Why do we have to wait so long for Westerns that are worth a shit? By Joseph Hirsch

Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow from Paragraph Line Books.

gun, fight, gunfighter, cowboy, west, wild, danger, adventure, blur, abstract, group, team, posse, justice, law, police, marshall, western,

 

Roger Ebert (RIP), in his review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, observed that “[t]he Western has been mostly in hibernation since the 1970s, but now I sense it stirring in rebirth. We have a program to register the most-read reviews on my Web site, and for the month of September the overwhelming leader was not Eastern Promises, not Shoot ’em up, not The Brave One, but 3:10 to Yuma. Now here is another Western in the classical tradition.”

Ebert was right, of course, but his musings beg the question: how many genres go into “hibernation?” Jesse James was the first great Western since Unforgiven, in my opinion (1992). Jesse James was made in 2007. Fifteen years is a long time to wait, for anything.

It doesn’t seem to me like other genres (from crime pictures to romantic comedies) “hibernate” or are even held to the same standard as the Western. The genre (both in print and film) is always, according to some, on its deathbed. I never hear people proclaim that “SF is dead,” probably because it is, by nature, future and idea-oriented, whereas the Western (excluding subgenres) is concerned with the past, which is fixed in place.

Just thinking out loud.

PTSD as permanent pubescence by Joseph Hirsch

Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch wrote Kentucky Bestiary and The Dove and the Crow.

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What is PTSD? According to Wikipedia, the only source worth quoting aside from the King James Bible, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as major stress, sexual assault, terrorism, or other threats on a person’s life. The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.”

For every person it’s different, I suppose. A woman who was sexually assaulted is likely to experience her PTSD differently than me, a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Portrayals of the disorder range from the highly memorable (Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver), to high parody (John Rambo, as played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo series). The Great War vet and author Ernst Junger once said something to the effect that war was a schooling of the heart, a fire that could temper a man like steel in the forge, or melt him if he was not up to the challenge. What’s so absurd about the fictional character of John Rambo is not so much that he is tempered by his experiences in Indochina; he is given a steroid injection by the Vietnam war, which is a silly bit of farce that Gus Hasford called “bullshit,” shouting it from the rooftops (Gus was a marine who wrote The Short-Timers, which was turned into the Stanley Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket). I think Sly Stallone actually spent the Vietnam War coaching soccer at a boarding school for young girls in Sweden, but I’m too lazy to consult the oracular vulgate of Wikipedian truths to find out right now.

The most even-handed treatment of the illness, for my money, is John Sheppard’s Alpha Mike Foxtrot. Read it if you haven’t (I may read it again here, soon).

For me, PTSD is like a second, permanent pubescence. My nerves are a mess, and I never truly feel calm. I try to limit my interaction with women to my professional life (writing and pursuing my Master’s) degree. It’s not that I’m a misogynist; it’s just that women are biologically trained, for solid evolutionary reasons, to despise weak men.

I remember a female comedian a long time ago (maybe Judy Tenuta) having a bit about how she had to fart really badly on a date, held it in, and then exploded like a balloon releasing helium the moment she got home.

I feel a psychic pressure akin to Judy’s gas, building in me constantly, making my hands tremble and my voice quake. Frankly, the act of trying to conceal how weak I am (how I was melted by the fire to which Junger alluded), is just too taxing, and I prefer to stay home, listen to music, write, and walk my dog.

Another comic (this time I’m sure it was Bill Hicks) once said that the show Blind Date made masturbation look like a spiritual quest. I have to concur, and I think I’m retired from the dating game, permanently now.

My only hope for love or companionship at this point is going the Bukowski route, using what I think he called the dim flame of his literary talent to draw butterflies.

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How far are Furries from Zooeys? by Joseph Hirsch

Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, now available from Paragraph Line Books. 

Sex is strange, and, while it’s not my place to judge, “furries” strike me as rather odd fetishists. A furry, according to Wikipedia, the only source that can be quoted according to the latest MLA regulations, states that “…furry fandom is a subculture interested in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and characteristics. Examples of anthropomorphic attributes include exhibiting human intelligence and facial expressions, the ability to speak, walk on two legs, and wear clothes. Furry fandom is also used to refer to the community of people who gather on the Internet and at furry conventions.”

