fun. (Pick anyone. Bob Woodward. There. He looks good, no?) Hard not to notice the parallels: A once-giant presence is driven into obsolescence by new technology, with fickle fans turning their backs in pursuit of the hot new thing. Tweets, slideshows, and — the horror! — GIFs. It’s the pictures that got small.
As DeMille says when Norma comes to call and an admin offers to give her the brush: “Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isn’t that enough?” Replace “fans” with “print subscribers” here and you’ve got the gist. Ouch.
But Jeff Bezos’ memo to WaPo staff was actually pretty encouraging. My mind wandered further.
What if Joe Gillis instead had seen potential in Norma Desmond and her story? What if he hadn’t been on the make? What if he’d genuinely been interested in a new, unconventional, unexpected collaboration?
What if, instead of splurging on vicuña and tangoing across waxed tile, they worked late into the night collaborating on creating something new and different — the product of her wisdom and experience and his youth, vigor and new ideas?
From Norma, Joe could have learned how things were done in the bare-bones olden days, when old-timey film tech still allowed artists and communicators like the silent film stars to reach their audience, on the most important levels.
From Joe, Norma could reluctantly learn to acknowledge that there may actually be something worth taking from the talkies (instead of, say, “words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!”). Perhaps he could persuade her that new innovations in the the industry actually represented new innovations in storytelling.
Maybe if they had done that there would have been no need for Norma to utter her iconic line “No one ever leaves a star!” because there would have been no leaving — rather, a joining and a flowering in a garden now retilled, with still-fertile soil. Where something new and fresh could then blossom, and grow. Where no one ended up face down in the swimming pool.
Okay, fine. That probably would’ve been a lousy movie. (Though it still would have had great clothes.) But you get my drift. If you eliminate the cynicism and the nostalgia and the refusal to let go of history, habit and the way things once were, anything is possible.
Maybe, Jeff Bezos is the nostalgic one. Maybe he thinks newspapers matter. Maybe he remembers Watergate. Maybe he thinks a deeply-reported Dana Priest series would make a helluva Kindle serial — for $1.99 a pop. Maybe he’s…optimistic! Perhaps the rest of us should be, too.
The inevitable need not be sad. Nor inevitable.
Rachel Sklar is a writer and the co-founder of TheLi.st, which publishes a pretty rad newsletter that you’d probably enjoy. Sign up here! She first encountered Sunset Boulevard via the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and she is Team LuPone all the way. Seriously, listen to the virtuosity in every line she has in this song. It’s like a master class in instability, grandiosity and manipulation. (It also boasts many inventive rhymes for “vicuña.”) Rachel saw the original Canadian production and bets you’re jealous.