We live in a world full of noise. In this world full of noise, I found myself wanting to be left alone, to quote one of my betters (Garbo). I wanted to think about things, about creative processes, people’s stories, life, pain and artistry. I also wanted to settle my thoughts on a topic that has taken over that part of the internet that I visit every day, for the purely selfish reason that I feel it’s my tribe: Film Twitter.
The controversy of the week is Blonde, a film made by Andrew Dominik and produced by Brad Pitt (more on Pitt in a later post). The synopsis of the film is what divides film critics, film buffs and film historians. Is it about Marilyn? Is not about her? The iconography is there, the effort of having Ana de Armas look like Marilyn cannot be escapable, so it must be about her, at least in part. She is the vessel in which Dominik’s vision of female helplessness resides.
Shortly after having seen the film, I had to record a podcast episode with my friend Nick, for his podcast Reel Talk. I now feel it might have been too soon to do that, for my feelings on the film were not fully formed. I didn’t say I disliked the film, but I don’t think I said I liked it either. It was an overwhelming experience of grief and trauma that I do not wish to have repeated. Nor do I believe it absolutely necessary for the realm of cinema. It is not a film that brings originality to the table in terms of both the narrative and style.
I think I understand now Dominik’s intention with this work. To quote another film, my belief is that his intention was to “take the idols and smash them.” This, assuming that Marilyn had been an idol, which one might argue she was not, particularly not in her lifetime. Yes, she was idolised, yes, she was imitated and paid homage to, after her death. She is part of the zeitgeist in ways none of the other characters of Dominik’s films were. What the uproar and division on the internet has shown is that perhaps it is time we left Marilyn alone. We can admire her sex appeal; we can marvel at her luminous presence in front of the cameras that has never been equalled. We can try to imitate her walk, talk, singing and dancing, but we will never get to the essence of Marilyn/Norma Jeane. Many have tried, none have succeeded.
The temptation to tap into such riches of character is understandable. There are many ways to tell a story, to embellish it or in this case to uglify it to the nth degree. After taking some time to reflect in silence, I still feel, like I stated on the podcast, that it’s an almost monotonous exercise in suffering. In terms of the narrative, there is little variation, no shades of grey to the absolute darkness that is presented to us, the audience. There were glimpses of Marilyn the exquisite star, the shrewd businesswoman, the consummate artist but few and far between. The focus was on the trauma and the darkness that followed. It did feel a bit flat, albeit grim.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in order to adapt a book, he would read it once and then never revisit it again. The essence of the book, or whatever stood out for him would then be conjured up onto the screen. Perhaps Andrew Dominik did the same with Oates’ book. What I take issue with and what might have caused the backlash is Dominik’s misunderstanding of Marilyn. As a film historian, I am not too impressed. I think he made a horror film loosely based on Marilyn’s life and career, which is fair. One can do whatever one wants with the money one is given to by a producer.
However, the arrogance showcased in interviews is disappointing, especially since it comes from a filmmaker whose work, vision and artistic integrity I have respected thus far. Dominik’s dismissive attitude towards the sensitive topics raised in his film should be of concern. I’m not advocating for total responsibility towards one’s finished artistic project, I am merely encouraging a deeper thinking about something you send out into the world. Why be defensive when you can be interested? Andrew Dominik wasn’t interested. At the same time, his contempt towards Howard Hawks makes me question his love for film as a medium.
There are a lot of questions raised by this film, questions which my time in silence haven’t fully answered. Most poignant of all, I believe is this: why make a film about a woman and not give her a voice to speak? Why make a one-dimensional character and then adorn her with all the glamour and beauty known to man?
Perhaps our world of scrutiny shaped by social media has made us judge, jury and executioners and the hate towards a filmmaker is uncalled for. But in this world today we need the voices of women to be heard, not silenced, be they whores or saints, be they sex-symbols or nuns. We also need to be curious about other people’s feelings not just our own. I used to think of Andrew Dominik in relation to his buddy Nick Cave. Both great artists in their respective fields, making great work together. The score for Blonde has indeed been written by Cave and his friend and collaborator Warren Ellis. It is a great score. So, while Nick Cave talks about faith and hope in his newsletter The Red Hand Files, inviting us to trust, love one another as well as listen to each other and ask questions, Andrew Dominik tells people he’s not interested about aspects of his own work, aspects that jump at us from all the corners of the screen, begging us to ask questions.
I wonder what Nick Cave thinks of Blonde.