The horseback assassination of Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Rev. Dec 31, 2016.

In I Shot Jesse James (1949), Sam Fuller’s 1949 treatment of the fate of Robert Ford, the shooting of Jesse James is shown, and then a variant of it is shown as it was performed afterward on stage, and, then, in my treatment of it, I indicated that even the way it was shown in the movie was at variance with the depiction of the event in the press at the time, and then even the reality. Why these variations? is what I explored, but mainly to explain why so much was made of other types of pictures later in the movie. There is also the issue that the event itself was more important than the details, and the thing about the event that surprised and intrigued viewers, the art-life nexus, is what captured the imagination. In another treatment, I conjectured that the problem Robert Ford had was that at the time Jesse was thinking of retiring to a domestic life, and the picture represented that. In that context, Ford not liking that his idol was thus reduced, he decided on an assassination to usurp the leader, and move on. But, in the public mind, they did not know about the current situation of Jesse James, and his gradual domestication, all they knew about was his Wild West history and when they heard of the event they immediately imposed over it a Wild West scenario, in the context of which shooting a man in home was bad, fights like that should happen at high noon on main street, but then shooting a man in the back was against the code of the West, and therefore appalling, both of these misreadings, making of Robert Ford a coward (apart from the fact that the word rhymed with Jesse’s pseudonym in town, Tom Howard). I also suggested that the coward trope might have stuck with him because of the coincidence that James was hiding out under the name of Howard, which nicely rhymes with coward. That is, his cowardliness was entirely a creation of the popular culture processing the event, a tabloid entity.

But then I watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2010), based on Ron Hansen’s novel, and some other things come up. The movie is like two movies, there is the point up to the shooting, which is one kind of movie, and then there is the point at or after the shooting, which is another type of movie. The early part of the movie, and most of the movie, is an arty cinematographically excess minimalist paean to the rugged reality of the old West. Even if the text is explaining that Jesse’s great days are behind him, and he is now hanging out with some total losers, and the mis en scene is all about moving from safe house to safe house, and then visiting former associates like an angel of death to kill them off, to keep them all quiet, the visuals of the movie still make it all sepia tone romance in a movie tradition going way back. This artiness always fools critics into thinking the film is art, but, more often than not, most of the beautiful images are all about confusion and suspicion. The main problem I have with the ersatz minimalist tradition is that it seeks indexicality in the film. That is, it tries to be real, and pretend that it is real, when it is romance and a retrospective mediation of the past by way of sepia toned old photographs. All the rooms in all the houses are shaker serene, white washed and pure. The table is simple, the vests are brown, the people, it is implied, are good people, good all Americans

hors 1And when they go off to church the beauty of the cinematographic image again attests to simplicity, and purity, and all American okness.

hors 2I have complained about this “sepia syndrome” in another Pitt movie, Benjamin Button, and here it is again. The problem is not that the view of the past is mediated through old photos, the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War did that a generation ago, but that this device then sets aside the postmodern premise of seeing the past through media first, and reimagines, essentially, the past as actually like those old photos, like old media. This reversal of postmodern representational critique dangerously sets up a propaganda past in which however bad the people depicted are they are good because they are Americans from the American past.

The main problem with this visual shakerism, besides that it is bland catnip to the critics who think if it is minimal is must be arty, is that it offers no sense of how these people lived in their time, and made homes for themselves by setting up an array of images which bespoke the shape and depth of their personal culture. Jesse is shown just sitting around on a rocking chair in a bare white room, everything else nondescript. It is as if he is a guest at some house not his own, he is depicted ill at ease, and though it could be said that the rocking chair in this shot plays off the chair because it is what he is going to stand on, to dust the picture, and thus die on that chair, it does not seem as if the movie has this in mind

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It is almost as if the cinemagraphic purists, devoted to pure filmic imagery, and eschewing crude manipulation of properties, thought that they could evoke Jesse James through character alone, and not filling in the blanks of him by way of depicting some of his personal culture. This leads to serious problems when it comes to depicting the actual shooting, because there is no doubt that the shooting occurred in and around pictures of a particular sort, and it is them in context of the shooting that made the shooting so queer, in terms of an art-life irony, to the public. At one point, the whole proceeding was so minimalist, that I began to think that they would make do without any picture, dismissing the whole picture trope as a romantic device not in keeping with authentic fact. The only play of media in the movie seemed to happen inside the head of Robert Ford, as he emulated and then imitated Jesse, and then Jesse teased him for that.

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This adulation was grounded in his love of adventure story books in his childhood, all about Jesse. That is, the movie is a cult movie, describing the cult of Robert Ford of Jesse, and how that cult went bad, causing Ford to respond to it in the way he did.

hors 5but, then, the movie surprised me. At one point, well on three quarters in, Jesse, coming back from Palm Sunday church, says, Im going to take off my guns, and lays them on the couch. And then a whole new movie with a whole new tone comes into play. We now see for the first time that, in that lonely house on the top of a hill

hors 6

there were some pictures on the wall, as there would be, and the one they chose to place most prominently on the wall was that of Jesse’s mother, in back in this shot, to the right

hors 7This shot apparently reverses the power of the previous shot, when Jesse was teasing him, with the picture of his mother over him, and Ford on the outs. Now, Jesse is shown haloed by thought of his mother, and his blank faced manner, with Ford behind him, strongly suggests a directorial reading of this staging as an example of suicide by cop, this is reinforced when he gets up to dust the picture by the fact that Jesse gazes into the glass on the picture to see Ford reflected just before he shoots, and does nothing, a whole interiorization of the shooting which, I think, is entirely bogus, and weakens the depiction. According to this scenario, Jesse took Ford back into the circle because he saw, with his cleverness, and rough wisdom, that he could use Ford’s unsteady emulation of him, to induce him to kill him, in other words, this was a planned suicide. I reject this reading, but it is in the fabric of this telling (see further essaying on this point, post visit to the real site). Then Jesse, as improbably as the pictures come into play, gets up on a chair to dust the picture. It is an odd moment.

