Marilyn Monroe — Philosophy in Motion
April 10, 2017 12:48 AM   Subscribe

How does one encourage film viewers to think about how film actors think about, and through, their performances? With their video, Bryn Hewko and Aaron Taylor do just that: translating a complex, cognitive approach to film acting into a lucid, even pleasurable, videographic lesson – one which tests their opening assertion that ‘screen acting can be an embodied form of philosophical activity’.

Marilyn Monroe serves as the video’s focal point. Her suitability for the task (over any number of other film performers) is closely tied to their conception of a performative index, which, as we are efficiently informed through a combination of word cloud and voice-over, is a conceptual nucleus binding together various discursive clusters related to an actor’s work...
posted by gusottertrout (8 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
And an additional link mentioned in the review of the video essay, Laura Mulvey's short video looking, without spoken comment, at an excerpt of Monroe performing during the Two Little Girls from Little Rock dance from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:00 AM on April 10, 2017

If one is an actor or filmmaker, why would you want film viewers to think about that? I would suppose it would be undesirable, at least during the viewing of the film.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 AM on April 10, 2017

One of the best and funniest moments of this kind of conscious reflection and expression of one's own (super)stardom is Julia Roberts' scene in Ocean's Twelve where she's playing a character called Tess who's required to play Julia Roberts on account of her looking "a bit" like Julia Roberts. So, Roberts playing Tess playing Roberts. I couldn't find the full clip on Youtube, unfortunately, but some of it can be seen here. Soderbergh has done this with Roberts more extensively, of course, in Erin Brockovich. And with Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. And with Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience ...
posted by sapagan at 4:48 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If one is an actor or filmmaker, why would you want film viewers to think about that? I would suppose it would be undesirable, at least during the viewing of the film.

Part of the reason I made this post is because I think questions like this are so interesting and that these sorts of essays are important early steps in developing a more complex understanding of the role of actors in our appreciation of movies.

I would suggest that there are many different ways one could approach the question you ask and the essay raises. The most direct would be that Hollywood studios pay many millions of dollars to famous actors under the belief people come to see movies because of who is in them. This suggests that audiences do indeed see the actor as character and not at the same time at least in some sense. It's implicit in the way movies are packaged, sold, and discussed, where people will talk about seeing the newest Jason Stratham, Meryl Streep, or Mads Mikkelsen film, it's a brand that means something to people and in some way carries over into their experience of the film, whether consciously pursued as such or not.

Or, on a smaller scale, look even at the trailer posted above for Thor:Raganrok at one point in the trailer Jeff Goldblum appears. To anyone familiar with Jeff Goldblum as an actor, is it likely who he is or has been in other films will be able to be separated from his role in Ragnarok? Or on the negative side of the equation, think of Hayden Christensen, so widely scorned for his performance in the Star Wars prequels that one would perhaps want to look into what it is that made him so disliked when "great acting" was never really a hallmark of the franchise to that point. This sort of perspective may provide a way to better think about the issue for anyone interested.

As a slight aside, one thing I find particularly interesting that the essay didn't quite touch on directly is that in this era people are as likely to come to understand actors out of sequence, so to speak, from how they developed as performers and personae. Think, for example, of someone who first sees Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers, and then watches others of his films in more or less random order, how are they seeing him compared to someone who watched De Niro develop from the 70's onward. The first person would see the parodic roles before the one's that spawned them, while the latter would see those late roles as coming from the eariler ones. It's an interesting area of study that is far from determined or even wholly determinable, but which I hope some here might find worth thinking about.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is the film that found Monroe doing 47 takes to say "It's me, Sugar." Maybe she was tired, maybe she was loopy, maybe she flubbed on purpose. I'd be more interested if these two scholars had actually worked with any real actors.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:28 PM on April 10, 2017

And yet Monroe not only was amazingly popular among audiences of the time, somehow her legacy has lasted decades past her death when that of most other actors of her day is virtually negligible. So even if one sets aside all the other possible areas of interest her career may raise, one might think there is something worth examining in that alone.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:15 AM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure the video totally nails its thesis. They seem to be committed to a really active contribution on the part of the actor, but the idea of a performance index concerns all sorts of factors that may or may not be put consciously in play by an actor. E.g. the jet of steam may recall the more famous gust of air, but how does that speak to Monroe's conscious mobilization of discursive clusters? Same for Lemmon's mimicry—it certainly contributes to our understanding of Monroe's self-presentation and her achievement, but that, again, doesn't show her creative mobilization of the various discursive clusters contributing to our understanding of her.

