Blonde ★★★½

Andrew Dominick adapts Blonde with imagistic flair and impressionistic accuracy — delicately curating Oates’ sprawling magnum opus into a phantasmagorical collage. In every meticulously constructed frame, Monroe is stared at with clinical neutrality — even as she seethes inside, yearning across the abyss. The chasm between her will to agency and her oppressed public identity is deafening. Fantasy, in every iteration, entraps her. As America’s totem of luscious seduction, she’s stuck perpetually imprisoned to the media machine. Marilyn is bound to a web of fantasies — projected by men, the movie industry, the tabloids, her mother, her absent/imagined father, her lovers, her country, and even herself.

Oates and Dominick choose to reduce her, too, to the realm of abstract iconography. She’s dissected at a symbolic remove. This aesthetic stance reflects how, as America’s pinup doll, her figurative stature snuffed out her external/interpersonal autonomy. Throughout, Marilyn’s stripped and denuded and smothered into a barren, raging, repressed, histrionic mess, much like her mother. As Hollywood’s centerfold goddess, she became our collective Aphrodite — our goddess of fertility and love. However, what dominates and creates the surface veneer of fantasy often lies inversely suppressed in the realm of reality. And that’s certainly the case for this Marilyn — she’s a starlet who’s bleached/bombshell image became harnessed & lassoed by a devouring, monstrous, consumptive body. Like Pygmalion in reverse, society transforms her, scene by scene, from a living, breathing, passionate woman into a figment of immobilized fiction.

I found Dominick’s lurid sense of artifice to be very loyal to Oates’ fastidiously brutal and cynical worldview. Marilyn is simultaneously silenced to a pouty whimper and manically overdramatic. Her explosive bipolarity is staged to represent women’s restricted position within American mythology and capitalism, and the madness such stifling marginalization engenders. Viewing Marilyn as a Moby Dick-like emblem of he 20th century, Oates’ novel is far more preoccupied with dramatizing ideas and themes than it is with creating fully rounded or historically accurate subject. Her literary ambitions clearly precede and overpower the impulse to achieve biographical fidelity. In many ways, this philosophical/artistic rejection of rigid biopic factuality is what has triggered mass fussiness and negativity toward this movie. However, it seems odd & counterproductive to shoot the postmodern messenger. And it seems equally odd, given prevalent post-structural sensibilities, to believe biographical loyalty or truth exists in any form. 

Oates (and Dominick, in translation) conspicuously and cheekily appropriate Monroe’s very public iconography to suit very specific aesthetic and thematic intentions. Neither are striving or pretending to encapsulate the definitive Marilyn. Prioritizing deviant aesthetic/narrative threads, they just seek to add another prismatic perspective to her kaleidoscopic, surrealistic portraiture. The asymmetry between Blonde and Monroe’s alternate/rivaling personas/identities adds gravitas and tension. It forces us to reterritorialize our relationship and perspective towards an already overblown, hyper-saturated icon. It forces us to question the merit of mythology and the semiotics of iconography. We’re forced to see Marilyn Monroe completely anew — to wonder to what extent her image has always been distilled, distorted, and reframed by politics, fame, and America’s image factory.  

Is this perpendicular narrative agenda its own form of exploitation and injustice? Or is it a subversive  commentary on our western preoccupation with image, narrative, and idolatry? Should we condemn or condone such fictive projections and provocations, when latched onto actual personas? Or should we celebrate the questions they inspire? These are intriguing ethical questions. There’s a lot of grey territory when debating the moral responsibilities of creating fiction about real people (posthumously or not), especially amidst our post-truth landscape. But the current hysteria and outcry for everyone to reject this daring artistic exploration wholesale is simply self-defeating and counterproductive. It is the perilous, knee-jerk response of rampant philistinism. Taking personal offense is permissible; so is critiquing/rejecting a purposefully superficial, pseudo-biopic treatment of an enigmatic idol. But telling others how to interact and respond to film/fiction is downright infantilizing.

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