Tag Archives: Vanessa Redgrave

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Most film lovers are familiar with Jean Seberg. Her iconic look in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been imitated so many times that even people who have never heard her name are familiar with her work. But Seberg was more than just a blond pixie cut and a bad French accent. She was a progressive, even a revolutionary political activist. She was also the victim of one of the most vicious FBI smear campaigns in the history of Cointelpro.

Daniel Levine — the director of the new film American Plain Songs — briefly introduced us to the work of Mark Rapport last year. Rappaport, who’s almost completely unknown to the general public, but highly regarded among film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Roger Ebert, has made what might be the only documentary that does Jean Seberg justice as a political activist and feminist. His approach, an imaginary, “found” autobiography read by an actress who looks almost, but not quite like Jean Seberg, he not only rescues her from the movies. It rescues her from herself.

Mary Beth Hurt, like Jean Seberg, is a blond American “girl next door” with a pixie cut, and a flat, Midwestern accent. But, 50 years old in 1995, she lacks Seberg’s movie star glamor. Rappaport could have easily cast a more beautiful actress in the role. Chloe Sevigny in her Kids/Trees Lounge days looked remarkably like a rougher version of the young Jean Seberg. But Seberg as a plain, middle-aged woman – someone who looks like your English professor – is entirely Mark Rappaport’s point. Mary Beth Hurt is the real Jean Seberg, not the glamorized icon of the French New Wave. In Rappaport’s imagination, she becomes the woman she might have become had she not been destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover, and a series of abusive husbands.

In Mark Rappaport’s “found” diary, not quite history, yet not quite fiction, Seberg becomes a lost voice of the 1960s counter culture. She starts at age 17, when she was chosen by Otto Preminger to star in his film Saint Joan, not in spite of, but because of her lack of acting experience. Preminger wanted to cast an actress the same age as the real Joan of Arc, but what worked for Franco Zeffirelli in Romeo and Juliet fell flat for Otto Preminger. Seberg was terribly miscast as Joan. What’s more, as Seberg/Rappaport/Hurt make clear, realism isn’t always “realistic.” Sometimes it’s just distracting. The fact that Seberg was actually burned by the real fire Preminger set to consume the fictional Joan of Arc adds nothing to the story’s dramatic impact, as Rappaport makes clear when he juxtaposes images from Preminger’s clumsy film to Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of John of Arc.

Even worse, Seberg’s relationship with Preminger, who liked to bully young actresses, probably set the template for her marriage to Romain Gary, an abusive relationship that made her all the more vulnerable to the attacks by the FBI’s Cointelpro program. If Seberg was miscast, as Saint Joan, Seberg maintains, then it was because Joan, unlike Juliet, an ordinary teenage girl, was a woman of heroic stature. When she mentions Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two actresses who would have probably done better in the role, it’s more than just an offhanded suggestion. Instead, in a remarkable sequence, Mark Rappaport weaves the lives of Seberg, Redgrave, Fonda, three women dedicated to radical politics as well as film, into a single thread, making a familiar side of the 1960s even more familiar by re-imagining it from a novel perspective.

Indeed, instead of going into a detailed history of how J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Seberg after she became a supporter of the Black Panthers, Rappaport shows us that she was part of a larger trend. Redgrave was widely vilified in the 1970s for her support of Palestinian nationalism. Seberg herself was subjected to a Cointelpro campaign in a large part of the corporate press, especially those newspapers loyal to the FBI. When she bore a stillborn baby to Romain Gary, she actually displayed it in a glass coffin to prove that the father had been white, and not a member of the Black Panthers, as Hoover had convinced so many newspaper reporters.

But it was Jane Fonda who became the focus of the venom of the American right, a hatred that lasted right through the Bush administration, and probably still exists today. Rappaport’s parallel lives of Fonda and Seberg are richly detailed, uncovering connections between the two women we never quite realized existed. Fonda’s failed audition in the film Klute, for example, has her reading lines from Preminger’s Saint Joan. Had she read for the part? Fonda’s early role in Barbarella as an insatiable sex kitten was later echoed in a Romain Gary film starring Seberg, where Seberg’s character, unlike Barbarella, is a nymphomaniac who can’t achieve an orgasm. If Jane Fonda survived Cointelpro and the right-wing smear campaign, Jean, or rather Mark Rappaport, maintains, then it was largely because of her wealthy family and privileged upbringing. She had resources she could draw on that a middle-class girl from the Midwest didn’t.

