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22 Jan

New York
This is unlike me, but I want to talk about Brooklyn, the movie, without having read the book. I almost always like the book better than the movie, with the exception of maybe The Notebook. But it’s Oscar season and I’m in a movie sort of mood.

Let me set the stage for the sort of mindset I was in when I saw Brooklyn. It was zero degrees on a Milwaukee Sunday (that was the high temperature). I didn’t have any plans and was alone for the day (my husband, Sam, is finishing med school and has been working nonstop this month). So, in a way, I was liberated! I could do anything!

My initial plan was to bunker down under mounds of blankets and not leave the Brooklyn the movieapartment, but cabin fever set in and I decided to venture downtown to see Brooklyn, a love story that Sam had expressed no interest in seeing. I walk into the quaint old Milwaukee theater, Downer Theater, for the matinee, bought myself a popcorn (which I rarely do), and found a seat in the surprisingly crowded theater at 1pm.

What I love about the film is the relatability of the characters: their desires, their dreams, their love, and the simplicity of the story itself. This is the story of a girl who falls in love in a new place and has to make some tough decisions about home and duty and desire.

When I say simple, I mean it in the most beautiful, most universal sort of way. The movie digs deep into human desires we all have. Universal desires to be near and help people we love, to establish a sense of home and belonging, to love and be loved. Through Eilis’ story, the movie draws out these desires in every audience member, because, in the end, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Home, belonging, love.

Sometimes I think that because my life is so relatively easy, at least compared to Eilis’s and the decisions she’s forced to make, I make problems where there are none. Instead of being happy with the way things are, I get caught up in the narcissistic struggle to do something “great.” It’s not enough (or it hasn’t been) to work and live and love modestly. I feel like I need all of that and more. I want to be recognized and to be able to do something that means something (whatever that is). I’m not saying wanting those things is inherently wrong. Brooklyn just emphasized that I could be present with what I have today instead of wallowing in dissatisfaction and always wanting more.

One of the movie reviews I read said something like, “If you don’t leave the theater with a smile on your face, you did something wrong. Go back and watch it again.” Walking out of the theater alone into the sunny sub-zero Milwaukee day, I was smiling. Not because the movie was all laughs and happiness, but because I had been given permission, at least for today, to be content. At least today, I thought, my life, the career I’m building, the city I live in, and people around me, are enough.


Llewyn Davis: The Hard Working, Talented, Failed Musician

29 Apr


Greenwich Villiage, 1961. I can hardly think of a more idealized creative space for a starving artist. And I can hardly think of a better starving artist character than Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) in the Coen brother’s most recent film Inside Llewyn Davis. 

Llewyn, while not exactly a likable character, is the sort of character you want to succeed  because of his pure vision of music and art and his “stop at nothing” drive to succeed by pursuing it. When it comes to sticking to your guns and working toward your dreams no matter what sort of unpleasantness you have to go through, he is a stronger person than I. He is poor, essentially homeless, and lives from day to day, moment to moment. You could say he lives only for his craft and because of that possesses more self awareness and courage than most wannabe artists.

On the other hand, you could also say he’s an idealistic asshole who mooches off his friends and family with no concern for anyone or anything but himself.

What makes the film so interesting is Llewyn’s character, which is so fluid you can’t really decide which side you’re on. He’s not likable.  You probably wouldn’t want to be friends with him. But you want him to succeed–maybe because he reminds you of you and your own unfulfilled artistic dreams.

I was watching the movie with my fiancé, Sam, and at one point he turned to me and said, “He’d be the worst sort of friend.” I think part of what was behind Sam’s comment was the fact that neither of us would have the guts to rely on other people for so much. Does that mean we’ve taken the easy road? Or that we’ve been responsible? Maybe both.

Part of what makes Llewyn’s character simultaneously dislikable and admirable is his refusal to conform to anyone’s standards of pure art, even when that means insulting those who aren’t like him or missing out on money making opportunities in the music industry.

For example, in a conversation with Jean (played by Carey Mulligan),  he accuses her and her partner Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) of:

 “trying to blueprint your lives. Move to the suburbs. Have kids.”

“That’s bad?” she responds.

