Robert Rossen’s idiosyncratic Lilith was released in 1964. The film is an interesting attempt to apply narrative techniques and photographic methods developed in European art cinema to a star-driven American movie. The picture is notable for fine performances by Warren Beatty and Henry Fonda, Jr. The movie is famous for Jean Seberg’s acting as the titular demon, Lilith, the familiar of screech-owls and the malign spirit of the air.
Sumerian myth: Inanna and the Huluppu Tree
Like Paddy Chayefsky, although a generation his senior, Robert Rossen (born Rosen) was a tough, high-strung New York Jew. His father was a rabbi and he was born on the Lower East Side in 1908. As a young man, Rossen hustled pool, lived on the streets, and did some prize-fighting. After a stint at New York University, Rossen became involved with radical groups promoting workers’ theater – he directed a show about a strike called Steel and another theater-piece about lynching. Broadway types, slumming in the lower East Side ghetto, saw these shows and Rossen was encouraged to submit his scripts to Hollywood. Mervyn LeRoy, a director at Warner Brothers, admired one of Rossen’s plays and suggested that the young man move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.
In Hollywood, Rossen wrote a number of highly regarded scripts. He was a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party between 1937 and 1947 and remained sympathetic to the party in solidarity with "poor Jews" until 1949. In that period, he worked on many films and developed his trademark style (not in evidence in Lilith), a kind of vivid, socially conscious melodrama. Noteworthy films that he wrote were The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. (1946). Rossen was working on adapting B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when political problems intervened and the project was transferred to John Huston – he was unofficially blacklisted in 1951. Despite the looming crisis, Rossen was very successful and productive in the late forties. He wrote Abraham Polonsky’s boxing film Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield and directed All the King’s Men, based on the Robert Penn Warren novel, in 1949. That film won several Oscars including Best Picture. Rossen followed All the King’s Men, with The Brave Bulls (1950), a well-reviewed bullfighting picture.
In late 1951, Rossen was subpoened to appear before the House Unamerican Affairs Committee (HUAC). This was the application of the Red Scare to Hollywood, a proposed purge of the film industry of "Communists and fellow travelers." Rossen appeared, pled the Fifth Amendment, and refused to provide testimony. This resulted in a de facto blacklisting that proscribed employment for Rossen – at least in Hollywood. Rossen appeared before HUAC again in 1953 and, hoping to regain his status with the Hollywood studios, cooperated with the Committee and "named names" identifying about fifty other film workers who had been members of the Communist Party. These measures were unsuccessful, however, in restoring Rossen to active status in Hollywood. His next film, Mambo, was made in Italy. After a couple years hiatus abroad, Rossen was back in Los Angeles by 1955.
By 1956, Hollywood was promoting large-scale spectacle films – not really Rossen’s metier. Rossen directed Alexander the Great to mixed reviews and, then, didn’t work again until 1961. In that year, he directed The Hustler, the first of two films for Rossen shot by the great German cameraman Eugen Schueftten. The Hustler, a film about pool sharks, was a critical and popular success – Rossen was very pleased with the film and, frequently, said that if he had accomplished nothing else, "at least I made The Hustler." The Hustler won many awards and is credited with a resurgence of pool and billiards in the United States – that sport had seemed antiquated in 1961, a remnant of the pre-World War I Music Man past, but The Hustler revived people’s interest in the game.
Rossen was sick by 1964 when he made Lilith. On the set, he clashed repeatedly with Warren Beatty. The experience was catastrophic for Rossen who was diabetic and exhausted. After shooting Lilith, Rossen said: "It isn’t worth that kind of grief. I won’t take it any more. I have nothing to say on the screen right now. Even if I never make another picture, I have The Hustler. I’m content to let that stand for me."
Rossen died in 1966. Like Chayefsky, he was very young – only 57.
