Sydney Pollock’s Jeremiah Johnson is, paradoxically, a resolutely, almost defiantly, old-school production, but it discovers a modernistic rejection of modernity in this very backward-looking milieu. As a Western, its interpretation of nature and mankind within it finds imaginative camaraderie with American art dating back to the Romantic painters of the mid-1800s who looked to nature – America’s bounty, they felt – to rebel against the earliest American painters, who mostly copied European high-art style, which codified as individualistic portraits lionizing heroic figures. These mid-1800s American painters, the first art rebels of the American vernacular, sought to uncouple themselves from European identity and establish a uniquely American sensibility. They found safe harbor in ruminating on, and enlarging the imaginative mythology of, the landscape, prophetically proposing – and thus clarifying into being – that America’s identity would be corporealized in the society-shunning, and paradoxically society-creating, individualism of a transient, undomesticated life on the road and through the forest.
A new lexicon for the usually intimate and forcedly minute Pollock, Jeremiah Johnson strains to lose itself in this swamp of classical Americana, adopting the mantle of revisionist Western almost out of contrition or coercion rather than because it is Pollock’s natural language; it has the feel of a director catching up on a hot new trend, ticking a box or painting a new room in his house rather than peeling the walls to crack open a new hole in the cinematic idiom. More accurately, it has the air of a film dressing itself up in classical Americana rather than peeling that mask off to reveal the infested, cadaverous face underneath. But, although classical it may be, its idiom for classical cinema is almost proto-cinematic, or at least proto-Hollywood, turning back the clocks to before narrative cause-effect conventions codified themselves and thereby discovering, perhaps accidentally, a radical template for non-narrative Western cinema almost in spite of itself.
Which is to say: Jeremiah Johnson is a poem to loneliness and the fragility of civilization matched only in brittleness by the equal fragility of the possibility of escaping that civilization. A kind of narrative emerges; archetypical Western wanderer Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford, similarly a paradoxical classical movie star with notably liberal or forward-thinking beliefs) does enrich himself with a family, including an adopted son (Josh Albee) and a Native American wife (Delle Bolton). But Jeremiah Johnson is not easy to define as a narrative, nor as any particular mood. It is neither a minute tantrum of masculine violence (a la The Wild Bunch) or a self-consciously artificial celebrity hangout vehicle (a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
There are flaws – Johnson’s wife and child are only meaningful to the film insofar as they are his wife and child, not as self-possessed beings all their own – but Pollock’s film does not succumb to the central ideological foible of Hollywood cinema, even ostensibly radical cinema: validating its world only as a theater of the individual. Which is to say: Jeremiah Johnson the character eventually turns into a revenge-quest icon, but the film’s roving style and landscape-focused camerawork obviously foretell that the film’s real, self-identified interests lie elsewhere. In fact, when Johnson turns his life into a narrative the film both pushes back, faltering, suggesting, via its failure to uphold its original beauty, the corrupting influence of myopic goals where people define their lives as forward, vertical quests upward and not horizontal excursions into the periphery. Johnson’s revenge not only takes physical lives, but it demolishes a much more humanistic worldview of compassion to the earth.
Much more than a personal story, the film is a pliant, suggestive mood piece about the unpredictable and ultimately impressionable landscape around Johnson. It is a revisionistic Western not in the sense that it envelops us in a particularly liberal narrative or enforces left-of-center themes but in that it returns us to an ecological world, a spatially and temporally acclimatized mindscape where humanity is forced to confront the earth as a restless, unstable, essentially motile and probably conscious entity with far more vitality and pregnant agency than many a painting ever could. The film offers little conventional focus on narrative causation or effect, on rising and falling action, and on goals that are structured toward completion, largely as a tone poem commentary on the loosening up of life once it is untethered from modern capitalism and liberal causation.
It is, perhaps in the film’s mind, an entirely classical, almost pre-modern lexicon, but dwarfed by the suffocating individualist materialism of modern life and the onset of the neoliberal tradition in the ‘70s, this particular style of individualism somehow suggests a modernistic laminate, as though in returning to a strand of individualism from pre-neoliberal times, it discovers a more humanistic defense of the individual as a roving artist of adaptation, a person who eschews the rulesets he has been given and discovers new ones, a person who sees and perceives the land rather than enacting his will upon it. Until, of course, his own neoliberal self-serving narrative sabotages him, others, and the land all in one.
It’s a peculiar thing, to be so dispossessed of modern flourishes that your traditionalism is radical, so much so that I am inclined to consider the film entirely apolitical, even though there is no such thing. Truth be told, Jeremiah Johnson is neither as revolutionary as the prior year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, whose formal idiom questioned its own access to its ostensible heroes at every turn, or the following year’s Badlands, which emptied its Bonnie and Clyde types of affect almost entirely. The former curdles the individual into a specious psychological space alienated from themselves, the latter calcifies the individual into a mannequin. Comparatively, Johnson is relatively keen on individualism, or at least it does nothing to disfigure the heart and soul of the lone wanderer or dismantle the psychological architecture of the individual person.
But it does find in the individual a Whitmanesque, even Emersonian sense of possibility, a person who is not a neoliberal conquerer or the de facto center of a narrative chain of events around which the world wraps. (Compare to McCabe, where the world does not bruise McCabe’s physical agency by assaulting him but attacks his ideological status as individual altogether by wavering away from and ignoring him). Instead of a person, Johnson is a perceptual tool, an icon figure who does not control the world or serve as the sole locus of the world’s value but who we can cipher the world through, who we can abstract as a mind forced with confronting nature, understanding it, re-perceiving nature’s essentially un-exhaustible value again and again.
If the film seems like it is running in circles or staggering in place with no direction forward, it is in point of fact mounting a thoughtful rejection of the compulsion to linearize time, to treat the world as a series of events that are causally linked rather than a blanket of shimmering sensations and feelings that are overlooked by the torrent of goal-oriented individualism in society. Jeremiah Johnson suggests a different form of individualism, one antithetical to that offered up by most nominally liberal films that merely regurgitate platitudes of individualism in lightly modified conservative idioms, their social themes mere sheepskin for the wolf underneath: their reticence to dissent from the hedonistic and individualistic logic of self they notionally dismiss as problematic. Johnson is not by any means a singular exception to this rule, but while is it isn’t nominally politically anarchic or revolutionary, it is anarchic and revolutionary in form itself, embodying that which it cannot speak. Which is, for a visual medium, probably more thoughtful and pointed anyway.
When Johnson does turn his life into an individualized story, wrapping narrative around and initiating the death of others, the film concludes by rebuking not only his actions but his new world view. In this sense, because the film redresses its own individualism or at least reveals what happens when it curdles into ascetic violence, it might be possible to argue that the film is a dialectic between individualism as an internal fulfillment of some innate Americana and a continual deferral of genuine humanism which would require engagement with – rather than escape from – society and collective bodies. On this unresolved dialectic tension the film thrives, necessarily knocking itself down so it can stagger in new directions and interrupt itself with its own failures. Again, Jeremiah is an imperfect film, but most films strive for singular perfection, infringing on rather than galvanizing its own perfection. It’s a film being chased by its negative mirror-image, inviting rather blinkering its mistakes.