“If music is a way for you to get to that place, then yeah. It’s a little careerist. It’s a little square. And it’s a little sad.”

Llewyn refuses to compromise his vision of pure folk music, even though a little compromise might mean the difference between “making it” and not in the music business. And he looks down on his friends who do conform to industry standards.

Another condescending example of Llewyn’s idealism is during a conversation with his sister. She suggests that he take a break from music and return to the merchant Navy to which he responds “is merely to ‘exist.’

She says: “Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad.”

A brilliant response, I think.

The awful truth, which Llewyn shows us, is that people inside show business merely have to exist too. They have to figure out a way to make it while still existing and surviving and living independent and productive lives.

The New York Times review of the film points out a rarely spoken, but commonly experience truth:

“Hard work and talent do not always triumph in the end.”

Sometimes–probably more often than we like to admit–people have the work ethic and the passion and even the talent, but, for whatever reason, they don’t make it. No matter how much they practice and will themselves to succeed, art sometimes just needs that little bit of luck or magic or unspeakable spark that you either have or you don’t.

Whatever it is that separates the artists that make it from the ones that don’t , the Coen brothers pull on the heart strings of every wannabe musician, writer, and artist, and exploit their fear that sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s never going to happen.

The bitterness of this point is driven home at the end of the film when the movie literally comes full circle and we find Llewyn back where he started, and as he walks out to the alley where we all know he’ll get the shit beat out of him, we hear Bob Dylan playing “Farewell” at the Gaslight in the background.


How Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blonde” Gives Life to Norma Jeane’s Tragedy

23 Oct

Whatever isn’t in the spotlight isn’t observed 

Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel, Blonde, captures the life of Norma Jeane Baker and wraps it in a story so compelling and tragic it’s hard to look away. The winding novel forces the reader to look beyond Marilyn Monroe’s beautiful smile and voluptuous body to see the raw Norma Jeane under the surface. It excoriates Hollywood, probes sexism and sexuality, and explores the loneliness of never fully understanding or knowing oneself. It was one of those books you want to start reading again as soon as you finish because you know you missed so much (alas, curiosity for other books and a renew limit at the library prevented me from turning back to page one).

IMG_0351Oates has a stunning ability to blend fact and fiction. Because you know that Norma Jeane was a real person–you’ve seen the pictures, you’ve seen the movies, you’ve heard the rumors–you want to read the novel as a biography. Oates preludes the book, however, with an author’s note explaining explicitly that the book is not a biography.

Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation. In place of numerous foster homes in which the child Norma Jeane lived,…Blonde explores only one, and that fictitious; in place of numerous lovers, medical crises, abortions and suicide attempts and screen performances, Blonde explores only a selected, symbolic few.”

In order to affirm that this is not a biographical account, Oates even recommends biographies for readers interested in a factual rendition of the actress’s life:

  • Legend: the Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe–Fred Guiles, 1985
  • Goddess: the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe–Anthony Summers, 1986
  • Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress–Carl E. Rollyson, Jr., 1986
  • And more subjective books on Monroe as a mythic figure: Marilyn Monroe  by Graham McCann, 1987 and Marilyn by Norman Mailer, 1973.

If you’ll notice, all of the listed biographies are written by men. Not that this is inherently problematic. But I can’t help but think, based on the themes of female subordination and male ownership throughout the novel, that this selection of biographies and authors is no accident. Even after her death, men determine how Norma Jeane will be remembered.

In addition, all of these biographies are about Marilyn Monroe as the titles reveal, which, as we see in Blonde, is more of an alter ego than an actual person. Oates seems intent on portraying the life of Norma Jeane Baker, albeit a fictional portrayal. In an interview with New York Times, she claims: “Actually I never wanted to write about Marilyn Monroe. It was something that happened to me, the way her life happened to Norma Jeane. To me she’s always Norma Jeane.”