An astounding feature of Lilith is Eugen Schuefttan’s pellucid, statuesque photography. Born is Silesia, Schuefttan was one of the great cameramen during the majestic (and monstrous) period of German expressionist films. He worked on Metropolis (1925) as well as Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen, (1924) shot many pictures for G. W. Pabst, and was chief cinematographer on Abel Gance’s vast Napoleon (1927). On the Lang spectacle-films, Schuefttan invented a technique using mirrors tilted to 45 degrees to film actors and miniature buildings in the same shot – this process allowed Schuefttan to create special effects that were uniquely convincing and integral to the success of Lang’s conception in these pictures – small, impotent mobs of humans dwarfed by colossal structures. The Schuefttan process was used extensively throughout most of the twentieth century – it was a particular favorite with Hitchcock, employed, as an example, to make it appear that Cary Grant is dangling from the nose of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. In fact, many scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King were shot with the Schuefttan process. Only recently has CGI, traveling matte, and blue-screen technology banished the Schuefttan process to merely historical status.
Schuefttan was amazingly versatile. None of his pictures look alike. Shortly after achieving the dense, heroic chiaroscuro in Lang’s Metropolis, and the swarming canvases of Gance’s Napoleon, Schuefttan shot Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a landmark in impressionistic cinema detailing the romantic adventures of working class Germans on a typical summer Sunday – drinking beer in cafes, flirtations in the park, everything filmed in the most matter-of-fact and, yet, luminous style imaginable. Schuefttan seems to have had a chameleon-like ability to adapt his style to the needs of the director for whom he was working.
Schuefttan worked in Germany and France during the Second World War – his politics remain unpublished. (Some sources say that Schuefttan came to the United States in 1940 – but he has a variety of European credits, mostly French, after that date). He lensed important early films by Max Ophuls and Marcel Carne. After the War, he continued working – gaps in his record of film work seem attributable to the fact that, like his colleague, Karl Freund, he worked extensively in Fifties’ American Tv. Schuefttan is famous for his photography on Georges Franju’s horror film Eyes without a Face (1960). It is not clear to me how he came to work for Robert Rossen. But he shot The Hustler in 1961 and was given the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for that work. He made another five or six American pictures before retiring in 1966. Schuefttan died in New York City in 1977.
Although Schuefttan’s camerawork is wonderfully effective and persuasive, the editing in Lilith is sometimes ineffective. An example is the sequence in which Jean Seberg’s Lilith entices her admirer, Peter Fonda, into the gorge above the waterfalls. Fonda ends up dangling from a cliff and must be saved by Warren Beatty. The staging of the scene suggests that Fonda is hanging by his fingertips above a rocky abyss in which a raging river is churning downward through a series of waterfalls. If Fonda loses his grip, he will plunge into the whitewater forty or fifty feet below him. Cut into this sequence are inserted shots taken from a vantage below Fonda – that is, the camera looks upward to film him dangling above. These shots are a mistake, distracting and discordant. Since a camera can be positioned below Fonda, the audience senses that his apparently perilous situation is, in fact, not that dangerous – clearly there is a ledge of some sort below the actor sufficiently capacious to hold a heavy camera and its operator. If Fonda falls, at most he will merely damage the camera that is somehow positioned below him. Of course, the footage taken from above Fonda emphasize his peril and the fact that he is dangling over an abyss, but the spectator’s sense of danger is undercut by the shots taken from below the actor – the viewer senses, in his or backbone as it were, that there is a convenient ledge or platform below the actor and that there is no real peril. The reason that this sequence is poorly edited is that earlier images have emphasized the camera’s point-of-view – repeatedly, we have seen Warren Beatty tentatively touring the insane asylum from Lilith’s perspective. The camera is mounted behind Lilith’s shoulders and shows her scrutinizing Beatty through windows with wire rather ominously protecting the glass. The effect of these shots is to sensitize the viewer to camera angle as a identified with a specific point-of-view. Having encoded this perception, the film maker can’t simply ignore point-of-view in the waterfall scene. (There is another discordant shot in this part of the film – we see a perspective from Lilith’s window when she is no longer in her room. This leads to the question: who is looking down on the lawn if Lilith is outside of her room? Throughout the film, there are point-of-view shots that are rather mysteriously motivated – we seem to be seeing someone’s perspective but don’t know through whose vantage we are looking. This is a common technique used in horror films and may be employed in Lilith to suggest the schizophrenia of the title character – but my impression is that the effect is haphazard and, probably, not intentional.)
