Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movies A-Z: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik 2007)

There is a meditative dreamlike quality to this remarkable film that belies the brutality of its subject matter. Brad Pitt, as Jesse James, demonstrates that he can act when given the right role, but it’s the incredibly talented Casey Affleck, in the role of Robert Ford who gives the stand out performance. There has been a lot of talk lately about Leonardo Di Caprio being ‘the finest actor of his generation,’ and certainly he is a fine actor. But there is nothing in Di Caprio’s oeuvre to compare with Affleck’s performance here or in Gone Baby Gone, brilliantly directed by Casey’s brother, the other Affleck (turns out he’s been on the wrong side of the camera all these years).

As young, inexperienced and naïve Robert Ford ingratiates himself to the James gang, and gradually comes to see how much of a pigmy he is beside his hero, the hurt, the resentment, and the anger become almost palpable in Affleck’s performance. To go one better than the gunslinger whose exploits he has followed in treasured, dog-eared dime novels, he must kill his hero. Only then can he show them all, and more importantly himself, that he can live out the fantasy of the folk hero and join the pantheon of outlaws in the hallowed halls of wild bunch legend. The deepest aspect of the tragedy is that instead of becoming a legend, Ford becomes the most hated man in America.

The literary quality of the voice-over is due to the source material, Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. Hansen is a Catholic Deacon who cites the influence of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola on his storytelling. "One of the exercises is you are who you follow – Christ or the evil one?" he said. Robert Ford is a follower of James; he wants to be James and the results are tragic for both men. There is an interesting interview with the author here in which he reflects theologially on his work.

New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik’s direction is flawless. Dominik is perhaps best known for Chopper and though both films are about outlaws there is a romance and nobility about this story that is absent from the stark nihilism of Chopper. The realism of the film is notable, including gunfights that are completely out of step with Hollywood conventionalism. Those old six-shooters were remarkably inaccurate and it was a lot harder to kill a man in the days of the Wild West than John Ford ever let on. The close range gunfights with hopelessly ineffective weaponry that feature in this film make that clear, and lend an historical accuracy rare in a western. Watch also for a cameo from Nick Cave singing “The Ballad of Jesse James,” accompanying himself on a nice little parlour guitar. This is certainly one of my favourite westerns, even though in a way it's really about the end of "the west." You can view a trailer here.

Dear Jacky: A Letter from Susanna Wesley to John Wesley

While spending the month of June at Duke Divinity School researching John Wesley and the American Revolution I came upon a fascinating collection of letters in the Frank Baker Collection from members of the Wesley family, including his parents, and lesser known siblings, older brother Samuel Wesley Jr, and sisters, Martha, Mary, Emily and Kezzia. A great number of the letters of John Wesley, both in the Bicentennial edition of the Works, and in the earlier Telford collection, have been published but less is known about letters to Wesley and these can often provide valuable insights. Particularly interesting to me are the family dynamics among the siblings revealed by the letters. There are some in-letters included by Frank Baker in the first two volumes of Wesley’s letters (vols. 25-26 of the Bicentennial edition of the Works), but these are often abridged. Randy Maddox is currently working on preparing full transcripts of every letter sent to John Wesley carefully compared to original texts, to be posted online as part of the Wesley Works project and a similar project for Charles Wesley letters is also underway.

I was only able to photocopy twenty of the Wesley family letters. These were photocopies of the originals made by Frank Baker and placed in his files with his own transcriptions and notes. I am very grateful to archivist Michael Shumate and the helpful staff at the Special Collections Room for their help, as well as to Randy Maddox and Richard Heitzenrater, of the Duke Centre for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition for making this research possible and also for Dr. Maddox’s advice on this particular blog post.

Even though these letters are being transcribed by much abler hands than mine I thought it might be fun to try my hand at a little transcription work of my own before consulting any existing published version. My approach was to first transcribe the letter as best I could before then checking against Frank Baker’s typewritten transcription. Eighteenth century handwriting can be idiosyncratic at times so it was great to able to check my own transcription against that of Baker who was a master of the craft, as well as to consult his notes.

