Jean Seberg

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[This essay on Jean Seberg originally appeared in the print edition of Stop Smiling Magazine. It’s not in their online archive, it’s one of my favorite pieces from back then, and since there’s now a movie about her life, I dug it up.]

At the end of Played Out, David Richards’s biography of doomed blonde starlet Jean Seberg, he offers an epilogue set at Marshalltown High School, Jean’s Iowa alma mater. Members of the Masque and Dagger drama club are preparing to crown that year’s winner of the Jean Seberg Award, named in honor of the small town’s most renowned citizen, who long since absconded from farm life for the life of a movie star in Paris. Both finalists, Patty Tiffany and Kris Hoelscher, are visibly nervous about the impending honor, yet neither –when prompted– can conjure the name of a Jean Seberg movie. It is September of 1980, but eight months on from when Seberg’s body was found in the back seat of a Renault on a Parisian side street, wrapped and bloated beside emptied bottles of barbiturates and mineral water, and yet she is already a distant memory in her home, all but forgotten in America.

And were it not for a sick day spent watching Turner Classic Movies, which paired up The Mouse That Roared and Paint Your Wagon! (perhaps the nadirs of sixties movie musicals), I myself would’ve been in Miss Tiffany and Miss Hoelscher’s position, hard-pressed to name a feature outside Jen Seberg’s defining role as the capricious American chick that smash-faced cop-killer Jean-Paul Belmondo beds in Jean-Luc Godard’s incipient shot of the French nouvelle vague, A Bout de Souffle, (Breathless).

Jean Seberg is the All-American story though. If by All-American you mean a small town nobody made into an idol overnight, via the sadistic dictums of a merciless control freak with a foreign accent. If by All-American you mean the story of a beautiful blonde whose every licentious encounter became fodder for the gossip pages. If by All-American you mean a public disgrace suffered at the hands of her government through the surreptitious seeding of the press, an mandate dictated from on high. And, if you mean by All-American, embodying a strain of beauty and fame that is both the very apex of sexual power as well as a vortex managed only by more illicit encounters, fuelled and dulled by alcohol and a profusion of pills, then Jean Seberg is indeed the All-American Girl, part of the myth factory that spawns not just Carrie Underwoods but Anna-Nicole Smiths, its Marilyn Monroes and Valerie Plames.

Seberg was seduced by Marlon Brando on the big screen at the Orpheum movie house in downtown Marshalltown, deciding she too would be an actress, though her attempts to make it through the tome An Actor Prepares failed; instead she thumbed the Hollywood glossies. A star in her drama club, her fate was cast by the town’s eccentric millionaire, J. William Fischer, who submitted her to famed Austrian director Otto Preminger’s open call, a worldwide search for his next star. “I have no specific image or character in mind,” Preminger proclaimed, settling himself in at Chicago’s Sherman Hotel so as to screen some three thousand of the eighteen thousand applicants. “I only know that there are certain qualities necessary to portray this part, which I hope to recognize when I meet the girl.”

When the 17-year-old sylph took to the stage, Preminger had found her: a wad of innocent, shapeless clay, a scrim on which to project his own desires. Such would be the case for everyone from Godard to Robert Rossen to Jean’s second husband and wannabe director, Romain Gary. Preminger introduced her to the world on the Ed Sullivan Show, then went about removing the moles off of her visage, shoring off her blonde locks, and locking her up in a hotel to prepare her for the role as Joan of Arc. Gossip rags murmured that the barely legal charge was involved with the brusque director, alluding to a paternal and sadomasochistic shade to the relationship.

Her first appearance on the silver screen in St. Joan is as a dream, draped in shadows, a wraith back from the dead. Seberg recites her lines, flat as an Iowan wheat field, her emotional capacity fluctuating between inopportune smirks and quavering histrionics. The film was both a critical and financial disaster, with the climactic scene of Joan being burned at the stake all too real when a leaky fuel tank ignited right in her face, yet the overnight success story was too good to pass up. As a Columbia publicist spun it: “Any girl can look at Jean and feel she might do it, too. She gives hope to American teen-agers that someone might discover them.” Preminger and Seberg remained linked for another film, another failure.

