From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1996)
Dir. by Mark Rappaport
Inspired by my recent wanderings through Ray Carney’s Website, I rented Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg and watched it twice this weekend. Here, Rappaport — who Carney calls “a geographer of our fantasies, dreams, and obsessions” — splices together news footage, film clips, and original video, creating a documentary-ish collage that transforms Seberg’s life into a meditation on misogyny, the Hollywood star machine, and the morality of spectatorship. He also manages to chart America’s journey from Eisenhower-era consensus through the rise and fall of the New Left, and does it all with wit and authority and insight. Quite a feat for a 95 minute film.
Journals is built around the performance of Mary Beth Hurt, who plays Seberg from beyond the grave. The actress stares directly into the camera — which is only appropriate for someone standing in for the star of Godard’s Breathless — and recounts her life in the first person: born in 1938 in America’s heartland, discovered in Otto Preminger’s nationwide talent search for his adaptation of Shaw’s Saint Joan, launched to international stardom by Godard, abused by a trio of husbands, excoriated for her involvement with the Black Panthers, ignored in a series of forgettable roles, dead from suicide at the age of 40.
Rappaport follows this line in mostly chronological order, using Seberg’s major film roles as jumping off points. For instance, when discussing the artistic and commercial failings of Saint Joan, he wanders off through the lives of Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, and Alida Valli — all leading ladies who carried the “curse” of playing Joan of Arc. It’s a fascinating conceit — a kind of associative editing that, in a sense, hyperlinks the various threads of film history and, in the process, forces us to acknowledge the strangeness of narrative and symbolic archetypes. Why do we take such pleasure from watching a noble young woman burned before us? Or, as Rappaport asks when discussing Seberg’s most interesting role — her lead in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964) — why must men (the writers, producers, and directors) always equate female madness with aberrant sexuality?
Journals is at its best, I think, when Rappaport intertwines the lives and loves of Seberg, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave. All are of the same age, all made films directed by their husbands (another of the film’s more interesting concerns), and all participated actively in radical political movements. Their stories ended quite differently, though. Redgrave retreated to the stage and to small, innocuous film roles. The public, Hurt’s Seberg tells us, doesn’t care to watch its young beauties grow old on screen. Fonda exploited her sexualized Barbarella persona by stretching and gyrating her way through a series of popular workout videos that earned her millions. My favorite of Hurt’s lines is when she mentions that in 1988, in order to stave off bad publicity, Fonda apologized to veterans groups for her Vietnam-era activities, but never, as far as Hurt could remember, apologized to feminists for being a bimbo.
Seberg’s life ended in 1978, when she finally succeeded after a series of failed suicide attempts. The reasons for her depression are complicated, the film shows us — her lopsided marriage to Romain Gary, a lifetime spent “doing what she was told,” the death of her daughter, and the hounding pressures exerted on her by both Hoover’s F.B.I. and the popular press. But, ultimately, we’re left to wonder about the destructive effects of a life lived on screen. A life of being looked at. At one point, Rappaport draws a line from the Kuleshov effect to Breathless to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name — or, from Russian Formalism to the first Modern cinema to Reagan-era machismo. Seberg is stuck there in the middle. Her blind stare into the camera is “enigmatic” and “sphinx-like,” or so the male reviewers have said, and all I can do is project my own desires onto her beautiful, beautiful face. The story of her life.
I look forward to sharing Rappaport’s film with students who bristle at the word “feminism,” because Journals is not the least bit preachy — in fact, it offers few pat answers at all — but it makes feminist concerns immediate and (I hesitate to use the word) entertaining. Quite a feat.