Lazaretto Norma Desmond

Back in the day, a woman’s decrepitude was the only thing that could keep her inside (while men–old, young, fat, gangly, bald, hirsute, handsome, hideous–had no qualms about going out in any incarnation). So it was that “faded” film star Norma Desmond’s vanity would turn out to render her very ahead of her time. Of course, she already was with regard to her various “above and beyond” anti-aging treatments–practices that would become a simple matter of good grooming not just in Hollywood, but for commoners as well in the decades to come.

Alas, Norma would remain unvindicated in so many ways until the year of COVID-19, which, like Britney Spears’ “crazy” (read: drug-fueled and overworked) behavior of ’07 turned out to have more of an effect on the trajectory of her ’08 the way ’19 would on ’20 (hence the pandemic being named in honor of the year before the total destruction the way Britney-inspired breakdown merch would be–i.e. “I Feel Like 2007 Britney”–despite the fact that she wasn’t hospitalized against her will until the beginning of ’08).

Yes, it was not to be until 2020 that the reclusive-by-1950-standards method of Desmond’s existence would be seen–and appropriated–with a fresh pair of eyes. Truly, Norma had it all figured out, not just staying inside her sequestered Hollywood Hills mansion solely because she had aged but because the world outside had absolutely no taste (possibly already secretly suffering from symptoms Corona even back then)–an overt truth made all the more patent by the masses’ lack of memory of her. The cinema grandeur that she projected never capable of being re-created by these small screen “stars” on TV. So she sighed, took a step back and said, “Fuck it, they don’t deserve me.” And then promptly went about the business of smoking and drinking herself silly–with a bit of self-mutilation in between. Again, she was an early pioneer of trafficking in the side effects of loneliness and isolation–an especially jarring existence after so many years spent being admired, surrounded by worshippers at every level.

And now this. The nothing. The nowhere to go. The surprising “suddenness” of it all took her aback despite all the telltale signs of a kind of demise. Just the way we were warned of Corona yet were still somehow flummoxed when it came to government-mandated “stay at home” orders. Us, who, like Norma, were blindsided because of our conviction that things could never possibly change, least of all for the worse. Norma, too, was convinced things would remain the same forever. This being one of the greatest human frailties of all: resistance to any unexpected “shifts” in the “status quo.” Yet, just as we have, Norma managed to go about her day-to-day spent in exile adroitly enough. Until the second Joe Gillis walked into her life and she was forced to remember just how alone she had been. She wasn’t going to let him get away. Certainly not. She was going to quaranteam (for the presence of Max the Butler makes three, therefore a team).

She’d pull out all the trinket-laden stops to make him want to stay, breathily assuring, “What fun we’re going to have. I’ll fill the pool for you. Or I’ll open my house in Malibu, and you can have the whole ocean.” Beautiful quaranteam dreams indeed. But Joe, like so many restless spirits in our present time of being encouraged to stay at home and therefore stay “safe,” could not ultimately be compelled to live this life of lockdown. Wanting only to break free from Norma and her imposed cabin fever–regardless of how large and well-equipped the “cabin” in question was. And anyway, 10086 Sunset Boulevard was actually some abode at the corner of Wilshire and Irving. Just another Hollywood lie. A lie that was physically demolished in 1957. One imagines, by that year, Norma would have already died in some inhumane asylum anyway. It was like Gillis said, “Even if she got away with it…those headlines would kill her.” Mainly for use of adjectives qualifying her age.

Adjectives that would completely shatter the illusion she had so carefully cultivated in quarantine. And one that she had worked so diligently to get Joe on board with. Yet Joe, like any stir crazy human being in confinement, finally reaches his threshold on New Year’s Eve (at which time the world’s own segregation will still be going on). Bursting out of the house at a point of near mental breakdown–for Norma’s whole game is infecting others with her madness and mania–with the voiceover, “I didn’t know where I was going. I just had to get out of there. I had to be with people my own age. I had to hear somebody laugh again.”

No, devout self-quarantine is most definitely not a skill everyone has. Not like Norma, who is liable to kill anybody who tries to leave her own personal lazaretto. Rendering anyone who might have had a healthy brain before entering the space into someone diseased himself. At odds with what reality actually “is” or “means.” The answer, in Norma’s quarantined world being, “Whatever you want it to.” For those maintaining their seclusion, the feeling is all too familiar. And a strange sort of newfound respect for a woman like Norma, in spite of all her delusions, must be paid. For she had the presence of mind (believe it or not) to bifurcate her real self and her celluloid self, thereby at least being able to live forever vicariously through the latter, who remained out in the world no matter what the plague, no matter what the cataclysm.

Perhaps this is why the inevitable upswing in virtual reality must occur for the plebeian, non-movie star sort to live their own best alternate lives from within the dark recesses of their own (less posh than Norma’s) lazaretto. In truth, Norma herself could have benefitted from the existence of virtual reality. It might have spared Joe from being snatched into her clutches so hungrily if she had been able to procure a virtual boy toy instead, having no need to murder a more malleable pawn in her various orchestrations.

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