Blonde: Celebrity Skin

Stack dead actors, stacked to the rafters
Line up the bastards all I want is the truth
Hey hey now can you fake it
Can you make it look like we want
Hey hey now, can you take it
And we cry when they all die blonde


Her want for love was too big for one man. She had it all. She was a prominent socialite and glommed onto any opportunity that would advance her career. Faced an industry built on the back of staggering sexism. The odds were all stacked against her. She got to know the right people. It was a story of bleach blonde hair and heart shaped boxes.

Courtney Love was an enigma. A representation of everything her era of music was about. Then when she did the thing that all the groups of the time represented, it was held against her. When she searched for success, it was some kind of bad thing. Her relationship with men in the industry faltered. There was always an adversarial dynamic. Maybe it was just that Dave Grohl felt it (author of the above lyrics presumably about her and co-stakeholder of the Nirvana estate). Maybe it was true. Maybe her match with The World’s Most Beloved Frontman Kurt Cobain was just a toxic formula. Two people who offered so much but when they were around each other made everyone else so uncomfortable.

They said the men in her life wrote all her lines. Cue up any comparison to women in the history of cinema. They were written by men. Often badly. The way reporters acted like ravenous hawks, picking away at her, upon the death of Cobain. Watch carefully the material in Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck from 2015. Her presence was a tsunami. Cobain’s presence was the same way. He only had to look like he didn’t belong. She looked like she belonged but everyone said she never would. It didn’t matter that Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan wrote some of her songs. The public-facing zoo of rights issues mattered: the drama over how “You Know You’re Right” ought to be released. Whether or not Kurt Cobain should really be a character in a Guitar Hero videogame, creepily playing his and everyone else’s songs from beyond the grave, and whose fault was it that that ever happened?

How we have lived and how we will be remembered matters. What we did to get there is all the past. Courtney Love wrote on Twitter that she had the same measurements as Marilyn Monroe in her prime. Briefly after Cobain’s death, she came back to the movies and seemed to have the right look. The right kind of Celebrity Skin. Perfectly blonde, deeply bleached blonde. The grieving, widowed movie star, now more than ever. How she has shaped the way we remember Cobain is one thing. How we remember her, I think, in a dramatically shifting parable of fame and cautionary tales, and also the right way to be authentically punk and finally age into it, is all something to study.

How you’re reanimated after death matters. Sometimes your life story is written by author and equally eccentric Twitter user Joyce Carol Oates. Sometimes Joyce Carol Oates writes a 700-page door stopper tome about a fantasy version of your life but leaves the grit in. If you’re Courtney Love, you have written it yourself or surrounded yourself with strong writers who can do it for you now. For actors of a certain era, their defining public personas, however, will be posthumous. Like Kurt Cobain’s has been.

Blonde, the new film by Andrew Dominik, is another kind of Montage of Heck. It’s the lengthy cataloging of Hollywood’s most visible love story: of the audience and Marilyn Monroe. Like the Joyce Carol Oates novel, it is also bursting at the seams with over two and a half hours of Content. Because it’s a Netflix movie they do not edit Content. The story is about a very feminine kind of death of the soul, with Marilyn Monroe representing our national obsession with the concept of celebrity at large. As a larger metaphor for fame, Monroe is the most representative example of everything Joyce Carol Oates wanted to write about. The perfect subject. Perhaps it’s not the best book and often falls prey to some of the author’s idiosyncratic tendencies but that’s also why it’s deeply interesting, like a fire that could not be put out.

The film starts with a big fire in the hills of California. It is a monument of abuse and neglect, as we meet Norma Jeane Mortenson (Monroe) pre-Hollywood Persona. Her early life was tough and it’s hard as hell to watch. It’s also the part of the film that adapts with the most reverence for the tonality of the book. Big sweeping images. “Death of the female,” as Oates often awkwardly calls it. In the original pages, it’s pretty smart and well-paced, leading us through how a child is corrupted into someone that requires the love of fame to ever feel loved at all. In the film, it takes this promising early segment, teases the movie you probably wanted it to be, and then mostly focuses on the well-known events of Monroe’s life. You know most of what is going to tell you from there.

