Fiction,  Issue 8

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward John Ford by Daniel Ellis

From the trunk of his rented Citroën the coward John Ford drew his Panaflex camera, his beret, and his clapperboard.  He would need all of that apparatus here, in the Uffizi, on the trail of Jesse James.  

Outside, Ford appreciated the Romanesque grandeur of the place, but it was not the kind of shot he preferred.  The space was tight, and there seemed little possibility of vastness, his trademark.  The stone piazza appeared artful but not, he thought, endless—closed off by the ancient buildings and loggia with arches that framed, instead of the manly and wide open sky, statuary.  Ford appreciated the statues and the stories they captured in three dimensions:  the rape of the Sabines, Menelaus and Patroclus, Perseus and Medusa.  But these were stories and sculptures that reminded him of the vastness of the past and not, unlike the broad western sky shot through a rough wooden doorframe, of the future.

Ford waited in a short winter line, bought his ticket, and went in. 

He passed through the medieval galleries slowly; paintings on panel, blues and reds on gold, flat planes with no depth; passions and depositions and annunciations, every image a symbol of a hundred other images, every cross a thousand trees and every thousand trees the one cross, history in the bend of a finger and a millennium of pathos in a drop of blood, the entire universe in a green eye, and every eye looking past, never at, every other figure on the plane, towards some distant, other idea beyond, behind, before, after, to come.  Giotto frightened John Ford; moving forward, Lippo disquieted him.  He thought he caught a glimpse of James through a doorway, as he slowly made his way into the rooms of perspective, mathematical exercises of buildings and columns and impossible, tyrannous order.  But it was towards the Renaissance, in the room of the Botticellis, that John Ford caught the first definitive sign of Jesse James.  On the floor beneath Spring a man lay, face down.  The blood on the carpet appeared to be drying; it had lost the sheenyness of wet blood. His Stetson hat was crumpled under his face and his boots were all twisted up together, and a woman in a flour sack dress knelt beside him, crying into a handkerchief.  Above them on the wall a pell-mell of beautiful figures gathered in a garden; a beautiful young man, three beautiful women; upper stage left a demonic winter figure blew silver air into the arbor.  This was clearly the work of Jesse James.

Beneath the spot where the pioneer fell, dozens of Medicis died, and countless Guelphs and Ghibellenes, and tombs of endless Florentines stretched straight down through the catacombs beneath the banks of mighty Arno, down, down, to the hell of Dante, where he wanders endlessly crying the names of Beatrice who he missed, the endless exile forced to listen to Petrarch’s endless singing and Eliot’s philosophisizing on the fate of the house that he, the Florentine, built of verbiage three lines at a time.  While oceans away, America was listening to the radio on the internet in their Cadillacs and wondering over the death of the pioneer, in the far east of Florence, gunned down by Jesse James.  They followed the headlines, and hoped for a hero.

In his mind John Ford was working out the whole shot, and not only in his mind but also in the notebook in his bag were sketches of storyboards with notes on camera angles and film types.  He saw the whole thing in a faux-grain, maybe even sepia toned, drawing on two influences—The Great Train Robbery and Nosferatu.  From The Great Train Robbery of course would come the tone, the quality of the film, the wild west, maybe even a bit of hand coloring on the film—guns, cowboy hats, wild west, wild tension—the drama, the focus on the lone gunman.  But this gunman, this Jesse James, was a different sort of gunman, not so silly, not so hard to believe—less clunkily modern, a more refined meeting of the train and the human and the film, and here is where the Nosferatu would come in.  The scene in particular where he sees the photo of the young woman, whom he loves even though he did not know it was her, into whom he pours all his being from here on out—the idea of a woman, so Platonic, so Petrarchan—and then the sudden rage that cannot be abated, rage at anything that would interfere with this goal and this destiny—rage at once ancient and timeless, demonic. 

