Star-struck: Celebrity, Obsession, and Film. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik

What American doesn’t at least know the name Jesse James? Hero, thief, badass, murderer there are as many legends surrounding the man as there are opinions. However he was viewed by the public, one thing about Jesse which was indisputable was his fame. He has been the subject of innumerable fictions both during his lifetime and after, which helped generate distorted perceptions of his character. The film seeks to right things and show Jesse James as he really was.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells the story of the outlaw’s last days and the life of the man that shot him in the back. He is 34 years old, a family man who lives in the suburbs. Nothing about him says train robber or murderer to the casual observer. He is shown baking with his children or taking leisurely strolls through his neighborhood, the very model of a respectable citizen. Robert Ford is 19, socially awkward, and lives with his head in the clouds. He is shown to be the butt of his brother’s jokes and generally looked down upon by his family. He has a rather unsettling obsession with the James-Younger Gang, and a desire to advance his position in the world by any means necessary.

The film opens on the James Gang’s final robbery, a train job near Blue Cut, Missouri. By now the Younger brothers are all in prison and Jesse and his brother Frank must rely on local hicks for manpower. Robert Ford is among the new recruits. Robert actively seeks out the James brothers and is rebuffed by Frank, but welcomed by Jesse. After the robbery, which yields much less than Jesse expected, Robert is allowed to stay in the outlaw’s house, but only to help Jesse move house. There, he meets a few more of Jesse’s associates, including the womanizing Dick Liddil and Jesse’s arrogant cousin Wood Hite. As the association deepens between the Fords and the Jameses Robert begins to understand what kind of man Jesse really is. Jesse has been made paranoid by his long years as a criminal and suspects that members of his gang might be trying to turn him into the authorities for a bounty.
The Fords managed to avoid any suspicion of this until Jesse’s cousin Wood attacks Dick Liddil, who is staying with them, for sleeping with his stepmother. Robert Ford shoots Wood and the Fords hide his body in a ditch on their property. Figuring it is only a matter of time before Jesse puts two and two together and kills every last one of them to avenge his cousin’s death, the Ford brothers decide to take the state up on their offer of a bounty for Jesse’s capture.

From a cinematographic standpoint, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is probably one of the best shot films of the 2000’s. Long takes are used to show the passage of time and to emphasize the tranquility of the natural setting in direct contrast with the slow-building tension between the characters. Even action scenes are filmed with long takes, eschewing the rapid cuts that films like The Wild Bunch helped to popularize. The pacing of the film is deliberately slow, and events in the plot are presented in an episodic, slice-of-life manner. A narrator is used, generally to provide background information. The narrator’s utility lies in that he grounds the audience in the facts of the situation, reflecting the overall goal of the film: to show the real Jesse James. Also notable is the extensive use of chiaroscuro in its night scenes while daytime scenes use a mixture of harsh sunlight and a restricted pallet to produce a washed-out look, echoing old photographs.

The overall tone of the film is melancholic, with moments of levity mostly supplied by the sometimes witty dialogue of its principle characters. There are also brief instances of black comedy such as the inept shoot-out between Dick Liddil and Wood Hite, where they miss every shot they take despite being only about three feet away from each other. But the centerpiece of the film is its study of the title characters. As we get to know Jesse James and Robert Ford better out disposition towards them becomes a mixture of pity, sympathy, disgust and horror. Jesse in particular is revealed quickly as a psychotic bully whose mean temper leads him to cruelly beat a recalcitrant railroad official within an inch of his life and later torture a teenage boy for information on the whereabouts of a gang member he suspects of plotting against him. However, he is humanized by his clear love for his family and is worn so thin by his paranoia and fear that he’s just a shell of man. Robert fidgets his way through most of his early scenes and any attempt he makes to assert himself is dismissed. Everything from his shyness to his reliance of fantasy to his desire for greatness speaks of a deep-seated self-hatred, and all of his mannerisms seem slightly off. He is capable of being quite cold-blooded, a sterling example being when he calmly shoots Wood Hite through the head.

In terms of celebrity, Jesse is a man trapped by his own legend while Robert is an obsessive fan who cannot see Jesse clearly at first. When he finally does, he sees the real Jesse James cannot live up to his legend. When Robert finally kills Jesse out of fear and resentment he briefly becomes a legend himself, but the nation’s love of Jesse James warps Robert’s public Image into conniving back-shooter. Robert is ultimately destroyed after a lifetime of humiliation in a similar manner to Jesse, shot in the back by a deranged loner with a hatred of Robert’s legend. In many ways Robert is a stand in for the American public (and by extension, the audience), we are right beside him as Jesse’s legend is torn down. Unlike Diva, when what is beneath the publicity is revealed the fan can find nothing to love. Understanding is still reached in this case, but to understand a career criminal like Jesse James is to fear him.

