Words by David G. Hughes
There is a sense, perhaps a conservative lament, that the movies, and movie stars, aren’t what they used to be. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the motion pictures were still brand new, many of those who would go on to become its iconic personas of attraction had already lived somewhat normal, and often tragic, lives. If you’re Clark Gable, say, born in 1901, the movies had only been around for a few short years. Or maybe you’re Humphrey Bogart, born 1899, or Bette Davis in 1908, Cary Grant (1904), Greta Garbo (1905), and so on. Around this time, the moving picture had little history to speak of and even less prestige; the superlative scholarship of Tom Gunning has made clear they were considered déclassé distractions of a lower order.
So it’s unsurprising, then, that many of those screen pioneers came from working-class stock, raised amidst taxing circumstances, often having lived through the Great Depression, or raised by alcoholic fathers, and generally had little to lose. Director’s like Fritz Lang and Merian C. Cooper served in The Great War, albeit on different sides. Jean Renoir took a sniper bullet in the same conflict and Hollywood hunk Randolph Scott served too. The biographies of glamorous stars often make for sorry reading, whether it’s Grant in Bristol, Charlie Chaplin in South London, or Kirk Douglas in New York. And this is to say nothing of those from ethnic minority backgrounds. These auratic figures of beauty and joy were like phoenix risen from the ashes of the world’s commonplace drudgery.
To the utopian mind, any suggestion that something positive can emerge from something negative is a precarious business too close to an endorsement of suffering, keen are they to nobly remove the bad from ever happening in the first place. But to deny the existence of a silver lining is to deny a saving grace. In the words of Oscar Wilde:
While to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered.Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man”
Suffering, as far as one can tell, is permanent and indissoluble. The religious perspective is more productive: that suffering is indeed part and parcel of existence, that good and bad are in continuous flux, and that felix culpa, as the Catholics describe it, is indeed a phenomenon worth accounting for. I find this helpful in deciphering the ineffable vitality, charisma, and emotional dynamism of these early to mid-20th century stars. In other words: their suffering brought grace, and while we accepted and revelled in their God-given attributes, we also recognised ourselves in their inner constitution, even as they came to occupy a position of otherworldly glamour.
In the hands of the irreverent Chaplin, bawdy Mae West, and acerbic Katharine Hepburn, amoral passion, uncouth ambition, sex appeal, pizzazz, and anti-establishment humanism seeped into the work.
There is class politics in this, undoubtedly, and is made more convincing when you compare aforementioned actors to the sapless crop occupying the silver screen today, slender, bird-like thespians and flower-like dames imported out of upper rung Albion, be it Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, Felicity Jones, or Eddie Redmayne. These are expensively trained performers, no doubt, but are generally suited to the stage where they can gyrate and volumise in a display of “virtuoso” irregular inhibition. They feign passion, but it’s far removed from the original proletarian expressiveness that would be later psychologised and institutionalised into a thing called “method acting”.
Had Hollywood begun by peddling this type of middlebrow executant, it would hardly have become the cri de coeur against stifling western puritanism that it did. In the hands of the irreverent Chaplin, bawdy Mae West, and acerbic Katharine Hepburn, amoral passion, uncouth ambition, sex appeal, pizzazz, and anti-establishment humanism seeped into the work. Not even the draconian measures of the Motion Picture Production Code could repress these impulses and many of these would be later be described as Communist, or Communist-adjacent, like Lena Horne. The best of times and the worst of times, Hollywood in its infancy and the Ancient Rome-like decadence of the studio system would embody the words of Hippocrates:
Life is short
and art long,
and judgment difficult.Hippocrates
Since the 1980s and the dawn of neoliberal values, and with the movie’s artistic vitality firmly established, the vampiric cultural elite of society increasingly wanted in on the pictures. The new money that built Hollywood no longer felt so new, and where the arts were once a viable means for social mobility, today, in our neoliberal condition, it’s worse than ever. Talent now festers in the lower echelons of society, unable to reach the top as their forebears had once done. Occasionally an actor like Gary Oldman will buck the trend and reach the top, even if he was rejected from RADA and told to find another profession. But it would be right to say that only sport remains as a legible hope of an “out”, and perhaps that’s why so many movies depict that mobility, i.e. Rocky (1976) or, from my own UK experience, football films like There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000) and Goal! (2005).
The complexity and richness of life experience have subsided in favour of aesthetic and ideological pursuits of a managerial, paternalistic flavour. The working-class are no longer looked to but looked down upon, a wretched mass in need of our charity, pity, and education.