Writers on film and politics are wont to derive all kinds of morose surmises from the sad biography of Jean Seberg. Books have been written about her and her fate has launched a number of polemics. Whether so slender of reed can support this weight of significance seems questionable to me.
Here is the outline of this melancholy parable: Seberg was capriciously plucked from the obscurity of small-town Iowa, made famous by Hollywood, lived in France, and, then, was destroyed by the toxic political climate of the late sixties. She was beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious. She was also quixotic and half-mad. Her story is better than most of her movies.
Born and raised in Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg seemed destined for small-town life: a little local fame as the prom queen, early marriage to a banker or car dealer, children, perhaps, some community theater as she aged. Had she followed this path, Seberg would probably be alive today, living in comfortable and wealthy retirement as a widow in Jacksonville, Florida or Orange County. But her biography poses a question often asked of Thomas Grey’s "Elegy in a Country Graveyard" – is there such a thing as a "mute inglorious Milton"? That is, if you are born to be Milton, can you possibly be "mute" and "inglorious"? It is likely that Seberg’s ambition and intelligence and radiant beauty set her apart from the rest of Marshalltown and that her destiny was always for larger, and more problematic, venues than the main street of the county seat of Marshall County, Iowa.
In the late forties and fifties, Otto Preminger was regarded as one of Hollywood’s leading directors. In 1956, as a gimmick, an open casting was conducted for the title role in Preminger’s film Saint Joan, a picture about Joan of Arc. (The picture was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play.) Seberg was selected from the 18,000 young actresses who auditioned for the part. The movie was highly touted, primarily as "the Pygmalion experiment," critics and breathless fan magazine writers treating Iowa as if it were Timbuktu or the plateaus of Tibet. Saint Joan wasn’t a good film and Seberg’s acting was derided. She later wrote that she was "burnt at the stake" twice, once by Preminger and once by the critics and that she was "scared as a rabbit and it showed."
But Preminger recognized Seberg’s latent talent and cast her again in Bonjour Tristesse, a film he made the next year in France. This picture also was a failure and Seberg was again mocked for her wooden performance. She did better a little later as the ingenue in the Peter Sellers’ comedy The Mouse that Roared. By this time, she had married a French lawyer and moved to Paris. In that place, she became, briefly, the muse of the French New Wave, appearing most famously as the vicious and charming American girl in Breathless (1959). Francois Truffaut proclaimed her "the best actress in France."
Seberg spent most of the rest of her life in Paris, but, curiously, didn’t really like the city or the French. (She said that she despised the "formality" of French society, the rigid etiquette, and the lack of "thick milk shakes and thick steaks" in Parisian cuisine.) The actress divorced her first husband and married the novelist Romain Gary. She worked hard, appearing in dozens of film both in Europe and Hollywood. Along the way, she indulged in many love affairs, including a brief fling with the Mexican novelist and politician, Carlos Fuentes.
At some point in the mid-sixties, Seberg came under the scrutiny of the FBI and appears to have been listed as a subversive on indexes personally maintained by J. Edgar Hoover. Like many Americans, she publicly opposed the Vietnam War. But she lived in Paris, consorted with known Marxists, and had been seen in the company of Jane Fonda, also residing in France at that time. Freedom of Information Act disclosures show that the FBI’s COINTELPRO operatives targeted her for harassment. COINTELPRO agents planted defamatory information about her in the media and attempted to implement an informal Hollywood black list against Seberg. Her crimes seem to have been related to her wealth. Seberg had made a lot of money and was generous. She donated some money to the Mesqwakie Indians at Tama near Marshalltown – now mostly millionaires on the basis of the casino at that place. That money was used to buy jerseys for the Bucks, the boy’s basketball team on the Reservation. Seberg also gave money to the Black Panthers and spoke publicly in favor of their political initiatives. The FBI countered these activities by implying the Seberg was sexually involved with various radicals, including members of AIM and the Black Panthers. When her second child was born in 1970, the FBI persuaded Newsweek, among other mainstream media outlets, to proclaim that the little girl’s father was a prominent Black Panther activist. (The story was a lie, although the child’s father was another revolutionary, a Spanish anarchist.) The baby died after a couple of days and Seberg had an open casket funeral to show the world that the baby was white. She and her husband sued Newsweek and won a significant libel judgment against the magazine. But FBI harassment seems to have continued until her death.