Marilyn and Men

“Oates sees Monroe as a powerful, instinctual actress sabotaged and tortured by a man’s world that both coveted and despised her body.” NYTimes review 

The first man to make an appearance in the novel is Norma Jeane’s absent father. He’s not a character so much as an idea. On her sixth birthday, Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys Mortenson (later committed to a mental hospital), reveals a portrait of a man, claiming “this is your father, Norma Jeane. And someday he’ll come back for us.” This moment and the theme of the absent father permeates the rest of the novel. Norma Jeane is plagued with the idea that her father is alive, but hasn’t come back for her. As a result of never receiving the parental love she so craves, Norma Jeane seems to search for love from whomever she meets. And, not surprisingly, men seem the most eager to give it to her–only often, it doesn’t look much like love.

Throughout the progression of the novel, we see Norma Jeane bounce from one man to the next, searching for love. In her first marriage, she searches for love in her new family-in-law. After she’s divorced and discovered by the photographer Otto Ose, she searches for love and acceptance in Hollywood. She finds love and loses it over and over in the novel. She’s married to the “Ex-Athlete” and the “Playwright,” neither of whom can give her the love for which she’s been looking. She looks for love from the president even though she knows she is no more than a piece of meat to him (I’ve never seen a more ugly portrayal of JFK. But, hey, it is fiction, right? I found myself wondering…)

“Even the men who loved Monroe, like Miller, Oates says, martyred her to an idealized and therefore truncated vision of the eternal feminine: Marilyn as a fountain of simple sweetness in a poisoned landscape, Marilyn as rescue object.” NY times review

“I’m fighting for my life”

The final place Marilyn looks for love is in the movies, in her acting, in her fans. She acts, not because she wants to, but because she feels she has to.

“Maybe she was fighting for her life, but he wasn’t”

“Maybe you for the money. Me, I’m fighting for my life.”

Similar to Sylvia Plath’s famous lines about writing–“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still”–Norma Jeane can’t not act.

Lines stating she is fighting for her life are interspersed throughout the novel. Norma Jeane isn’t just acting for the money, or even because she loves the profession. She turns into Marilyn because she’s fighting for her life. I’m still wrestling with what this means exactly. How does acting save Marilyn’s life? Or how does she think it does?

Who is Norma JeMarilyn_Monroe_in_Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_trailerane?

My best conclusion is that acting gave Norma Jeane a chance to reinvent herself into someone new. Norma Jeane’s first reinvention is, of course, Marilyn Monroe. The difference between sweet, innocent, orphan Norma Jeane and sexpot, pinup Marilyn Monroe is exaggerated throughout the novel. In addition, with each new character Marilyn takes on, she morphs into that person. Some directors even said she couldn’t act because she actually became the characters she was playing. There was no “acting” involved.

So in the end, Norma Jeane Baker becomes hidden under layers of characters. She insists people who meet her outside of acting call her Norma Jeane or Norma because that’s who she “really is.” But by the end, does she even know who she really is? Perhaps she’s acting to save her life because without the multitude of characters she plays in the movies, she’s no one. She has no idea who she really is and without her escape into someone else, she simply wouldn’t exist.

Why we Love Her

Okay, so I’ll say it: Norma Jeane, or Marilyn Monroe, or whoever she is is crazy in Blonde. She’s difficult as an actress and as a woman, she’s illogical and needy and not necessarily the sort of person you’d like to fall in love with. But, for some reason, you do love her. Blonde is a true tragedy because you know what’s going to happen and you want to stop it because you feel like you love Marilyn. You see her mistreated by The Studio and by men and you want to punish them because Marilyn deserves better!

“Blonde,” of course, is anything but a feel-good book. It’s eccentric, exhausting — and remarkable. Part horror, part melodrama, part wildly adventurous meditation, it sees in the dark — the way we all do at the movies — holding the remembered and cherished image in our eyes while we wait for the shutter to open and the frame to advance.”  Marilyn from Within

Help help!

Oates claims that the only words she took directly from Norma Jeane’s diaries were “Help help!” which she adds to, forming the poem, “Help help! / Help I feel Life coming closer.”

I finished the novel feeling defeated, like there’s so much in the world that I can’t stop–so much out of my control. So much was out of Norma Jeane’s control. It makes you wonder, are any of us really in control?

Needless to say, I’ll think of Marilyn differently from now on. Whenever I see her portrait at a poster store, or someone dressed up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween, I’ll think of this book and the tragedy of Norma Jeane.

And the sad part is, it doesn’t matter at all what I think. The treasure is still lost.

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