Furries needn’t extend their interest to the bedroom, but I’m a pervert, so I’m only interested in the salacious aspects of their lifestyle.

An even more bizarre (and, as of now, entirely fictional) subculture, is that of the “Zooeys.” Zooeys are the creation of  Jon Konrath, and they inhabit the dystopian alternative present day presented in his cyberpunk opus, The Memory Hunter. Zooeys, to put it bluntly, are humans who take advantage of surgical enhancements, implants, and alterations, in order to turn themselves into “transhuman” creatures, if you will, half-human and half bull hybrids, for instance, resembling Minotaurs of mythology. These are men and women who pay beacoup bucks to acquire tails, snouts, fur, etcetera.

My question is how far are we from this fictional creation of Konrath’s becoming a reality?

I read quite a few blogs, from the far right View from the Right (hosted by the now-deceased culture warrior Lawrence Auster), to the far left-leaning Beyond High Brow, run by Robert Lindsay, a linguist and diehard communist. Both Lindsay and Auster were adherents of what Margaret Thatcher (channeling Austrian school economist Robert Higgs, I believe) once called the “ratchet effect,” the idea that when the Left has cultural (or economic, or political) power, they can continue to turn the wheel to their advantage, but all conservatives can hope to do is not to turn back the wheel, but rather just to hold it in place and stave off further leftist gains.

So, how many more turns of the wheel must we wait before these man-beast hybrids who give reactionaries nightmares are copulating in our streets? I give it six months. Oh, and check out The Memory Hunter, if you haven’t read it yet.

Vaginal Cosmogony by Joseph Hirsch

Editor’s Note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of the recently released The Dove and the Crow

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Awhile back I was doing research for a project about a goddess who assumes human form, a woman may, in fact, have been responsible for the creation of the entire universe unbeknownst to the people in whose midst she walked.

One of the books I read in preparation for the project was The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religions of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. One of the images in the book, painted by Sjoo, was very striking, and was entitled “God Giving Birth.” It featured a hairless woman squatting, her bald head surrounded by celestial bodies, a child emerging from her womb.

As I read the book, and even as I wrote the “Goddess,” project previously mentioned, a question that some might regard as ridiculous kept springing to mind. Was there a woman whose beauty was powerful enough for me to realistically imagine not just a child, but the entire universe, emanating from her body?

I’ve asked myself the question repeatedly, and, scouring everything from personal experience to popular culture, two likely candidates spring to mind. One is a woman personally known to me, who I won’t embarrass by naming; the other is Anjelica Huston.

In her prime (or at least the beginning of my pubescence) she presented a beauty, power, and intelligence that was not just attractive, but somewhat terrifying. I remember watching her in the filmic adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel, The Witches. I especially remember the scene wherein she turned a boy into a mouse, and I remember wishing she’d turn me into her personal mouse.

Hers was (and is) a beauty which recalls the immortal words of the French poet Charles Baudelaire: “There are women who inspire you with the desire to conquer them and to take your pleasure of them; but this one fills you only with the desire to die slowly beneath her gaze.”

Weird Acid or Acidic Weirdness? By Joseph Hirsch

 

gun, fight, gunfighter, cowboy, west, wild, danger, adventure, blur, abstract, group, team, posse, justice, law, police, marshall, western,

 

I’ve written three Westerns now. The first was Orphan Elixir, a novella about a demolitions expert who heads to California after the Civil War and does battle with a cannibal lurking in the countryside. That book was published by The Western Online Press LLC, after being serialized on their site in six monthly installments. They paid a maximum of five dollars per story installation at the time I solicited the piece, and they split the 30,000 word piece up into six monthly installments. In other words, I got $30 for 30,000 words, or approximately $1 per thousand words that I wrote. There are, it seems, more lucrative professions than that of an independent writer, like, for example, panhandling.

My next Western was a decent novel called War-Crossed Eyes, whose presentation was botched by a shitty cover that looked like it was shat out of Fabio Lanzoni’s ass during his tenure as a cover model for Harlequin romance novels. Don’t believe me? Google “War-Crossed Eyes,” by Joseph Hirsch. I hate to talk shit about a publisher, but goddamn!