Seberg divorced Romain Gary and lived for several years with an Algerian radical in Paris. The radical beat her and extorted money from her so that he could start a restaurant in Barcelona. Seberg began to drink heavily and use barbiturates. In 1970, a white Renault parked for ten days on a quiet residential street in Paris attracted attention on the basis of the stench coming from the car. The police broke into the vehicle and found Seberg badly decomposed and wrapped in a blanket. A bottle of barbiturates was found next to her rotting body. The autopsy showed a high concentration of alcohol in her blood. Seberg was so drunk that she would not have been able to get into the Renault by herself, nor would she have been capable of wrapping herself carefully in the blanket that concealed her body for so many days. It is fairly evident that someone else was involved in Seberg’s death and that, in fact, she may have been murdered. (At the time of her death, Seberg was hiding from her Algerian lover who had recently beat her severely.) Romain Gary announced that Seberg had been "harassed to death" by the FBI and that she had been "driven mad" by COINTELPRO activities. Gary later killed himself, leaving a note carefully distancing his death from Seberg’s mysterious demise – he said his motive was despair that he had lost his creative powers.
We now know these things: first, Seberg was systematically wire-tapped and harassed by the FBI; second, her file was frequently on the desk of J. Edgar Hoover himself and various operatives in the Nixon White House including John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and Richard Kleindienst. President Nixon himself is said to have amused himself by reading transcripts of wiretaps on her Swiss home. Third, as always, the American media that famously prides itself on independence is generally nothing more than a tool of government agencies. Fourth, as Obama’s surveillance, and drone-strikes, on American citizens proves, there is no limit to the wickedness of the American government.
Seberg was found dead in 1980 and was 40 years old when she died.
I saw Lilith in the British Museum. While strolling amidst the mud tablets and the cylinder seals, an object beckoned to me from within a glass case. I drew close and peered into the display and saw a tablet on which a buxom woman was are represented frontally. The tablet appeared to be a ceramic, a plaque baked to form the bas relief image. The figure is naked and eyeless – apparently once lapis-lazuli or some other precious gem had been inserted in the almond-shaped eye-sockets. Her calves are feathered and her toes are the talons of a great raptor, pitiless and clawed, and she wears wings behind her shoulders, spread like a immense, feathery cloak. A phrygian cap, like a ziggurat, covers her hair and two stylized owls, more exercises in involutional, spiral patterns than fowl, flank her. Her clawed feet rest on a plinth comprised of two lions, tail to tail, beneath the monstrous female’s talons.
This plaque is strangely magnetic and enchanting, and the lissome female figure with her mutant features is curiously seductive. No one knows exactly what is shown on the tablet. Some speculate that the ancient figurine was made to occupy a niche in a brothel inhabited by sacred temple prostitutes. Others have claimed that the image represents Ishtar or Inanna – that is, fertility goddesses of the Assyrians and Babylonians. But this is also contested and no one is really confident as to the identity of this clay apparition boldly baring her nudity to the spectator. (Her affrontery was originally even more pronounced – there are traces of paint on the plaque that show that the woman’s nude body was painted a fierce, fire-house red, her crimson flesh contrasting with the background representing the blue darkness of the night.) The British Museum simply refers to her as the "Queen of the Night." You might spend a long time looking into her vacant eye-sockets and, perhaps, she might whisper something in your ear.
