© 2016 by James Clark
Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) is a strange and brilliant delight, but it presents, to the unwary, death-dealing pitfalls. Tackling it, as Roger Ebert chose to do (in the course of hating a ridiculing it), as a self-sustaining offering, is tantamount to rock climbing in flip-flops.
Looking for the direction of this film without a strong sense of the films preceding it is, in fact, expository suicide. Jarmusch, we must never forget, is not just another wizard of the weird (and wonderful). He is, instead, a very accomplished writer of interpersonal theatre whereby discursive gambits send off shock waves demanding close and repeated investigation. Dead Man opens with a foppishly clad young man, William Blake, riding a mid-nineteenth-century train for the sake of commencing work in a Rocky Mountain steel plant in the capacity of an accountant. His trip had begun in Cleveland. As far as the bare, immediate facts go, we have to come to terms with this protagonist, whom we have never seen before, being disappointed in his expectation that he has a job to go to—and from there entering a dark and violent misadventure and puzzling entanglement in Native American lore. During the ride out, we hear that his parents had died recently in the Cleveland homestead. But, far more importantly, there is no direct information about why a fragile-looking youngster would travel 2000 miles to seek employment in a Wild West frontier town. As it happens, a very definite and developmentally overt source of enlightenment does supplement the raw narrative. The catch is, this tip-off comes packaged in previous Jarmusch films. In his first full-fledged feature, Stranger than Paradise (1984), a young Hungarian girl travels far more than 2000 miles to obtain work in the form of a Cleveland hot-dog diner. After a year of this, she tells some visitors, “… kind of a drag here…” William, then, in this light, enters the enterprise—seldom elucidated, and never elucidated by our traveller-of-the hour—of turning one’s back on a family heritage (the hot-dog worker comes in for a lot of heat and obscenities from the immigrant aunt who sponsored her). Other versions of quiet renegades getting not only bruised but also assisted by traditionalists appear in the films Down by Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989). In the latter vehicle two young Japanese tourists have their differences about what constitutes the glorious rebellion of vintage Rockabilly; but they both agree the Mountain West is something to be merely and briefly endured (that, even a hundred years after William giving it a go). One other thing about the consequentiality of Cleveland, and the wider deadness you will never explicitly pick up from Dead Man, is that the dash to fulfilling mystery is, in itself, a difficulty factor heavier than those mountains. (The boss at the metal works, totally indifferent to the snail-mail snafu leaving William destitute and desperate, ridicules, “Where did you get that suit? In Cleveland?” But though he is an early detractor of a place much-maligned for being somehow unsatisfactory, he shows in his every move that he doesn’t at all see The Best Location in the Nation the way Jarmusch and many of his creations see it.)
Within the narrative as such you never get a word about metaphysical insurrection (which is quite a different thing from clannish venom toward others). All but William and one brief cameo exponent are cemented in certitude that they have the cosmos under control. As if the rebellious dandy has not brought down upon himself odds making those of General Custer’s seeming to be a slam-dunk, he is, a couple of hours arrived at the place with the blood-curdling name, Machine, mortally wounded by an irate former boyfriend of a woman (the cameo) he makes love to. And that brings us to another interpretive hurdle, namely, that a figure you might carelessly describe as a stamp collector goes on, before he’s done, to shoot down a startling number of hostile mountaineers, while encumbered with a bullet lodged so close to his heart that removal is impossible.