Still, she elicited keen admirers. Gracing the cover of Cahiers du Cinema, critic François Truffaut gushed with praise:

When Jean Seberg is on the screen…you can’t look at anything else. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect: this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen…Jean Seberg, short blonde hair on a pharaoh’s skull, wide-open blue (sic) eyes with a glint of boyish malice, carries the entire weight of this film on her tiny shoulders.

Such phrenology caught the eye of another Parisian critic, Jean-Luc Godard, who decided to take matters into his own hands and –stuffing his cameraman Raoul Coutard in a lidded mail cart– filmed Seberg as she peddled the Herald-Tribune along the Champs-Elysées. Before Bardot, before Anna Karina, Seberg was Godard’s first obsession, focused on her profile, on the nape of her neck, intent on her unblemished brow and lowered lashes throughout Breathless. Sure, she was cold and capricious, handing her lover over to the police, but France swooned regardless. Seberg’s boyish hair was asked for in salons as “la coupe Seberg.” Actress Josie Yanne noted that “as much as Brigitte Bardot was the woman as object, Jean stood for the woman as free spirit.” While Pauline Kael deemed her character “the most terrifyingly simple muse-goddess-bitch of modern movies…like a new Daisy Miller… she is so free that she has no sense of responsibility or guilt.”

Seberg embodied the insouciance and informality of the New World, she was America, even while residing in Paris. But soon her roles began to follow that typecast: the innocent daughter, the Nebraskan abroad, the virginal American teenager sent to Paris for a summer. Other roles hinted at her future troubles, playing schizophrenics or women with paternal vagaries. When Robert Rossen cast her for 1964’s Lilith, he noted that Seberg has “got that flawed American girl quality – sort of like a cheerleader who’s cracked up.”

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And crack-up she slowly did. When she wasn’t stealing husbands from wives (in the case of lovers like Romain Gary and Jamal X), she was involved in multiple trysts. When back in America to work on boilerplate like Paint Your Wagon! and Airport, she became involved with the Black Panther Party, going so far as to run guns for them out of her Coldwater Canyon home, when not bunking down with its ranks. In much the same way that a two-bit thief like Belmondo got in her panties and impregnated her in Breathless, Jean committed innumerable dalliances with other deviants and lowlifes. While filming in Mexico, a fling with a student led to her second pregnancy, but when news slipped out, the truth was twisted ever so slightly.

The FBI’s COINTELPRO had already targeted the Panthers, as well as any public figures that assisted them, including Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s wife. A 1969 internal memo pondered how best to neutralize and discredit Seberg. What better way than divulge that unspoken social/ sexual taboo of America, that a Black Panther was the father of her child? Deemed “a sex pervert” by J. Edgar Hoover and the bureau, that salacious scoop made its way to LA Times gossip columnist Joyce Huber, who ran with it. Tongue-clucking articles followed in the Hollywood Reporter and Newsweek, the fallout such that Seberg miscarried her fetus that same week. Paranoid, distraught, strung out on painkillers, Seberg sought to place the fetus in a glass coffin, so that the press could see the baby wasn’t a mulatto.

The effect of such slander was absolute. Overnight, her star turned suddenly abhorrent in Hollywood, work declined on the continent too, while her appetite for illicit sex, liquor, and pills escalated. With every anniversary of the dead child came another suicide attempt, until that final, tragic scene played out far from watchful eyes. And yet, the seeds of her demise are hinted at in that very first scene of St. Joan. When her accusers were revealed to be corrupt and wrong, she recites in her monotone: “I was burned all the same. Can they un-burn me?”

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My Deadspin Non-Sports Writing

Air Supply

I only got to write a handful of times for Deadspin (h/t to Down in Front), but I greatly enjoyed what I submitted over there. At one point in time, I wrote often about cinema (even having a column about soundtracks at Idolator called VHS or Beta) but those outlets slowly evaporated, or rather, stopped paying money. So it was fun to get to write about shitty directors who kept name-dropping John Cassavetes while not taking one aspect of his work to heart and the brain-frying brilliance of Jack Nicholson’s early westerns. Back when Guardians of the Galaxy was a box office smash, I got to wax about the mighty 10cc in all their permutations, from the woolly Consequences box set to Godley and Creme’s godlike “Cry” being used on an episode of Miami Vice, making it “ideal music for a sockless-yet-shoed Don Johnson to shoot a shirtless-yet-sports-coated Ted Nugent to.” And when Roberta Flack was used on the final season of Mad Men, I got to tell the little-known story about how Play Misty for Me actually put Flack in the public consciousness.

