On Marilyn in "The Misfits""

Marilyn Monroe with Montgomery Clift in The Misfits.

There is no sadder or more haunting performance by Marilyn Monroe than the one she gives in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), her final completed film before her death the following year.  As Roslyn, everything about the Marilyn persona—the cooing voice, the sexy-baby-doll shtick—gets stripped away to reveal the raw nerves beneath.  The Marilyn of The Misfits is almost scarily quiet and spare.  There are moments when she’s happy, laughing, playing with dogs, but these too have an eerie fatalism to them.  I am continually pulled back to the scene where she begins to process the realization that the wild mustangs her lover Gay (Clark Gable) intends to round up and sell are to be slaughtered (see below).  She lies on her side throughout the scene with her back to Gable, her voice small and full of a child’s confusion.  She barely moves or speaks above a whisper.  It is as if we are watching a small piece of her soul die.      

With Gable.

Many have noted that all of The Misfits feels deathly, mordant.  It was not only Monroe’s last film but also Gable’s and Montgomery Clift’s.  (Gable died just twelve days after shooting finished.)  When Gable and Monroe drive off into the night in the final shots with the north star as their guide, it’s impossible not to see them as driving into nothingness—already ghosts.  Roslyn, earlier: “We’re all dying, aren’t we?  Every minute.”  And Roslyn again, to Gay, in reference to the rodeo rider Perce (Clift) being thrown from a bull while drunk: “What if he’d died?  It would be terrible!”  Gay: “Honey, we all gotta go sometime.” 

Driving off into the darkness.

In many ways Roslyn is an iteration of the private Marilyn, the dark shadow behind the blonde comedienne, well known to the film’s screenwriter (and Monroe’s soon-to-be ex-husband) Arthur Miller.  Roslyn is Marilyn as little-girl-lost: dreamy, wounded, fragile, doomed never to find happiness.  (This, too, would ossify into part of the Marilyn myth—a facet, like the dumb blonde or the sex kitten, that fails to tell the whole story, as Kim Morgan recently observed in an interview for the podcast The Cinephiliacs.)  Like the troubled Marilyn on-set, Roslyn runs late and can’t remember the “lines” she’s supposed to deliver in divorce court.  We learn that she used to dance in a burlesque house, and Gable has cheesecake pinups of her in his closet that may as well be shots from Monroe’s own career as a model.  

The pin-ups: "Don't look at those--they're nothing!  Gay just hung 'em up for a joke."

Earlier Monroe films like The Seven-Year Itch (1955) played on this extra-diagetic information to winking, comic effect; The Misfits plays it straight.  It asks us to see Monroe in her suffering—not as a victim, exactly, but as a lost soul.  It’s my favorite of her performances because it exactly taps into the vulnerable quality to which the comedies are mostly oblivious.  All of Monroe’s films make me want to cry, even the funny ones, but The Misfits makes me cry because it’s the only one that dares to look her dead in the face—at the sadness and the longing—without a laugh to soften the impact.        


The Films of 2016: The Fits

In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, eleven-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends her afternoons helping her brother at the boxing gym where he works, a little slip of a girl with a face so serious it looks like it’s been cut out of stone.  In a room across the hall, members of a competitive dance team practice a hip-hop routine.  The divisions between the two spaces could not be more stark: the boxing gym is an almost exclusively male environment where teenage boys spar with and josh one another, while the high-femme world of the dancers (nearly all of whom are high-school-age girls) is one of nail polish, lipstick, and sequined costumes.  Toni stands poised between the two, gazing in at both with some uncertainty about which one she ought to belong to.  She eventually defects from the boxing gym to the dance team, where she strikes up tentative new friendships with several of the other new recruits.  And then “the fits” begin—convulsive spells that temporarily render the girls breathless, as inexplicable as they are sudden. 


Marty flying high

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator.

“Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is the unthinkable—a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that’s still hugely entertaining and shows impeccable craft […] easily [Scorsese’s] best film in over ten years.”  So I wrote after first seeing the film over Christmas of 2004, when it sky-rocketed to the top of everyone’s Oscar predictions (only to be upset a week later by Clint Eastwood’s late-breaking Million Dollar Baby).  At the time I responded most strongly to the energy and panache of Scorsese’s direction, which renders the golden age of Hollywood as both romantic dream and Gothic nightmare, and to the bravura performance of Cate Blanchett, who manages to capture Katharine Hepburn’s vigor and athleticism as well as her tenderness and cunning. 


The Films of 2016: O.J.: Made in America

Out of the summer-movie doldrums a masterpiece emerges: Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour O.J.: Made in America, which played to favorable notices at Sundance and was subsequently picked up by ESPN (it’s now available for streaming through ESPN.com).  It seems obvious that no one knew how best to distribute this property, which must have seemed too unwieldy and not commercially viable enough to book theatrically but risks becoming lost in basic-cable purgatory.  I hope that it doesn’t fall through the cracks, because it’s a magnificent piece of documentary filmmaking, gripping and smart and hugely ambitious.  Ostensibly a biographical portrait of the life and career of O.J. Simpson, the film is about so much more—namely, the toxic confluence of events that led to Simpson’s acquittal of the charge of double homicide in 1995. 


In defense of...