hors 8

the rocker does not seem to be the type of thing you would get up on. The picture is placed on the far wall of the room, a placement at variance with history and with the depiction of it all in I Shot Jesse James. It is also shown as a mantel picture, that is, a legend picture of the household hearth, and it is a picture, a portrait of a horse. The picture that Jesse was dusting or straightening in reality was a Bless This Home needlepoint. The picture that Jesse was dusting or straightening in I Shot Jesse James was a large photo of his mother, as shown here back in the opposite corner of the room. In neither case, was there a horse, though there were horses in the staged version of the shooting as depicted in other pictures off to the right of the main event in I Shot Jesse James. But it was not a horse. Why? Why would the art director and director make this decision? One, I think it does remind us that this is Jesse James, and it places him back on his horse on duty on his travels, in the Wild West. It removes from the shooting the implication that it was done out of disgust by an acolyte that wanted more of his idol than messing about with dusting objects in a boring domestic life. It masculinizes Jesse, and essentializes him (in spite of the opposite tendency of the plot in this regard) as unchanged Wild West Jesse James. This also would correspond to what the public wanted of him, more Wild West, and thus implicates Ford in cowardice for shooting a man at high noon duel in the back.

hors 9It also means that Jesse is not exactly fussing over art, but he is engaging in another act of devotion to his horse, or some horse of his past. Since the horse is placed over the mantel, and thus represents the central mythos of the house, it also indicates that he has not surrendered, and remains dedicated to his life on horseback out in the wilds. Here in this shot we also get the heroization of his domestic chore, as he in fact seems to use it as a mirror to look back at Robert Ford, and seeing him aim his gun

hors 10

The interesting thing about this shot is that it is backed up by the portrait of the mother, and the portrait of the mother is not the picture being straightened by Jesse. This indicates that Ford now steps into the role as the nemesis, always warned of by Jesse’s mother, as the man who would some day come to kill him, and so Ford is doing the work of Jesse’s mother’s hard prophecy. This placement empties out the wilds-domesticate nexus that Ford might have actually acted in, doing away with an idol that disappointed him, and returns it to being an expectation in Jesse’s mind, on how it might all end. This reversal of power, as if the killing is a prophecy of the mother, also feeds into the reflection of the crime in the glass, making of it a suicide by cop. But then, even odder, they show the shooting in a direct and brutal fashion. In the sequence, the horse picture presides. It is like Jesse is just being shot off a domestic version of his normal horse regalia. He then, when shot, smashes his head against the mirror, not seen in other versions

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Then lifelessly bounces off the horse, again, recreating a killing in the wild

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he flies down in the space between rocker and mantel and picture, the chair he was on scooting off to the side

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and then he is dead, in that corner

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as such, then, it removes all the dichotomies that titillated the public imagination about the shooting, and returns it to being an old west good man shooting. But it does make use of picture, but only to serve that reversion to the public version of the killing, that this was Jesse James shot down in another legendary duel, but backstabbed by his partner in a domestic setting of the duel. This alignment of the depiction with the public’s framing of the event does not leave him much room to move about in, in the aftermath. Here he again, as in I Shot, does a stage version, with the added detail that his brother played Jesse, and, weirdly, even began to revert to thinking he was Jesse, in the reenactment

hors 16

The stage version is an exact replica of the version we see in the movie, horse picture in the reality, horse picture on stage, though this time Ford is in the chair. And we also see Ford is made up, making it more artificial, and that the voice of the public comes disembodied from the crowd, crowding out his performance by the call of coward

hors 17

The movie takes it onto his killing in Creede, but without commitment, and still without any picture or media play. The media play in the movie is not nuanced, and results in a distortion of reality that is, in fact, oddly, less documentary and authentic, than the version concocted by Fuller in 1949. This is likely because of the degree to which old photo aesthesis has sludged over the view of the past, since the issue of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary 25 years ago, in which the past in America is depicted as an old photo, and life in the past was all sepia and ordered, with some chaos, but generally a coherent and materially-bound space. This is evoked by the fact that so much is made of his posthumous picture, bringing the telling into the zone of Wisconsin Death Trip (1978)

hors 17and then the view through the lens, and the long wait for the exposure to be over

hors 18and this then reified and by ostension made real by the fact that his wake entailed him being laid in-vested on ice in a butcher shop for all to come by to see. This reminded me of a scene in Lola Montes, when man paid money simply to touch the woman in the cage who was famous for fucking so many lovers in high places over the years.

All in all, then, it is an odd treatment. It pretends authenticity, by its arty minimalist style, but it in fact draws away from authenticity, for a vision of the event that corresponds more closely with the public’s perception at the time that Jesse was an icon of the Old West, and he died with his boots on in a duel in a house, but it was all just another shoot out in his long career. All of the domestic tension and betrayal was elided out, except as rivalry by devotee and idol. The result is a shooting enacted like a furniturized horseback shootout, presided over by a horse picture he did not own, and then too even interjecting the idea that Jesse OKd it all, as a good way to go, and, for that, the movie serves to heroicially depict Jesse in a rather unseemly way as the legend that he was, all of which less of a character in a movie. For this, though this movie received accolades in 2007, my guess is that that came from ersatz formalist movie critics who equate slow pacing and minimalist scenery as art, and thus they mistook the look of the thing, for art, when the movie is actually even less art than I Shot Jesse James is, de-problematizing and remythologizing the heroic Jesse James.

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