He couldn’t see the shot exactly—this is where the adventure comes in, for Ford, in the spontaneity, the inability to control all and everything—but he imagined James finds an object—the object, the key to it all—and looks up, half furtive, half surprised, half angry (too many halfs, but Ford knows what he means)—the camera captures him there in a moment, just a moment but one that seems to last forever, that sears into the memory of the viewer, that captures all the horror, all the pain of James, that foretells all the suffering to come, but, also, his tragic end.  Later in the lab would be the coloring, the film tone already chosen and loaded—the hand-held camera would add the spontaneous effect—and in the lab too doctoring the film to make it seem jumpy, slower, a choice he did not want to make, but to compensate for the lack of control on location he hoped to assert more control in the editing room.

In a great circular room a series of bronze figures grappled with each other.  Their bodies tensed eternally, the dynamism of the motion suggested as they poised in the midst of rolling, flipping, holding, motion in counterpoint to the detail and curves of taut muscles, sinews given depth and contour by the sculptor’s hand and standing out in the depth and shading given by the shiny-dull medium of the bronze and its centuries of patina—the chemical reaction of the metal and oxygen and minerals to carry on the work of the artist for as close to forever as is imaginable by man.  But there were traces of James here too—an empty linen drawstring bag with a large green $ printed on one side, ash from a cigar and the cigar butt itself—Blackroot, thin, twisted, the end chewed off—though whether these pointed to James with certainty or simply because Ford was looking for traces of him already he could not say.  Plus, the faintest scent of death.

The Coward John Ford sat on a bench in the great hall for a minute.  The camera was getting heavy.  Lining the walls were portraits of the great from the 15th, 16th centuries.  They extended in a row along the wall up towards the ceiling—there were Visconti and Sforza, but also Habsburgs, Hohenstaufen, Valois and countless other nobles who would be forgotten except for minor historians and these very portraits.  Ford looked about somewhat absent-mindedly, hoping to see Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, his favorite 16th century ruler, whose life he immortalized in celluloid.  She, like James, misunderstood; her life, like James’s, caught somewhere between selfishness and ideals.

How much different this gallery of faces must look for the two of them, himself and James, Ford thought.  For Ford they were characters; their two dimensions exactly where they belonged—true he worked with real people, like John Wayne, but even Wayne was really a character, even in real life an image.  So the rows of faces looked like images, like characteristics, like elements that affect, that play out the range of human existence and human emotion.  But James lived in the world of the real—each face placed into a minimal number of categories, friend, or victim.  And somewhere behind each face blood that could be spilled at any time, a heart always that might stop.

Ford picked up the camera, his bag, the clapperboard, and wandered down the hall towards the café.  “Buon Giorno” he said, somewhat sheepishly, to the girl at the register as he walked in.  “Un Café, per favore, e un coronetto.”  His Italian was not good, but he tried—he thought it polite.  He wondered how James’s Italian was as he set the camera down and shifted the bag to dig in his pocket for the couple of two euro coins he knew he had.  “Ecco qui,” the girl said as she handed Ford his ticket.  “Grazie,” he replied.  She has a nice smile, he thought.

Ford was driven by the fact that, all his life, he felt as though he were in a movie.  This was a secret the workmanlike director never revealed, as to do so would be to distract himself from the work at hand.  But the feeling accompanied him almost constantly, in every gesture, in every idea, in walking, talking, even sleeping, or at least in the restless moments before he finally, at the end of a hard day’s work, allowed the countless dialogues in his head to cease and the sleep to fall over him.  And he felt it now, lifting the espresso cup to his mouth, tearing off pieces of the croissant and chewing, swallowing as he stared out the window and over the large brick balcony that projected over the piazza out in front of the Uffizi.  (He thought for a moment about his language, about how in all the romance languages these were plural—des offices, des Uffizi, but in English the Latinate became a hybrid singular, or at least seemed to be, at least there was ambiguity, at least he always thought of it as singular.  Perhaps they did in Italian too?).  