The assassin takes aim in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

The 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much has never enjoyed much of a reputation; even Hitchcock aficionados seem to agree that within his canon it’s second- or even third-tier stuff, with many avowing a preference for the original British version of the film (made by Hitchcock himself in 1934).  In both cases the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the second version of which has to do with the efforts of an American couple (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) to recover their kidnapped son and thwart an assassination plot, never feels particularly compelling.  It could be argued that Hitchcock rarely felt a personal connection to the plots of his films and that he treated nearly all of them as formal exercises, in which case The Man Who Knew Too Much can be seen as a series of set pieces strung together by a mostly inconsequential story.  In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock implies that the 1956 film was his attempt to prove, as much to himself as to his audience, how much his craftsmanship had improved since 1934; he called the remake the work of a professional and dismissed the original as the work of an amateur.  To whit: he seems to have viewed the film as a technical challenge more than anything.


"Everything interested him": On Chris Marker and paying attention

One of the Bissau-Guinean subjects of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983).
“You’re seduced [by Sans Soleil] because you are so much in and out of the film […] your capacity for attention or inattention is at the center of this film in a different way than any other film can have.  In other films, if you’re inattentive it’s because you’re bored; here you’re attentive or inattentive for other reasons.  It’s like the miracle of floating attention.  It has moments where you blank out, moments where you get surprised because suddenly you have looked at your shoe and you were in Japan and now you’re in Africa.  With Chris, you look at this stuff, you take the detour and you come back […] You have a sense that you haven’t finished yet with it and the film hasn’t yet finished with you.”  --Jean-Pierre Gorin
Re-watching the late Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) this week on Blu-ray I was reminded of how dense and challenging a film it is.  Even describing it poses problems: it’s a documentary, an experimental film, a piece of critical theory, a visual essay about culture and information and environments in the postmodern era.  Marker’s method is something like collage, cutting together footage of Tokyo with footage of Guinea-Bissau, with occasional detours to Iceland and San Francisco.  All the while a female narrator reads text in voice-over, supposedly extracts from letters received from a cameraman named Sandor Krasna (who is really just another one of Marker’s many alter egos).  The effect is dizzying, overwhelming, and often tiring, like trying to read a collection of essays by Walter Benjamin or Frederic Jameson in a single sitting.  (Perhaps it would be best divided up and watched in segments?)  Watching an interview with Gorin included on the Criterion edition of the film, I was amazed to hear him describe the same viewing experience that has befallen me both times I’ve sat down with Sans Soleil.  Marker’s attention span is so voracious, and his train of thought so circuitous, that it seems best to give up trying to stay on top of the film at all times.  Better to relax your attention, let your mind wander, allow for free-association and daydreaming.  Wandering, free-associating, and daydreaming are, after all, what Marker himself does in the film. 


In memoriam: Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016

From Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990).

The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami died today.  I came late to Kiarostami’s work; in the late 1990s, when a single review by Roger Ebert was enough to convince me to check out or stay away from a film, Ebert's pan of Kiarostami's Palme d’Or-winning Taste of Cherry (1997) killed any interest I might have otherwise had in seeing it.  And then Entertainment Weekly went on to pan The Wind Will Carry Us (2000) in a withering capsule review a couple of years later.  So it wasn’t until I was finally made to watch Taste of Cherry for a film class in college in 2004 that I began to reckon with him.  I watched the film in my dorm room with a group of half-interested acquaintances, none of them cinephiles.  When it was over one of them expressed his annoyance: “what the hell was that?”  (This was, to be fair, his response to almost everything that was not an episode of 24.)  Another one of us said she liked it—that the main character, a cab driver, was sweet, and the ending a happy one, in its own way, considering that it hinges on his suicide.  I wasn’t so sure what to think about it.  But it did seem clear to me right away that Ebert’s one-star dismissal was kind of harsh. 


Mommy issues

Matthew Barry and Jill Clayburgh in La Luna (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1979).

In an effort to deepen my knowledge of the films of Bernardo Bertolucci I checked out his debut feature La Commare Secca (1962) earlier this week along with La Luna (1979), a film that has a reputation for being something of a flop.  Watching it I could see why, and yet I liked La Luna quite a bit.  As is the case even with Bertolucci’s masterpieces (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris), it’s already too much from the start, and then it goes further: the Oedipal saga of a teenage boy and his recently widowed mother (Jill Clayburgh), an American opera singer preparing to appear in an Italian production of Un Ballo in Maschera, the film sports incest, drug addiction, Verdi…and the Bee Gees.  And yet Bertolucci’s investment in this material never seems less than pure; he takes all of it seriously, and I, for one, was willing to accept it on his terms. 


"Barry Lyndon": An ironic Romanticism

The opening shot.

My sense is that Barry Lyndon (1975) continues to occupy a state of under-appreciation within the filmography of Stanley Kubrick—that it’s thought of as inferior not only to 2001 and Dr. Strangelove but also to A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket and so belongs somewhere in the bottom tier of Kubrick’s corpus, a film too lugubrious and not violent enough to hold the attention of his fanboys.  As a young fanboy gorging myself on Kubrick’s work in the late 1990s I myself had little patience with Barry Lyndon, which seemed to me to lack the madness and terror that made the other films so provocative and exciting.  (When I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.)  I’ve since come to appreciate Barry Lyndon as one of Kubrick’s very finest films.  It’s almost certainly his prettiest; nearly every shot could function by itself as a Romantic painting.  But I’ve also come to recognize that it’s every bit as gripping—and as loony—as anything else he ever made.  Barry Lyndon looks like a prestige picture, but its tone, pacing, and rhythm strike me as downright experimental.  (It’s a bait-and-switch move that Paul Thomas Anderson would later repeat in There Will Be Blood.)  A viewer expecting a traditional costume drama in the Merchant-Ivory vein is certain to be disappointed with Barry Lyndon, which, for all its superficial differences, is much closer to The Shining than Tom Jones