My third (and best) Western is a little book called The Dove and the Crow. This book concerns a whore in the Old West who is blessed with an abundance of magical powers.

Orphan Elixir has been classified as a “weird Western” by readers, while War-Crossed Eyes has not been classified as anything by anyone, because no one other than me and the editor have read the goddamn thing (except maybe John Sheppard, thanks again, man).

I’m having a hard time classifying The Dove and the Crow. One oughtn’t to always feel compelled to categorize things, but I’m bored and I have a little time on my hands right now, so let me give the matter a bit of thought.

The Dove and the Crow is either a) a weird Western or b) an acid Western, or c) some combination thereof, or something else entirely, perhaps.

In brief, an acid Western was defined by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as, “conjur[ing] up a crazed version of autodestructive (sic) white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.”

I’m phenotypically white, and probably somewhat “autodestructive”; I mean, I have to stress the somewhat, since, while I did something dumb like volunteering for a war that didn’t have to be fought (which marks me as self-destructive), I’ve never had anything larger than a finger in my ass (and it was my own experimental probing at the age of sixteen). I mention this prurient detail not to debase myself or the reader, but to make the point that if one isn’t even willing to indulge in more than mildly masochistic tendencies, they’re probably not all that self-destructive.

I am somewhat solipsistic, because I’m a writer, and writing is navel-gazing, even when a writer observing the outside world, since that appraisal is being filtered through the writer’s own biases and sensibilities. I am definitely “crazed,” and so must concede that, since I personally bear the traits or hallmarks, in part or in toto, that Rosenbaum describes in defining the genre of the acid Western, my work will probably also reflect my personality, to an extent.

As for the weird Western, Wikipedia says, the “…Weird Western is a literary subgenre that combines elements of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, or fantasy.” Wikipedia is never wrong, and my book contains horror (skinning and scalping), the occult (a medicine man who summons beaver to devour his hated enemy, the white man), and fantasy (a goddess figure with the power to heal wounds at the merest snap of her fingers).

So…The Dove and the Crow: Weird Western or acid Western? I think Grandpa Simpson said it best, when the authorities asked him if his ranting was meant to stop them from pursuing Homer while the Simpson patriarch was off on a lark, or if, in fact, he was just senile. “A little bit from column a, and a little bit from column b.”

Readers who want a free copy of the book are invited to go to www.storycartel.com , or to contact the author directly at joehirs123@aol.com  Feel free to read the book and make up your own mind, about which genre it may or may not belong to, or the more prosaic matter of whether or not the book is any damn good, in your opinion.

Peace and soul, as Soul Train’s Don Cornelius once signed off…

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P.S. To all potential female correspondents, no “pegging” requests, despite my former allusion to previous anal exploration. I am saving my rectal virginity for my fortieth birthday, which is still some years off. At that time, if you wish to anally wreck me, direct all correspondence to the aforementioned email address.

Signing off for real this time,

Joseph Sullivan Hirsch

Horses in Space by Joseph Hirsch

Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow. Read it, won’t you?

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Awhile back I wrote a book about two boys who grew up in the 80s, and, while researching 80s ephemera for the novel, I kept asking myself, Wasn’t there a cartoon about some cowboys in space? I did a little bit of internet sleuthing, and it turns out, there was.

According to Wikipedia, the most reliable source not just on the internet, but in the entire universe, “BraveStarr is an American Space Western animated television series. The original episodes aired from September 1987 to February 1988 in syndication.” I didn’t even know there was such a subgenre as the “space Western,” but Wikipedia tends to broaden one’s horizons while simultaneously dumbing them down, sort of like the internet as a whole, and apparently the subgenre’s antecedents date back to the early Flash Gordon serials and also informed the décor of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars (note: the fact that I wrote the previous sentence with a straight face probably suggests I don’t know what I vagina is, but I can assure the reader that at one point, I was, in fact, sexually active).

I took the plunge and watched a full episode on YouTube. It was the pilot episode, so one has to make allowances and not judge too harshly, since any show needs some breathing room, before it is retooled and perfected. This episode in question dealt with Bravestarr, a native American lawman in outer space, and his faithful companion, 30-30, a talking anthropomorphic horse with opposable thumbs who stands upright on two legs, and reminded me quite a bit of the Zooey creatures in Jon Konrath’s brilliant, The Memory Hunter.