The train ride with its fireman/ therapist bringing William out of his shell and the office in Machine with its manager/ pit bull elicit the first signs that the tenderfoot is more complicated than tenderness. And they do so in getting down to the business of dialogue. But it makes more sense here to bring about horrors of love with a silent film register (a fourth pitch for Jarmusch to keep fresh his romance of speech). After the change of plans at the Dickenson Metal Works, William enters a noisy bar, puts down his last few coins and the bartender withdraws the quart size and replaces it with a pint bottle—pure hard-luck pantomime on the silver screen. Stranger than Paradise had installed the Buster Keaton silent classic, The General, to measure the rising to a tense occasion on the part of deadpan Eva from Budapest and then Cleveland. Now we have William sitting pensively on a wooden sidewalk with his tiny and bitter beverage, leading us to think of Zack, sitting pensively on a curb on a dark night while contemplating his smooth patent leather shoes, having just undergone a reversal pertaining to a lack of encouragement on the part of associates, in the film Down by Law. At that same wooden facility, a brute mauls a young woman and pushes her into the boggy excuse for Main Street. Though she utters the unheard-in-silent-classics oath, “Shit!” she breathtakingly comes to pass as the piteous heroine of the D.W. Griffith classic, Broken Blossoms (1919). Helping her out of the bog and with her damaged paper flowers, and accompanying her to a modest bedroom/ studio for crafting her flowers for sale—with hopes of graduating to cloth material, and therewith shades of Charlie the entrepreneurial and doomed barber in Mystery Train)—the handsome young man, along with the beautiful, sweet-tempered young woman, soon faces a regime of violence exponentially more devastating than the cobras at the jobsite and the gorilla outside the bar. The son of the oligarch is as soft-spoken as the fireman; but he is no therapist, deciding rather quickly that revenge for being placed at a disadvantage is a zoological imperative. Thel, the other point of the triangle, instinctively self-effacing, shields him with her body from the first bullet; but dying thus in his arms she can’t repeat the heroism when a second bullet flies their way. Thereupon, the seeming pacifist who did nothing to stop the gorilla, does appreciate her gun— “This is America,” she calmly explained when he registered surprise that her pillow included a revolver; and thereby she recalls Jun, the Japanese tourist, being unfortunately cynical when hearing a gunshot at their Memphis hotel, in Mystery Train—and, after two misses, manages to put a serious hole in the assailant’s neck.
Whereas the chivalrous mourner in Griffith’s film comprising depths of body languageis an Oriental exponent having come to the Occident (London, in fact) for the sake of staging a Buddhist landslide (recall that Jun and Mitsuko, in Mystery Train, had had it up to here with the Old Country), William shows every indication that no such lofty motives had ever crossed his mind. Accompanied by a final silent touch—a shooting star(up for grabs as to evocativeness)—the man from Cleveland, riding off with the now-sidelined rich kid’s prize pinto (a strange addition to the likes of Trigger, Champion, Silver, Topper…), has his hands full in the matter of effectively being done with boring states of affairs.
Somehow, however, true to wonder-horse lore, the frisky little pinto carries him away from a centre no less ridiculous than Cleveland, and, coming out of his coma somewhere in the wilds, he’s overseen by a uniformed expert of sorts—arguably a soulmate of the Buddhist warrior just mentioned. Reconnaissance of the damage leads to the no-nonsense prognosis. Some surreal nonsense does obtrude here, though, in the form of the native Indian shaman in attendance being more interested in whether William has any tobacco than what’s up health-wise. (Other Jarmusch absurdity-theatre threads come about at the sweetheart’s bedroom, in view of the soon to be defunct ex-boyfriend asking, “Hey, Thel, you got any tobacco?” [Thel had asked the same question of William.] William is a non-smoker; but perhaps, on the bright side, there’s a silver lining as to a populous so wound up they need a smoke. The kinship, moreover, of the quietly deranged spoiled brat and the guy turning out to be, briefly, William’s best (only) friend is there for the asking. The jealous one is named Charlie, not Elvis. And we are to consider, I think, that the Charlie in Mystery Train had been intent on making something of his life—the modesty of which overshadows those who deal in cheap and flashy murder.)
As we know, narrative probability is not of central interest to Jarmusch—he setting up crazy rendezvous to cultivate rock-solid, deadly serious and appallingly handled bomb shells. Therefore, instead of the (eventually) finely nuanced serviceability of the friend of our Lone Ranger (a friend with much in common with Down by Law’s Roberto), we are thrust into the midst of Charlie’s more-money-than-moxie father recruiting what he believes to be the three most rabid and efficient killers in the territory (one of whom, “Johnny the Kid Pickens,” unmistakably evokes the gentle bellhop in Mystery Train. A danger about Jarmusch’s comedy being that you may be laughing so hard you’ll miss some of the jist), who quite predictably—this being a study of mass malignancy—proceed to spend most of their time attempting to bump each other off. Also coming across in that jump-start for justice dripping with mawkish parental clichés is that the industrialist is far more upset about losing the pinto than the kid—the death in the family being essentially a delicious excuse to put into overdrive his homicidal and cock-of-the-walk pleasures.
