sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2008-02-24 08:15 pm

And games that never amount to more than they're meant will play themselves out

I meant to put up this post last night, but my brain closed up shop first. (And now the hour of Oscar approaches, which I may or may not watch this year. I have seen more nominated films than ever before in my life.) Last night we watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved it; I had not expected to. But while I know nothing about the novel from which the screenplay was adapted, the finished film reminded me of nothing so much as Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders" or "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe"—a fantasia on the life of Robert Ford and the death of Jesse James, grounded in such historical detail that it feels simultaneously naturalistic and stylized, which is some kind of neat trick.

It is not stagy, because there are shots that could only be composed on film, but it is theatrical. There's a narrator who exists outside the frame of the film, who communicates to the audience facts to which the characters are not privy and occasionally admits to gaps in the historical record. The cinematography has the kind of fetishistic specificity that charges ordinary objects with significance, clouds, a grainfield under snow, the hands of a clock, a coffee cup stirred with a spoon, lightstruck and anatomized like holy relics; it would be over-the-top except that it works. "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them," the narrator tells us of Jesse James, in the very first lines of the film. "Rain fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified." We will observe these phenomena in action and they do not feel like plodding literalism, over-concretized metaphors, they feel like the truth. (Outside, above, in the already burning air, see! the angel of death roosts on the roof-tree.) You see everything, even if you cannot yet tell what is a Chekhovian gun on the wall and what is simply the all-tabulating eye of the cinematographer or the writer. In some scenes, it becomes oppressive; in others, it's simply beautiful. Always it reminds you that this is how things happened, even if they didn't.

And there is the man who shot Jesse James himself, Robert Ford, who even in a film in which he takes up the majority of the screen time receives second billing. Historical irony, eat your heart out.

Almost the character's first words, spoken to an unimpressed Frank James, are: "Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I've always thought of myself as being just a rung down from the James Brothers." (To which the erstwhile comparison replies, "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.") Which is not an inaccurate summation of the film's attitude toward its sub-titular coward, or at least the audience's experience of him: in his father's black overcoat and a stovepipe hat frayed at all its rims, an antique Colt Paterson and a gunslinger's belt he had to borrow, he's a touchy, awkward kid, overeager and pathetically grateful for attention; nineteen years old, raised on dime novels of the outlaw Jesse James, he's constantly tripping over himself at the boundary between hero-worship and stalkerdom. He saves newspaper clippings, hoards every well-thumbed escapade ("They're all lies, you know") in a shoebox beneath his bed. His older brother Charley has an endless fund of embarrassing stories about him, most of which revolve around Bob's crackpot starstruckness. A hundred years later, he might have followed his favorite band through their every tour in the continental United States, or parlayed a handshake at a con into an assurance of best friendship with a beloved author, or joined the SCA. In 1881, in Kansas City, Missouri, all he can do is talk his brother into talking their way into the gang Frank and Jesse have compiled for a train job in Blue Cut—no particular credit to them, as the narrator describes the new recruits as "petty thieves and local rubes"—and then into Jesse's life as best he can; he has the prickly, clammy intensity of biggest fans who become their heroes' biggest nightmares.

"Can't figure it out," Jesse comments at one point. "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" Certainly he's no desperado; the film does show us that he has the reflexes, but he's disastrously lacking in the flair. But despite his antiheroic epithet, Bob is neither a coward nor a fool; he's only too painfully aware of his gaucherie, his short fuse and his inability not to fall all over his interests, all the places he leaves himself raw. "I'm not cranky. I've been through this before, is all. Once people get around to making fun of me, they just don't ever let up." Some kids fortify themselves with favorite books and fellow misfits. Some kids walk into the cafeteria and open fire. And if Bob cannot be Jesse James' sidekick, indispensable compatriot and trusted mirror, then perhaps the next best thing is to be the man who killed Jesse James. One way or another, fame reflects. (Everybody's got the right to some sunshine / Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams . . .) But this is not a thought he ever articulates. It may not even be a thought that crosses his mind; here is one of the narrator's lacunae. Whatever his rationale, the infamy he receives is not the applause he imagined. "You think it's all made up, don't you?" his brother accuses him. "You think it's all yarns and newspaper stories!"—"He's just a human being," Bob fires back. Is that disappointment in his idol: that even folk heroes have clay feet, not to mention hair-trigger tendencies toward inglorious, ugly violence? Or is he repeating to himself what he wants to believe: that flesh and blood are his own size and therefore no exception to the law, to justice, to the unfairness of the universe that makes a legend of one man and a nobody of another? No answer is provided, and our only glimpse into the memories of the morning he shot Jesse James in the back of the head, ten years on in a mining-boom town in Colorado, will show him to be as confused as the generations of historians to follow. The folklore, meanwhile, is quite clear; Nick Cave leaning in from the wings as a Bowery balladeer, Oh, Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life / Three children, they were brave / But that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard / Has laid Jesse James in his grave. And who wept over Judas when he was buried in the potter's field?

