Saturday, June 22, 2013

DEAD MAN (1995)

Lance Henriksen discovers a corpse in the woods. The body has fallen so that the head is haloed by the radiating branches of a campfire. "He looks like a goddamn religious icon," Henriksen observes -- and when we saw the man die earlier, many of us probably noted the resemblance. Henriksen proceeds to crush the decaying head under his boot. That about sums up Jim Jarmusch's approach to the western.

The gesture is at once an implicit criticism of the genre and an implicit self-criticism. Jarmusch has caught himself aestheticizing violence, and the only remedy is more extreme violence. Dead Man is a revisionist western but in 1995 it comes too late in the game for any plausible appeal to offended idealism. Jarmush is left with revisionism's minimal proposition -- that the principal fact of the West was its violence rather than any civilization the violence midwifed into being. The tone can only be blackly comic, the violence senseless. Yet the temptation is always there to see it as something more -- if not as a means to a noble end, then as a phenomenon of perverse beauty. Jarmusch could not help making a beautiful film. Nearly 40 years after Day of the Outlaw, Dead Man is the last great black-and-white western, at least for now. Cinematographer Robby Muller deserves much of the credit, but the vision is Jarmusch's.

Stripped of political outrage, the revisionist western sees the West as the land of war of all against all. The pretense of civilization under construction is mocked. The territory is riddled with individual seekers. If the subset of revisionist western called "acid" or "psychedelic" invokes an altered consciousness under extreme conditions, Dead Man can be seen as a synthesis or summation envisioning the West as a whole as an altered state of consciousness where everyone seems crazy.

It can also be seen as a Tarantinian western nearly a generation before Tarantino got around to making one. Dead Man is an act of genre homage ("My name is Nobody!" a character declares by way of introduction) and genre deconstruction at the same time. In the Tarantino style, which was arguably the Jarmusch style well before, there are loquacious, digressive characters, the most obnoxious of which is the bounty hunter Conway Twill (Michael Wincott). You may want to applaud when Twill's companion Cole Wilson (Henriksen), accused by Twill of incest, parenticide and cannibalism, finally grows tired of his company and kills him. Is that Twill Wilson's chewing on by the fire later? Twill may have been a bullshitter but in Jarmusch's West you can believe anything might happen.

The bounty hunters are after Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a price having been put on Blake's head by John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his last American theatrical film), the patriarch of the town of Machine. For some the West may be a refuge from industrialization, but not for Jarmusch. Blake has just arrived from Cleveland to take a clerk's job, but he arrives late and the position is already filled. Befriending a flower girl, Blake avenges her when her ex (Gabriel Byrne) bursts in shooting in a fit of jealousy. Blake just happens to be uncanny with a gun, but he's killed Dickinson's son and the old man wants revenge and can afford to have others carry it out for him.

Wounded himself, Blake barely escapes and finds himself rescued by a fat Indian. This is "Nobody" (Gary Farmer) -- his real name identifies him as a liar -- who was kidnapped by white settlers while still a boy and taken to England to receive a civilized education. It didn't entirely take, but Nobody acquired an appreciation of poetry and so assumes that the William Blake he's rescued is the visionary English poet -- which means he should be dead. Nobody is part fan, part spiritual guide, assuming the task of returning the late poet where he belongs. On their quest, they encounter many strange people and kill most of them. Meanwhile, Wilson kills off his annoying colleagues and keeps on the trail until he catches up at the Pacific coast, in a native village that looks like part amusement park, part Apocalypse Now.

Here is the rare movie where Johnny Depp is the most normal or sane character. Blake is more Nobody than his faithful Indian companion, however; a nebbish who just happens to be an instinctual killer. But we shouldn't expect to find fully-rounded personalities in Jarmusch's West. His West is a magnet for the opposite type, incomplete people singlemindedly seeking themselves or their fortunes and ready to destroy anything in their way. This West is a vision quest (and hence an ordeal) for everyone who enters. It's also an homage to the visionary screen West that Jarmusch presumably grew up on, a world that was a trip whether he saw it stoned or not. Like spaghetti westerns, it debunks old myths only to spread new ones. But Dead Man seems like a loving debunking, not a work of anger like some of the original revisionist westerns or the more political spaghettis. Jarmusch takes too much pleasure in violence and madness, while Neil Young strives to make it all sound cool with his electric guitar score.  Jarmusch is committed to a kind of truth through his unflinching portrayal of brutality, but he is perhaps too enamored with an idea of outlawry to take his horrors seriously. Dead Man is a dark jest that despite its revisionist trappings ultimately sides with cinema against humanity -- but it is only a movie, after all, and quite an entertaining picture for those who can stand it.


Jon said...

Samuel....this is quite a film, and probably my favorite Jarmusch. I've been a fan of this one for years. It's quite trippy as fact Rosenbaum coined the whole acid western concept after watching this one.....

"In more ways than one Dead Man can be seen as the fulfillment of a cherished counterculture dream, the acid western. This ideal has haunted such films as Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace, and Alex Cox’s Walker, not to mention such novels as Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog and Flats. Yet in some ways Dead Man goes beyond all of them in formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda — a view at once clear-eyed and visionary, exalted and laconic, moral and unsentimental, witty and beautiful, frightening and placid."

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, I would have thought El Topo had set the standard for "acid westerns," but it sounds like we're talking about a particularly American project here with not quite so surreal an aspiration. As far as literature goes I'm sure I'm not the first to think that Dead Man qualified Jarmusch to direct a film of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

I do have to question anyone characterizing Dead Man as "laconic," however, unless Rosenbaum is referring to the director rather than the characters in the film.