He wandered through the doors and out onto the balustrade.  He walked to the edge and looked down at the piazza.  Below, among other towering figures, the gigantic Perseus held up the Medusa’s head, which stared over the piazza, bronze which might turn men to stone, held by a man of bronze—a comment on the immortality of stone wrapped up in a heady and disturbing myth about women.  What of the immortality of celluloid?  What of the women, like Mary Stuart, he had captured there?  His films had reached so many more people, so much more humanity touched by his vision in its exactness than anything concocted by Michelangelo or Cellini, but would his work still be there in 500 years?  So fleeting, so destructible, and yet so much more far-reaching.  And yet so ephemeral.  Memory is tricky, he thought.

That there was an allegory in the statue not about art, but about the life and death hunt he was now fully endeavored in with James, did not cross his mind.

Ford knew very little about Jesse James.  He knew James’s time had been spent in Missouri, the heart of America.  He knew that James rose out of the brutal civil war, much as film itself had done.  He knew that James had moved from a career vaguely associated with some kind of idealism about the confederate cause, or at least out of the crucible of irregular violence the war had unleashed on Missouri, to one seemingly predicated on greed, or at least on money, as its primary motive.  

Ford did not make documentaries, and he usually used a regular cinematographer on his pictures, but he had been around so long he knew a good shot when he saw it—and this was a good shot.  Two Trenitalia employees, uniformed, be-hatted, conductors maybe, lay on the ground stretched out beneath a triptych, shot dead.  Pools of blood on the cold marble floors were beginning to congeal.  On wooden panels layered with gold, between two saints, an angel with face severe, hurried though not panicked, on bended knee whispered out a stream of letters, no doubt in Latin, to a virgin who seemed simultaneously puzzled and perturbed.  In her hand was a scroll; in the angel’s, an olive branch.  Peace from the branch, and the wings of the angel the dove, resonant of all the doves of all the ages old and new—the ark, the baptism. Several officers from the state police milled about while crime photographers and other forensic officials did their work.  Why did James lay out the train workers?  Here in the Uffizi he could gain nothing from them.  But then, why did Ford carry this Panaflex camera through the Uffizi?  Habit perhaps?  Ford did not know—but he knew this shot was a good shot.

Back in the café.  Still taken with her smile, John Ford made a stuttering effort to connect with the girl working the register.  But where he had relied on only a smile before, here he attempted the language of language.  

“Buongiorno.”  He tried to say it fast, but dissaffectedly—to make up for fluency, or lack of fluency, with worldliness.  

She smiled, a little, and her eyes glanced from side to side.  In America, Ford would have thought she was looking for the manager.  “Si.  Buongiorno.”

“Como stai,” he said, trying to emphasize the worldliness.

“Como?”

Como stai sounded too much like como esta.  He tried again.  “Como stai” but he knew he didn’t get it right.  It’s not that complicated, he thought.  He thought she could just humor him, but then he also didn’t want to be humored.  He wanted to communicate with this woman, this cassier with the smile that had so much spirit behind it.

“I can get you café, signior?”

“Si.  Grazie.  Café.”  What else to say?  He wanted that quick, easy chit-chat that made flirting with shopkeepers and register girls so much fun.  But the Italian—it was impossible.  She became just a girl working a register.

Ford took his ticket, picked up his espresso, and returned to the piazza.  A group of tourists—Italian tourists—sat at a table next to him.  They were smoking, and he was suddenly struck by the urge, one he rarely had.  But how does one bum a cigarette in Italian? he thought.  Smoking, however, has always been a universal language—and permesso and per favore and prego and some clear pointing and a little pantomiming of a match and soon the Coward John Ford was sitting at a table, enjoying an espresso, smoking a cigarette, and gazing once again into the Fiorentino sky.  Expression, he thought, after all, is easy, when you know what you want.