Nevertheless, while she didn’t die at the age of 40, racked by the drug and alcohol addiction that came from J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta, Jane Fonda, in the end, backed down. Filming On Golden Pond with her father Henry Fonda, she issued an apology for her trip to North Vietnam. “Why?” Rappaport asks us, did Fonda apologize for her heroic opposition to the Vietnam War, and not for her role as a “bimbo” in Barbarella? The answer is obvious. We live in a culture that accepts women as bimbos, but not political activists. The FBI destroyed Jean Seberg because she stepped out of the role American conservatism demanded she play. They could handle her as a blond movie goddess. They couldn’t handle a woman who had supported racial justice in her teenage years – when she volunteered for the NAACP – and continued to support racial justice, and black nationalism, even after she became rich and famous.

Like the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys it’s best and brightest.

Blowup (1966)

Blowup, an English language film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, is too cool to have a plot. Its fashion photographer hero, if in fact he can be called the hero, is the type of artist who no longer exists, if he ever existed. It’s a dull movie about thoroughly unlikeable people and a mystery that’s dangled in front of us and never solved. So why do I actually want to watch it again?

I suppose because I’m a photographer and this is a photographer’s movie, not just a movie about a photographer. Thomas, David Hemmings, lives in a sparse, yet elegant loft near Maryon Park in London. He has a collection of Nikon F bodies and lenses that, while you could probably pick up the whole lot of them on Ebay these days for a few hundred dollars, might remind a few people of Jay Gatsby’s collection of dress shirts. He has a Hasselblad 500C. He has a 4 x 5 In other words, he has just about every piece of photo equipment that, in 1966, it was possible to own.

Thomas also has something better, something to photograph. In some ways I suppose Blowup is a little dated. It’s hard to listen to him yelling out “work it baby work it oh yeah” while photographing the model Veruschka without thinking of Austin Powers. We don’t really see any examples of his work, but, after watching two young models played by Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills sit through two days of him being an asshole just to get photographed, we assume he’s a master of his craft. He complains about money, yet drives around in a Rolls Royce. He gets invited to the best parties. He comes and goes when he wants.

Who wouldn’t want to be Thomas in Blowup?

The answer would be “Thomas.” Thomas has photographed so many beautiful women that he’s sick of seeing them. He dabbles in socially conscious photojournalism, spending the night in a flop house taking pictures of homeless men. He takes landscapes. While it may seem a bit odd these days that a glamorous fashion photographer would blow off Jane Birkin to take photos in Maryon Park, that’s precisely what Thomas does. It’s hard to exaggerate how beautiful the lighting is, how calm the setting. Maryon Park feels a bit like a mod Garden of Eden transplanted to Swinging London in the 1960s.

Then it gets more interesting. Thomas sees a pair of lovers, an older man and a young Vanessa Redgrave. He takes their photo. The man disappears. Redgrave follows him, outraged that he took her photo without her consent. It’s a situation almost every street photographer has found himself in at one time or another, but her vehemence — she bites his hand to try to get his camera — suggests there’s something more at work then her annoyance at becoming part of some tourist’s snapshot. What is it? Is the relationship Thomas witnessed adulterous? Is she afraid of being betrayed to her husband? Or is she just crazy? Later, when Thomas goes to his darkroom, we discover another reason. Thomas thinks he’s accidentally photographed a dead body.

Did Vanessa Redgrave commit murder? Thomas blows up the photo, thus the title. He goes back to the park and finds a body. He does nothing. Is it to protect Vanessa Redgrave? She had dropped by his apartment earlier in another attempt to get the film and they, possibly, had a sexual encounter of some sort. Or is Thomas just so jaded that, once he discovers the body, he no longer cares? He goes to a party. Everybody looks dead, beautiful, but dead. He goes back to the park, but the body is gone, and we begin to understand what the film is all about. Thomas is living in one of his photographs, in a beautiful, empty dream world full of mannequins and perfect light. It may look like heaven, but it’s essentially hell.

For us, the viewer, it doesn’t matter. Blowup may be boring as drama, but as a visual document of countercultural London it’s a superb film, so richly evocative of the 1960s that memories of my early childhood came flooding into my conscious mind, of Beatles album covers, TV shows, my parents’ old furniture, the new car they bought the year I was born, of a world I barely remember, but which seems more real than the world I’m living in now.