We feel the pernicious consequences to this vertical drawbridge. Inaccessibility to common experience has led to a Hollywood output almost entirely devoid of plasmaticness, vivacity, or spirit — joie de vivre, as the French say. The complexity and richness of life experience have subsided in favour of aesthetic and ideological pursuits of a managerial, paternalistic flavour. The working-class are no longer looked to but looked down upon, a wretched mass in need of our charity, pity, and education. The humanitarians that run Hollywood today are nothing like the Jewish outlaws who fled the law and set up shop in the Californian sun. From producers to directors and on-screen figures, we are generally inundated with marketing opportunists, enthusiastic nerds, nice guys, and careerists.
Andrew Dominik’s western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is pertinent to this moment, its concern with the problematic but also deeply charismatic and capable gunslinger, contra the sycophantic snivelling wannabe destined to be forgotten, useful in understanding our crisis in mainstream artistry.
Firstly, there’s something deeply proletarian about the western genre, a mode of expression often enjoyed, indeed to the point of stereotype, by working men. It’s what Movie contributor David Lusted refered to as “male melodrama”, a mode which “speaks powerfully to the conditions of working-class labour.” There’s also something deeply and uniquely Hollywood about it, perhaps America’s finest poetic expression. That the western lost favour come the neoliberal era and the shift towards white-collar market economies makes sense in this context. The release of any contemporary western is generally considered to be a charming “throwback”, as if someone told you they were a mineworker, cattle rancher, or shoeshine boy. That’s often the case, as seen in the nostalgic enthusiasms of Quentin Tarantino. Dominik’s film, however, exploits the association of Hollywood and the western and sits above both nostalgia and revisionism to say something about the primal and phenomenological basis of storytelling itself, offering a meta-comment on the death of aura in our contemporary neoliberal age.
The story concerns the real-life outlaw Jesse James, played in the movie by Oklahoma-born son of a trucker, Brad Pitt, and the young man who idolises him: Robert Ford, as played by Columbia University grad Casey Affleck. They contrast as characters and actors, Pitt embodying laconic square-jawed pictorialism and Affleck a baby-cheeked verbose milquetoast. Affleck is actually much more handsome and assured in real-life, but his shit-eating grin is excellent in giving us the “willies”, as one character remarks.
Ford stans James as any of us, in our adolescence, do rock stars or actors; he’s in awe of “The Jesse James Stories”, escapade dime novels collected and neatly tucked away under his bed. Ford is the proto-fan boy collector of paraphernalia at a time when the consumption of media was becoming a recreational activity but today dominates “critical” commentary. Likewise, the outlaw is a proto-movie star in many ways, a notion similarly explored in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). Pitt is perhaps the only contemporary movie star comparable to the greats, ideally suited in the role. He even looks like a young Gary Cooper circa The Westerner (1940), the common man’s movie star.
Ford seeks to sell himself and posit his usefulness in an entrepreneurial manner, anticipating our era of LinkedIn gauche self-promotion which also parallels a cultural output mooring its virtue in the context of the invisible, i.e. do-good social work productivity…
Based on his consumption of this mythologising product, Ford, with innate ambition and unwarranted confidence, thinks he’s got the muster to get close to the real Jesse James and signs up for some train robbin’ escapades. Early in the film, as we’re acquainted with the nebbish and pusillanimous Ford, he makes a bid to impress the older brother, Frank James. Now, Frank is played by Sam Shephard, which is not an inconsiderable thing. Shephard was a farmworker once time before becoming a well-respected embodiment of authentic Americana as actor and playwright. He’s a man of foreboding gravitas and brings this cache to the role. Ford smooth talks about himself like a man in a job interview, but reeks of greenhorn entitlement. Unimpressed by Ford’s self-promotion, Frank reprimands him as such:
You’re not so special, Mr Ford. You’re so just like any other tyro whose prinked yourself up for an escapade, hoping to be a gunslinger like those nickel books are about, but you may as well quench your mind of it, as you don’t have the ingredients, son.
It must be devastating for a dewy-eyed Ford to be on the receiving end of these cutting words from a man whose opinion he puts “such stock in.” But Ford’s ambition won’t be hampered, convinced that he does, indeed, have the ingredients, even as Frank intuits his inability to grasp what it is that makes the gunslinger James boys what they are. Ford proposes that “I’ve got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset”, and that these qualities are present but may require patience and tolerance.
