Film Studies: Naive genius or calculating starlet? That's beside the point

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The Independent Culture

There are figures in film history from whom most writers would flinch. It's not just that there's nothing new to be said about Marilyn Monroe. There is no tone or trust with which you can approach her. For in the 41 years since her death, it seems that every meeting, every possibility, has been dumped upon by an army of authors that extends from serious historians to gossip-mongers, to those who see no hope of writing usefully about Marilyn now except in a fictional form.

We know what Norman Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates feel - that the real life is lost in speculation; that Marilyn was defined by being observed. But there was a real life (1 June 1926 to 5 August 1962); there was an organism and a nervous system inside the legendary body, struggling to feel and be felt. You can pin down Monroe's lack of formal education or emotional support; you can identify the marriages, the movies and the thousands of photographs she posed for. You can argue over whether she was an oddly bright but naïve genius, a calculating manipulator, or a helpless young woman in a world ruled by male sharks. You can give parts to all those characters, and throw in 10 others - depending on the people who have described her in "The Marilyn I Knew" works. Or, to invoke a kind of modernism she never grasped, you can say she was a Borgesian receptacle, always ready to take on one more deranged interpretation, and keep smiling.

Long before the end of puzzling her out, you may detect this warning: that no one is worth all this speculation - that thinking about Marilyn has stopped us from thinking about so many other things, so many real women. But maybe men organise the culture that way.

So I mean it as high praise when I suggest that you see Paul Kerr's Marilyn on Marilyn which is playing on BBC2 late tomorrow night. This show has run before, but few seem to have caught up with its originality, its simplicity of form and the poetic achievement.

Kerr has relaxed - the first vital approach. He sets out to answer none of the great riddles - though he assumes that we are familiar with them. He simply concentrates on the resonance in putting pictures and sound together.

For his soundtrack, he has the tapes - not always fully distinct - of an interview done with Marilyn just before her death. She talks. She responds to questions. The voice is young still, wistful and hurt yet ready to be hurt again.

But she speaks in sound bites. There are no developed thoughts or sentences. Just fragments, and they are like the fluttering of a bird in a cage that has learnt not to beat on the bars.

Against that sound track, Kerr has cut a great variety of shots from newsreel, home movie (some never used before), press conferences, entertaining the troops in Korea and just posing.

But there's another visual element, which is more or less shots of New York and Los Angeles in her time, shots of people walking in the street and of cars passing by. Shots from those vehicles looking at the slippage of pedestrians and glass store fronts. There are no "pointed" links between what Marilyn is saying and what we are seeing. But there is a profound affinity between the listless voice and the drugged passage of the vehicles. You see the wide boulevards of Los Angeles, by day, the cars nearly as big as aircraft. And then you see the same city at night, with traffic making its way on journeys that must have been urgent then but which now seem abstract or desolate.

I cannot be more precise about this, but Kerr has made a kind of haiku about the way this celebrated waif, this orphan princess, stands for a city like Los Angeles - doing somersaults on the beach, remembering how at a certain age when she walked to school everyone noticed her, and yet succumbing to that crush of attention, never having a way of dealing with it.

Marilyn on Marilyn is half an hour - it might become pretentious if it was much longer. But at this length it should be shown to every fresh fool who thinks that he or she was born to write the decisive book about Marilyn Monroe. For the film lets you feel how little there was inside her, compared to the valiant way in which that shell of a bright, pretty self posed against a great city of indifference. The cars go past in the night and somehow you know why Marilyn needed to make herself more blonde - to the point of platinum whiteness. Just to survive, just to have a chance of being anything.

The details of the life hardly matter. Who can trust any of them now anyway? How many ways are there in which Marilyn may have died? Enough to suggest that tiredness was the only thing left in the 36-year-old we won't let out of our heads.

'Marilyn on Marilyn' is showing on BBC2 tomorrow at 11.40pm