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Jean Bethke Elshtain

What Was It You Wanted

Bob Dylan and Jesse James

Bob Dylan and I were born in the same year, and each of us has moved far beyond our points of origin. There the resemblance ends—at least I'm not inclined to push it further. I've been a Dylan devotee—this by contrast to an obsessed Dylan freak—for over forty years. I think I know him passing well. Oddly enough, I think he knows me, too, on some level. His recent songs, with their stirring evocations of life's end and getting to Heaven before they "close the door," bring me to tears. Just like the rest of us, Dylan is still trying to figure the whole thing out—the difference being that his songs reach millions, and that is a substantial difference indeed.

As every Dylan fan and film-buff knows, I'm Not There features multiple Dylans, each portrayed by a different actor. There is the Woody Guthrie wannabe, the romantic poet,  the "voice" of his generation who decides he doesn't wannabe, doesn't want to sing "finger pointing" songs for the rest of his life, the rock/pop star, Dylan in his crazed booze-and-drug-addled sarcastic phase, the born-again Dylan, the outlaw/outcast Dylan. There are many lives, then, of Bob Dylan as imagined by director Todd Haynes and played competently to brilliantly by the actors.

But does the film help us get closer to Dylan? Does it draw us closer to the sources of his inspiration? Not really. The born-again Dylan, for example, is just another color in the palette. Yet what can only be called a religious yearning for transcendence moves throughout Dylan's work, early to late, starting about the time he began to lose his baby fat.

Consider "When the Ship Comes In" from the album The Times They Are A-Changin'. I recall discussions with my compatriots in our 1960s "commune" (it lasted only one year or thereabouts—we were a "repressed" bunch, more philosophical than hedonistic), when I urged that the song was not about political triumph but rather the joy of the eschaton. Nobody knew what I was going on about. But I still think I was right. I'm Not There doesn't help much with this. We don't see Dylan poring over texts, devouring everything from philosophy to poetry to theology. We get no sense of his Jewish family and origins. In this way the film winds up burnishing the mythological dimensions of Dylan's story even as the director has stated repeatedly that he intended to mock mythic biopics in the vein of Walk the Line, the film that told the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter.

I'm Not There is too idiosyncratic to be construed as a direct riposte to anything: it is what it is, an attempt to capture a defining genius, an American original, a believer, a walking paradox whose "ship will come in" one day when he is on the road, by then an old man, living out his vocation as a restless troubadour, distilling in his songs so much of the fear, anger, beauty, faith, hope, fear, confusion, love, and hate that compose the perturbed American spirit of the last half-century and more. Bob Dylan, may you stay forever young!

Another meditation on celebrity, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was perhaps the most elegiac and beautifully composed and superlatively acted film released in 2007. (Disclosure: I have not yet seen There Will Be Blood, but if advance reviews are any indication, it may trump.) It came and went without much fanfare here (though its critical reception in Britain was quite enthusiastic). Why? Maybe because the film lives and breathes in a deliberate manner. The camera lingers lovingly. The story is told episodically with narration providing a steadying strand. Time is taken to register and weigh reactions. There is no razzle-dazzle. Director Andrew Dominick gambled—and succeeded—with or without commercial whoop-de-doo.

Having seen the film in New York City, I departed the theater thinking I hadn't been much affected by it. But it continued to work on me. We haven't said good-bye to Jesse James—who, along with Billy the Kid, is the most featured American character in movie history. In remembering Jesse James, we recall the killer and we despise him. We recall his assassin, Robert Ford, who shot James unawares in the bosom of his home and family—where Ford was a guest—and we despise him as well. Indeed, we wind up loathing the assassin far more than the murderer he murdered. Because we know Jesse James was more than a murderer. James was a rogue, yes, and—in a brilliant performance—the beguiling Brad Pitt plays him that way to the hilt, always coiled, quicksilver reactions, and you never know which Jesse will out. Rather like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, Pitt's Jesse James is torn between possibilities. The allure of violence, yes, but he also recoils from these moments. We see him weeping, quizzical.