So here is a film as much about mythologization as it is about the truths, if they can even be accessed, behind the mythology; whose protagonist is simultaneously sympathetic and uncomfortable, trying to elbow his way into story without quite understanding how; whose visual language is reminiscent of one of my own favorite prose writers—what would I not love? And Casey Affleck is up for Best Supporting Actor, not Best Actor. There is a sardonic resonance in that, too. But his is a performance I would watch again.

And if for any conceivable reason a film should need to be made of "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," Andrew Dominik is the man I nominate to make it.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 01:38 am (UTC)(link)
Independent movies don't often make it to Salt Lake City (odd, because you'd think we have a corner on them with Sundance), so I don't suppose I'll get to see this until it comes out on DVD. I do have the sound track, however, and I listen to it often when writing. Beautiful stuff; I like it even better than Cave's score for The Proposition, which is a tremendous and unfairly maligned film.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 01:50 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, that sounds just incredible. I really enjoyed your discussion of it a lot. This line, "A hundred years later, he might have followed his favorite band through their every tour in the continental United States, or parlayed a handshake at a con into an assurance of best friendship with a beloved author, or joined the SCA," made me think about the stories we tell ourselves about our relations with people we admire... and I've been thinking about it on the other end of things, too, having had to dispel someone else's illusions about *me*. Weird life.

When you said "The cinematography has the kind of fetishistic specificity that charges ordinary objects with significance, clouds, a grainfield under snow, the hands of a clock, a coffee cup stirred with a spoon, lightstruck and anatomized like holy relics; it would be over-the-top except that it works," that, too, made me want to see it just for the visuals...

[identity profile] 2008-07-16 04:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I enthusiastically second eschatfische's Godard rec -- I was lucky enough to see Une Femme Est Une Femme on the big screen, and it was one of the most vivid and hilarious things I've ever seen.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 01:53 am (UTC)(link)
You almost make me want to see it. I'm a bit afraid of its being violent, because violence (even emotional violence) tends to give me anemotional hangover, not to mention dreams that can range from unpleasant to downright nightmare. There Will Be Blood gave me a very uneasy night, for instance. I liked it, but not enough to make the dreams worthwhile.

Oh, and I'd go see a movie of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore in a New York minute. How many of us do you think there would be? And who might be in it?

You write beautifully, by the way.

[identity profile] 2008-02-26 02:50 am (UTC)(link)
I'd sign!

And thank you for this post; my list of films to see lengthens slowly because I know I rarely manage to remove titles from it, but Assassination is now on.

[identity profile] 2008-07-16 06:38 am (UTC)(link)
So glad you enjoyed reading it. But, more importantly, thanks for seeing the movie. We've had a blast making all of them and am so glad you've enjoyed the franchise.
ext_6428: (Default)

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 03:46 am (UTC)(link)
I have not read this novel but strongly suspect you would like another one by Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy, in case you haven't encountered it yet.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 04:21 am (UTC)(link)
That sounds a fascinating film. I'll keep my eye out for its being reshown in these parts.

[identity profile] 2008-02-26 07:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, so it's out on DVD?

I'll try to watch it, although I'm not much good at actually doing that sort of thing.

I'm hoping it will circle back into one of the independent theaters as some sort of modern-classics-you-missed program. I want to see its world on a big screen.

I hope you get your wish.

[identity profile] 2008-07-16 08:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I've never seen SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL - I'll have to keep an eye out for it. When Quine was good, he was really, really good - and when he wasn't, he looked kind of ordinary.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 05:47 am (UTC)(link)
... if you were trying to write a review specifically for the purpose of making me, personally, see this movie, I do not think you could possibly have done better at it; after all 'The Fall River Ax Murders' is my favorite short story in the English language. And I know that if you were seeing Carter, it must be there. I'll go to this, then.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 06:52 am (UTC)(link)
If it's like Saints and Strangers, I'll see it. And I want to see that film of "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore."

It's a nice game of--what? metaphysics? aesthetics?--synaesthetics to match image with language, or language with music. Whose score is like John Crowley? Who painted Peake?


[identity profile] 2008-02-25 03:05 pm (UTC)(link)
I have not seen A Company of Wolves either. Fear of disappointment, I think, though I am generally fond of Neil Jordan. We should do that.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 03:04 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, Peake painted Peake. As for the score to John Crowley, the one for The Draughtsman's Contract is a good start on the Aegypt books.

I would give a lot for "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore". In these days of the revival of the art Western, it might even be a commercially viable proposition.

[identity profile] 2008-02-25 12:09 pm (UTC)(link)
You've made me hungry to see it.