Marilyn Monroe, or Venus Redux Â
By John David Ebert
It could be said that Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the non-reproducibility of an actor’s aura misses a certain point, since it was by means of the very technological process of filming and then projecting upon a gigantic screen the images of actors like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando that conferred upon them auras of mythic grandeur which they would not otherwise have possessed. Benjamin, it seems,Â did not understand the essentially myth-making power of film.Â
Â Â Â Â Â That point aside, then, we are confronted with the mythical gigantism of the celluloid version of Marilyn Monroe, for it is crucial to realize that absolutely anything that is put through the sieve of filmic technology–actors, narratives, or what have you–is instantly transformed into mythic spectacle. And the onscreen persona of Marilyn Monroe is a case in point, for it is an obvious retrieval of the ancient goddess Venus, just as Elvis Presley’s television persona was a pixilated reconstruction of the Greek god Dionysus. Indeed, there is a certain symmetry between these two figures, for Marilyn Monroe was to the male psyche the exact inverse equivalent of what Elvis Presley was to the female psyche, for both personae had an intense and compulsively erotic effect on their opposite sexes.Â
Â Â Â Â Nowhere is Marilyn-as-Venus more evident than in the Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955). Seven year cycles are a normal part of the 28 year sidereal cycles of the planet Saturn, which squares itself astrologically every seven years. And in Hesiod’s Theogony, Saturn is, in a way, the father of Aphrodite since he cuts off his father Ouranos’s genitals and then tosses them into the ocean, whereupon they foam (aphros) and produce Aphrodite herself, the mistress who rules over the genitals. In Billy Wilder’s film, a seven year cycle does indeed bring forth the goddess Venus in the form of Marilyn’s character who is known simply as The Girl, a woman who lives in the apartment directly above that of the film’s protagonist Richard Sherman. Sherman’s family has gone away on summer vacation and now he is beginning to feel a seven year marriage itch that manifests itself as a twitching of his thumb (which is interesting, because according to traditional chiromancy, the thumb is assigned to Venus, just as the index finger corresponds to Jupiter, the middle finger to Saturn, the ring finger to Apollo and the pinky to Mercury). Thus, when the Girl descends from her apartment to visit him, it is like a visitation from a heavenlyÂ goddess, for her presence is hilariously unsettling to him.
Â Â Â Â In the iconic scene in which the Girl stands above the subway grille while its rush of air blows her skirt about, Marilyn’s identity as Venus is here confirmed, for the image is an almost exact retrieval of Botticelli’s 1483 painting “The Birth of Venus.” In that painting Venus stands upon a halfshell rather than a grille (the halfshell is a symbol of the vulva, a fact which is more evident in the Roman copy of Apelles’ now lost painting of Venus Anadyomene, in which the shell’s interior is painted pink). In Botticelli’s version, the newborn Venus is blown toward the shore from the left by the zephyrs, the winds, while on the shore waiting to receive her is one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, who offers a cloak to her which is waving and furling in the winds blown by the zephyrs. Thus, if the painting is rotated ninety degrees to the left, then the direction of the winds is coming as it were from below, while the garment is blowing above it. This corresponds very closely to the image of Marilyn Monroe standing on the subway grille while her skirt erupts all around her (and note that the position of Marilyn’s hands is about the same as that of the Venus pudica style upon which Botticelli has modeled his Venus). In this one celluloid image, Marilyn becomes the Venus of the Metropolis, the goddess of the genitals retrieved and fully updated for the modern world.
–Excerpted from Ebert’s forthcoming book Death and Fame in the Age ofÂ Â Â Lightspeed