This well-worn cowboy prelude to mob vengeance gives way to our stricken protagonist being treated by the smoker by means of a poultice and hearing the once-again irregular bark out, “Stupid, fuckin’ white man!” The strange medic rounds out his rounds by adding a whip motion and kicking up some dirt from the mud flat where William fell from the pinto. Tempering that harshness, there is to be recognized that the lead-up, to realizing that the bullet is there to stay, entails the healer’s concentration and dismay about how deadly the wound was. Along a narrative drift including a cut to the three exterminators whereby one asks another, “You got any extra tobacco?” we see it is now nightfall; that William is in huge physical discomfort; but also that the rather brutish side of the coin has been stifled to the effect that William no longer lies in the mud and sand, his face has been washed and his head rests on a saddle.
Therewith the table is set for a remarkable endeavor with the proposition, “Stupid, fuckin’ white man…” In the earlier film the brutish Elvis blurts out the unimpressive, “I can’t help it if I was born white…” The unlicensed surgeon has introduced himself as a believer in “anything but white.” But, now so solicitous as to asking for the stupid weakling’s name, he is rewarded with a (supposed) cosmological breakthrough in the form of the moniker, William Blake. Consistent with his simplistic racial views, the fixer goes into a melodramatic swoon on being supposedly amidst a close encounter of confirmation that his belief in reincarnation is right on the money. More narrative flim-flam in the form of the aboriginal having been kidnapped as a child by British soldiers and paraded as far as England as a little novelty, and in the course of the tour becoming familiar with the works of nineteenth-century mystic poet and illustrator, William Blake, must not get us bogged down in details of that work. What matters is the axis formed under the auspices of such desire. Though he’s a precious twit (not however anywhere close to that of the garrulous member of that company of bounty hunters, namely, Conway Twill—another rockabilly test from out of Mystery Train), this Tonto to William’s Lone Ranger has put the solitude of his days to some effect. On having oriented to channelling the bounty of the dead, he rattles off, to his new and stellar friend, a schema which, like the outlook of Blake the artist, is an uneasy mixture of old and new. He peppers the bewildered casualty with the formula that round stones exposed to the sun for aeons become close allies to the heavens. In the process of delivering that impromptu lecture, he underlines that a “bolt” is most instrumental. He embellishes the quick tour with a Blakean couplet, “Some are born to light/ Some are born to endless night…” A remarkable leap from such poetic diversity to lead-pipe politics rounds out the Jarmusch problematic which we have been suffused with from that first moment recalling a mystery train. “You were a poet and painter and now you are a killer of white men.”
Power being double-edged was never an acute problem in the preceding films because apparitions like Screamin’ Jay, Joan of Arc, Marquis de Sade and Elvis never seriously violated the intimacy of the task at hand. The long wait for our film #5 here may be a function of attending to the billions of completists out there. Warming up to the frail (medical) miracle on his hands, the care-giver readily responds to the more stabilized (health-wise) recipient of improved attention, asking what his name is. The complication of this step reflects the instability of the burly dogmatist always emitting the façade of complete management of every situation. He states that, being of “mixed blood” [two different aboriginal tribes] and a victim of persecution from single-source Indians, he had been tagged (over and above an unrecognized family name) with, “He Who Talks Loud and Says Nothing.” Not settling for that—and gaining apace a sense of very unusual dynamic perspective—he had re-branded as “Nobody.” Along this path of description, he mentions that his father was known as “Absaluta.”
