This week brings a pair of biographies of 20th century pop-culture icons, David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe. Both have been analyzed, worshipped, and imitated relentlessly both before and after their premature, unexpected deaths.
Both films, Moonage Daydream and Blonde, take an impressionistic, nonlinear approach, making them poor introductions to their subjects but pure catnip for anyone who shares their makers’ fascination for these transcendent talents.
Moonage Daydream was made by Brett Morgen, who assembled journals and other unpublished material into the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck. He does something similar here, having been granted access to the Bowie archive by the singer’s estate and spent years combing through it. The result is a thoroughly immersive collage, to the extent that one might paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola and say that this film isn’t about David Bowie, it is David Bowie.
There’s a vaguely chronological drift to the clips of performances and interviews, from the early “Major Tom” days to the Ziggy Stardust spectacle to the MTV years and beyond, all of it narrated posthumously by Bowie himself. There’s precious little biographical material, but that’s the point: Bowie can’t be reduced to dates and names, facts and figures. Neither is there any advocacy or explanation of how he achieved creative genius, but again, there’s plenty of that elsewhere.
Moonage Daydream had an early release in IMAX, and that’s certainly the best way to see it, huge and loud and encompassing your entire field of sound and vision for over two hours. But even on a traditional theater screen, it should be a nearly overwhelming experience for fans, bubbling over with unseen, unheard treasures that induce a thrilling gestalt. (Moonage Daydream opens in non-IMAX theaters on Friday, Sept. 23.)
Andrew Dominik’s Blonde takes a more conventionally narrative approach, but one that, crucially, is based not on Monroe’s life per se, but on the fictionalized version of it presented in Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel. Oates insisted that her book was not a biography, and the makers of Blonde haven’t done as good as job as they could have of making the same point. Like Moonage Daydream, Blonde rewards viewers already familiar with the myths it depicts.
Ana de Armas is a force of nature as the woman who became a martyr to Hollywood, the ultimate movie star who rose from an impoverished, abusive childhood to become the most desired woman in the world. Her performance is far and away the most interesting thing in the nearly three-hour cavalcade of heartache, insecurity, and exploitation that marked Monroe’s 36 years.
Her happiest moments come mostly in the company of the hedonistic sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, with whom she indulges in debauched threesomes, one of which leads to her (first) abortion. This relationship, and the suggestion that she was kidnapped by government agents and forced to undergo another abortion after being impregnated by John F. Kennedy, are among the more, shall we say, speculative aspects of Oates’ book.
Dominik does what he can to keep things engaging as de Armas nakedly (in both senses) suffers — shifting aspect ratios, film stocks, and even audio levels to reflect, I think, Marilyn’s various and sundry mental states. Abandoned by her unknown father, Marilyn refers to her husbands Joe Dimaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) as “Daddy,” in simplistically Freudian fashion.
Nobody expects a biography, even a fictional one, of Marilyn Monroe to be a carefree romp. But this exhumation, despite de Armas’ award-worthy effort, adds little to the legend while threatening to exploit Norma Jean Baker all over again. (Blonde premieres on Sept. 28 on Netflix.)
BOGIE’s BACK: Film programmer and indefatigable educator Eliot Lavine returns to Cinema 21 this weekend with a new series spotlighting the only actor to rival Monroe on Hollywood’s Mount Rushmore. If it’s been a while since you’ve revisited any of these legendary Humphrey Bogart performances, or if you’ve somehow never seen them on a big screen, now’s the chance. The next five Saturdays feature The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and In a Lonely Place. Not a dud among them, and each enlivened by Levine’s always infectious introductions and ruminations. (Screening each Saturday at 11 a.m. at Cinema 21, starting Sept. 24.)
PDX LAFF IS BACK, TOO!: The Portland Latin American Film Festival returns to the Hollywood Theatre this week, with the first of screenings that will take place between now and December. This year’s opening-night film is the Mighty Victoria, a crowd-pleasing tale set in the remote Mexican village of Esparanza in 1937. (Yes, it’s literally set in a town called Hope.) When the local mine shuts down and the only rail service is permanently suspended, the few villagers left behind decide to build their own steam engine. Will the young, ambitious railroad engineer (Gerardo Oñate) be able to complete his training on the new rig before the rails themselves are ripped from the earth? The answer’s never in doubt, but the ride is fun, thanks to winning performances from Oñate and Damián Alcázar (Netflix’s Narcos.) The film’s director, Raúl Ramón, whose first feature this is, will be in attendance along with costar Roberto Sosa. (Mighty Victoria screens on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Hollywood Theatre.)