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The Empty Spectacle of Marilyn Monroe’s Fantasy Fetus

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In “Blonde,” the director Andrew Dominik’s fever-dream fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s life, Monroe (Ana de Armas) gets pregnant in a celestial fantasy sequence. As she swigs champagne on the beach together with her two lovers, the celebs above them realign into an expanse of wiggly sperm. Cue gestational montage! A clump of cells appears. A pulsating embryo sprouts, resembling a gelatinous crimson shrimp. Soon a beatific, photorealistic fetus is floating in a sparkling peach brine, its fully articulated form dappled in inexplicable rays of sunshine.

Monroe is lured into aborting that pregnancy, but when she conceives a second time, her sentient fetus reappears. Now, it’s telepathic. “You won’t hurt me this time, will you?” the fetus asks Monroe. “You’re not the identical baby,” she whispers toward her own belly. The fetus replies: “That was me. It’s at all times me.”

Marilyn Monroe’s chatty, regenerating fetus — she calls it “Baby” — has emerged as a scene-stealing sensation. Critics have called it “goofy,” “despicable” and “cruel.” Some have even pegged it as inadvertently propagandistic — this mode of fetal puppetry is a well-recognized anti-abortion gimmick. But Monroe’s dialogue together with her pregnancy, which originated within the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel on which the film relies, can be a product of the star’s troubled self-conception, and in that context, the fetus’s corny, sanctimonious message makes a form of sense. What’s jarring is the contemporary look of the fetus: a schlocky, seemingly computer-generated figure that recalls pop-culture fantasy images invented long after Monroe’s death. It’s a rendering so lazy, it suggests a stubborn incuriosity about how Monroe would have actually experienced her pregnancies, at the same time as the film presents them as character-defining events.

Pregnancy can encourage profound acts of projection. The fetus, an unseen body within a body, suspended between nonexistence and existence, is defined by parental expectation and cultural imagination. It’s the personification of a mother’s desires and fears, her sublimated anxieties and internalized judgments. And the Monroe of “Blonde” has loads of issues to solid onto a prospective baby. Abandoned by her father and abused by her mother in childhood, she has turn out to be world famous as an infantilized sex object who calls all of her lovers “Daddy.” Her ventriloquized fetus is voiced by the kid actor (Lily Fisher) who plays Monroe as somewhat girl, when she was still Norma Jeane. When Monroe communicates together with her fetus, she is talking, with pity and loathing, to herself.

What I can’t understand is why the thing looks the way in which that it does. In putting the fetus on display, Dominik has made a tediously literal try to depict Monroe’s interior life. But why would Monroe, within the early Nineteen Fifties, imagine her fetus in the shape of a C.G.I. baby? Why would her visualization of pregnancy resemble the smooth-skinned, preternaturally glowing fetus that appears, 70 years later, within the pregnancy app on my iPhone?

The maternal imagination is just not, in any case, a spontaneous soul connection. It’s a historical construction, one informed by the aesthetics, politics and technology of the time wherein the pregnancy occurs. And the magic unborn in “Blonde” is an ahistoric imposition — a picture that feels plucked from the narrow imagination of a contemporary male director. On the time of Monroe’s first pregnancy within the film’s version of her life, fetal imagery was a rudimentary fascination. Photographs published in Life magazine within the Nineteen Fifties included black-and-white images of a squid-like translucent embryo and skeletal fetal stays. The vision of the fetus in “Blonde” — spectacularly well lit, fused with cosmic imagery, presented as a free-floating independent being — was not developed until after Monroe’s death. It has its roots in a 1965 Life magazine spread, “Drama of Life Before Birth,” by the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson.

For the magazine, Nilsson produced a series of photos of sperm, embryos and fetuses representing the stages of human gestation. Though the duvet subject is advertised as a “Living 18-week-old fetus shown inside its amniotic sac,” a note inside clarifies, “This embryo was photographed just after it needed to be surgically faraway from its mother’s womb,” a process it “didn’t survive.” Nilsson was celebrated for capturing “living” fetuses inside their “natural habitat” (women), but he largely photographed the lifeless products of surgical abortions and miscarriages, which he then submerged in aquariums, lit sumptuously, staged to seem as in the event that they were floating amid starry skies, and shot at a remove.

Nilsson’s photographic tricks obliterated any trace of an actual woman’s body. The pictures, published at the peak of the space race, were constructed as alien, analogized to galactic exploration and coded as masculine. One image of a 13-week fetus, which looks as whether it is nestled inside a nebula, is titled “Spaceman.” Life quotes “a number one Swedish gynecologist” who declares: “That is just like the first have a look at the back side of the moon.”

The Life feature would profoundly influence the aesthetics of each anti-abortion activists and the director Stanley Kubrick, whose model of the Star Child in his 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was partially based on Nilsson’s shots. In turn, Kubrick’s serene, fiberglass-smooth, omnipotent being would inform a long time of imagined pop-culture fetuses, from the wisecracking, doll-eyed fetus of the 1989 rom-com “Look Who’s Talking” to the computer-generated fetal images that drift through pregnancy-tracker apps and animated web videos purporting to elucidate “life.”

These images have the facility to remove the fetus from the realm of a pregnant woman’s visceral experience and expose it as a public visual spectacle. And so they yank the mind toward a pernicious modern suggestion: that the idealized fetus exists independent of a lady’s body; that it floats, within the cultural imagination, far above the earthbound woman herself.

Now, this vision has been nonsensically ported into the midcentury brain of Marilyn Monroe. That could be a suspect selection, given Dominik’s insistence on recreating the iconography of Monroe’s life in obsessive detail. “Blonde” blinks between full color and black-and-white, shuffling aspect ratios and swapping lenses to more closely mirror Monroe’s most famous photographs and scenes, which Dominik then twists to signal Monroe’s perspective on being made an object.

In an interview with Decider, Dominik explained that he visualized the fetus in an try to access “Norma’s feelings” about her pregnancies. “Baby was real,” he said. “I wanted Baby to be real.” And yet Dominik’s transient glimpse into Monroe’s mind reveals nothing. All that will be present in there’s a YouTube womb-cam.

In her book “Disembodying Women,” the medical historian Barbara Duden traces the general public exposure of the fetus — and its rising cultural supremacy — over the latter half of the twentieth century. She calls this process “the skinning of woman.” “Blonde” can be a movie a couple of woman being flayed by the culture at large. First, by the Hollywood of her own era, which made her right into a sex symbol. And now, by the Hollywood of ours, which has claimed to access her mind, only to serve up a recycled stock image of a magic fetus.

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