The Transformation of the Jesse James’ Myth in Contemporary American Cinema

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Abstract


American historiography puts forward a theory which looks upon the US history as consisting of a row of cycles. The pattern was detected by thinkers and historians like Ralph W. Emerson, Henry B. Adams, Arthur M. Schlesinger and others. A cycle includes two contradicting phases lasting approximately 15-20 years each. Their character and content are defined differently - by social interest/personal interest, liberalism/conservatism, democracy/capitalism. The common ground between all the oppositions is the vision of the cyclic regularity nature. During the “social anxiety” periods the energy breaks out, the nation stirs to action (“Progressive Era” (1890s-1910s), “New Deal” (30s), turbulent years (60s). When the social organism gets tired it demands a break to recover. The “social rest” time begins (“Roaring Twenties”, presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), “Me” Decade” (80s)). The article takes as a premise that cinema reflects the rythmic variations - at the level of ideas, themes, types of characters, genres, plots, a visual style. The theory is tested by means of examination of the western - the oldest national American genre. The article analyses the western subgenre - films telling of legendary frontier outlaws, namely Jesse James regarded as American Robin Hood. The “theory of cycles” optics enables to track the transformation of James myth and his image. The main part of the article is devoted to the landmark film of the contemporary “social anxiety” phase The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir. Andrew Dominik). A thorough review of the polyphonic text demostrates that whichever interpretation is prefered the intention of the authors to a radical reconsideration of the well known myth is obvious. Correlations and contrasts with the other Jesse James’ films reveal that the view on the criminal number one directly corresponds with the historical phase.


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 Abstract: American historiography puts forward a theory which looks upon the US history as consisting of a row of cycles. The pattern was detected by thinkers and historians like Ralph W. Emerson, Henry B. Adams, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and others. A cycle includes two contradicting phases lasting approximately 15–20 years each. Their character and content are defined differently — by social interest/personal interest, liberalism/conservatism, democracy/capitalism… The common ground between all the oppositions is the vision of the cyclic regularity nature. During the “social anxiety” periods the energy breaks out, the nation stirs to action (“Progressive Era” (1890s–1910s), “New Deal” (30s), turbulent years (60s). When the social organism gets tired it demands a break to recover. The “social rest” time begins (“Roaring Twenties”, the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961), “Me” Decade” (1980s)).

The article takes as a premise that cinema reflects the rhythmic variations - at the level of ideas, themes, types of characters, genres, plots, a visual style. The theory is tested by means of an examination of the western — the oldest national American genre. The article analyses the western subgenre — films telling of legendary frontier outlaws, namely Jesse James regarded as Аmerican Robin Hood. The “theory of cycles” optics enables to track the transformation of James myth and his image. The main part of the article is devoted to the landmark film of the contemporary “social anxiety” phase The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (2007, dir. Andrew Dominik). A thorough review of the polyphonic text demonstrates that whichever interpretation is preferred the intention of the authors to a radical reconsideration of the well-known myth is obvious. Correlations and contrasts with the other Jesse James’ films reveal that the view on the criminal number one directly corresponds with the historical phase.

About the authors

Dmitry V Zakharov

ВГИК

Author for correspondence.
Email: editor@vestnik-vgik.com

Russian Federation

Competitor of PhD in Arts, VGIK

References

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  9. fötses J. Twilight of the Idol // Sight & Sound. December, 2007. P. 17

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