The coward John Ford was in the basement now—he had moved through the timeline of the Uffizi and descended, like Dante, to the lowest depths, into the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century.  Here the names were familiar to a modern, the images understandable, the signs significant.  He walked through a doorway, took a few paces into a dim room, with the lights around the outside, pointed towards the walls. The room, ringed with Ruebens and Rembrants and Carracis, was strangely empty, Ford thought, but then he stopped, and turned slowly.  On the wall hung the head of Caravaggio’s Medusa, its gorgon snake hair writhing, blood pouring from its open neck, the shock on its face screaming out from the round canvas, its face reflected, so the illusion is, in the shield of Perseus, the hero, the demi-god.  And before it, James.  His head was tilted up towards the painting.  His wide-brimmed hat blocked Ford’s view, but even from several feet behind him, Ford knew it was James—the jeans pushed down over the boots, the spurs, the six-guns slung low around his hips, loose in the holsters, ready to draw.  Smoke from his cigar curled up from under his hat and drifted up into the lights; his left hand clutched a piece of paper or something—Ford couldn’t tell for sure—but his head was tilted back and he was immobile, mesmerized by the Medusa.  So much so that he didn’t even hear Ford set the camera on his shoulder, adjust the lenses, or lightly click the clapperboard which read “James; final scene; take 1”.  All the while, though, James was just fixed, looking up into the gorgon’s face, oblivious to Ford, until the motor of the Panaflex camera started. Its mechanical click-click-click must have triggered something deep and instinctive in James, for he spun, gun out in his right hand, ready to blast.  He stopped, thin cigar on his lip, gun in his hand, steel eyes staring straight into the camera, the heart of the lens.  This is gold, thought Ford, and just then James’s face softened barely, almost imperceptibly; he looked down into his left hand, stared at the piece of paper there for a minute, maybe two—time stopped, almost, the strange time of cinema when the film is running but the actors before the camera are motionless.  James looked up and raised his .45 as though he would fire right into the lens of the camera—but he didn’t.  He dropped the gun, and, with a heavy sigh, said, simply, “you got me,” then collapsed to the floor.

Ford went and got the Uffizi security, but not before he had packed up his camera and film, pulled the piece of paper from James’s hand and stuffed it in his bag, and put everything away back in the trunk of his Citroën.  The Polizia and the Carabiniere were already on hand, investigating the other killings.  They held Ford for several hours, first as a witness, then as a suspect, then as a hero, before finally deciding that he was, after all, just an American, a tourist, and, it seemed likely, a coward.

Released, Ford returned to his Citroën.  He drove through Florence slowly, crossed the Arno into the suburbs where he knew there was a lab that could process the film.  Later, back in his room, he watched the footage on a portable rig he had brought with him so he could track his progress hunting for James.  The scene of the pioneer woman was poignant, while that of the dead Trenitalia workers had a Weegee-like grittiness that was undeniably appealing.  But the scene of James, the final scene, was more than Ford could have hoped for—it captured all the horror of the Nosferatu, but with a human quality, a simplicity in James’s face that spoke of the hill country of rural Missouri, made slightly uneasy by the depth and weight of civilization he had found himself in.  And his gaze, down at the piece of paper, then up again at the camera, calling up Nosferatu, but also, as he raises the gun, the great train robbery, as James is rolled up, caught in layer after layer of representation, his gritty earthiness tamed for all time, his gaze said something of, not love, not hate, just, just, well, Ford wasn’t sure—but it was magic.

Stirred by his triumph, Ford rose, went across the room to a table, poured himself a drink.  He went over to the bed, rummaged through his bag till he found the piece of paper.  He pulled it out, unfolded it—it had been cut, apparently with a pair of short-bladed, slightly dull scissors, out of a cheap and very old publication, probably a guide to the Uffizi, or an article about the Uffizi.  As the coward John Ford looked down at the picture, and saw the blood dripping from the neck and the snakes writhing in her hair, his own blood froze as he heard the Gorgon’s scream.

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Daniel Ellis received his MFA from the University of New Orleans, his PhD from Temple University, and teaches English at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. 

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