Bravestarr sort of looks like a cross between John Redcorn (the Native American who cuckolds Dale Gribble on the cartoon King of the Hill) and the character of Shep Proudfoot in Fargo, the Native American who belt-whips  Steve Buscemi’s ass after Buscemi tells him to “go smoke a fucking piece pipe.”

It’s hard to describe the show conceptually, but I’ll try. It’s basically a cross between Blade Runner and My Little Pony, or perhaps a mashup of Rainbow Brite and William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk masterwork, Neuromancer, except for kids. The show’s heavy on the moralizing (the moral is delivered at the tail-end of each show, a la G.I. Joe ((kids, don’t do “spin,” a hallucinogenic drug featured on the show whose effects are akin to those of LSD))),and the whole affair is surprisingly multicultural for a Reagan-era relic.

Parts of the show I didn’t understand. For instance, why is the anthropomorphic, gun-toting horse known as “30-30″ when that laser cannon he’s packing is obviously a smoothbore that couldn’t fire Winchester rifle rounds (30-30s) if Bravestarr’s life depended on it? I would also like to know more about the misnamed bipedal horse’s homeland, which is called…wait for it…the Equestroids.

All in all, I didn’t mind wasting eighteen minutes (no commercials on YouTube) watching this thing. In conclusion, let me add that, while this show was nowhere near as good as Sergio Leone’s sweeping hymn to the Western genre, Once Upon a Time in the West, I did actually enjoy watching Bravestarr more than, say, slamming my penis in a car door.

Won’t you take me to Flavor Town: A romance in one act by Joseph Hirsch

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Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of the Paragraph Line Books release The Dove and the Crow.

Guy Fieri, with his iced blond spikey hair and bowling shirt curling with licking flames, looked like a walking time capsule from the year 1994. His arms and neck were lobster-red, on account of his having made the trip in his ’68 ragtop Chevy with the top down. The sweltering Savannah sun dripped humidity as oppressive as thick molasses, and sphagnum dripped from the weeping trees that lined the gravel path leading to the plantation house.

A black woman, melanin deepened almost to cobalt by the sun, bowed as Mr. Fieri parked his car. She wore a French maid’s outfit. “Ma name is Delilah,” she said.

Guy smiled, and turned redder. He pointed a beefy forearm toward the woman and said, “I love that Georgia accent!”

“Thank ya, Mr. Ferry,” she said, mangling his last name, but charming him all the same. He was famous, the most popular chef with male viewers over at the Food Network, but sometimes people still screwed up his Italian surname when they tried it on for size. He slammed the car door on his ragtop, whose metallic black body was hot enough to hum from the force of the sun.

Another member of the staff appeared. This one was a liveried black man who resembled Uncle Ben, with a wide grin and shock of snowy hair. He stood next to one of the ionic columns fronting the estate, and said, “Ms. Deen will see you now, boss man.” His voice had as much twang to it as a finely-tuned banjo.

Guy stifled a bit of uneasiness, acrid bile swimming in his stomach, and managed a smile. Maybe it was those Extreme Fajita Flingers drenched in Ranch dressing that he ate earlier that were making his gut hurt right now, or it could have been the fact that he hadn’t had a chance to write down his Zing Zang Flank Steak slathered in Donkey Sauce recipe for Ms. Deen, but something was bothering him, deep within the clogged arteries of his heart.

He walked toward the front of the building, tweaked his diamond-studded shades, and said, “Let’s go to Flavor Town!”

The maid and the butler shared a conspiratorial laugh, before the butler said, “That’s what Miss Dean be intending to do, boss.” He opened the front door of the mansion with a white-gloved hand. “She’s about to take you to Flavor Town.”

“I’m ready,” Guy said, his voice gravelly as always, as if he was gargling rubbing alcohol and his glottis was on fire.

“Right this way.” The butler pointed a white glove toward the kitchen, where the rich smell of egg and frying cheese drew him, luring him into the trap that celebrity chef Paula Deen had set for him when she first extended him this invitation to her Savannah mansion.