There is an ongoing argument in the book that technique is the enemy of passion. Andrew Dominik has accidentally adapted the idea into his process for the film. It’s often beautifully directed. Ana de Armas is perfect, not because she is ever the embodiment of Monroe, but because she is so obviously acting and acting very hard, and the distance between her and her subject is always readable on screen. She takes a brilliant approach. It’s very sweet how her accent pours through the character still and is no bad thing at any point in the film. This is very much Ana de Armas playing Marilyn Monroe and it would not be surprising at all if she garnered awards attention. She’s just right, even when she is wrong, which makes her more fundamentally right, in this instance.

If there is a kind of fundamental wrongness that stays wrong, it is the film’s viewpoint and wider perspective. This is hyper-sexualized fare. Not in any way that it seems to solve the male gaze that it so wants to confront, the film inevitably plays into the ideas it’s trying to deconstruct. Since the breadth of the book is deconstructive and those parts are largely cut for more literalized material about the actress that fits our pre-existing narratives, it takes no narrative risks, but a lot of really dumb big risks about things that are awfully triggering and ought to shock audiences in the wrong way. Sexual smut is not a problem on the face of it. Sex is so important in cinema. It’s sexier, of course, when it’s played like it was in Monroe’s era. But the film wants to show you the sex behind the sex, whether it’s forced, uncomfortable, or politically/career motivated. Just sex all the time. Sex and abortions. Its treatment of fetuses, especially — and big content warning here — is so graphically visceral and so distinctly visualized, that it begins to feel like an unintended pro-life advertisement. We see the baby inside. It gets aborted. Marilyn falls, another baby we’ve grown visually attached to has died. She has a nightmarish abortion forced upon her. All these subjects require a defter sense of the material, especially when shown visually.

Dominik becomes his own worst enemy as the director. Every shot feels like it’s precious of its subject and how it is caring to frame them. Not enough editing is done to eliminate the director’s quirks and stylized darlings, the tropes, and just-for-arts-sake moments that belie the work as a kind of anti/fantasy biopic. The film switches between black and white and color, with both being used with a clear kind of intention. Black and white, of course, remains stunning in theater and messy on Netflix, all the crushed blacks and buffering fragments presiding over the image. It’s a shame it doesn’t get a long theatrical run as it’s another of their movies that requires it. The artistry is there and the acting is there. The Old Hollywood storytelling is interesting, if not entirely responsible. The discrepancies looked over in the book will not be looked over on the screen. Literalizing any material means it finally must be taken to task for all its intrinsic biases and awkward placement of figures around Monroe. An awkward love triangle between the son of Charlie Chaplin and his doppelgänger Edward G. Robinson Jr. is, on screen, the weirdest narrative thread that the film hangs its framing on. What’s normal on the page is absurd on the screen.

The film inevitably forgets to have a strong thesis. It falls into some biopic tropes while breaking others to make its own lane. Nobody is embarrassed here. There remains some steady interest, despite the well-trodden subject that we just cannot stop making media about. When you give everyone your love, they might just keep it forever. The two-thirds of the film really moves and then the back third kind of replays the same arcs in a different way. It was different being married to an athlete and a playwright but the results are deterministic and ultimately the same, which is how the larger film feels: figured out before we get there. It works out that the film is some kind of contentious work. We have to respond to Courtney Love and we have to respond to Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Courtney Love will get the same treatments down the line, besides already getting fragmented stand-in versions like 2018’s Her Smell. Maybe Marilyn Monroe will stop getting them, eventually. This is not any kind of final document. What it does carry is the exhaustion of an industry that exploits celebrity death. The public feels like the grieving is never done, because these strong symbols of what celebrity is and how it all works, are the same symbols used today. Maybe it is better to burn out than to fade away. You either burn out and are remembered forever or fade away and go on your own terms. Perhaps the real grace of Courtney Love is that she is going on her own terms, the way everyone she has studied never got to do. Learn from the past and then leave it behind.


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