He finds his own violent tendencies—stopped short at the last moment—funny. Jesse's laugh is more menacing than anything else. He loves his children. They, he declares, will "grow up clean." They do not know what he does. They don't even know his real name as he lives out a series of pseudonymns, moving frequently with his ever-loving and faithful wife, Zee. (Apparently because the film was cut from a running time of three and a half hours to a mere two and a half, much of the role of Jesse's wife falls out. And—unlike the exquisite book by Ron Hansen on which it is based—the film does not introduce Jesse's formidable mother, six feet tall.)

The film's ambivalence about violence is one most Americans share—fascination, then recoil. We hate the officially sanctioned violence of the Pinkertons: systematic, coldly planned and executed, in contrast to Jamesian bursts of violence. Against the harshness and beauty of a landscape sharply rendered by cinematographer Roger Deakin's elegant images, we are keenly aware of life on the edge—threatening to topple over into use of the gun, a casual acceptance of the possibility of shooting or being shot. And the film reminds us of the looser identities of the post-Civil War era: James could hide in plain sight, using his aliases. There was no internet, no sharing of files on people's jobs and medical histories and all the rest. There is something attractive about this: you can elude the law, maybe start over again. You have resources of evasion. In an era when we feel hemmed in and exposed on all sides—too many people know too much about us and to no good end, all avenues of escape are being closed off—it is hard to start anew. There is a fluidity in James' world, his violent world, by contrast to our far more "domesticated" one.

Casey Affleck as Robert Ford portrays chillingly the ingratiating social climber cum stalker, always seeking to insinuate himself, classically passive aggressive. We loathe him and we understand him. He would bask in the reflected glory of a figure who had achieved legendary status in his own lifetime. James asks Ford: "I can't figure it out: do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" Affleck/Ford is the quintessence of ressentiment: envy, hatred, desire, love. We recognize the symptoms. We recall Mark David Chapman signing his name "John Lennon" preliminary to becoming Lennon's murderer. In the aftermath of his murder of James, Ford enjoys a brief lionization followed by a lengthy shunning. His name would be remembered, yes, but not as a hero. He would be "the Coward Robert Ford" until he, too, met his nemesis—a man who made his name by murdering the man who murdered Jesse James.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, critic Clive Sinclair notes parallels between Jesse James and his Savior, reminding us that James' father was the Reverend James of New Hope Baptist Church:

like Jesus, Jesse carries stigmata (in the shape of unhealed bullet wounds to the chest), doctors the sick (though his remedies are crackpot, and don't work), has prophetic powers (not entirely reliable), and is a charismatic leader of men (whose deeds, unfortunately, are the other side of holy). The viewer … spots these coincidences, as does Jesse himself. … This leads the hunted man to the obvious conclusion that one of his disciples will eventually betray him unto death.

Sinclair does not go on to state the obvious, but I shall: in such a raucously Christian nation and culture, could these parallels have been lost on the people who so readily forgave James his sins and kept him alive in legend, song, books, and films? (It was Jesse James, Jr., who portrayed his father in the first cinematic version of James' life, in 1921.)

Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me? We are both Jesse and his murderer. Who among us wouldn't whine, brag, cower, boast, to suck up to Jesse then or Brad Pitt now? We want to get close, as if the touch of a semi-sacralized figure could heal as that of the Christocentric King of the medieval period was said to do. But "I," the "I" who does this, despise myself on some level for such enthrallment. I'm not my own man or woman. I'll blur my identity with his—be like him and be him—but first I must bring him down in the classic American sport of Schadenfreude. Only then can I remember him: forever young, lying on ice in all his physical beauty and grace (more Brad than Jesse here, surely) and it is all MY handiwork. I would transcend my puny identity and move to another plane. Instead, I am stuck forever in immanence and overshadowed by the one I destroyed. Bob Ford's life is not tragic. It is profoundly banal. Jesse James' story flies off the page and the screen, his mythos burnished and all attempts to bring him down forlorn.

Jean Bethke Elshtain's Gifford Lectures will be published later this year as Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Basic Books).

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