Interview with Jean Seberg, Part III
Q: You’ve been trying to unbury the Midwest inside yourself, so describe some of the drama of the dullest place on earth. What sparked the fanciful in you, the fever to act? You were the daughter of a drugstore owner and a school teacher. Your siblings never left Marshalltown, Iowa.
SEBERG: I had a terrible hunger for the theatrical. Sundays we’d eat at my great-aunt’s. My uncle sat in long-sleeved shirts three layers deep, hunched on the Queen Anne’s chair. He’d tell you naked women were climbing his red oak tree, the same ones who slept in the chicken coop eating his eggs. My siblings crouched at his feet, laughing. I’d tell them to stop, they’d hurt our great-aunt. How could I stop myself wanting to hear more? I believed in the gold-skinned women with azure lips and feathered hair, the pale-skinned women with doe eyes, Victorian lace at their neck and ankles and nothing else. I too saw them half hidden in the straw. Pointing their toes on the roosts like a ballet of droppings. Cavorting, eating his brain. They stroked the chickens purring in their laps. I would think of his visions when I played Lilith. In a childhood offering movie magazines and Sunday dinner as the week’s highlights, I sought out the trinket house that offered allegory through glaucoma-whitened eyes. Later I too would witness naked women climbing fire escapes or clutching the wheel of my weaving Renault, having swallowed my gin and seconals. A trance is not quite dementia. But a death before death that uproots the who and what in you.
Q: What is it about this man that feeds your dramatic interest? Tell us about your decision to stare into the camera and cross that fourth wall as the voiceover speaks your thoughts.
SEBERG: He taught me to break the rule of gaze. It’s not the window behind him you crave or the fence twined through with raspberries and wild grape so close to the gravel road, but all the green cloaked under a shawl of dust. Dust is the doily. There to disguise the wildness. The old uncle laid it bare. He worked as a tinner at the original meat packing plant before it became Marshalltown’s Swift Meats. Hacksaw and scraper were the music of his world. Six-inch blade, the soloist. A hypochondriac, great-uncle fashioned metal into cans ever certain that his cold would bloom into pneumonia, the lush pain likely appendicitis striding up and down his side. “Don’t kill a sow in heat,” he said. “The flesh goes rank, then her taste is one of cunt.” My mother inhaled her school teacher breath. I didn’t yet know that word. Seberg’s are a haunted line. Ten thousand tin crypts for animals whose spirits have vanished. It’s all the death in us. To stare into the camera had been a no-no. His expression never changed. His pallor stayed the same. Looking at the window, his vein-knotted hands, or my great-aunt, but the words he spoke were camera angles. Close-ups and panning shots. He’d shout out. “Where’s my girl wife?” He’d rhyme. Cloud, cleave, knead. Nightly he’d watch my great-aunt’s hair loosened by brush tumble to her buttocks. Pelvis, girdle. What did he call the bent gentleness that dressed, fed, and washed him? Nothing. Sometimes a grunt. The beauties in his coop cracking eggs and supping the yolk embryos molested his head. “Scald the carcass to loosen scurf, and then add a pinch of hardwood ash,” he’d laugh, stroking his chin as if a tusker’s growth bristled there.
Q: You spoke of your great-uncle’s visions in relation to your roles. Talk about Lilith considered one of your best performances.
SEBERG: Who hasn’t read Isaiah? She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. The Lilith. Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose. Original sexual predator and strangler of sleeping men. Bird talons for feet and a scorpion between her legs, the demi-goddess of storm, she who suckles dogs and pigs at her milkless breasts. But Hollywood’s no Babylonian Talmud. They keep my mid-western twang and dress me in prim cotton. Disguise my boy-hair with a blond wig, then order me to hunt the fragile lightning bugs or better still lower a bucket into the unmapped self. Then dredge-dredge the silt for watersnakes that plunder the bank’s fat raspberries, and wait for the camera to attack. I sense my great-uncle’s vision of tree-climbing soul nakedness.
