Dead Man – Jim Jarmusch, William Blake and the death of America. (film review)

Some are born to sweet delight, some are borne to endless night.

William Blake

In 1793, William Blake wrote America a Prophesy which amounts to a kind of formula for revolution. One of the subplots of the work is oppression of the mind – what we might call ‘unconsciousness’ in pop terminology today. Blake had many hopes out of the American revolution, but was bitterly disappointed when it did not bring about the end of slavery. He began to fear that American’s would begin to hero-worship George Washington in the same way the French worshiped Napoleon Bonaparte.  Blake distrusted all hero-worship, believing instead the only possibility for the human individual was agency, or ‘finding god within’. (not in the Ayn Randian sense of that notion of course) It’s interesting to observe, this Academy award week, that hero-worship in American film, culture and life is alive and well.

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Exactly one hundred years later Frederick Jackson Turner will write the Turner thesis that became one of the corner stones of American cultural analysis, recognizing the frontier experience in all contemporary American culture. Turner was an evolutionist, believing the unique American landscape combined with the innovation of European industrialization produced a unique American spirit.  However, turners analysis came with an alarming message. He saw in the death of the frontier as heralding the demise of dynamism of American society and the death of innovation and democratic ideals.

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Then almost exactly one hundred years later, Jim Jarmusch makes Dead Man, the story of a white man in the American frontier days, who is walking with a fatal wound, the cause of which is primarily his unconsciousness.  A man named William Blake who has no choice in his life other than to accept the fact that he is dying. A man named William Blake who is spotted by a Native American Indian called Nobody who, convinced this William Blake must be THAT William Blake, decides he will accompany the dying man to his grave.

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Jarmusch’s frontier lands are not the exciting ‘wild west’ images of spaghetti westerns, and its representation of the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the New frontier era is not imbued with the romance usually associated with the Western films. It is an excellent analysis of Frontier days as seen through the legacy of American contemporary life. I’ve never seen the American obsession with guns more vividly portrayed. An American without a gun is – literally – a sitting duck. Gun use is summed up in the film in these lines Nobody speaks to Blake, a man who has already killed with the gun he doesn’t know how to use:

William Blake, do you know how to use this weapon?

Not really.

That weapon will replace your tongue, you will learn to speak through it, and your poetry will not be written with blood.

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Johnny Depp plays William Blake, a man completely oblivious to the importance of his name, who walks through life completely unconscious, lost and out of his depth in every situation. A Freudian would make the case he is one of those who has never made the proper break from his parents. There is a beautiful scene just over an hour into the film where he wakes to find himself alone, and he walks around calling into the wilderness for ‘Nobody’. Depp plays Blake almost as if he were a New Yorker plonked out of time and place into the wild west.  His developing consciousness will involve his learning how to use the gun, how to speak through it, how to allow the savagery of the western frontier to take him over. Despite the fact that he is dying himself, he will shoot and kill to defend himself against being taken in for his crimes that multiply the closer he gets to his own death. The language of weaponry becomes the only way anyone can speak. The film ends up being about a bedraggled group of misfits wandering around in an open wilderness, each killing whomever they happen upon.

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Despite officially being a ‘Western” Dead Man is deceptively slow, using Jarmusch’s patented scene bookends of black fade outs.  Regardless of everything I’ve said prior to this in this review, the film is funny, really funny in that clever Jarmusch way; deadpan with lines delivered precisely.It’s also horrifyingly violent but this is essential to Jarmusch’s message. To not show the violent consequences would make this film more a typical western and water down Jarmusch’s point. Dead man is carried almost all the way through by Niel Young’s stunning sound track, a solo guitar striking reverb chords.  Its music, brimming with poignancy and adds a drama to the script that highlights the savagery and the beauty of the of the fight for survival that is barely that at all. If Turner expected the American to be embracing his situation and applying a kind of entrepreneurial spirit to all he encountered (as the ‘Wild West’ film genre implies) Jarmusch paints the fight for survival as more of a lackadaisical event – acted almost out of boredom and with no sense behind it, including any kind of survival. At one point, William Blake shoots a man to death through a door that bares a plaque that states “work out your own salvation.”  Like Blake, Jarmusch holds no faith in religious belief or iconography – but then what can possibly survive in land as savage as this?

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I’ve seen some wonderful deconstructions of Westerns lately – Quentin Tarantino’s blacksploitation efforts in Django Unchained, and Fassbinders Whity. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is another brilliant contribution, with its own piece to add.  All these films dismantle a little more of the American cultural facade and reveal a depth that is thrilling for non-Americans to examine, and no doubt for Americans also.

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