In Hebrew, L-Y-L is the root consonant formation of the word "night." This formula occurs only once in the Bible at Isaiah 34:13-14 – in that passage, the desolate ruins of a city are described and a Lylit is said to repose there, among the hyenas and carrion birds. In the renaissance, this passage, apparently referring to some kind of animal or bird, was translated as "the lamia reposes there..." (Lamia is a term used by Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy for female demon and derives, apparently, from Greek legends.) In the King James version of the Bible, the word is translated as "screech-owl." Modern Bibles say that the Lylit is a "night-bird."
In the period between the 8th and 10th centuries, a pseudo-epigraphic book The Alphabet of Ben Sira circulated in Jewish community. This written text collects earlier traditions about Lilith in her role as Adam’s first wife or, perhaps, invents that mythology – it isn’t clear whether Ben Sira developed the legend or based his references to Lilith on previously existing stories. In summary, Ben Sira says that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, made from clay and not engineered from the First Man’s rib or flesh. As such, Lilith was equal to Adam and, immediately, clashed with him. Lilith was not willing to subserviently lie underneath Adam when he had sex with her, but, instead, insisted upon mounting him. This power struggle escalating to the point that Lilith fled from Adam, and, invoking the tetragrammaton, sprouted wings and flew away from Eden. She is said to have become the consort of a demon named Samael and, later, was punished for her hubris by the death of her children. Lilith compensated for her children’s death by snatching the children of other women and devouring them.
Throughout the medieval period, Lilith was regarded as a demonic succubus, the vector of lethal childhood diseases, and the cause of nocturnal seminal emissions. The renaissance and enlightenment forgot about her. But her ill-fame revived in the Romantic period. Goethe installs her in his Faust and Keats wrote about her as Lamia. Today, Lilith has gained some currency as the figure of a matriarchal, defiant feminisim. Wiccans and neo-Druids and some New Age types purport to admire her.
Superficially, Lilith may seem to be similar to a standard star-driven Hollywood movie. But, in fact, the texture of the film is quite different from an ordinary studio film from the early sixties. Comparison with the style evident in films by Howard Hawks may be instructive. Hawks is a director famously associated with classical Hollywood narrative films – his movies are the paradigm for a cinema that is based upon transparency, visibility, and lucidity. In a film by Hawks, we look through the image, as if it were a window or proscenium, to see what is being shown to us. We are only rarely conscious of how things are presented for our perception and interpretation. By contrast, Rossen’s style in Lilith emphasizes the way in which we are shown things; frequently, the actual subject matter of the image is relegated to secondary importance – Rossen’s camera style and editing is expressionistic: it foregrounds the techniques used to show us the people and things in the scene. Watching a movie like Scarface, we scan the image for details as to how the characters are interacting and the editing follows the movements that comprise the story. Lilith, by contrast, presents us with dense surface texture comprised of relatively short shots, often not edited according to motion or narrative, but, rather, presented as a sort of cubist collage – discordant elements jarring up against one another. Furthermore, Lilith is constructed using non-narrative leit motifs – images of water, for instance – and intrusive camera effects, most notably a vast number of dissolves, shots in which one image melts into another. The use of the dissolve is the film’s expressionistic signature – the dissolve signifies that reality is fluid, that characters blend into one another, and that our perception is not grounded in objective reality but in subjective impressions and emotions. The prevalent dissolves between short images are equivalent to the many shots of flowing, rippling, and cascading water.
We can sample the film’s stylistic resources by examining closely the jousting sequence, a pivotal scene in the movie since the episode culminates with Beatty’s character announcing his love for the heroine and, then, having sex with her. The jousting imagery, involving thrusting a lance through a small washer-shaped ring, is overtly – even painfully – Freudian, a over-obvious nod to psychoanalytic notions prevailing in 1964 and there is no need to dwell excessively on phallic implications of this episode. The imagery of men jousting resonates with the mythological symbolism in the film, particularly the medieval aura that surrounds the mentally ill heroine, the sense that she is witch or some sort of demon from the dark ages mysteriously revived into our day and age. Further, the jousting episode clarifies the young man’s character, establishing him as sort of damaged warrior and knight errant – although it isn’t clear if Beatty’s hero seems himself in that light, if Jean Seberg views him in that way, or if we are supposed to draw those connections. (This is a characteristic of the film – we are never entirely certain whether the characters grasp the mythological Jungian implications of the narrative or if this aspect of the story is available only to those in the privileged position of spectators to this story. Does Beatty’s doomed character see himself as knight-errant or is this vantage only available to the audience?)
