07 February 2009
As part of my continuing project to relive the happy days of film year 2007, I rewatched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this week. I still found the bizarre, folksy narration unnecessary but appreciated the way Andrew Dominik (IMDB shows a career arc that couldn't be more promising--Chopper to The Assassination to Cities of the Plain in 2012) built from a badass opening sequence and sustained an unbearable, paranoid tension for a good 90 minutes of the film. Never have trigger cocks been so excruciating. And, as always, I was swept off my feet by Paul Schneider, as Dick Liddil (spelled with d's not t's), sharing the wisdom that "poetry don't work on whores."
And, thanks to Criterion Collection's Eclipse series, I was able to follow up The Assassination with Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (we see how that name has always carried weight). I imagine 1949 film must have been hamstrung by a tiny budget because there are almost no set pieces, little action--it's more of a talking picture than anything else. Jesse James is killed off before he can even cut the heads off of any live snakes.
The two films are similar nonetheless because their focus is on the twisted psychology of Bob Ford. In the 60 years between the films, however, our ideas on why Bob Ford was so fucked up have changed drastically. John Ireland is the quiver-lipped assassin in Fuller's film, and he is told over and over (by Jesse James, Zee James, his "girl" Cynthy, and even a barman) that he just needs to get a plot of land and become a farmer. It is his unwillingness to "settle down" (the way a person was supposed to the 1880's or 1949) that gets him killed, but we are to believe in some semblance of a good heart inside him.
We see no such light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel potential in Casey Affleck's Ford. His inky head and sneering mouth emerge into the 2000's celebrity stalker culture. He saves cowboy novels about the James boys just as one would clip tabloid articles on the shenanigans of their favorite Hollywood stars. He doesn't kill Jesse for money to buy his lover a ring--he kills to be famous, to bag the reward, to rub shoulders with bigwigs. In 2009, he would be signed immediately to a primetime FOX reality show.
But in the 1880's, newly minted celebrities could only take to the stage.
Both films render reenactments of Jesse's killing but split decisively on Ford's reaction. In I Shot Jesse James, Ford can't pull the trigger onstage, even if it's only a blank. Ireland looks ill and haunted as he shuffles away without having fired. Affleck's Ford has no such compunction--he blazes away with a rouge on his cheeks and a demonic glint in his eyes (it is his brother Charley, playing Jesse, who finds the show unbearable). The Assassination is committed to a leading player that, with every ell-like move, will make us queasy, if not downright ill.
Given his oeuvre, it feels strange to cast Fuller as a filmmaker imposing traditional values with I Shot Jesse James. But probably he had no control over the studio's script and perhaps he had yet to find his way as a maverick director. There's no doubt that The Assassination is a truly damning mirror of contemporary culture, with more insight on how we live now than, say, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which I just streamed online and is meaningless Forrest Gump-level dreck--but congratulations to David Fincher for finding Julia Ormond alive and casting her in a major motion picture).