Saturday, February 23, 2008


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
is a Western and, as such, includes as one of its central thematic concerns the opposition of myth vs. truth. This binary formulation has always been implicit in the genre, and has been a foregrounded subject since, at the latest, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which—in a line often attributed to director John Ford rather than to one of his characters—a newspaperman says, “When truth becomes legend, print the legend.” The nickel-books read by Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) are full of such printed legend, and it is through his obsession with them that he comes to know everything there is to know about the (in)famous Jesse James. This film takes a classic Western trope and extends it into our modern world by depicting its titular assassination as the first celebrity stalker murder.

Famously, Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht said, “Good or bad, a play always includes an image of the world.” Further, despite the historical setting of the particular text, it is an image of the world contemporary to the artist, even more than that of the characters. So when P.T. Anderson makes a movie set in the early 20th century about megalomaniacal Americans making violent plays for land in order to suck out the oil from underneath it, we can see that it paints a portrait of not only that time period, but ours as well. As Joseph Natoli wrote, “The stories the present spins and films about the past tell us more about the present than they do of the past.” The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one such recent piece that is firmly rooted in its historical and genre origins, but speaks even stronger about the modern world. Director Andrew Dominik is giving us a vision of our modern celebrity-obsessed society by casting former People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive Brad Pitt as one of America’s first superstars, an outlaw whose existence is detailed by its own tabloid, the nickel-book.

Bob Ford’s knowledge of Jesse James is mediated by the reality of the nickel-books he’s collected since his boyhood. He professes to be “an expert on the James boys.” Such is his connection to the Jesse James of myth that even when the man himself tells him that the stories in the books are all lies, he persists in his beliefs. Jesse allows him to recount a list of their supposed similarities, never revealing how he feels about himself in relation to the myth of ‘Jesse James.’ After the original James Gang dissipates, and even his older brother leaves him, Jesse is left with a pack of sycophants. This is the moment at which the superstar loses his boyhood friends—the pop idol goes solo—and surrounds himself with an entourage. It’s not just Bob Ford that wants to ride with Jesse because he’s a famous man. Although they ridicule him for it, Bob’s older brother (played by Sam Rockwell) and the other guys who hang around want to be there as badly as he does. They’ve just probably long put away the boyish icons of their idolatry, while Bob cherishes his old nickel-books, keeping them in a box under his bed—along with newspaper clippings and some items from his actual adventure with Jesse, fantasy and reality once again entwining themselves around each other.

After Bob kills Jesse, he not only rockets to fame himself, but the legend of Jesse James, in which he has invested so much emotion, is bolstered as well. This parallels the historical rise to fame of Mark David Chapman, or Valerie Solanis, whose names we would never have known had they not committed heinous acts, and who also made their targets (John Lennon and Andy Warhol, respectively) even more legendary. Bob travels the country re-enacting the murder, a grotesquerie analogous to the media coverage attendant almost any modern day tragedy (Geraldo interviewing Manson, etc.) The event spreads into folk culture, with picture postcards of Jesse James’ corpse on ice on sale at every drugstore. When a wandering minstrel (Nick Cave) sings a tale of the murder of Jesse James at a bar where Bob Ford is drinking, he erupts at the man, correcting his interpretation of the event. But he doesn’t object to the songsmith’s characterizing him as a coward, only to the factual inaccuracy in a line about how many children Jesse had.

Dominik and his cinematographer Roger Deakins use several visual strategies to express the threading together of myth and reality in a story that is, after all, ‘based on true events’ (albeit mediated further by its direct source, the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen.) Often the image will go ‘soft’ around the edges, unable to keep focus on anything but the central figure, reflecting the look of contemporary photographs, attempting to connote period authenticity. A montage device borrowed from documentary films is employed as well, in which footage of the sky, or a landscape, is drastically sped up to reflect the passage of time. Both of these visual techniques are often paired with the voiceover that is constantly telling the story.

This voiceover is delivered by a seemingly omniscient narrator, speaking from some historical standpoint well after the events transpired, and using diction that is more modern than the flowery-cowboy dialogue of the characters. The narrator is sure of himself, and since we as viewers know that a person named Jesse James lived in this milieu, we are almost ready to believe anything we are told by him. The images that accompany his words, as demonstrated above, are loaded with notions of truth. But if we believe what he tells us, don’t we become so many more Bob Fords, taking the nickel-books as gospel, buying into printed legend?


Ibetolis said...

Great post Ed about a film that was sadly missed by a lot of people in the U.K, thanks largely to terrible distribution and poor reviews from the leading tabloids.

I'm glad I found your blog by accident, I shall certainly be dropping in a lot more.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks for the kind words, ibetolis.

How'd you find Shoot the Projectionist?