City Paper is not for tourists
Has there ever been a more heart-rending Cinderella than beautiful, doomed Jean Seberg? Chosen by notoriously sadistic director Otto Preminger from a field of 3,000 hopefuls to star in his 1957 Saint Joan, the daughter of a Marshalltown, Iowa, druggist soared on a wave of advance publicity only to crash when her performance was savaged by reviewers. A has-been by 18, she was resurrected at 20 by Jean-Luc Godard, who cast her as an affectless American in Paris in his first feature, Breathless (1959). Shuttling thereafter between Hollywood and France, she appeared in 27 more films, but the darkest drama of her life was played off-screen. Targeted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panther movement—Seberg had joined the NAACP in high school—rumors were leaked to the press that the father of the pregnant actress’ second child was not her husband, novelist-filmmaker Romain Gary, but a black militant. Emotional distress ignited by this smear campaign destroyed her marriage and caused the premature birth of her daughter, who lived only two days. The final decade of Seberg’s life was marked by mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions. In 1979, at 40, she was found dead in her car in a Paris suburb.
Seberg’s sad story was first told in David Richards’ sympathetic, carefully researched 1981 biography, Played Out, and subsequently adapted as the basis for a 1983 Marvin Hamlisch stage musical, which flopped in England and has yet to be produced in this country. Now writer-director Mark Rappaport, who directed a string of inventive, often exasperating independent features in the ’70s, including The Scenic Route and Local Color, deconstructs Seberg’s life and art as a follow-up to his 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. An odd amalgam of biography, film history, essay, recycled gossip, criticism, and cultural study, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is narrated by Seberg’s on-screen ghost (played by Mary Beth Hurt, a fellow Marshalltown native) who, apparently, has earned an afterlife graduate degree in critical theory—feminism, formalism, Marxism, Freud, representation, performance, spectatorship (Talk about eternal damnation!). Few of Rappaport’s ideas, as articulated in Hurt’s commentary, are new, but they are more palatably presented here than in the academic studies from which they derive. (Reading the jargon-bloated prose of contemporary theoretical journals is the intellectual equivalent of chewing spare tires.)
Backed by blowups of Seberg’s face, Hurt delivers a discursive monologue that touches upon, among other issues, celebrity, the “curse of Joan” that has blighted actresses who have played Jeanne d’Arc, Hollywood’s commoditization of women, the interpretation of visual images, the diverse cultural assumptions about madness in women and men, the social and political upheavals of the Vietnam era, and the lewd, cruel manner in which filmmakers flaunt and degrade their actress-wives. In a montage of film clips, Seberg’s career is placed in the context of her contemporaries—Monroe, Novak, Fonda, Redgrave, Bardot. At several points, Lev Kuleshov’s famous editing experiment—intercutting an expressionless face with shots of a variety of visual stimuli—is recreated using the opaque visages of Seberg and Clint Eastwood, with whom she had a tempestuous affair while shooting Paint Your Wagon. Although sophisticated viewers might grouse about the familiarity of his ideas, at least Rappaport’s film contains ideas, a rare phenomenon in contemporary cinema.
At times, From the Journals of Jean Seberg unsettled and even annoyed me, but I found it to be consistently challenging and absorbing. Like Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Rappaport’s film rescues an underrated performer’s work from the attic of pop culture. Seberg’s performance in Robert Rossen’s still-underestimated Lilith (1964)—her favorite role—seems even more poetic and magical than it did when the picture was initially released. By contrast, excerpts from several of her movies directed by Gary reveal perhaps the most heartless exposure of an actress in movie history. In Kill!, shot after the FBI smear and the death of her baby, Gary forces Seberg to don an Angela Davis Afro wig and ridicules her political commitments.
However engrossing, Rappaport’s whatever-it-is left me feeling uneasy on several counts, not the least of which is the unseemliness of appropriating Seberg’s life and voice for ideological purposes. In the course of presenting her as a symbolic text for deconstruction, he diminishes the flesh-and-blood reality of this sensitive, troubled woman. A number of the film’s assertions are factually incorrect, a consistent failing of current academic theorizing. Sexually repressed heroines and frothy sex comedy virgins were not, despite Hurt/Seberg’s glib commentary, the only roles available to Hollywood actresses in the ’50s. (I won’t bore you with a lengthy list of exceptions.) At times, Rappaport carelessly contradicts himself. Moments after telling us that moviegoers don’t like stories with predictable outcomes, the narration asserts that, watching biblical films, audiences can’t wait to see Christ crucified.
Probably as a consequence of working on a limited budget, many of the excerpts from Seberg’s films are shoddily represented. Bonjour Tristesse and Paint Your Wagon, both wide-screen productions, are shown in the wrong aspect ratios, and the footage from Gary’s Birds in Peru is so blurry that the subtitles are unintelligible. Intermittently, Hurt mouths sentiments inconsistent with the late actress’s generous nature. (I seriously doubt that she would have flippantly characterized her marriage to Gary as “a low-rent version of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, in French, with English subtitles.”) Some of the feminist readings are churlishly forced, like the complaint about Seberg being compelled to warble her Paint Your Wagon ballad indoors, while Eastwood and Lee Marvin get to sing (?) their tunes in the wilderness. Where else could we reasonably expect to find a Gold Rush–era polyandrist—felling redwoods or tunneling mines? In its exposure of gender stereotypes and myths, From the Journals of Jean Seberg occasionally slips into scolding self-righteousness, and the film’s closing sequence, with flames singeing images of the actress’s face, too heavy-handedly links Seberg’s own martyrdom with her first screen role.
