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Louis Greenberg

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

My Holiday (Part 2)

One of my new year’s resolutions is to kindle and nurture a positive attitude, so My Holiday (Part 1) will have to wait until I am back at work and grumpy again.

This holiday I saw two films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and American Gangster. Both were long, the sort of leisurely time-outs that I could only achieve during the holidays, and they are interesting to compare.

Jesse James was a poem in motion, with sensual, languid studies of light and shadow, the wind blowing over brown and snowy prairies. Milky winter sunlight slanting shadows through an empty wooden rocking chair over a deserted strip-plank floor: the James family’s latest up-and-leave. A pair of riders tromping across the snowy wastes of Kansas. The rough cloth of the mens’ vests. Late autumn spruces crosshatched against a thin blue sky.

This was a film about the country, the Kansas and Kentucky towns little more than chopped-down trees and mud clearings. As if the prairie would swallow them back come spring. The rich men absurd in the dirt in their city suits. But as the brick and cement buildings asserted themselves over the soil, as Jesse James’ career came to a close fifteen years after the end of the civil war, we had a sense that this film was also about endings, about how the mud and snow and savannah would come to be tamed. You knew why Jesse James was a hero. You could hear the ghosts of enormous herds of buffalo lowing in the rattling wind.

The slow unfolding of the relationship between Robert Ford and Jesse James was as close to writing as I’ve seen in film. All gesture and glance, a sycophantic grin held too long, a man waiting alone for days for his inevitable death, absolutely nothing on the icy horizon until his killer rides along the track for what seems like half the morning. This film gives us time to feel what the characters are feeling. It’s capacious and cold and I could have watched for another three hours.

American Gangster on the other hand, despite its 155-odd minutes, seemed rather compressed. Relationships and action all flitted over, hinted at, a dot-to-dot the viewer needs to fill in. But that said, the two and a half hours goes fast and there’s lots to keep you entertained in the story of a noble black gangster who decides to work for nobody and who corners the early-70s heroin market through his determination and values.

The broad sweep is compelling. Where this film lacks is in the details. The buildup and breakdown of his marriage. The remarkable teamwork of the man’s brothers. The amazing conversion of the cop into a lawyer. I wanted to know more. I think it was important to see more of small babies crying by their dead junkie mothers’ sides.

Nevertheless, it evoked 70s New Jersey and New York, the leather jackets and old cars that will never be classic, a familiar sort of squalor of fear and trashed public spaces, overcrowding and a sense of seige and desperation. New York’s solution was twofold: to root out dirty cops, and to sweep out the criminal dirt somewhere else, who really cared where.

So, two very different American epics, and I find myself saying things like “this film evokes 70s New Jersey and New York”. I was never there then, no more than I was in Kansas in the late nineteenth century. Is it just America, or is it stories and pictures that incite this nostalgia for places I’ve never been, the recorded sight and sound of icy wind scything the fieldgrass, a lingering and hopeless look, a man’s rage at being made to feel like a child again?


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    February 24th, 2008 @13:07 #

    You sound like you might enjoy Terrence Mallick's films - Badlands, Days of Heaven and the Thin Red Line are classics in the genre Jesse James seems to occupy.


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