The jousting sequence is generally constructed by imagery that obeys the principles of three codes. These sign-systems may be identified as the documentary, the Hollywood narrative and the Soviet-style montage code. Hollywood narrative code imagery highlights the interaction between hero and heroine and consists of two-shots featuring the main protagonists or tracking/panning images that follow them through the crowd. Sometimes, the clash between the film’s expressionistic techniques and standard Hollywood mise-en-scene or shot construction is jarring. After the sex scene, comprised entirely in ecstatic dissolves, and, in which we see Beatty’s naked back, the narrative cuts to a shot of the two stars lying in the meadow, fully dressed and their clothing and coiffure showing no evidence of disarray. How are we supposed to interpret the strange juxtaposition between ecstatic dissolving shots of Jean Seberg’s orgasm and the prosaic image of the fully clothed Hollywood stars, looking like matinee idols, lying chastely side-by-side? Was the sex purely imaginary?
Documentary images, generally deployed in series of four or five shots, show the crowd, the small band, and the vendors at the fair where the jousting takes place. These images are short in duration and signaled to be different from the Hollywood narrative sequences because overtly handheld – the camera jiggles and the focus is unsteady. The shots have off-balance compositions and strange combinations of light and shadow. The imagery seems designed to resemble Robert Frank’s innovative still photographs from the 1950's (his book The Americans) and Walker Evans concealed camera pictures of people riding the New York subways. These images are raw, seemingly unmediated, and don’t have the glossy pictorial style that we associate with a Hollywood studio product. Documentary footage of this sort provides a contrast to the somewhat operatic Hollywood narrative simultaneously presented – the jousting tournament that will result in Jean Seberg being crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty". Signifying the code of the real, the arbitrary, something that is shown because it just happens to be there, these elements of the sequence are similar to other interpolated details that don’t carry narrative meaning but are designed to simply show that what we are seeing is plausibly real and that we can know it to be real because it has the hallmark of the real – it is untidy, unnecessary, non-narrative. Two examples of the interpolation of the code of the documentary real into this sequence are noteworthy as examples – the small detail that Seberg leaves her doll on the fence-post and has to run back to pick it up, an element of the scene that has no apparent narrative valence and the small child crossing in front of the men on horseback, triggering a protest from the narrator: "Clear the track!" he shouts.
The third element of the tournament scene is the use of Soviet-style dialectical montage to define the actual imagery of the jousting competition. This part of the sequence is characterized by deep focus, telephoto lens imagery of horseman riding at an oblique angle toward the camera, the camera’s open eye signified by the washer-target looped on a dangling string and intercut with the shots of the approaching combatants. These sequences have something of the archaic silent film style that we see Eisenstein deploying in similar scenes of knights in Alexander Nevsky. Furthermore, Soviet-style montage techniques including dynamic editing of the horsemen, the same general shot and motion repeated over and over again to emphasize and give heroic substance to the dramatic action of the tournament. As previously observed, these three codes of signification are substantially different in visual texture and can not be reconciled stylistically – in effect, the clash of these three types of images suggests tensions between the characters and, even, something like the heroine’s schizophrenic relationship to reality.
Rossen designs (some might say "over-designs") the sequence by including all sorts of portentous and intricate details. Warren Beatty’s character doffs and dons sunglasses and many of the spectator’s conceal their eyes as well behind hideous-looking dark glasses. (Beatty even approaches the vulvar target with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.) By contrast, Seberg’s character always shows her eyes to the world and, unlike many of the other women, doesn’t wear sunglasses. The deployment of the sunglass imagery rhymes with the many shots – once again "too many" for some tastes – of sunlight glinting on water. Seberg’s Lilith is correlated to the water, fluid, the dapple of brilliant scintillation on the rippling surface of the lake or pond where she stoops, like a forest animal to drink. She is a scintillant object – another name for a "star" – that others must protect their eyes from. Similarly, the pattern of shots involving the mysterious encounter with the two little boys is also fraught with meaning. At first, we see both boys from above – that is, from an adult vantage. But as the scene progresses, Seberg’s mad-woman seems to seduce the older boy – he has a peculiarly sneaky-looking, half-depraved look on his face. As her seduction proceeds, the camera angle drops until we are looking at the boy directly, no longer from an "adult" vantage, but more from the perspective of a potential lover. By contrast, the smaller boy, who is not complicit in the implied seduction, remains observed from above, from an angle that separates him from Lilith and the older child.
