marilyn monroe (finally) speaks for herself

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, eds.

To be honest, I had never noticed how prominently books feature in Marilyn Monroe iconography, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to miss.

Apparently, this was no accident, for as Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment ask in their introduction to this volume, do we know of any other actresses from the period who “sometimes took pains to be photographed reading or holding a book?”  And this wasn’t merely a ploy to counter a fast-crystalizing reputation as an airhead, a dumb blonde, a beautiful face with nothing substantial behind it.  As Buchtal and Comment note, Monroe was “passionately fond of literature.”

And what did she read?  Oh, just UlyssesSwann’s Way.  Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  The personal library she left behind included titles by Milton, Flaubert, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Beckett. Never graduating from high school and embarrassed of the fact, as a blossoming starlet she began taking night classes at UCLA in literature and art history (attested to in detailed notes on Italian Renaissance art included in this volume).  She cultivated friendships with Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, to say nothing of her famous marriage to one of America’s foremost playwrights which would certainly have exposed her to the mid-century intelligentsia and literati.

In the decades since her death, it has become widely accepted to think of “Marilyn Monroe” in terms of a binary: Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker.  The luscious blonde sex goddess/the emotionally and mentally fragile woman behind the glamour and wide smile and come-hither gaze.  But with this collection, bringing together a recently unearthed assortment of journals, notes and letters, upsets that binary.  Certainly not the Marilyn of the silver screen, not quite the tragic, victimized off-screen Norma Jeane, a complex woman instead emerges: one who certainly was beautiful, glamorous, and sexy, one who was also emotionally scarred from a traumatic childhood, but one who was also curious and creative and introspective and literary.  A woman who actively pursued a creative and artistic life.  A woman who was by no means “just a dumb blonde.”


It’s not that I read every line of this book; in fact, after a while I read very little, instead opting to look at the carefully reproduced pages, studying the erratic handwriting, scattershot layout and curious spelling mistakes (Marilyn probably had some form of dyslexia).  It’s not that the poetry is good, and is probably of interest mostly to those willing to dutifully scour it for clues to her psyche and psychological makeup (I am definitely not one of those people).  To be honest, most of this is the type of scrawling that should be read by nobody but its creator; coming from different circumstances, this is not stuff that would be fit to publish.  But, of course, legends and icons are a different situation altogether.

Because really the quality, even the content itself is beside the point: this is Marilyn/Norma Jeane in her own words, speaking for herself.  And it’s been a long time coming.

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literary left bank ladies

Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900 – 1940 by Shari Benstock

As I said in my initial Goodreads status update tracking my progress reading this book, “I had intended to skim, but that quickly proved to be an impossibility,” as almost instantly I was engrossed by this group of utterly fascinating women—fiercely intelligent, unapologetically complex, sometimes contradictory, but each in their own diverse ways dedicated to the artistic life, in the process often turning in very real ways life itself into an artistic statement.  Utilizing both biography and literary analysis—and demonstrating how often these factors intimately intertwine—Benstock attempts to sketch the ambiguous boundaries of the vibrant Parisian Left Bank community as it functioned during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Benstock’s task is an admittedly daunting one: the first comprehensive study of its kind, it is not particularly surprising that as the chapters progress one begins to get the impression that Benstock is struggling to retain control of her material in light of its obvious potential to branch out infinitely, and the first few chapters function as marvelous portraits of a number of women and/or pairings (romantic, professional and often both at once), most particularly those dedicated to Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney and the coterie of women circling her.  Once she gets to the substantial chapter on H.D., however (included in this study rather tenuously as she intensely disliked Paris and actively avoided spending time there), Benstock is attempting to weave into this histiocultural narrative the stories and accomplishments of a number of individuals, and often these attempts fail to do their subjects justice.  Aside from H.D.’s odd inclusion in this study and much space devoted to Colette (undoubtedly a crucial player in this world, but not an expatriate), exactly who and what is excluded is also rather curious: Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness barely warrant a few passing mentions, and a number of names listed on the cover (Kay Boyle, Caresse Crosby, Maria Jolas and Solita Solano and several others) collectively receive less analysis than, say, the paintings of Romaine Brooks, a topic supposedly outside the scope of study.

But such problems are minor compared to what Benstock does accomplish, which on the one hand is bringing these various women’s life stories to vivid life, and on the other providing a much-needed countering voice to the heterosexual masculine (and extremely romanticized) depiction of the expatriate life as depicted in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the text which has almost singlehandedly defined this period in the popular imagination.  Benstock also does important work in being part of the movement to reexamine and completely reinterpret the literary work of Stein, Barnes, Barney, H.D., Nancy Cunard and others, proclaiming their central importance in any analysis of the Modernist literary movement, defying the condescending marginalization this work has traditionally received by creating spaces of “alternative Modernisms.”  What I most appreciated, however, was how Benstock directly confronts the ways in which the writing of these women resists easy canonical assimilation, and attempts to take into account the ways in which very little of the collective artistic output that was created present a clear, unproblematic case studies for feminist study and discourse.  Benstock recognizes this, and it makes her analysis and the portrait of a place and time all the more richly observed.

The documentary Paris Was a Woman (Greta Schiller, UK, 1995) provides a nice cliffnote-type accompaniment to this (admittedly hefty) volume, with archival footage, photographs and films which provide a brief but tantalizing taste of the period (with Benstock and several other scholars she prominently quotes throughout Women of the Left Bank providing context and analysis).  Not an adequate substitute by any stretch of the imagination, but a nicely realized introduction and/or supplement.

Excerpt on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on YouTube:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads.

innocence(?)

Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Memories of a Movie:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads

new directions (for now)

That Memories of the Future has once again lapsed into a state of dormancy for so long has been a pesky matter of annoyance for some time now.  I have finally had to face the fact that ever since I made film a formal academic pursuit I have been unable to muster up much enthusiasm to write about and review film “for fun” in any kind of sustained manner.

What I have found, however, is that my reviewing energies haven’t necessarily evaporated, they’ve just changed.  As it now stands, nearly everything I write not meant to be part of a thesis or turned in for a grade revolves around the books I read, which in retrospect is something which should not have particularly surprised me, as the reverse was exactly the case when I was getting a literature degree.  I have been a active member of the Goodreads community for some time now, and as such most of my “unofficial” writing has been inspired by and posted there.  Which is something that has been increasingly alarming me—as I have found over the years with all of the postings I made in my first blog over at Rotten Tomatoes, entrusting one’s writing to another website is a foolhardy position to put oneself in, especially if one is interested in retaining such things as a record as some kind.  And while I’m completely happy with how Goodreads currently runs their site, I recognize that might not always be the case.

So basically I’ve decided to begin posting the thoughts on my reading here, and cross-posting it on Goodreads.  As such, I will not only have more control over the content, but who knows, maybe getting in the habit of blogging once again will inspire some more cinematic-minded posting again as well, especially since so much of my reading is necessarily cross-pollinated by my current cinematic preoccupations…