Dissecting Jesse James


Jesse James, famous American outlaw.

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority.  I know why most folks have problems with the movie.  It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate.  Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings.  The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals.  And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature.  I think the film’s reputation will grow over time.  Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure.  I definitely recommend it.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik.  Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot.  You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog.  If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly.  In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.

Dissecting Jesse James

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).

Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.

The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”

“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.

“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”

Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”

In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”

Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.

“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”

Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.

“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”

Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.

Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.

 

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