Social Distortion: Weegee's Marilyn
Andrew Dominik's "Blonde" Through The Lens of Weegee's Crime Photography
Unfortunately, I am still thinking about the catastrophic and grotesque disaster that is Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, his long-gestating adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s book of the same name, itself a fictionalized account of the life and career of Marilyn Monroe. Neither are straight biography, and even if they were no biography (including autobiography) will ever be free from some mythologizing of the life at its center. That’s what storytelling, art, photography - and memories - are: a distortion of reality.
What bothers me so much about this film is not necessarily that it takes liberties with Marilyn Monroe’s life story, rather it is the manner in which those liberties are taken, the way the film is constructed, and how at its core it is nothing more than a rotten distillation of her as a concept, rather than portrait of her as a complex person.
If anything, the film has inspired several wonderful pieces of critical writing and film journalism, two of which helped me crystallize why the film’s exceedingly stylized cinematography — and its over-reliance on the aesthetics of one of the midcentury’s most iconic photographers in particular — is so exasperating.
In her review of the film for Film Comment, Jessica Kiang expertly discusses one of the film’s biggest artistic failings. That is, how it appropriates stylistic flourishes from photographs of Marilyn’s life, seemingly without any real purpose:
it’s unclear if we are supposed to understand that there’s a photo shoot going on, with Marilyn performing for the camera, or if these scenes are meant as candid little slices of Monroe’s life. This confusion is surely intentional, but the inference—that the private Marilyn looked and behaved a lot like the public, photo-icon Marilyn—deals a death blow to the idea that Blonde is about the woman behind the image, or in the film’s vernacular, the Norma Jeane behind the Marilyn Monroe. For the Marilyn aficionado, there is only image here, no insight.
An eviscerating interview by Christina Newland for Sight & Sound appears to hold the under-baked answer to why these stylistic choices just don’t work. When asked why he chose to recreate these images at all, his answer is filled with the same pseudo–intellectual infantilization that he brings to the rest of the film:
So, the image of her and Arthur Miller at the window is a romantic image, but in the film, it’s kind of ugly. She’s trapped in our memory of her and trying to break out of it. It’s a movie about the unconscious. And we only know as much as she does because she’s essentially living an unexamined life.
When further probed about the haphazard way in which the film changes aspect ratios and from color to stark black-and-white, he replied:
There’s no story sense to it. It’s just based on the photographs. So if a photograph was, you know, four by three, then we do it four by three. There’s no logic to it, other than to try to know her life, visually.
There’s something disgustingly patronizing in idea that Marilyn Monroe had absolutely no autonomy in the many staged photographs that are recreated in the film - especially given her business relationship and long-standing friendship with photographer Milton H. Greene. Not to mention the insinuation that she lived an “unexamined life” - given her study of Method acting and the many, many years she spent under analysis. This idea that Marilyn had no understanding of her own self, it seems, is the reason behind many of the director’s artistic choices.
But it isn’t the lack of respect for her creative collaborations with photographers like Greene that has stuck with me the most since I watched the film. Instead, there is another photographer whose work is referenced in the film that I can’t stop thinking about: Weegee, real name Arthur Fellig, whose stark black and white photographs of crime scenes from the first half of the century helped usher in the era of tabloid photojournalism. Like his contemporary Robert Frank, Weegee captured an era of New York City in all its glamour—and its grit.
Weegee wasn’t just a photographer, he was a showman and a salesman. He knew that he’d get more money for photographs of the social elite and for the grisliest of crimes than he would for ordinary people in ordinary situations. One of his most famous photographs - “The Critic” - was actually staged by the photographerin order to create a juxtaposition between known socialites (Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies) and an unnamed woman he pulled out of a bar. In staging the key element of the photograph, reality and fiction are distorted, the unknown woman now a vessel for the story Weegee wanted to tell. Sound familiar?
Weegee would take this idea of distorted reality even further with his doctored images of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, warping them ever so slightly, enough so that they feel off but remain recognizable. Although they aren’t considered among Weegee’s finest work, they do ask us to consider what iconography really means. In a sense, that’s what Dominik’s Blonde does with Marilyn, but the writer-director goes beyond just distortion of iconic imagery, instead choosing to pulverize that imagery, and to make his Monroe nothing but a vessel who suffers and bleeds. A corpse, reanimated just to be destroyed again.
Weegee, best known as “the official photographer for Murder Inc.,” said of his penchant to photograph murder victims:
Now the easiest kind of a job to cover is a murder, because the stiff will be laying on the ground, he couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours. So I had plenty of time.
The contrast created by his use of flashbulbs adds a stylish eeriness to most of his famous images and makes their impact hard to shake. These glamorous photographs of crime scenes remain beguiling because they remind us of our fascination with death. It’s no wonder then that it’s this kind of high contrast black and white photography that Dominik often apes throughout Blonde. In the same Sight & Sound interview, the director reveals that Marilyn Monroe as a person who “killed herself” is the “most important thing” about his view of her.
Weegee once said his greatest ambition would be to photograph a murder as it happened. I thought of this during the sequence in Blonde where Dominik positions the camera inside Marilyn’s cervix during a forced abortion. Apparently the director felt the only way to understand how continually being violated over and over, physically and mentally, wore Marilyn down, was to violate her again by proxy.
Weegee didn’t ever actually photograph a murder as it happened. I guess he never realized he could have just made a film.
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Her death was most likely an accidental overdose, but even if she did die by suicide, defining her whole life by that is both cruel and a complete misunderstanding of mental illness.