Jesse James and Billy the Kid

“I wanna watch my birthday movie,” Kody said. It was Friday, May 8th. He turned 51.

I gave him a quizzical squint of my eyes and cock of my head. You would think after thirty years of marriage, I would know he had a birthday movie. Anyway, there was no time for birthday movies. Our daughter Lauren and I had planned him a surprise party at her apartment. My job was to get him there.

Restaurants are re-opening here in Houston with precautions in place at 25% capacity. Kody and I had made dinner reservations for later that evening for the first time since the quarantine, but Lauren planned enough fun to make him change his mind. I thought, what’s the difference between going out to eat or having friends who have stayed well over for a party?

“You’re not the only one who has a birthday movie,” he said.

I laughed. How many of my birthdays have I watched—wait, this is his birthday. Of course, he knows my birthday movie, but that’s a story for another day. “What’s your birthday movie?” I said.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he said. The title rolled off his tongue.

He has watched it over and over, but somehow, I had never given the whole thing a chance. All two hours and 39 minutes.

The surprise party was a success. With a bang, we broke the rules of social distancing, cancelled our dinner reservations, turned up the music, and ordered pizza. We were modern-day outlaws. Without masks or guns.

When Saturday morning arrived, the time had come for the much anticipated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time I gave the 2007 movie a chance.

The narrative prose is exquisite, the cinematography stunning, and the cast star-studded. Brad Pitt is Jesse James. So there is that.

Apparently, I’ve always missed the beginning. The narrator captivated me with his lines as the images played out:

“He was growing into middle age and was living in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.”

And that’s the movie. The last seven months of the life of American outlaw Jesse James with slow somber themes. Brad Pitt portrays him as mentally unstable, alternating between genteel and manic. No surprise. I recognize the look in his eyes.

Jesse James

The stage was set for my next literary endeavor of my grad school Maymester, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Another American outlaw. Same time period. In the afterword about his writing process, Ondaatje says that he started writing with a vague idea of Billy. “Twenty-one killed. Dead at twenty-one…I invented every gesture and choreographed every gunfight. I stole jokes from my friends and woes from people I knew less well.”

“What I discovered I had at the end of two years of writing poems and prose and imaginary interviews and songs and fragments was a manuscript somewhat like a valise containing the collected raw material for a collage. And so there followed another year of rewriting, refocusing, restructuring, and compressing all that material into some newly invented organic form that would contain the story…I learned everything about editing a haphazard structure in the time I spent choreographing and rebuilding The Collected Works of Billy the Kid…After the strict editing of the individual pieces I became obsessed with the arcing of the story, its larger architecture, as opposed to the clash of juxtapositions or plot development.”

An excerpt from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid:

After shooting Gregory
this is what happened
I’d shot him well and careful
made it explode under his heart
so it wouldn’t last long and was about to walk away when this chicken paddles out to him and as he was falling hops on his neck digs the beak into his throat straightens legs and heaves a red and blue vein out   Meanwhile he fell and the chicken walked away   still tugging at the vein till it was 12 yards long as if it held that body like a kite Gregory’s last words being   get away from me yer stupid chicken
Billy the Kid

41 thoughts on “Jesse James and Billy the Kid

  1. Happy Birthday to Kody. Yes, that was an interesting movie. Have not seen it in a long time. Trying to find the laughs these days. Seinfeld did the trick last night. Stay well Crystal. Allan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for visiting, Michael. My hands were full with school this week, and I never made the point in the back of my mind about mental health. Both the movie and the book depict these outlaws as insane, and their stories make me sad about the history of our mental health system and how we continue to criminalize people with mental illnesses. I say this as the mother of a son with paranoid schizophrenia. I understand your point about undeserved celebration.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s true, Lisa, but I saw them through a lens based of my experience. (It’s also true that 1 in 5 people held in America’s prisons and jails has a recent history of mental illness, but that’s a post for another day.) ✌🏻

        Liked by 2 people

      2. It’s a tough one for sure because they still need to be punished for their crimes but yet their illness needs to be addressed. A fine line to walk for sure! Of course I didn’t mean my comment to be flippant about a serious issue but I was sort of thinking out loud about them still committing the crimes, despite possible mental illness

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Whew! I just didn’t realize how I was sounding! I also overthink but didn’t overthink until after I hit send today! 😉 Anyhow, seriously, thanks for the info about the movie, etc. and I hope your husband had an awesome birthday!!


