In general, I avoid Manohla Dargis, movie critic for the NY Times who generally lays on self-importance and snark with an equally broad brush – not a combination I love, probably because I’m guilty of it myself fairly often. But I did happen to read her review of the new Jesse James movie only because, after accurately recognizing Brad Pitt, I thought it couldn’t be him what with all the adopting and Angelina-ing of late and that maybe it was Colin Farrell, who I have a soft spot for due to his performance in The New World, the great Terence Malick epic that I and Manohla both love but that is otherwise reviled by just about everyone else I know who’s ever seen it. (“It’s so SLOW,” they whine. Whimps.)
But no, it is Mr. Pitt. I skimmed the review as I find him stunningly dull, but was fairly intrigued by Dargis’s thesis, which implies that, far from being a folk hero, Jesse James was a murdering, thieving, racist psychopath, and that this is only the latest in a long line of hagiographical artistic treatments of a real prick. The review concludes: “The true story of Jesse James, despite all the dime novels and B movies, remains untold, perhaps because in its savagery it really is as American as apple pie and, as such, unspeakably hard to tell. ”
Now, I love me some revisionist history and I really love when American icons are exposed, so I looked up James to try to find out about the “unspeakable cruelty” from “a thug who repeatedly killed in cold blood.” His past is either so whitewashed that Darghis is right and everyone is afraid of the truth, or he was basically a highly successful bank robber who was about as racist as every other white person in his generation.
Neo-Confederates, who I am willing to concede are most likely on the thuggish side, have made James a hero. But so did lefties Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, as well as Philip Kaufman who struck me as fairly apolitical (having talked to him extensively about Unbearable Lightness in my Criterion days, he was primarily interested in telling a great story rather than the portraying the horrors of communism; he fired Wm. Goldman from writing The Right Stuff screenplay because Goldman was too jingoistic). Certainly James has all the ingredients that Americans love: rebellious, poor and struggling as a kid, tough, and smart enough to die young and leave a good-looking corpse. Who wouldn’t want to claim him?
But I am disappointed that Darghis uses her review to open up an interesting door and then walks right past it without a further look inside. If you want to talk about why Americans worship the violent and thuggish, why gangsta and pimp are now compliments of the highest order, if you want to indict pop culture for furthering the poisonous mindset that allows us to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the Middle East and Africa so that we can talk about how fat Britney Spears is….well, shit. Do it for real. Don’t get all high and mighty about Jesse James “wrapping himself in the Confederate flag” only to throw up your hands at the end of the review and say, “The question of whether the world or cinema needs another monument to an American gangster, a thug who lived by the gun and repeatedly killed in cold blood, remains unanswered by the film and its makers. And perhaps that isn’t a question worth asking.” What the hell have I been reading your last 10 paragraphs for, woman? It reminds me of a dear friend who will argue something that is truly thought-provoking, then seconds later dismiss the whole thing with, “Well, I really don’t know anything.”
The good thing is, I didn’t know Darghis had any good questions in her, and this review made me change my mind a little. I hope next time she follows through on the whole definition of the American hero as it relates to current entertainment. She’s certainly got a big old audience to take advantage of. Questioning crap is the first step in dealing with it. And Lord knows, we got plenty o’ crap to start the argument.