The first of my letters in chronological order is from Susanna Wesley to “Jacky” written from Wroote (where Samuel Wesley was rector) on the 23rd February 1725. The original letter is framed at Wesley's Chapel, London along with a typed transcript. This is only a practice exercise for me and does not pretend to be original textual study by any means. This particular letter has already been published by Frank Baker in Works 25:159-60 and is also included in Charles Wallace, Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (p.106) which includes all of Susanna Wesley's letters to her children. (I have not yet compared my transcription with these published versions of the letter.) The original is dated 1724 but /5 is added on Frank Baker’s typed transcription. Until the 1750s the new calendar year in England began in late March, so letters dated in January-March 1724 were written in what we would consider 1725.

This letter is interesting for many reasons. It ventures an opinion on the Roman Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility, urges John to make religion the business of his life, urges him to take Deacon's orders as soon as possible, and that the best preparation for such is a close study of "Practical Divinity." An interesting insight into the relationship dynamics between Susanna and her husband is the comment, 'tis an unhappyness almost peculiar to our Family, That yr Father and I seldom think alike.'

Wroot Feb 23 1724 [/5]
Dear Jacky

I have receivd Two Letters from you, neither of wch Ive answerd. Yr Father kept the First, it being included in one to him, and sin[ce] the Receit of the last, I have bin very ill, and confind to my Chamber, but I thank God I’m much bett[er].

Yr last brings surprising News indeed about the Pope, whom I doubt the Conclave will not permit long to Live. His Justice to the young Gentleman, in restoring him the Estate his Bigotted Father gave from him to the Monks, is really very Commendable, but his allowing the Scriptures to the Laity, and declaring against his own Infallibility are Actions truly Christian. In the lat[t]er he has given a Mortal Wound to the Infallibility of that See, and whether he were in the right, or whether he was in the wrong, the matter is the Same, for both horns of the Dilemma Strikes them). They must resign, their more profitable, than honest pretence to Infallibility. The King of Prussia talks often but is not to be depended on for Action. Emly has answered for her self. Tis strange Mr Leybourn shoud send any service to me, but I accept the Compliment, and wthout one, wish him Health, & Happiness.

The alteration of yr Temper has occasioned me much Speculation. I who am apt to be [?] Sanguin, hope it may proceed from the Operations of God’s Holy Spirit. That by taking off yr relish of Sensual Enjoyments , wd prepare, and dispose yr mind for a more Serious and close application to things of a more Sublime, & Spiritual nature. If it be so, happy are you if you cherish those disposit[i]ons, and now in good earnest resolv[e] to make Religion the Business of yr Life. For after all, that is the one Thing that strictly speaking is necessary, all things beside are / [p.2] comparatively little to the purposes of Life. Dear Jacky I heartily wish you woud now enter upon a serious examination of yr Self, That you may know, whether you have a reasonable hope of salvation by Jesus Christ [;] that is, whether you are in a State of Faith, & Repentance or not, wch you know are the Conditions of the Gospel Covenant on our part. If you are, the Satisfaction of knowing it, will abundantly reward yr pains, if not, you’ll find a more reasonable occasion for Tears, than can be met wth in a Tragedy. This matter deservs great Consideration in all, but especially those designed for the Clergy, ought above all things to make their Calling, & Election sure, least after they have preached to others, they themselvs should be cast away.

Now I mention this, it calls to mind yr Letter to yr Father about taking Orders. I was much pleasd with it, & liked the proposal well, but tis an unhappyness almost peculiar to our Family, That yr Father and I seldom think alike. I approve the Disposition of yr mind, I think this Season of Lent the most proper for yr preparation for Orders, and I think the sooner you are a Deacon the better, because it may be an inducement to greater Application in the Study of Practical Divinity, wch of all other I humbly conceive is the best Study for Candidat[es] for Orders. Mr. Wes[ley]: differs from me, wd engage you I believ[e] in Critical Learning (tho Im not sure) wch tho of use accidentally, & by way of concomitance yet is in no wise preferable to the other. Therefore I earnestly pray God to avert that great Evil from you, of engaging in triffling Studys [sic], to the neglect of such as are absolutly necessary. I dare advise nothing. God Almighty direct, & Bless you.

Adeiu [sic]

I have much to say but
cannot write more at present.
I even long to see you –


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