Guy crossed the kitchen’s threshold, and what he saw horrified him, but it was too late to turn back. The door slammed shut behind him, and he heard the turn of a key whose click echoed as if this room of vulcanized counters, rosined wood, and marble were to be his tomb.

“Hey ya’ll!” Paula Deen’s rubbery double-chin jittered like a turkey waddle. The rest of her flesh, he saw, was not quite as sunburnt. Paula was naked, except for some strange device harnessed around her waist, which was cinched tightly and concealed the vast majority of her stretchmark-scarred, southern fried cellulite.

“Wait a minute,” Guy said, trying the knob of the door behind him again, to no avail. “This isn’t Flavor Town!” Celebrity Chef Paula Deen smiled, and she savored his fear like the sadistic mistress she was. She could smell the terror in the sweat that dripped from the gelled liberty spikes jutting from the chef’s platinum blonde cockscomb.

Paula turned so that she was facing him now directly now. Some sort of a confectionary phallus, a strap-on made from a frozen wedge of cheesecake, jutted from the leather and brass studded harness she wore around her waist.

“Sugar,” she said, accent dripping Georgia pride and hospitality. “I don’t know if you got taste buds in that sweet little ass of yours, but if so…” She walked until she was behind him, and shoved him up against the vulcanized kitchen range. “You’re going to Flavor Town. You’re going to Flavor Town, long and hard.”

“Wait a minute!” He held up a hand in protest, but Paula gripped his right forearm, and his other arm, and pinned both limbs against the tiled countertop.

The Georgian chef undid Guy’s belt in one swift motion, and his pants dropped to the floor. “Ain’t no ‘wait a minute,’ sugar.” She leaned closely into his right ear, bit the fleshy lobe, and her hot breath came in minty gusts that smelled like chilled Georgian julep.

“Rachael Ray’s more of a man than you are.” She wended her right hand beneath the fabric of his boxer shorts, which were patterned with licking tendrils of red flame, just like his trademark bowling shirt. “Ain’t gonna be no problem, is it, sugar?” She now licked the ear into which she spoke, and Guy, against his will, noticed his prostate slicking with volutes of ass milk, nature’s donkey sauce.

Paula slowly slid the middle finger of her right hand into Guy Fieri’s puckered sphincter. Guy let out his trademark growl, followed by a high pitched squeal counterpointed by the reflexive contraction of his anal muscles, as he accommodated Ms. Deen’s finger to the last knuckle.

“That’s it, sugar. Let Mama bring out the bitch in you.”

Guy leaned forward on the table, fanning his arms on the countertop, forming the wings of an invisible angel with his breaststroke, as Paula wriggled and writhed her finger in his ass until the wedge of frozen cheesecake slid into his sphincter, widening the orifice until the leather harness was flush against the flabby celebrity chef’s pimply ass.

She massaged his shoulders and whispered a compliment in his saliva-slicked ear. “You give up the balloon knot like a pro.”

“Dick me down!” Guy Fieri shouted, bucking up against the wedge of cheese, taking it like a newly-inducted catamite. “Take me to Flavor Town!”

“You know,” Paula said, casually as she bucked against him, the frozen cheesecake propagator moving on a trajectory smooth as Astroglide on eiderdown, now that Guy’s prostate was pumping like a newly-discovered oil patch.

“That bitch Barbara Walters said my Cookbook for the Lunch Box Set was something I should be ashamed of.” Paula worked her hips as if she was a schoolgirl hoola-hooping on a hot spring day. Her hips swept left and right, a loving orbit that made Guy insensate with pleasure and made it all the more difficult to hear the words she spoke as she sodomized him. “She wanted to know who was I to tell kids to have cheesecake for breakfast, chocolate cake and meat loaf for lunch.”

Paula pulled the wedge of frozen cheesecake from Guy’s ass, and there was a suctioning pop as the gourmet strap-on came free of the now-widened rectum. Guy reached his hands behind his back, pulled his ass cheeks apart in order to make it easier for Paula Deen to reenter him, at the moment of her choosing.

“I say better fat and happy than thin and sad.”

“Please!” Guy moaned. He wriggled his ass from left to right, one-half of an unfulfilled mating ritual, begging for that sweet cheesecake cock to couple with his rectum again.