My favorite Deadspin piece was no doubt “Big In Jamaica: Why Reggae Fans Mysteriously Love Air Supply,” which explored why the pillow-soft Aussies were revered throughout the Caribbean and plastered on reggae festival posters in my old neighborhood of Crown Heights. The piece touched on the likes of FKA twigs, the Clash, Bread, and Marty Robbins, none of the above sports figures per se, but it was fun and enlightening to cover non-sports for a site that’s getting shittier by the day.



Grace Jones Interview

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Earlier this year, I fulfilled a decades-long dream to chat with Ms. Grace Jones, reaching her in the countryside of Jamaica on the occasion of the release of Bloodlight and Bami, an interview that ran over at Rolling Stone.

Below is the full transcript of our chat, which goes a bit more into her grandchild, family dynamic, and her love of dancehall:

Where are you now?

Jamaica. It’s absolutely beautiful. I try to stay about six months out of the year, in and out. But I’m here a lot. Nowhere else like Jamaica.

In the film, we see you visiting your newborn granddaughter. How old is she now and how is it being a grandmother?

She’s fantastic. She’s nine now. She’s full of energy and super-talented. She paints, she plays piano, she dances. She comes over and gets into all of my clothes and does fashion shows and talent shows for me. it’s a lot of fun. She’s vey athletic as well, she loves to swim like I do.

Do you see yourself in her?

Of course. She’s very independent and very strong from when she was very little. I remember walking with her in the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and she didn’t want to hold anybody’s hands, so she got knocked over by the crowds. I love that independence of her. She loves coming to Jamaica for Christmas, never wants to leave.

You talk about the Jones family in the film, that they “act younger as they get older.” Do you feel that way?

I guess so but I hope that I’m wiser anyhow. We start looking younger, but I hope to be wiser. Not to reflect on how you look but what you’ve learned.

What struck you about Sophie’s film?

Ah well (laugh)…what struck me was that I thought it was going to be so difficult to pull together. We had so much material after twelve years and I didn’t see any of the film before it was finished. I love the way it went in and out of the performance side, the recording side. She really captured the stuff that you go through as you are recording and working and doing talk shows and performances. And then coming in and out of the family and the whole part of me in Jamaica with my family, the way she went back and forth connecting the private intimate life of me to the part where you’re performing out there onstage with me. I just loved the way she saw that vision, because I lived it like that.

Was there a part of the film where you thought it was too personal? Too revealing?

No never! Sophie when she was filming was like a fly on the wall. Obviously, I felt very comfortable with her, so she was like an insider. I felt like I could be myself. I’m sure there was plenty of other stuff that didn’t even get in there.

Sophie also made a film about your brother, a preacher in Los Angeles. What was it about that film that made you decide to let her tell your story?

The film with my brother was completely different. It was dealing with the church and how he deals with all of that, and then about him. I don’t think it went as intimate on our film as it did with him. That’s how I met her initially, I was invited to a screening for my brother’s film. And we hit it off and we just got along really great. And I just said, we should do something. I also saw her other films, the one about the German artist and I knew she definitely has a vision and a passion for what she’s doing. So I felt completely safe in a way that I could be unsafe. You know? If you know what I mean. I felt really safe with her so that I could also let everything hang out. Literally!

When I think about you in films, A View to a Kill, Conan the Destroyer, Boomerang, or even A One Man Show, there’s this distance and this toughness and the film reveals a more intimate side of you.

In those films, I’m playing characters. I’m trying to make sure you don’t think about Grace Jones in those films, you think about May Day or Zula or Strangé, I try to make sure those characters were completely apart from Grace Jones in performance.

Did you like your shout-out in Black Panther?

Yeah! I was told that before I went and saw it. I just saw the film when I saw it in Los Angeles and I’m going to see it again here in Jamaica. I saw too close to the screen with my brother –who is near-sighted—and I’m far-sighted, so I want to see it again. It was quite funny getting mentioned in that movie. I did a film called Shaka Zulu: The Last Great Warrior where I play an African Queen, so I went wow, it brought all that back in a way. it was very interesting.

