Sad Decline

Jean Seberg's Life In The Movies Is Chronicled In This Kooky Clip Collection.
By Stacey Richter

JEAN-LUC GODARD once said that film history was the history of boys photographing girls. According to Mark Rappaport, the acclaimed filmmaker who made 1992's Rock Hudson's Home Movies among other films, the tragic history of actress Jean Seberg was also shaped (and perhaps deformed) by the cool gaze of a camera standing in for the glance of the male eye.

Cinema Seberg was chosen by Otto Preminger (who by the way was famously mean) to play the role of Joan of Arc in his ill-conceived Saint Joan, after an exhaustive and well-publicized star search. At the time, Seberg was 17 years old and had acted mainly in high school plays. Rappaport, who structures From the Journals of Jean Seberg as a fictionalized biography centering on clips from Seberg's films, has found an amazing clip which seems to be from her screen test with Preminger. In it, she appears as a pretty teenager who tilts her head and says she wants "very much to be an actress." Her naiveté is thick enough to cut with a knife, as is her ambition, making what follows all the more tragic: After a huge amount of publicity for the times, Preminger's Saint Joan flopped, and all critics agreed that Seberg was terrible.

A wash-up at 18, Seberg's career was resurrected several years later by the French new wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her as the female lead in Breathless. Seberg became famous for a time in Europe, and French women began to cut their hair in her style. Rappaport chronicles these ups and downs with a technique that seems a bit strange at first: He strings clips from Seberg's films alongside extensive clips from other films of the time, all narrated by Mary Beth Hurt, who appears occasionally playing a wiser, ghostly version of Seberg herself.

Hurt's narration is at times witty, at times gossipy, and usually permeated by the vocabulary of academic film criticism. Seberg herself was certainly no graduate student, and the effect of this rather in-depth analysis coming out of her mouth is a bit disconcerting. What Hurt as Seberg has to say, on the other hand, is downright interesting. She speaks about the conditions of film production before anyone had ever heard of feminism, and how these conditions almost as a matter of course were degrading for actresses. The careers of Seberg as well as Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave are discussed at length, complete with supporting film clips.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg has the character, at times, of a scholarly essay, but with one major difference: All of Rappaport's points are illustrated by carefully chosen, and sometimes quite funny, scenes from old movies. Like Rock Hudson's Home Movies, which aimed to expose the personal life of Rock Hudson by looking carefully at his Hollywood movies, From the Journals of Jean Seberg also proposes to excavate the "inner" Seberg by looking at the very public face of the films she made in Hollywood and Europe. In this Rappaport has put forth a risky thesis--as anyone who has tried to illuminate their family background with photographs may have found--pictures are extremely slippery in their meaning. Rappaport himself devotes a rather long portion of From the Journals to explaining the Kuleshov effect, an early film experiment that says, basically, that a picture tends to mean whatever someone says it means.

What Rappaport says the clips from Seberg's film reveal is a steady decline, on Seberg's part, from enthusiasm and innocence to a sad, masochistic, selfless image of a woman who has somehow given the most vital part of herself away to the camera. I tend to believe this is a romanticized view of Seberg's decline, though some of the points Rappaport makes are trenchant and fascinating. Why, for example, did so many actresses, including Seberg, end up making films for their director/husbands which depicted them as sluts, whores, or nymphomaniacs? Rappaport does a fine job of exposing what was, in the 1960s, the unexplored fear of women and their sexuality that permeated movies.

Whether it was due to a series of bad roles and exploitation, as Rappaport seems to imply, or a more personal sense of disappointment that the camera couldn't capture, Seberg's life went into a slide in the '70s. After a period of political activism and involvement with the Black Panthers (including hiding guns in her house), Seberg found herself the target of intense and paranoid FBI scrutiny. Her popularity suffered, and Seberg was found dead in a Paris suburb, an apparent suicide, before her 40th birthday.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg plays Thursday through Sunday at The Screening Room. Call 622-2262 for showtimes. TW

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