Sunday, May 17, 2020

Of Jean Seberg, and Jeanne d'Arc

I thought it was a little over the top that the opening scene of the Amazon film Seberg showed actress Jean Seberg being burned at the stake while playing Joan of Arc. But after watching the movie, starring Kristen Stewart in the title role, I realized it was perfectly appropriate.

Jean Seberg was a 17-year-old girl from a small town in Iowa when she was entered in an international talent search to find someone to play Joan of Arc. Director Otto Preminger cast Jean after reportedly testing 18,000 young women for the title role in the 1957 film St. Joan, with a screenplay by Graham Greene from the George Bernard Shaw play of the same name.

Seberg was badly burned filming the scene where Joan is put to death, but she later said the emotional scars she endured were worse. Those she got from the critics and from working with Preminger, who was notoriously abusive to his actresses. (Robert Mitchum once slapped Preminger on the set, after he demanded repeated takes of Mitchum slapping actress Jean Simmons.) Seberg went on to become a darling of the French avant garde cinema for her role in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, and also starred in Hollywood pictures, like Paint Your Wagon and Airport.

Jean as Jeanne
Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) was also 17 when she announced her calling to fight the English invaders in France. Among the many accusations against her were that she danced as a child at a "fairy tree" at Domrémy, and that she used mandrake and other "witching herbs." The two saints who spoke to her were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret the Virgin. Some modern scholars think that the legend of Catherine was based on the life and murder of the Greek philosopher Hypatia, (with reversed roles of Christians and pagans). As Saint Marina, St. Margaret is associated with the sea, and possibly the goddess Aphrodite.

Like Jeanne before her, Jean stood up for causes she believed in, namely the Black Panther Party, which was funding schools and meal programs, as well as engaging in more militant rhetoric and activity. Dialog from Seberg about the violent mistreatment of blacks by police echo in protests of today over those ongoing abuses.

The FBI admitted in 1979 that, as part of COINTELPRO, not only did agent Richard Held plant a rumor that Seberg was pregnant with a black activist's child in 1970, the FBI surveilled her for years, tapping her phone and her bank accounts, opening her letters, and sharing information with the CIA.  “It is felt that the possible publication of Seberg’s [pregnancy] could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public,” Held wrote in the request to smear her that was approved by J. Edgar Hoover.

LA Times, September 14, 1979
Seberg went into premature labor after the rumors about her child were published, and her underweight daughter Nina died three days later. According to her former husband Romain Gary, the premature birth was brought on by the stress of the FBI's actions, and Jean tried to commit suicide on the date of her daughter's death, August 25, every year thereafter. She was found dead in her car in Paris on August 30, 1979 of an apparent suicide at the age of 40.

John McCormick wrote in the LA Times: "People here [in Marshalltown, Iowa] don't speak of Seberg simply as the movie actress who left home to play Joan of Arc and others. They think of her as a latter-day warrior in her own right, a small-town innocent who chased her destiny, fought her good fight, then got herself martyred at the stake." Indeed.

Held was later the subject of a successful lawsuit brought by forest activist Judi Bari, after the agency alleged she had placed a bomb that went off in her car, severely injuring her 30 years ago. Other targets of COINTELPRO included Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jessica Mitford and John Trudell. Some think Ernest Hemingway's suicide was brought on the by the FBI's targeting of him, over his ties to Cuba.

Stewart as Seberg
Seberg has had tepid reaction from critics, but Stewart's performance is widely praised. It depicts her as Jean smoking marijuana and "[Black Panther] Bobby Seale smoking pot on her goddamn couch" being used as part of the FBI's justification to harass her. I have not been able to uncover whether or not Jean smoked pot. (The Black Panther Party rules did not permit pot possession during working hours.) Of course, marijuana was associated with the progressive movements of the 60s and 70s, and laws against it were a convenient way to target activists.

It isn't the first time Stewart has smoked pot on film: she turns Jesse Eisenberg on in Adventureland (2009), and utters the line, "My slacker stoner boyfriend is going to kill you" in the interesting but violent American Ultra (2015), wherein Eisenberg plays a mind-controlled CIA agent. "This movie seems like a thought that someone had while stoned," Stewart said of American Ultra. She also played Joan Jett, an admitted pot smoker, in The Runaways (2010), and puffed in On The Road (2012), based on the Jack Kerouac classic. 

Stewart has been open about her marijuana use, and has been caught by potparazzi in a bikini with two pot leaves strategically placed, and smoking a pipe on her front steps in 2008. “You can Google my name and one of the first things that comes up is images of me siting on my front porch smoking a pipe with my ex-boyfriend and my dog,” she told Vanity Fair in 2012. “It was taken the day [Twilight] came out. I was no one. I was a kid. I had just turned 18. In the tabloids the next day it was like I was a delinquent slimy idiot, whereas I’m kind of a weirdo, creative Valley Girl who smokes pot. But that changed my life instantly.” 

Another young and socially active artist, Halsey, undergoes a witch burning sporting a Seberg-style pixie haircut with a touch of green in the video for her song "New Americana":

We are the New Americana
High on legal marijuana.... 

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