Friday, November 26, 2010

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #1 - Dead Man

Dead Man (1995, dir. Jim Jarmusch)
One of my favorite film critics described Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as an “acid western.” It’s a fitting label, but misleading. It makes you expect lots of aggressive camera work, special effects and color. Dead Man has none of that. It’s black and white, and the pace is slow. But it’s a total trip just the same — one of those rare works of art that exists in four or five or eighteen different dimensions.
At its core, Dead Man is a simple story. A man sells everything for a train ticket to the western frontier to fill an accounting position he’s been offered. By the time he gets there, though, the job has gone to someone else. He spends his last dime on a bottle and winds up getting shot in a fight over a girl. He flees into the wilderness where an Indian finds him, tries to save him but is unable to remove the bullet from next to his heart. Duty bound, the Indian delivers him to the Pacific Ocean for a proper send off into the afterlife.
Where the film gets really heavy is in its cultural allusions. The biggest is the lead character’s name, William Blake (played by Johnny Depp). This William Blake knows nothing about the British poet, painter and printmaker. In fact, none of the film’s characters do except for the Indian, who, it turns out, actually studied Blake’s work in England after he was captured and hauled across the ocean in a cage and paraded around Europe as an oddity from the New World. When the Native character (who calls himself “Nobody” and is portrayed brilliantly by Gary Farmer) learns Blake’s name he assumes that he’s the real William Blake. He recites a chilling stanza: “Every night and every morn / Some to misery are born / Every morn and every night / Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to sweet delight / some are born to endless night.” This moment in the film combines with others like it to suggest a theme or message that’s never exactly clear, but still makes sense on multiple levels.
Dead Man is about America and the Manifest Destiny, that much is obvious. During the early shoot-out scene, for instance, when Blake discovers a gun under his lover’s pillow and asks her why she has it she says, “Because this is America,” as if it’s the stupidest question she’s ever heard. Also, the film’s plot line clearly moves from east to west. And throughout the film, Nobody refers to European settlers (invaders) as “stupid fucking white men” and reveres Blake as “a killer of white men.” It gets really deep, though, when filthy fur trappers sit around campfire reading Bible verses about Philistines or when a cold-blooded bounty hunter finds a corpse looks like a “goddam religious icon” or even in the scenes with Robert Mitchum, which are clearly crafted in homage to all the cool and kind of cheesy Westerns he starred in as a young man. It’s funny, too — full of sight gags and inside jokes, including a couple that only people who speak Cree or Blackfoot languages would understand. (There also a lot of rock and roll nods: appearances by Iggy Pop and Gibby Haynes, characters named after musicians and songs.)
It sounds like a recipe for pretentious muddiness, I know, but Jarmusch pulls it all together artfully with the simplicity of the story and with a mesmerizing soundtrack by Neil Young (a must-have in its own right; it’s all solo guitar with a little bit of pump organ with a few key dialogue scenes from the movie and a Blake poem read by Depp mixed in). The slowness of the plot offers time and space for contemplation. I’ve owned a copy of the film for years, watched it dozens and dozens of times, and I always feel profoundly moved after the final scene — one of the most beautiful and poetic in all of cinema. I always walk away with a mixture of disgust and awe about America, which, to my way of thinking, is absolutely on point.

- Joe

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