To be clear: this is neither (1) a claim that Monroe is not an intelligent actress who knew very well how she came across and why, nor (2) a claim that actors are not the site of exactly the sort of discursive nexus that the video discusses. It's rather a quarrel with its strong sense of active, explicit intentionality and its claims to find proof of it in the scenes it shows. There are other ways of believing that something like a performance index exists that don't rely on explicit mobilization—your description of de Niro, gusottertrout, recognizes just such a contribution but locates it in audience experience rather than anything de Niro consciously controls or even could control.

(It also reminded me of this scene in Jackie Brown, where Jackson's character can be seen as drawing on that history, asking for our recognition that his comment—"What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful."—is about de Niro himself, not just his character in the movie. But that, again, is to acknowledge the nexus, and see it deployed, without needing to include de Niro's active exhibition of it.)

I hope this isn't seen as just snark—I'm really interested in the idea of cinema as a form of thinking/philosophy, agree about the performance index as contributing to our experience, and open to the role of video essays in making this available in new ways, but was disappointed by what was done here.
posted by felix grundy at 12:21 PM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, I take the video as more a demonstration of principle than a fully realized examination of Monroe or Some Like It Hot. The ideas they are pointing towards in their explanation of the concept would need to be carried much further for it to even approach a more complete understanding of either subject.

Just looking at the scene posted, for example, an audience responds not just to Monroe, but Monroe in confluence with the events of the scene, and their understanding of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, among other details. Curtis and Lemmon themselves are portraying something like characters read through their performance histories. With Lemmon the overly verbal, somewhat neurotic commenter on events supporting Curtis the more "masculine", controlled lead. There is no intrinsic reason these roles couldn't have been reversed, as Lemmon could be more reserved and Curtis the more vocal and neurotic, but the expectations or understanding of each actor allows them to be better understood when sharing the screen in these roles.

As commentary on the characters themselves, the scene has Lemmon's Jerry/Daphne fascinated by the mechanics of being Monroe/Sugar, wondering how she does what she does and in amazement at that sort of extreme of womanhood, while Curtis' Joe/Josephine just stares in desire. The two then act as a sort of dual sensibility for the audience, defining Monroe by the gaze of Curtis while deconstructing the effect via Lemmon's commentary. It also sets up events for the rest of the film, where Lemmon becomes further interested and affected by the femininity he adopts, while Curtis serves the function of acting as a pursuer in an attempted romance. Curtis, who started off as a sort of would be Cary Grant clone, even gets to adopt an imitation of Grant later in the movie, that can be seen as a comment both on his role and his history as well as Grant's onscreen persona and its history.

Monroe acts more as the catalyst for these shifting roles, being at once Monroe and Sugar, someone to whom men must respond as she maintains a performative obliviousness in her role heightened by the awareness of allure in excess Monroe's media history provides. The effect is of being something like the perfect fulcrum for the Freudian concept of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, both wholly unaware yet completely in command of her sexuality. The video hints at some of the ways she pulls this balance off, with her expression of involvement in internal matters or thoughts of things elsewhere than on screen matched with the effect of her movements and unguarded state of expression on those observing. It's something she uses to different effects in many of her films, creating variations on her characters, that can change the meaning of the that balance depending on situation.

The kind of analysis the video suggests, I think, would be a useful way to look at those kinds of shifts and similarities across films while matching them to directorial and other actor treatment and response to gain a deeper understanding of how we engage with films individually and as a larger body of works, from which then we might better be able to talk about different ways of meaning or philosophies embodied in the works as a whole and in the individual elements of which they are constituted.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:37 PM on April 12, 2017

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