Trapped in glossy, empty Hollywood projects like Moment to Moment and Airport, Seberg tended to fade into the scenery. But when offered material she could emotionally connect with—Lilith, The Five Day Lover, and In the French Style—she was an artist of uncommon subtlety and grace. (It’s curious that, obsessed as he is with interpretations of Seberg’s enigmatic gaze, Rappaport fails to include The Five Day Lover’s haunting final image, in which the actress, playing a compulsively adulterous wife, cruises the camera lens as though she were sizing up the viewer as her next paramour.) In this quintessentially postmodernist project, Rappaport transforms a talented, tormented woman into an anatomized metatext. Despite the filmmaker’s apparent concern for her plight and his contempt for the cultural pathologies that ensnared her, one leaves From the Journals of Jean Seberg with the uneasy feeling that, even in death, the hapless actress has once again been exploited by a male director.
A week before his murder in 1975, novelist-poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini publicly suggested bringing charges against the Italian government for, among other things, “unworthiness, contempt for their fellow citizens, misappropriation of public funds, price-fixing for oil companies, industries, banking cartels, collaboration with the CIA, illegal use of intelligence agencies, responsibility for terrorism in Milan, Brescia, and Bologna, (given a seeming inability to punish the perpetrators), destruction, anthropological degradation, the disgraceful condition of schools, hospitals, and every other basic public institution, the neglect of the countryside, the wildcat explosion of culture of the masses and of mass media, and the criminal stupidity of television….”
Even Americans familiar with Pasolini’s films and writings have difficulty comprehending the importance of his troublemaking presence as a splinter in the boot heel of Italian society. Our domestic gadflies—Mailer, Baldwin, Vidal—are ethical and intellectual midgets compared to this paradoxical, Promethean artist: an anti-Communist leftist, a moralist whose work was prosecuted for obscenity, an unrepentant homosexual in an era of sexual oppression. His rugged, angular face confronted the public from book jackets, newspapers, and television screens; his passionate words lanced corruption in every facet of Italian life, earning him adulation and condemnation in equal measures.
The circumstances of Pasolini’s murder, allegedly by Pino Pelosi, a 17-year-old hustler who savagely beat him in a dockside dump, have been as skeptically regarded as the events surrounding JFK’s assassination. Who Killed Pasolini?, filmmaker Marco Tullio Giordana’s screen adaptation of his 1994 book, Pasolini: An Italian Crime, reopens the investigation of the artist’s death in order to prove that Pelosi did not act alone but was the agent of a larger conspiracy intent on silencing the ubiquitous iconoclast.
Giordana’s docudrama, a realistically staged re-enactment intercut with actual news footage of the murder scene and funeral, along with brief tributes by colleagues (Alberto Moravia, Bernardo Bertolucci) decrying this “crime against poetry and culture,” and glimpses of Pasolini himself, persuasively argues that the homicide was orchestrated, and subsequently covered up, by still-unidentified forces. (The film hypothesizes these could include a gang of street kids, Fascist thugs financed by French drug money, the Mafia, and/or hit-men recruited by the Italian secret service.) In his meticulous reconstruction of the sloppy police investigation, sensational press coverage, and Pelosi’s trial and conviction for homicide aided by “persons unknown,” Giordana leaves little doubt the Pasolini case remains unsolved.
Although Who Killed Pasolini? is artfully directed, brilliantly edited, and eloquently performed by a large ensemble cast (including Adriana Asti, the prostitute in Accattone, Pasolini’s first feature, who reads one of his poems about the Roman slums), the film’s significance is likely to be lost on most American viewers. (Ideally, it should be seen on a double bill with one of the director’s movies, or after reading Barth David Schwartz’s weighty, scrupulously detailed 1992 biography, Pasolini Requiem.) Without an awareness of Pasolini’s singular stature in his national culture, the movie’s denunciation of corruption in high places, an inept justice system, and homophobic prejudice seems unremarkable; this is the mundane stuff of our here and now, albeit unchallenged by a public figure of Pasolini’s intellect and passion. Like Prick Up Your Ears, the Joe Orton biopic, Who Killed Pasolini? fails, inevitably, to convey a sense of Pasolini’s towering achievements, leaving us unaware of the enormity of his tragic, pointless demise. Only in Italy, where it has sparked a national controversy, can the impact of Giordana’s movie be fully felt; perhaps here it will inspire moviegoers to learn more about Pasolini’s art and life. The Biograph deserves commendation for presenting its U.S. premiere. The imminent closing of this invaluable institution is itself a crime against culture, and one hopes that efforts to reopen it in a new location prove fruitful.CP