NEW YORK – The big screen revival of Andrew Dominik's 2007 western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” economically dubbed the “Jesse James Revival” by a passionate young man named Jamieson McGonigle who set the whole thing in motion, kicked off in earnest Saturday night with a presentation of the opus to a sold out crowd at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
If you've been following our coverage in the run-up to the event then you're aware of the mission statement: bringing a masterpiece that deserves to be seen on the big screen back around after it wasn't given half a chance to reach an audience in its original theatrical run. After New York, the next stop will be at The Loft in Tuscon, Ariz. on Dec. 17 (a screening made possible by the passionate support of Oscar-winning screenwriter Diana Ossana), but McGonigle made a big announcement from the stage while introducing the screening: the Revival will head even farther west as the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles has set a Feb. 15, 2014 screening of the film at the Egyptian Theater with Dominik in attendance again for a Q&A. Tickets for that will go on sale in about a month.
As for Saturday's big event, it was a wonderful start to what will hopefully be an endless line of bookings on the repertory circuit, not just nationally, but internationally. It was the first time I had seen the film theatrically since September of 2007 and the DCP was naturally more beautiful than a typical release print. I couldn't possibly write more about this film other than to put it, simply, this way: Every December, basically around this time of year, after I've seen another 12 months'-worth of cinema, I always say to myself, “Well, another year gone, another year without a film as good as 'Jesse James.'” That's how passionate I remain about this film; I don't believe the world has seen a better one since. (You can read more extended thoughts on the next page.)
The post-screening Q&A was fantastic and lively because Dominik is such a candid and pragmatic guy. He'll shoot you straight and won't fuss it up too much. He didn't ooze gratitude by any means but you know he's touched by all of this. “I'm embarrassed, in a good way, in a happy way,” he said when someone just asked him point blank how he really felt about the Revival.
For instance, he talked about how Warner Bros. didn't like the screenplay but probably figured, “Brad [Pitt] wants to do it and we can do it for under 40 [million dollars] and we want him to do the next 'Ocean's' movie so fuck it.” He said he felt the film was “doomed” from the outset but nevertheless noted, as he did in our exclusive interview with him, that his naiveté had plenty to do with the ultimate post-production gridlock the film found itself in. “I can't remember how many times they fired me,” he said, “but I always managed to get back in there.”
Indeed, no version of this film was going to ever exist all that far from his ultimate vision of it. It just wouldn't work under a certain length. Someone in the audience asked the obvious question: “Would you put out a director's cut?” His response: “It's not up to me, mate.” He talked again about his preferred three-hour cut of the film but made it clear that if it were up to him, that version would have already made it out into the world, theatrically. So hope springs eternal that Warner Bros. might see fit to revisit this thing and help an even fuller vision of what's already a brilliant piece of filmmaking see the light of day.
For now, though, it's all about breathing new life into a 7-year-old film in need of the resuscitation. McGonigle is making it happen, and again, I'm hugely honored to have had a hand in it.
Check out some extended thoughts on the film I wrote up for Saturday night's hand-out program on the next page. And be on the lookout for the Jesse James Revival should it come to your town.
No Eulogies: A Revival of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
The western genre is perhaps the most quintessentially American of American art forms. It reflects the very spirit that forged a country into being. It's there in the name: western, expansion across the continent, as far away from the shackles of England as possible. The greatest films of the genre conjure imagery of noble savages, tamed frontiers, unbridled lawlessness and prideful ownership over a little slice of heaven. Indeed, underneath it all, the western is about that most American of ideals: the right to pursue happiness.
Those are incredibly broad strokes, and yet within them, the genre finds such profound purchase. It provides the capacity to explore further reaches, to speak to, for lack of a better term, the human condition. Whether it be the corporatization of the frontier in Robert Altman's “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the examination of mob mentality in William Wellman's “The Ox-Bow Incident” or the disassembling of mythology in John Ford's “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the best examples of the form have always had something deeper on their minds, understanding the usual tropes as gears in a more erudite machinery.
For those reasons and many more, Andrew Dominik's “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is comfortably at home alongside these masterpieces. Produced at a time far removed from the western's heyday, a time when images of tumbleweeds and dingy saloons echo as forgotten relics, it speaks to the inherent themes of the genre while contextualizing them in the modern era. The film is a treatise on celebrity, tattered dime novel pulp fiction standing in for the tabloid sensationalism of today (which makes the casting of Brad Pitt as the eponymous outlaw all the more meaningful). It is a Victorian account of the last gasps of an era, an elegy to an age, a place, a state of mind, released into a flattened world of progress (to steal a phrase from Thomas Friedman) where connectivity is as streamlined as ever.
And yet, in the film, Jesse James knows his time has passed. He longs for the closure that never arrived, suffocated by the icon he had become. He is a man desperate to die with the era that spawned him, and so, coward to some, perhaps hero to James, Robert Ford was there to provide that release. Was he truly one of the great traitors, deserving of an eternal gnawing by Dante's Satan alongside Judas, Brutus and Cassius? Or was he just a boy, enamored but jealous, the perfect vessel through which James could exact his own exit from this mortal coil?
Pitt captures all of these nuances impeccably with his performance, offering up some of his most resonant and deeply felt work to date. Casey Affleck haunts the film with his unsettling range of reverence and longing. And the cast Dominik assembled around them carries across every delicate detail necessary to envelop the viewer in this world. Whether it's Jeremy Renner's puffed up sense of entitlement to his cousin the outlaw, Sam Rockwell's profound arc of tragic remorse for the actions of his brother “the coward,” Sam Shepard's weariness of an expiring lifestyle, Paul Schneider's horn-dog insensitivity or Garret Dillahunt's suffering terror, they collectively, and with the invaluable contributions of bit players throughout, afford one of the great ensemble performances not just of the genre, but of the medium.
And for a movie made in the kind of mid-budget range that is as much a dying relic as the world presented on the screen, it's a film rich with period detail and accuracy, all of it captured with typical sterling brilliance by Roger Deakins' camera. The images that passed through his lens are nothing short of iconic. One can only imagine the place they will have once the film stands the test of time, the hazy back-lit image of a train robber at home alongside Bogart and Bergman on a Moroccan tarmac, Gene Kelly clutching a rain-soaked lamppost or a crop duster giving Cary Grant chase through a desolate cornfield.
It's interesting that, just seven years after its release, a film like this is in need of a “revival,” but that's clearly the case. It's a film that, at its widest release, played on a little more than 300 screens nationwide. The studio had become exhausted and disgusted by a post-production process that never quite yielded the widely palatable movie they were hoping for, so the prophecy was self-fulfilled: a film graciously nurtured through production was left to die on the vine when completed, never having found its audience on the big screen, its vibrant iconography left to be discovered, if at all, on home video.
This is our chance to change all of that that. There will be no eulogies. Not yet.