Friday, February 22, 2008

On Real Self and Public Self (Afterthoughts on the Assassination of Jesse James Movie)

I watched the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last night (20 Dec ). Of course, I have to admit I watched it primarily because my first love Brad Pitt was in it. Brad always gets criticized for his acting skills, not without merit, but lately he’s been showing quite a progress. In this movie for instance, where he plays the title role (duh!) his acting was pretty decent and even worthy of recognition. He played the outlaw Jesse James, a semi-leader of a ragtag gang of bank and train robbers that he and his older brother, Frank James, founded. The movie was somewhat boring at the beginning as I had no idea what the story was all about and had difficulty discerning the dialogue because of the Southern drawl adapted by the actors in the film. I was about to fall off from my seat, lulled by the warmth of my shawl against the theater house’s top-class air conditioning, when Brad violently butted a guy’s head with his gun. He threatened to blast the guy’s head off but was only put off by his one of more "conscientious" law-breaking comrade. So throughout this film, Brad plays this good-looking and fashionable bipolar criminal who shares a good laugh with his comrades, but would not hesitate to shoot them if he senses a betrayal, and a tender and loving family man. His character instilled both fear and admiration in his comrades so much so that they generally agreed, or rather was forced to agree, to just about everything that he asks them to do. However, in the end, like what the title of the movie clearly implies, he was betrayed and shot in the head by one of his fellow con out fear for his own safety and life. The assassin, Robert or Bob Ford in the film, idolized Jesse all throughout his childhood but was compelled to kill him in the end, as he rationalized that at one point or the other, Jesse was bound to kill him too. I wouldn’t say he was wrong as Brad played such a convincing psychopath in this movie. The mind of Jesse James did not particularly follow a logical flow of sense and reason in the film and the chances that he would kill Bob Ford was very much grounded.

What made a lasting impression on me about the movie was the fact that people could be different persons at the same time. Like Jesse, one could be an excellent father and husband and be a unflinching murderer/robber at the same time. Jesse’s wife was dumbfounded of his murder (by Bob) as she clearly did not know the entire facet of his personality well. The persona that Jesse presented to her was beyond reproach; he was the perfect husband and father to their two young children. If she only knew what her husband was truly like then perhaps she would understand and even condone the act of treachery committed by their family friend Bob. This reminds me of an Anita Shreve book I read entitled "The Pilot’s Wife." The protagonist in the story, the wife, discovered his pilot husband’s affair through the most unusual of circumstance. The plane that his husband was piloting unexpectedly crashed in the Atlantic and initial reports said that it might be a terrorist attack. Shaken by grief, she recalls the memory of their love affair and stable (yet cold) marriage and is convinced that her husband had been a good man, a doting father and a sensitive partner to her. Then out of the blue, the shocking news about the cause of the plane crash becomes public, and she learns about his husband’s involvement with the IRA, a nationalist rebel organization, fighting for the independence of Ireland. She finds out in the end that her husband had been a "runner" for the group and was having an affair with one of its members, a former stewardess in his plane. And not only that, he had two children by this woman and the second one was only six months old. The wife had the shock of her life and was flabbergasted by the "newness" of their affair as evidenced by the six-month baby. Piece by piece, the memory of their flawed marriage becomes apparent to her: How her husband could afford not to make love to her for more than three weeks time which oddly extended to months, something that she justified in her mind as a usual settling down of marriage life. How her husband would suddenly get enraged whenever she asks the simplest of questions, which includes, "Do you still love me?" Somehow, her rational mind banished these fears and mild questions, as during their marriage she couldn’t quite place her finger on what is exactly wrong or missing about their shared love. It finally dawns to her that his husband was leading a double life all along.

So the question in her mind (and my mind) remains, "Can a person who claims he loves you truly loves you when he also loves somebody else?"; "Are the things that you shared remain true despite the fact that he was lying to the whole time?" This question may seem fairly easy to answer with a definite no but, for a woman who believed and was satiated by the normalcy of a marriage, it is really difficult to answer. I guess this is so because people tend to live double lives all the time. For example, one can be a cruel husband but a respectable public persona at the same time or vice versa. Some people may feel obliged to hide their real selves for fear of a public rejection and as such may only reveal what they truly are to a few selected number of people. In life, particularly in these times, people feel the need to hide their true selves more often. There is a growing need to compartmentalize our selves into different parts and choose only which parts to show in public and which parts to keep for our self. However, if we do this, we will experience a sense of vertigo, a loss of a grounding or mooring, and we will question ourselves on who truly are more and more. "Which is the real me? Is it the loving husband or the hardcore criminal?" "Is it my public self or private self?"

My only resolution to this dilemma is to stay true to your "real" self as often as possible. One needs to try to stay out of a clear and definite dividing line between a public and a private self. For example, if you want to be on television playing the Johnny and the Sprites character, you better be a kid-loving and friendly person in real life. You better be sure you are not some crackpot junkie with a promiscuous sex life in your personal life. Otherwise, paparazzi’s may pick up this juicy bit of information and banner it on their tabloids the next morning. And how will you able to explain this apparent great divide between your public and private self then? Politicians and movie stars are the ones always prone to this sort of scandal. This is so because there usually is a huge disparity between their public and private selves. But you can’t really blame them, particularly the movie stars, as their main business is selling an image (which may or may not represent who they truly are) to the public; they merely represent something that the public fancies or desire. Sometimes though, you can lucky or just plain blessed, like Oprah Winfrey. She earns billions of dollars a year by showing her real self in the public and the people just simply love for her it. (She may even get to elect the first black president in the US just because of her influence.) Or be unlucky, like Martha Stewart for example. The public feasted on her stocks scandal years ago as they simply cannot reconcile her homey style living expert public self to the scheming business cheat presented by the prosecutors. But in the end, Martha accepted a plea bargain and was incarcerated for a year and two and the public has forgiven her since for her mistake. She is now back as the decorative home style genius that she is. However, one cannot just disregard the lack public of confidence that she has suffered and is probably still suffering. She may be back in business but people will always have that orange prison wardrobe clad Martha image embedded on their heads. There is now an undeniable crack or fissure between her public image and private self. People now know that she isn’t who she really is in public.

To live a double life is to live a difficult life. (Unless, you are CIA agent or something and get a
kick out having a multiple personality disorder, you will definitely not enjoy having a double life.) One way or the other your true self creeps back and gets hold of you again. Your wife may soon discover your philandering ways through the subtlest change in your manner, or you may have a Freudian slip in public that may shatter the image you are fastidiously portraying. Either way you cannot hide or run away from your "true" self forever. It will catch up on you and when it does it will demand an accounting of what is real and what is false. As such, Socrates did say, "Know thyself." The knowledge of one’s self is your best protection to the lies of your self and to the lies of the world. People may perceive you differently from you really are and as such say things which may not be true of you, but as long as you know yourself, you are safe. If you know yourself, then you can boldly say to yourself and to the world this is the real me and the only me for that matter.


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