Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The point, as I see it, is that the West as Hollywood gives it to us is forever caught up with the iconic images of its heroes. And that fact is the theme of The Assassination of Jesse James. For this study of male bonding and rivalry finds its focus in what was always an underlying assumption of the Hollywood Western: that the fame of the Old West -- for figures such as Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, and so on -- extends in an unbroken line to the fame of Western film stars such as Tom Mix, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood. In other words, the myth of the West is perpetuated in Hollywood as its own birthright, and only rarely does the story of "how the West was won" extend to a consideration of "how the West was one": in the sense of always male and always about fame and proving oneself -- for a woman sometimes, but mainly to and for other men.

I would've liked to attend the screening of and Prof. Pippin's lecture on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because I'm sure the film would have offered interesting points of comparison to The Assassination -- because both are concerned with actual legendary killings. But I'm pretty sure (I need to see The Man again to test this) that the Wayne persona again places a certain whimsy at the heart of the tale. The Assassination limits -- to its strength -- that comradely ribbing that inhabits every Wayne Western: Jesse (Brad Pitt) is a loner, essentially, though he always works with a gang, but that gang, though indulging in "the band of brothers" mentality when it suits, is always uneasy with their role as his henchmen and, like any "band of thieves," is always ready to look squarely at the advantage to be found in betrayal.

The complexity of the tale comes in the character of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) who is infatuated with Jesse, not so much as a man, but as a living legend, as the stuff of which his own dreams of glory is made. We're clearly away from the Oedipal struggle, or the struggle of Abraham and Isaac, or even the struggle of Cain and Abel and into the realm of Jesus and Judas, but the film doesn't make that comparison overly explicit, if only because Jesse, whether as family man or outlaw, is never perceived by anyone but Ford as a mythic being. Rather than Biblical archetypes, the film is more firmly rooted in American betrayals: in Ford's expectation that he would be canonized for his killing of the outlaw we hear echoes of how John Wilkes Booth expected a hero's welcome in the South for the killing of Lincoln, and in the public killing of Ford by a man who simply took it upon himself to do it, there is a forerunner of Jack Ruby, the assassin of another famous assassin.

Suffice to say that what makes The Assassination interesting -- besides its stately pace, highly literate voice-over narration, and finely nuanced performance by Affleck in a role he perfectly suits -- is the sense that the male world of the West is ultimately about a relation to history, to fable, to the tales we tell of the men in a man's world who make a difference, who seize the moment. Freed of the sentimental attachment to camaraderie that infuses the world of Wayne and Ward Bond, or Wayne and Walter Brennan, The Assassination is a more somber affair in which there really isn't anyone to like or to root for.

Such a notion of the Western was anathema to Ford and Hawks and Wayne and Eastwood and its lesser practitioners, but for that very reason the film is refreshing. It would be easy to imagine a Western à la George Clooney's Ocean films with the usual banter among guys being cute and cut-throat by turns, as the situation demands, but The Assassination is not after our entertaining sense of the Old West and of Hollywood as mutually supportive myths, it's after that darker side of American celebrity where the Booths and Oswalds and Mark David Chapmans reside, waiting to burst into history for committing the unthinkable act of vengeance against their own obscurity by bringing down the fortunate son, the maker of history, to make of the born leader the dead martyr. Ford, unlike those other assassins, does become his victim's friend and companion and, Judas-like, most deliberate "follower," but etched on his face at every moment is "the coward"'s ambition -- to overcome his status as a non-entity by, first, recognition from his hero and then, when it becomes clear that the hero -- a remorseless murderer when his designs require it -- will soon do away with Ford and his brother, by putting on the mantle of fame as "the man" who ended the life behind the fabled name.

Given that the Oscars just aired last night and that there seems a general consensus, voiced perhaps most emphatically by David Carr in the NYTimes, that the films nominated were somber and lacking in the charms generally associated with blockbuster Hollywood, it might be worth remarking that The Assassination, as a Western, doesn't do what is expected, and that may be true of a number of the films this year. So perhaps there has been recently an eclipse of what Hollywood is best noted for: on the one hand its willingness to be mawkish and bathetic in grand tear-jerker style, on the other its gusto for smart-alecky, winking insouciance. Banter of any sort was almost entirely missing from the dramas nominated for Best Picture, and banter was all Juno had to offer. The writers had been on strike till recently and film-making came to a stop, but it seems that a certain kind of film-making, Tinseltown's most identifiable product, has ceased for want of writers equal to the task. After all, it may be hard to use the tried-and-true methods to tell "how the west was lost."

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