Q: You were quoted as saying, “I’m lost to Debbie Reynolds roles and I’ll never give Liz Taylor a run for her money,” so where do you think Jean Seberg as Lilith fits in?
SEBERG: Myth. Not fable or legend, in Lilith I fit into an interstice of the sacred/demonic. I’m to become a temptress, a schizophrenic housed in a wooded sanitarium let loose midday to wander. Every afternoon I’m laughing, but I crave myself most and slip between the shagbark hickories where sun’s a soft blade over the red maples and lamb’s ear grasses. There are peaches swaying in the breeze. I call the black flies to bite like tiny vampire bats and sup. My arm’s a feast among the dust. I wade into the lake slashed by sun and shadow, lift my skirt above my knees and bend to kiss my reflection. I’m the girl next door with a viper’s twist. Watch a smile try to hide itself on my mouth when a bespectacled fellow patient (Peter Fonda) attempts to drown himself to prove his love. If I were queen I would serve only apricots and dates toothpicked through by thorns. I would seduce the breathing peonies, entice the long grass and draw summer lightning and thunderclap. Not just the caregiver attendant, (Warren Beatty) so young you wouldn’t recognize his innocence raised from its grave. I take him in my arms. Desolation is where we rent our bed. Between my breasts there’s floating broken ice and estuaries of frigid water. On my near perfect face my lips are quivering wings of arctic swans. Isa 34:14 “and the shrichowle shall rest there, and shall finde for her selfe a quiet dwelling.”
Q: You’ve been compared to silent movie star Louise Brooks in the intelligence you bring to your roles. Can you discuss?
SEBERG: Her gun-shy, almond eyes avoided the camera. She was hauteur’s daughter. I was guileless. She was fashion. A divinity of furs and sashes, the soul revealed as a Cloche hat. A kiss of blood-dark lipstick. My face artless, hers all elaboration.But at bottom we shared a problem. We think too much. A rumor gets around about you and you’re finished. Difficult. Tubular skirts and dropped waistlines, they hosed her out of Hollywood once they realized she had a brain. Washing up in Deutschland, the flowering Weimer cinema (pre-Hitler) filmed Pandora’s Box which showed the world her ivory flesh in ostrich feathers and bare back split by a single jeweled string. Likewise, Hollywood had no use for me, and then France adopted Jean Seberg. I learned their language. New Wave. Improvisation. I was fresh as heat lightning. They say I’m intelligent. How can they know? The roles they offered me femme fatale of a butterfly hatching hut, seductress of a bat cave, and Mayan Colonnade. I was nineteen when world fame swept my feet out from under me. Preminger became the sun and God above. Damnation in its way. My mouth found secreting the dew of a water lily, dried. I wear a dirt-sweetened negligee. Great books Louise credits for keeping her alive until age 78, when the whole silent era dimmed behind her. I learned from her to let my eyes speak. I swam toward the camera. She never acknowledged its presence.
Q: You revolutionized modern film. What qualities did you embody?
SEBERG: Acting explores the mysterious warming oven of character. The crone knows how to make a meal on a cookstove. The kept woman, the lover of older men understands how meat burns, the temperature’s never the same. I’m green wood, wet wood, kindling. Everything I touch I’m warned away from. Every stick burns in its own flame. All thorn and stinger, crones grasp how to cook with fire. They’ve lived fire. They’ve seen too much. Field work, corn picking sun a fire in their eyes, their hands on fire, burn and blister, cramping fire in their bellies, blood dripping from the rag folded between their legs. I knew fire too. Bad reviews when they keep coming. They pan you, put you in stocks, they bleed you and stop to wring you between the waves of heat. Joan d’Arc knows less of char and flame than they and me.
Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City. She received her MFA from the University of Oregon. Her stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South and in Best American Nonrequired Reading edited by Dave Eggers. She’s an associate editor at Mudfish and, along with Rob Cook, edits Skidrow Penthouse. She’s a member of Farm Sanctuary, the ASPCA, and American Fandouk, a veterinary clinic that serves the working animals of Morocco and their human families. A new novella, Lust Series, is out from Spuyten Duyvil.