Between this promise of hypothetical virtue and the imposing, obvious figure of Jesse James, it the dichotomy represents what art scholar Camille Paglia calls “the great unseen versus the glorified thing.” Ford expects people to do the work of appreciating his conceptual, abstract qualities, whereas James Brother’s run on instinct, untrusting of anything but the picture in front of them. Ford seeks to sell himself and posit his usefulness in an entrepreneurial manner, anticipating our era of LinkedIn gauche self-promotion which also parallels a cultural output mooring its virtue in the context of the invisible, i.e. do-good social work productivity that contributes, we’re told, to the erasure of prejudice or inequality.
But, as Oscar Wilde remarked, “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance.” Between Ford and James, you see the word versus the image and concept versus experience. The difference between the two was extrapolated upon by C.G. Jung, who wrote:
Experience is stripped of its substance, and instead mere names are substituted, which are henceforth put in the place of reality. No one has any obligations to a concept; that is what is so agreeable about conceptuality — it promises protection from experience.C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961)
Jesse’s gravitas is not borne out of brand cultivation, as Ford seeks to build, but survivalism cultivated into aesthetics. To quote Wilde again, “Aesthetics are higher than ethics […] Even a colour sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong.” James understands aesthetics (it’s the basis of his mythology and reputation) while Ford understands marketing. Thus the two represent the same eternal battle that we see in art-making between modes of the authentically felt, albeit as troubled and messy as Jesse is depicted in the film, and the inauthentic, albeit aspirant and conceptual, as Ford is. This is the fundamental Baudlliardian dichotomy of culture that the film understands: that a transition has occurred from the ostensibly real to the simulacrum.
It just so happens that reprobates are often the chosen ones and, in this case, it is the outlaw who walks with the grace of God and Ford, unelected and seething like Cain, sits in a shadow which gradually turns into resentment.
Indeed, as Ford gets closer to James, becoming his servile helot as it were, he shadows and studies him scientifically. First and foremost, the film is a study in aura. Aura comes from the Ancient Greek Αὔρα, deity of wind, breeze and morning air, but it’s come to connote an elusive energy force surrounding a person. Jesse James has an aura and the film often associates him within the etymological definition by placing him in windswept fields and the appraised cinematography of Roger Deakins gives Pitt’s complexion an angelic white sheen or blurs the field of vision as if he had magnetic energy.
Ford is attracted to James’ aura as we all are by an effervescent lifeforce and so he attempts to grasp it through mimicry, repetition, and sycophancy. Absent of personality or a sense of meaning, Ford chooses to live precariously through another; he dresses like James, bathes like James but, as everyone around him knows, can never be like James because he has wholesale rejected the Oracle of Delphi’s maxim to “Know thyself”. “Do you want to be like me?” Jesse asks Ford, “or do you want to be me”?
The film situates James’ auratic power in classical contexts, but theological ones too. St Augustine said that the grace of God is granted to a select few and can never be earned. It just so happens that reprobates are often the chosen ones and, in this case, it is the outlaw who walks with the grace of God and Ford, unelected and seething like Cain, sits in a shadow which gradually turns into resentment. Ford’s struggle parallels Harold Bloom’s art theory of “anxiety of influence”, which is the anxiety artists feel when attempting to overcome the legacy of accomplished, vivacious antecedents.
This, Bloom posits, is a Freudian psychodrama in which the young artist, living under the influence of a dominant and virile father figure, must learn to overcome by being sufficiently individuated. A successful work of art accomplishes this, while an unsuccessful one does not. Incapable of overcoming, Ford commits an Oedipal act against James, which is also an act against God, a frustration at His way. His inability to truly ever become Jesse, and assume the mystery of aura, is the catalyst for his decision: unable to assume a life, he’ll take it away.
And so the film frames the deed with religious references; James gives Ford the gun like Christ gives Judas bread, Ford washes his hands in sin as did Pilate once making the decision, and the act is committed after Jesse has come back from the church during Holy Week (the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, during which the actual assassination took place in 1882). Aware of his impending doom, James elects to offer himself (like Christ beforehand) by stepping upon a chair and dusting a painting, prime for a headshot. James stares at the painterly representation of a horse awaiting his execution, and for the first time in his life the picture before him, which he has otherwise trusted, is deceiving and will bear the imprint of his blood. The world of representation has subsumed him.
Following the murder, Ford will go on to re-enact the moment again and again on stage for fascinated audiences. This attention to representation over life, a representation associated with the repetition of death, shows us that the assassination of Jesse James amounts to the assassination of aura itself, which is to say the real, and this will make Ford a pariah in society.
