Does Jesse James Know Who He Is?

assassination-of-jesse-james-1.jpg The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film I did not get a chance to write about when it came out last autumn, though I did put it #8 on my “best of 2007” list. I recently saw it on DVD again, however, and have been struck anew by the film’s surprising beauty, mystery, and psychological resonances.

Beyond its artistic excellence (including some really interesting photographic effects, beautiful music, etc), Assassination is a film that captures some pretty complicated truths about humanity and identity.

The “larger-than-life” title hints that this film is less about a real event (though it is a true story) than it is about a mythology about a larger-than-life man and his untimely demise. This is not a biopic of Jesse James, and as such we never really get close to understanding him as a person as much as a symbolic icon. The brilliantly cast Brad Pitt (himself a larger-than-life icon) recognizes this, providing his character scant few moments of intelligible humanity. What we do see of Jesse James the man is someone who is very much intrigued by his own cultural mystique. He’s acting the part that has been written by pop-culture and legend; he’s both an observer and the main attraction in the abstracted spectacle that is “Jesse James.”

Fittingly, much of Pitt’s performance consists of iconic poses and postures: standing gallantly amid the windswept plains; sitting throne-like in an Edenic yard with snakes writhing around his forearms; enshrouded in mystical steam and darkness as a train approaches (to be robbed). He’s the consummate rebel hero—an unbeatable bandit who, in the end, seems to orchestrate even the circumstances of his own assassination.

Indeed, the scene in which Robert Ford (heartbreakingly portrayed by Casey Affleck) shoots Jesse James is so thoroughly blocked and theatrical that we can’t help but wonder if James had this moment planned out his whole life. Without giving too much away (it’s a brilliant scene), I’ll just say that the sequence feels like the ultimate convergence between the “real story” and the “mythology”—in which James and Ford fully transition from people to characters, from humans living to actors performing. And this is not a knock on the verisimilitude of the film; on the contrary, I suspect that this climactic sense of artifice/performed mythology was just what writer/director Andrew Dominik intended.

The point is further made in the subsequent “one year later” sequence, in which Robert Ford is now a widely-known actor in New York, “performing” his legendary assassination on stage every night for star struck audiences. Here, in ghostly makeup and stage light, Ford shoots blanks and “Jesse” is just an actor who dramatically “dies” for a gasping audience. It’s a simulation of an event that, in reality, was a simulation in it’s own right.

Among other things, Assassination is a film that understands the performative aspects of identity. In a sense, we are all actors—performing and projecting versions of our selves to fit whatever circumstance, stage, or audience we are in. Like Jesse James we all have images and public “selves” to live up to (though to a less grandiose extent for most of us). It is an exhausting and seemingly unavoidable practice of everyday social interaction—the performance of a suitable self in social context.

Sociologist Erving Goffman touched on these issues in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he wrote:

“The impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by very minor mishaps. The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human-selves and our socialized selves. As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs”

This is the burden of identity—the weight of having to maintain a “front,” manage impressions, and live up to perceptions and standards and (in Jesse James’ case) legends that we ourselves foster—even while we are humans with far more complexities and contradictions than one sellable “self” could assume.

But that is the very justification for why we must perform. We are far too complex to be understood by others (let alone ourselves) if not by way of crafting a character for every given context. Of course we can only take the theater metaphor so far, but I think Goffman is perceptive when he says that “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”