The film’s soundtrack is similarly complex. The tournament sequence seems to use only diegetic music – that is, the music played by the small band nearing the jousting course. But, as the sequence proceeds, the same heraldic phrase is played again and again as punctuation to the narrative. Thus, the music now has become non-diegetic – we have slid from documentary use of sound to an impressionistic sound design that mirrors the emotions of the characters. In contrast to ordinary Hollywood sound design, Beatty’s character announces his love in a mumbled aside that we can scarcely hear. And, in the forest scene leading to the sexual encounter, we hear a plaintive flute melody, only a few bars of non-diegetic music, that suggests an archaic pan-pipe, an instrument suitable to the bucolic sex-on-the grass scene that it orchestrates.
Rossen highlights elaborate camera techniques. The joust sequence has jarring editing combined with its opposite, fluid dissolves that melt images into one another. In one notable edit, the camera both zooms toward Jean Seberg and dissolves her image simultaneously – this showy transition is playfully referenced by the following shot showing a small boy aiming a boxy movie camera at the men galloping by on horseback. (Rossen seems to acknowledge the elaborateness and intrusive character of the hybrid zoom/dissolve by showing the small boy’s camera in the right lower corner of the next frame.) The innumerable dissolves suggest that reality is fluid, shifting, difficult to grasp and retain. Further, the dissolution of the image reaches its climax, figuratively and literally, in the rapid sequence of dissolves showing Jean Seberg’s face during the sex – the grass haloing her head reads as spider-web as it flickers in and out of focus, rhyming the image with the previous references to predatory (and schizophrenic) arachnids. The use of the dissolve, at times, suggests the content of a character’s thoughts – in one shot, showing the joust, we see Seberg’s luminous face while Beatty on horseback, aiming his lance, rides toward her eyes.
Even more remarkable for those interested in film history are the shots in the dark glade of the forest, Beatty on horseback with Seberg riding behind him. These shots culminate in an expressionistic landscape – Beatty’s horse tentatively approaches a brilliantly lit meadow, appearing on screen as a swath of luminous light. However, we see the meadow from the shadows of the dark forest and, prominently displayed at the right side of the frame, are two columns of birch tree. These images have a deeply textured primordial impact. And, in part, this derives from the fact that we are seeing an expressionistic landscape that is closely related to the mystic forest through which Siegfried rode his white horse in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film of the Nibelungenlied. In that movie, the hero rides his beautiful steed through a gloomy forest, passing colonnades of noble birch trees that appear like the columns of Greek temple, approaching a bubbling spring surrounded by luminous flowers – this is one of the signature images of the German expressionistic cinema, also shot by Rossen’s great cameraman Eugen Schuefften. And it is interesting to note that the landscape signifying the arena for the characters’ sexual encounter becomes increasingly unrealistic and symbolic: one of the final shots in the sex sequence shows Beatty and Seberg embracing in the cleft of the cliffs of the river gorge, a place that seems remote from the forest and meadow where their embrace began. Rossen demonstrates that once their embrace has been consummated, the placid and idyllic forest and meadow must immediately give way to the menacing and potentially deadly cliffs of the canyon roaring with waterfalls.
But this lyrical landscape interpolation in the film comes to an end designed to graphically clash with the symbolic, sun-filled nature imagery. Suddenly, the image darkens and we are back in the asylum with an embittered woman standing against constructivist-style travel posters, an image that is blackened with angular shadows, harsh and cubist in its composition.