“‘Please’ what, sugar?”

“Bang me till I have type two diabetes in my asshole!”

“You want that Diabetus?” She said, pronouncing the word like TV spokesman Wilford Brimley.

“I got to have that diabetes in my asshole!”

Paula grabbed a fistful of Guy’s liberty hair spikes, caked with gel and hard as dry spaghetti. She guided his face toward a saucepan of heavy chocolate syrup that was untouched on the countertop until now. She spoke derisively. “That uppity Negress Michelle Obama wants kids doing jumping jacks twenty-four hours a day. Southern kids is meant to be fat.”

She slammed Guy’s face into the saucepan, until it was coated in a thick layer of chocolate. “We do things different down here under the banner of the Stars and Bars.”

Guy attempted to speak, with his face submerged in the chocolate. Ebony bubbles exploded as he struggled to breathe. Paula pulled his head from the pan where he’d just endured the chocolate waterboarding. His face was now covered in thick candied chocolate, and, though the confection was far tastier than burnt cork, she thought this delectable blackface looked a site better than that of the famed minstrel, Al Jolson.

She licked the face of her newly-christened darkie, and as the Food Network‘s Guy Fieri experienced an earthshaking orgasm in his quaking prostate, which put him up in his tiptoes like a ballerina, he knew he was not only Paula Deen’s bitch, but her total and absolute slave now.

1882: A James Odyssey by Joseph Hirsch

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Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, the latest release from Paragraph Line Books.

I’ve read far more books than I’ve seen films, which means that after I’ve read a book, I tend to know whether or not I’ve encountered greatness. This isn’t always the case with movies, since, as mentioned, I’m not as familiar with movies as I am with books. The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I didn’t say to myself, “That was great!” as I would after reading a great book. I said to myself “What the hell was that?”

Most movies just don’t work for me. I think a small handful are great, and I watch them repeatedly, because they never get old to me. These films include Dawn of the Dead (the George A Romero 1979 version), Once Upon a Time in America, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as I mentioned before), and now, most recently The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, as I think John Lennon once observed about 2001: A Space Odyssey, the kind of thing a fellow can watch once a week.

Even a good movie is one I don’t want to see twice, but with the great ones, no matter how many times I see them, it’s always a new experience. Something changes, and it always feels like the first viewing. So what, I keep asking myself, keeps bringing me back to Jesse James (forgive the truncation of the long title, which was a point of contention with a lot of critics, who thought it, and the film, too languorous)?

People who love the movie (and it has quite a few devotees) cite things like the wonderful cinematography and the lush score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with meticulous period detail and Oscar-worthy performances. These people are all correct, to one degree or another, but talent and production values alone don’t bear obsessive repeat viewings that still don’t begin to unlock the mystery contained in a great film.

It seems strange to compare a period Western to a great science fiction classic, but I believe both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Assassination of Jesse James produced the same reaction in me upon initial viewing, made me scratch my head and say to myself What the hell was that?

Awhile back I was watching a documentary about the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and,  as the subject invariably turned to his SF masterpiece, someone (I forget who and I’m too lazy to check) observed that “the pieces don’t quite fit, and this gives the film its mysterious structure,” or words to that effect. Whoever made this observation is right, both about the structure of 2001, and about how this disjointedness is an asset rather than a liability.

I won’t recap the plot of 2001 for the reader at this point. Anyone crazy enough to follow my logic this far has already seen both movies. Suffice it to say that Jesse James jumps all over the place in narrative terms, just like 2001. It starts out being about Jesse and his brother and a gang of petty thieves, with the Coward Robert Ford orbiting them as a hanger-on.

Then there is a subplot involving Jessie’s cousin, Wood Hite, played Jeremy Renar, who becomes insulted when another James Gang member sleeps with “his daddy’s wife.” The movie at this point does a brilliant job of conveying Jesse’s paranoia, as he rides around visiting various members of his gang, trying to ferret out their degree of loyalty or treachery, in conversations that take quite a while to unfold.

Eventually, brothers Bob and Charlie Ford conspire to either kill or apprehend Jesse James in order to claim the reward offered for the outlaw’s hide. There are very few shootouts, no Indians raids or whooping war parties in the movie, and there is quite a bit of back-shooting; the only face-to-face gunfights are clumsy affairs.