Star-struck: Celebrity, obsession, and film. Diva

This is the first in a series of film reviews I am writing for the library blog. I will usually do these in groups of three movies which I feel are thematically related. For my first three I’ll focus on films about the strange unrequited love that celebrities inspire in their most intense fans. It’s a trip that will span from the (relatively) innocent to the downright sinister, and even into the completely psychotic. I am excited to go on this journey with you and hope you’ll enjoy it as we travel the strange world of a fan’s obsession


Jean-Jacques Beineix

Beineix’s highly stylized thriller Diva was in many ways the inaugural film of the French Cinema du look movement that would come to define popular film in western Europe throughout the eighties and early nineties. The core aesthetic principles of cinema du look were its emphasis on intricately crafted yet sensational visuals and a general foregoing of substance in favor of style. In more action heavy films, such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, this translated into complicated chase or fight sequences while in quieter (for the style) films like Diva romantic or dramatic scenes would rely on deliberately overblown visual cues. In terms of social themes, cinema du look tended explore the idea of close-knit groups of friends being the primary support system for the characters rather than the traditional family. One could argue that this was a return to the exuberance of the French New Wave after the depressing realist cinematic movement of the seventies.

Diva’s plot is not particularly complicated, at least no more so than any other thriller. A young Parisian mailman called Jules happens to be an opera fan obsessed with the titular diva, Cynthia Hawkins. Hawkins is famous for both her virtuosity and the fact that she never makes recordings. One night she gives a recital in Paris, singing the aria Ebben? ne andro Iontano from Catalini’s La Wally, which Jules secretly records. However, matters are complicated when Jules also comes into possession of a recording which implicates a high-level police official in a prostitution ring. Meanwhile Jules also makes the acquaintance of a French-Vietnamese girl named Alba and, though her, a mysterious bohemian known only as M. Gorodish. The police official is frantically searching for the tape, and Jules soon has a pair of ruthless hitmen dogging his trail as well as a pair of Taiwanese gangsters who have learned of his pirate recording of Hawkins’s performance and wish to acquire it. Despite the danger growing around him, Jules attempts to take his adoration of Cynthia Hawkins to the next level be introducing himself to the singer. She is initially repulsed but is then bemused at the idea of having a fan like Jules and a romance of sorts develops between the two. As the hunt for the incriminating tape intensifies, Jules must rely on Alba and Gorodish to help him disentangle himself from the precarious web of intrigue he has fallen into.

As a story Diva leans on the contrivances of the thriller genre with a certain degree of self-awareness. Combined with a wonderful verve, means that nothing comes off as forced and there is a freshness to the entire enterprise. The pacing is careful and deliberate. Each facet of the story is resolved with a sort of quirky elegance that only the most careful attention to plotting can make possible. Visually the film makes a very effective use of its muted color palette, at its most dynamic creating a world of greens and blues against black and grey backgrounds. Colors are used as a way of cueing viewers in to the nature of a scene with greens used to suggest danger or malicious intent and blues used to suggest safe havens in the darkness. Romantic or joyous scenes are often attended with a veritable riot of color. The characters are more than well-written enough to hold the viewer’s interest, aided in no small part by the performances given by their respective actors. Jules is portrayed as an eccentric dropout whose sincerity and conscience ultimately transcends his rather creepy obsession with Cynthia Hawkins and allows actual love to take hold between them. Alba and M. Gorodish steal each scene they appear in. Alba manages to be both fey and brash, and seems to coyly dance her way through each scene, M. Gorodish is played as an almost enlightened figure whose whimsy is more than a match for Alba’s. Cynthia Hawkins is sympathetic and believable as a successful artist trying to hold true to her principles as the world changes around her. Special mention goes to the character of the assassin Curé, who brings a deadpan menace every time he slouches into a scene.

Diva uses the relationship between Jules and Cynthia to explore the often one-sided and anonymous love that a particularly passionate fan has for a performer or a celebrity. In this case we begin with Jules’ immature obsession with Cynthia. In the beginning she is only partially real for Jules, almost like a distant star: unreachable but somehow casting her twinkling light into his life. As their relationship develops Jules actually gets to know the real Cynthia and the fantasy he has built up around her begins to crumble. When the recording Jules has made of her concert apparently falls into the hands of the Taiwanese gangsters, who plan to copy and sell the recording with or without the diva’s consent, Jules realizes that his selfishness has brought actual harm. It is only after he returns the recording to Cynthia and admits his mistake that the diva and her fan are able to truly relate to one another. The film closes with Jules and Cynthia embracing on an empty stage, while the pirate recording plays in the background.