Monday, September 7, 2009

Dead Man

Dead Man, 1995
Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Is the the post-modern Western a great idea? Who knows. Described as an "Acid Western" by one critic, Dead Man is a pretty good reference to point to if you want to describe post-modern American film. It's too bad that whole movement has spawned the popular indie "mumble" movies of this decade, but I digress. This is not John Ford, that's for sure.

When an accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) arrives at a "end of the line" town Machine (get it?) for a job, he finds out that it has already been taken. After getting himself into a pickle in town where two people get murdered, he finds himself on a "trip" with a chubby, poetic Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer) where they roam around the forests and deserts of the American West. Nobody, who had spent time in England as a "captured heathen," mistakes this Blake for the English poet and painter of fame, and proceeds to call him a "dead man" and even spouts Blake's poetry at him from time to time. I'm not quite sure if the main allegory of the film was based around Blake's poetry or some greater theme (possibly the destruction of Native American land and the "myth" of America, manifest destiny and whatnot), but I am not familiar enough with Blake's art or prose to be really certain. Depp's character finds himself out in the desert, coming to grips with "idea" of the West. At some point, he accepts his namesake in his mind after becoming a fugitive: "Yes, I'm William Blake. Have you read my poetry?" This might have something to do with the vision quest that Nobody goes on after eating payote, or may it have had something to do with the men that he kills while learning to "write with blood" with his gun. There's a lot open to interpretation, which is good.

Shot in high contrast black and white, the look of the film does a good job of equating the contemplative themes that it is trying to put across. Something that is lost in much of contemporary cinema is the power of human faces. This film photographs the faces of the actors in a way such that their distinct features remain in our mind long after the movie. Close-Ups can be particularly powerful in their own way. Jarmusch is known for his minimalist style and lack of any plot driven narrative, and it is not really any different here. While Western genre iconography (violence and language) actually drives the film forward, it's this structure and pacing that let's the film come close to being anywhere close to a success. By the deliberate use of fade out to black (as opposed to his usually annoying jump cuts) as a form of visual punctuation, a device introduced early in the film and used consistently throughout, the narration is broken up into what is essentially film segments related by slow, hypnotic rhythm. Neil Young's score works well with this; the haunting repetition of solo-guitar accentuates the structure that Jarmusch chose, though it can sometimes be jarring and intrusive. This rhythm makes a viewing of the film akin to something of a spiritual meditation, which might be the best way to think of the film in general.

For all the obtuse content that the filmmaking contains, Jarmusch's reputation as a filmmaker preceded him in louring many stars into this film, including Johnny Depp. Depp was fine, for what it's worth, but nothing special. Gary Farmer's Nobody is a pretty good mixture of comedy and philosophy while creating a genuine Native American character, something most Westerns lack. Many minor characters are only there for one scene (film segment), and the names are pretty staggering (Gabriel Byrne, Robert Mitchum!!, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, John Hurt, Crispin Glover). Many of them die by Blake's gun. Byrne's scene in the hotel with Depp and the ex-prostitute is particularly good, as is Molina's as the corrupt missionary at a trading post who tries to get Nobody to buy "blankets." Lance Henriksen, of Aliens (1986) fame, is memorable as a cannibalistic bounty hunter, who with two others, is on the trail of the main duo.

The ending clearly has some connotations to the self-destuctive forces that have always been prevalent in American society, despite it's need to push ever onwards. Some people are just going to be left by the way-side. The overall experience of the film seems to be that of using William Blake's poetry to galvanize a lament for the American West, or possibly America's ascent (or decent?) in general. Dead Man is not so much about the events in the movie but about the characters involved and the way in which the old West drives them to violence. It's pretty clear that, for me at least, it warrants another viewing at some point, though I'm not sure if I ever will. That's basically how I feel about it.

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