I heard that Rock Hudson walked out of the premier screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, muttering to himself “Can someone tell me what the hell that was all about?”

I could imagine John Wayne having a similar reaction to the almost anti-Western demystification that is Jesse James. But here’s the thing: as the movie deconstructs the myth of Jesse James, it constructs an entirely new puzzle, not the sort of deliberately enigmatic structure of a David Lynch movie (sorry David), but something arrived at more organically.

At some point, as the title of the film makes clear, Bob Ford shoots Jesse James, and just as 2001’s Astronaut Bowman races helplessly through a tunnel of light and arrives to face his death in the form of a black monolith, Bob Ford is pushed forward, propelled through train rides and saloons toward the final moment where Edward O’Kelly shouts “Hello, Bob!” before discharging his shotgun into the Coward’s brain.

I have watched the following sequence hundreds, if not thousands of times:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHKE_L76JG4

I have watched it and thought about the year I spent in Iraq, my own false bravado as a young man serving in an occupying Army, my own “pretensions of ruthlessness,” cold-bloodedness,” and “dispassion.” I have watched the sequence on nights when I stayed up wondering if there was a kernel of truth contained at the heart of Christianity, if in fact there is an afterlife, and I have watched the sequence on days when thoughts of suicide flittered through my mind like moths trapped beneath lampshades.

Forget that scene, though. Take another. Try this one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFaCvyT8Mpw) So many scenes in the movie already have the mythopoetic feel of having existed forever on celluloid, like the backseat car scene in On the Waterfront, or any immortal scene in Casablanca or The Godfather that you care to name. I don’t care much for Brad Pitt outside of this performance, and, since I watch the same four or five movies over and over again, I’ll probably never ever watch another movie with Casey Affleck in it. But they (and the entire supporting cast) are men possessed in this movie. The performances feel haunted, as if the men we’re watching on-screen are like Bela Lugosi or Rudolph Valentino, and have been dead for a long time already. Much ink has been spilled damning and praising this film, but my favorite observation is from film critic Stephen Whitty, who said the movie was an “epic film that’s part literary treatise, part mournful ballad, and completely a portrait of our world, as seen in a distant mirror.” So many period dramas feel like forced affairs, where modern actors play dress up and fail to really give the viewer the sense that they are inhabiting the past. Jesse James, along with Once Upon a Time in America and Barry Lyndon, is a rare bird, a period piece that pulls off the impossible trick of making the viewer feel as if they are seeing a movie filmed in the distant past.  Watch this scene with Sam Rockwell, portraying Robert’s brother, Charley Ford:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fi5orKhETo

Think of a man you know or knew from real life, guilt-stricken, broken, an alcoholic uncle perhaps, or cousin who committed suicide. Tell me that’s not him.

I’ll put this piece to bed before I make a claim too wild for even the most indulgent reader to countenance. I’ll close, though, by saying that, having watched this movie a few hundred times, and preparing to watch it a few hundred more, there is an adjective I would use to describe it that I’ve never used to describe a movie (and probably never will use again): It is a wise film, a movie that knows things, about youth, aging, regret, shame, and guilt.

Jack Nicholson once observed that, whatever one thought about Kubrick’s films, one had to acknowledge that his movies were conscious. That’s a strange way to refer to a film, as if it was a sentient entity, but that’s the way I feel about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is, like 2001, a movie that laughs at me and beats me every time I try to unriddle it.

Now available from Paragraph Line Books

dove and crow cover

The Dove and the Crow: Now available from Paragraph Line Books 

Meet the Crow: He’s been around for hundreds of years. He took scalps in the time of Cortez and Columbus. He skins men and makes rugs of their hides, lassos of their intestines. Right now he’s angry, and out for blood.

Meet the Dove: Matina’s a whore at the Maison de Joie, with more mojo than you can shake a stick at. It’s been said that, with just one bat of her eyelashes, she can turn pennyroyal tea into tincture of opium. 

Meet the Tracker: Dognose Jones, the adopted son of a Cherokee medicine man, has a special gift. He can smell his prey like a bloodhound scenting its chase. 

Welcome to the Wild, Weird West.