August 6, 2014

Why America is like Norma Desmond

I doubt I'm the only movie fan who appreciated the irony of the water main break on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles last week.

Some 1,000 gallons of water a minute poured forth for more than five hours, flooding city streets, businesses, parking garages, the famed basketball arena Pauley Pavilion, and significant sections of the campus of UCLA. (This during the worst drought in California history.) The Los Angeles Times quotes a spokesman for the city water department as saying that the exact cause of the rupture has yet to be determined, but “corrosion is suspected.” 

In the classic movie “Sunset Boulevard,” Gloria Swanson plays a silent movie star named Norma Desmond who can’t admit that, thanks to the corrosive effects of time, she’ll never again be offered the starring roles that made her a legend. She’s as big as she ever was, she insists. It’s the pictures that have gotten small.

The parallels between Los Angeles and Norma Desmond aren’t exact. Desmond desperately works to maintain her physical condition. Los Angeles, by contrast, is the epicenter of the tax revolts that cut city, state, and eventually federal budgets to the bone. Los Angeles can no longer afford to maintain its water system, or its roadways.

In another respect, though, the similarities between Norma Desmond and Los Angeles – indeed, between Norma Desmond and America as a whole – are distinct. We twirl grandly through our fraying mansion, dreaming that the glory days aren’t really over. In both cases there’s massive denial of ongoing decline. Nobody wants to confront the fact that the infrastructure is crumbling.

We’re as big as we ever were. It’s the pictures that have gotten small.

An earlier, related post can be found here

©Doug Hill, 2014

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