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Your 1982 longform video/ concert film A One Man Show is a classic of the era, but it’s never been available digitally. Is there any chance it will ever be reissued?

Well, we’re talking about it, Chris Blackwell and I, we were producers of that. it would be fantastic. I remember David Bowie that the performance of that film, you could just bring it out again and again after so many years, because it was really so far ahead of its time. People had their mouths falling down when they watched it, it was so different at the time. It really does stand the test of time, so we are talking about doing that, actually. I just hope we can find it. I hope we can find the masters!

In the film, there’s footage of you in the studio with Sly & Robbie working on Hurricane and you quip about “emotional blackmail” on Robbie to get them there. During the ‘80s, you worked with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Trevor Horn to C+C Music Factory so what led you to back to Sly & Robbie some 26 years after working with them on Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life?

When Chris Blackwell put Sly & Robbie together with me in 1980, I believe that being Jamaican and getting to know me, it just felt right. It just felt like this is what my voice together with them… they’re like my brothers. I fight with them, I beat them up, but we’re like brothers and sisters. My voice just seems to just meld perfectly with their rhythms, with their style. I love the fat bass, the percussion and rhythms. And I think they experiment more with me than with probably anyone else. We don’t mind experimenting together.

Did your songwriting approach change for Hurricane? Some songs seem more autobiographical than on other albums?

I like to write autobiographical songs but it was less before than it became on Hurricane. Some of the songs on Hurricane, Williams Blood for example, was written with Wendy and Lisa, we just didn’t release it. we went into the catalog, for me when it’s a really good song, it’s a really good song forever, its not a trend. But songs like “Art Groupie,” “Nipple to the Bottle,” “Inside Story” that was autobiographical as well.

Are you working on a new album now?

Yes! I’ve been working on it for five years now. Hopefully another month to just work and not go anywhere and not have outside things happening. Between my memoir, the touring, and now the film, we have to keep putting it on hold. But it’s very, very powerful. Sly & Robbie are on there in bits and pieces. I always call them in and say “Let’s see what you can do with this.” And they always find something.

I’m sure you get asked about this part in your memoir where you dismiss most modern pop stars for not being original and having their own vision. But I wonder what you thought about Jamaican singers of that era, dancehall artists like Patra, Lady Saw, and the like. Did you ever want to make a dancehall album?

Back in the day, I didn’t think about making dancehall necessarily. But we do have a dancehall track that I’ve been performing live and on tour, but we haven’t put it in record form yet. It’s called “Shenanigans” and it has a dancehall riddim to it but when we record it, I’d like it to drop even heavier, with a bit more edge. It’s still too sweet still. When we finally do it, it needs to be edgier.

Oh I love dancehall! I also love when Chris Blackwell did the film Dancehall Queen. It’s fantastic. I try to that whole bottom-shaking, twerking movement and almost broke my neck standing on my head to get my ass twerking. It’s really hard! But I’m taking lessons.

In the film, you reference Timothy Leary and also talked about disco as being “church with people on hallucinogens dancing,” so I wonder how influential LSD was on you in terms of your development?

Oh absolutely! It was like therapy, the way that I did it. I was born again in my own way. my eyes opened, the world got bigger but smaller at the same time. Bigger in the sense that it was mind-opening, it freed me up. I was a nudist during that time as well, so you get comfortable with yourself naked. And then from there, you see how small the world really is when you start traveling all over the place. I was hitchhiking. One time I even hitchhiked to Paris on acid. It was amazing. You meet welcoming people, welcoming and good conversations and then growing from that. You learn just how small the world really is. It just encouraged learning and growing really with me. that’s what I did. I felt like a gypsy going around the globe.

I always wanted to go to outer space, too. I always wanted to do a concert in outer space with David Bowie, Michael Jackson and myself. At one point I was like, let’s just call Bill Gates and have him fund it for outer space.

Sadly, it would just be you now.

Well now, with all the technology, you never know. Now we can just have a virtual reality concert in space.


Nic Roeg’s Musical Legacy


“Perhaps it’s a no-brainer to cast Jagger as a reclusive rock star, especially one able to mesmerize the moment an audience’s gaze falls upon him, but it was inspired casting to see that beneath the sleek veneer, the Thin White Duke could easily be an alien.”

My tribute to the late Nic Roeg and his unparalleled musical sensibilities in his films, for Vulture.