James is a proto-movie star, but he’s also a proto-cinema, his preserved remains would become a circus attraction which is the precursor of the nickelodeon. Jesse James is cinema, where it’s from, culture itself…
Indeed, the film is keen to detail the embalming and photographic preservation of Jesse James’ remains, a testament to André Bazin notion of photography serving a mummy complex: “preservation of life by a representation of life.” James is a proto-movie star, but he’s also a proto-cinema, his preserved remains would become a circus attraction which is the precursor of the nickelodeon. Jesse James is cinema, where it’s from, culture itself, and his photographic timelessness is contrasted to the transitory theatre performances of Ford and the squalid, forgettable manner in which he would come to meet his demise.
But as philosopher Walter Benjamin has written, reproduction destroys aura. We are forced to be content with Jesse James the representation, and the many movies that have been made about him that exist in our pockets, atomised and ephemeral, so that we can all live preciously through him—as Robert Ford did.
So we’re children of Robert Ford, not Jesse James. This is certainly the case with Hollywood itself, which is incapable of finding a way out of its anxiety of influence towards its monumental past. Is it a surprise, then, that like Ford, Hollywood has elected to turn against the source of this anxiety? Rather than meet the illustriousness of the past, it has become insular, looking inwards at the masochistic correction of “problematic” Hollywood history. And from TV, of all places, comes an attempt to trash “classical” Hollywood by pointing out the inequities and prejudices of the studio era, either in telling stories designed purely to establish Alfred Hitchock as a sexual predator, as in The Girl (2012), or transposing a modern nomenclature of progressiveness onto the past with Netflix’s Hollywood (2020). The aim is not to compete with the myth, but destroy it in a bonfire of the vanities.
Perhaps the appetite to receive politically correct messaging would be greater should the filmmaking not be so shoddy and drab, simplistic and inartistic, uninteresting, condescending and haughty, incapable of competing with the legacy it seeks to take down. Here we find Ford’s invisible concepts, his talent for marketing, trying to take down the potent, imagistic, amoral power of James’ silver screen.
Many of our contemporary Hollywood representatives display the characteristics of Robert Ford: the hotshot directors are little more than people-pleasing mercenaries, corporate middle-managers, nebbish ordinaries, and parasitic fanboys unburdened by the complexity of reality. Outlaws of the past have been replaced by media-obsessed fans of the present that claim reverence towards the old gunslingers (now referred to as intellectual property) and yet harbour latent destructive impulses towards their generational forebears. Chic, meme-driven generational solidarity reveals this, which is not a righteous reckoning of the sins of the father but the complex of maladjusted children who’ve been raised on representation but crave the seemingly unattainable nourishment of the real.
The film understands the foundation of culture not as a moral litmus test, in this case whether Jesse James was in real life good or bad, but that a propensity to be a culturally significant figure — a hero — comes from the same ingredients that make up a villain…
The film is acutely aware that the Ballad of Jesse James is a fabrication and seeks to show you his darker, paranoid, and tyrannical side. James struggles with the ambiguities of the human heart, a tortured soul pondering his inner vipers, “becoming a problem to myself” as he says. Freedom is indeed a desert in which you wonder. But moral ambiguity, the film understands, is no reason to discard history. It understands the foundation of culture not as a moral litmus test, in this case whether Jesse James was in real life good or bad, but that a propensity to be a culturally significant figure — a hero — comes from the same ingredients that make up a villain, just as the fixations that made Hitchock a creep, made him an exceptional cinema artist. In the words of Raymond Durgnat, praising Lindsay Anderson’s book on John Ford:
Anderson, too, has reconciled an uncomfortable vision, a practical professionalism, and a craftsman’s awareness that poetry comes, not from some preprogrammed psychothematic structure, but from suffering and adventure, complicity and contingency.Raymond Durgnat, “About John Ford”, Cineaste, June 1983, 56-8.
Jesse James is a poet that represents cultural values of authenticity, charisma, craft, capability, beauty, and the eternal, but with all the uncomfortable realities that inevitably come with this — he’s a murderer, neurotic, a bit of a bastard. But he was a bright star and, like the old movie stars who followed him, as human as it gets. So we’re forced to ask ourselves: do we want a culture of Jesse James or Robert Ford? One’s a killer, the other a coward. Take your pick and hope that there’s grace somewhere between impossible choices.