  2. I find this post brilliant. I have always been intrigued by western outlaws–and I loved the movie. A lot of people didn’t. It’s not for everybody.
    Perhaps Jessie James was mentally ill. If so, he had some of the features of mental illness that were pushed to the brink during the Civil War.
    I don’t think William Bonney was mentally ill. He was driven to desperation–and some out right meanness–by the southwestern range wars. There are similarities between the two, but I find their crimes and circumstances around those crimes to be quite different.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ondaatje almost completely fictionalized The Collection of Billy the Kid, using the Lincoln County was and its players as a stage. I’m definitely no expert. William Bonney was a cattle rustler and Jesse James a train robber. Great point, quite different crimes! Billy killed a man at age twelve. I would think that would affect anyone’s brain.

      I enjoyed both the book and the movie for their poetry. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed studying Ondaatje‘a style and writing process. We studied The English Patient, too.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, it was. The cutting of the movie is very different from the book. Before publication, Ondaatje cut his novel down from 2000 pages to 300. I have to wonder what was in his his original story.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As a Frenchwoman, I can assure you that the Outlaws of America are quite exotic to us! Imagining Billy the Kid in my village, it’s just not possible.
    Seen from afar, as characters (and not as people) they symbolize the last adventurers.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m not sure. I have visited the Jesse James home and museum and I found it very interesting how differently it portrayed him then the stories we have been brought up with. I always find it interesting to view other perspectives. Not condoning his lifestyle by any means, just interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Happy birthday to Kody, and congratulations to you, Crystal, for enacting deftly a complicated endeavor. Just curious, how did you persuade Kody to stop by Lauren’s apartment when he thought you were restaurant-bound?

    Especially daunting a prospect when you had to decoy him from what has become, of late, quite the event – dining out. Difficult enough to accomplish in olden days, but especially now, when Something Big is offered… Extraordinary.

    I never have seen the Jesse James movie, but your description attracted my interest. Fascinating too that. for you and Kody, the story represents regional history, whereas for me, it’s something that happened Out West.

    My go-to movie, if I were to choose one, is “Shawshank Redemption.” It definitely has an “Eastern” feel, which makes me wonder if we tend toward movies that mesh with our cultural expectations.

    Then again, look at you, adoring “Moulin Rouge” and all. Fine, I amend the original speculation – maybe guys are drawn to movies that reflect their direct cultural experiences. We being not as sophisticated as are women.

    Of course, I also love the David Lean classics, like “Dr, Zhivago” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, we weren’t on the immediate path to the restaurant. It was 3 in the afternoon, dinner at 8. I told him that we were going to pick up Lauren and that she wanted us to stop in first. The biggest obstacle was the birthday movie, which wasn’t really an obstacle at all, just what he had thought about not knowing a surprise with actual friends was afoot.

      You are right about our connection to movies based on history and geography. We (yes, me, too) love Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, too, but I suddenly want to watch Shawshank again. David Lean still to be discovered. I have a thing for Wes Anderson. It’s the cinematography.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well-planned, Crystal. Any one of eight hundred things could’ve ruined Kody’s surprise, yet you pulled it off without a hitch.

        Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love Westerns too, though “Shawshank” still tops my list.

        Naturally, the Lean universe is worth exploring too. Just be prepared, the films all are epic, in both the drama’s sweep and in their durations. Set aside a lazy Sunday afternoon. Of the lot, I recommend “Zhivago,” as it’s the most accessible.


      2. So the masters program I’m in is linked to a screenwriting path. In our May class, we’ve been studying Ondaatje’s style in The English Patient and Zooming for discussion with the combined cohort of creative writers and screenwriters. Lean has come up in conversation since you mentioned him, and I felt somewhat smart for knowing. Sidenote: I grew up dancing and remember dancing to Lara’s theme.


  5. I haven’t seen the movie but I am fairly certain it was filmed in Alberta. The badlands near Drumheller. Cool area and I have family there, many dinosaur bones dig up there and it’s known as Dinosaur valley. Home of the Royal Tyrell museum and the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

    Liked by 2 people

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