The cinematic happy hunting ground of Dead Man comprises the absolutist tutoring William to embrace the contingencies of courage—being ironically as far as possible from the vicious verities he lives for. The (now) out-patient on the run (Nobody spotting the bounty hunters by way of noting a swarm of eagles in the distance— “The stink of white man precedes him…”) begins his boot camp when the odd couple encounter an even odder trio of fur-trapper religious hermits. Nobody sends a bewildered Blake into the midst of such (to him) road kill, to get him going on the process of the new and (to him)
improved poetry. (Finding, to his disappointment, that William was “not really” a sharp-shooter, the avenger in buckskin gives his vastly overrated [or perhaps vastly underrated] windfall a bit of a compass. “That weapon [Thel’s handgun, eliciting in the Easterner a moment of dismay] will replace your tongue. You will soon speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood…”) With a sub-text of sodomy, deadly punishment and sweet talk, the Bible readers around a campfire address the subject of Philistines and how to humble them. William treads into this circuit, becomes too-liked for comfort and is heavily assisted by a watchful Nobody in ending their wanderings. That the less than competent frontiersman does shoot and kill one of the trio(needing only one bullet, by contrast with the three required to stop Charlie) and has no regrets, represents a change indeed. (Nobody’s Smiley Burnette clown trick-shot, in killing another, plays with the exponentially more macabre situation, as compared with classic Western film entertainment.) Taking a rifle from the collection of those divines, he sets out without Nobody’s backing and comes to a rendition of the big dead and jagged tree so dear to the heart of Randolph Scott in Budd Boeddiker’s should-be classic, Ride Lonesome (1959). A pair of U.S. Marshals (part of Dickinson’s raising an emperor’s brigade for the sake of retribution; their being totally bald an infusion of clownishness to somewhat mess up the component of sublimity) challenge him and he swiftly dispatches them with the expenditure of only two bullets. One of the clearly-perceived enemies is still moving a bit on the ground; and William—now in full flight with the incipient combativeness seen from the outset—calmly uses another bullet to kill him (no considerations obtruding as to who the dead man might be leaving behind). Whereas Scott, in the role of bounty hunter, Ben Brigade, performs at such a landmark within a harsh but functional societal niche, the now-underway killing spree, incited by a flawed compatriot and advisor, exhibits tons of sang froid with nowhere to go. After bringing down somewhat the odds against him, William quietly recites, “endless night,” finding something troubling about the revamp, even if Nobody treats it as all to the good. (At some level—a paradoxical level that smells as bad as white men—the answer man is certain that such poise through slaughter is the best way to face the demise just around the corner. Two of the original bounty hunters [the third having been murdered by a colleague seemingly inspired by de Sade, and being far more formidable a pacesetter than Down by Law’s Jack] catch up with the dead Marshals and the badass arbiter of total [even cannibalistic] war crushes the head of one of the lawmen because he has fallen upon a wagon wheel the spars of which reminding him of the sun shafts of a Giotto religious painting. “… endless night” being far from arts salon sensitivity.)
More closely tracking the eventuation just prior and just following the incident at that haunting tree can allow us to bring to focus subtleties here which can readily be eclipsed by the quickening pace of violence. William was given the job of finishing off the man in women’s clothes, while Nobody pretended to be dealing with the pelts; but he didn’t follow that cue, and instead partook of the beans simmering on the fire. Next morning, that kind of soft fibre flares up more consequentially. Rambling along a rock-strewn trail on horseback with cordial sunshine in the air, William is arrested by a glen with wanted posters on several trees. His fateful night with Thel shoots out to him and he goes into a frenzy about the 500 dollars’ reward being not only about killing Charlie but also Thel. Somewhat reverting to the accountant he once was, he faults the error as if the details were crucial. “It’s complete fabrication!”Bemusedly taking in this wrong stuff (including Blake’s ripping several posters off the low-traffic trees and tearing them up like an angry child), Nobody remarks, “Actions are useless… You cannot stop the clouds by building a ship…” This kindly, and incisively tables-turning, taunt draws from the accountant a retort saturated with mainstream, rational (advantage-besotted) dominance. “I’ve had it up to here with Indian lore! I haven’t understood a single word since I met you… one single word…”Nobody smiles and asks, in full possession of disinterestedness being beyond self-clarification, “Are you sure you have no tobacco?” Jumping to the bait, the early and thereby antiquated modernist clicks off an Aristotelian syllogism: “I’ve already told you I don’t smoke. There’s a pretty good chance I won’t have any tobacco…” Nobody has been on horseback all the while, while his mystical white man has been lurching about on the rock field. Now he says, “Now be going, William Blake…” Left in his funk, William crouches on a boulder and frantically looks around the scene, the wrongness of his comportment weighing him down. At nightfall the uneasy partnership shares a bit of smoked meat from the trappers. Nobody dips into his cache of mood food, and the casualty who needs a lift asks if he can have some. Before getting an answer, the man so (dangerously) high in the saddle earlier in the day pronounces the precious superficiality, “I have just ingested the food of the Great Spirit…” Out of this absolutism he lords it over the honorary Indian: “It’s not for you, not even for William Blake.” Then he adds, slipping and sliding while pretending (to himself) to be about the steadiness of “sacred visions,” “They’re not for you right now” [“they” being further described as “loving ways”]. William falls asleep and Nobody does some deliberation. He sees in William’s visage a skull. Back to a face and an awkward face at that, the shaman applies lightning-forms war paint to the one who wants food but is destined to fast in the course of a solitary plunge that will tell, if not the tale, perhaps part of a tale. Before leaving the novice warrior and before William falls into a deep sleep, Nobody swings back to the nonsense, enunciated in this way— “It’s so strange you don’t know anything about poetry.” A worn out, no longer militant “realist” replies, “I don’t know anything about poetry…” A losing-grip idealist replies in return, “Oh, you’re so modest!” Before departing, Nobody avails himself of the steady-scrutiny eyeglasses which William had found to be too useful. As thus stage-managed for his carnal (less strictly optical) adventure to come, the wanted man gives his irrational rescuer a smile of gratitude and appreciation that—though a kook—he does make sense, becoming more compelling by the hour. “You are a very strange man… very strange…”
Gunning down the law-men-predators, amidst a flood of disinterestedness, was just a short walk away. Wandering about, trying to find Nobody, he comes to the tree and pees there, letting sink in the many differences and the many similarities with respect to the brilliant work of Boettiker. This first solo gig, however, dovetails to new keys of action—minor keys—redolent of darker progress. The next figure to demand his attention is a fawn, lying dead in the woods with a bullet in its neck (perhaps collateral damage from the sadistic member of the three musketeers, firing in blind retaliation for an arrow in his chest). William touches the source of blood, tastes the latter and lies down beside its all but perfect body. In a reverie (very unlike that of Luisa, in Mystery Train) he sees creatures in the forest, neither friend nor foe; but of a register of strangeness lifting his spirits. The next encounter is with a noisily rutting bear, which turns out to be Nobody and a lady friend, who gives him a piece of her mind in such a way as to recall Mystery Train’s Jun being the target of Mitsuko’s ire. Just as briefly ecstatic Jun goes on to disappoint us, the jaunty nomad, leading the unorthodox poet through a breathtaking redwood forest, distractedly sings, “I don’t care if you were married 16 times…” More missteps follow, as they come to a trading post owned and operated by a clergyman in typical regalia and put it out of business, in ways true to the scorched-earth, insider dogma clinging to outsider quirkiness. The round of distraction at the place Nobody knows to be dispensing smallpox-infested blankets offers a consummate installation of the entirely problematic culmination in sight with its Teflon-proof correct, aboriginal holiness. In the run-up to dumping—Randolph Scott-style—the lawmen who would have been more comfortable working at a Customs post, William, after proudly admitting to them to be the golden prize, asks them, cat-and-mouse-style, “Do you know my poetry?” Now at the trading post, he beholds an array of updated wanted posters regarding him (now up to $2000) and—with Nobody praising the project for drawing skill—he presents his friend with a copy (a long way from the complainer about a bum rap). Whereas the gunplay at the liquor store in Mystery Train was context light, the gunplay near the end of the trek in Dead Man carries a Proustian history. William, dismayed by the prospect of having run amok with a lightweight nobody (who had pretended to want his autograph; and on signing knifed his writing hand), goes for some fresh air to the river bank on which the store was built. There he is shot in the back by another unpleasant fan, whom he blows away as the opportunist is reloading. He, remarking to Nobody (when the latter finally arrives from cleaning out the landmark and feeding the horses), “I seem to be a magnet for it,” strikes just the right recovery touch to send the partners-in-crime and partners-in-justice to a denouement finally free from ham-handed politics, notwithstanding the imminent heavy ceremonial content.
Just before their leaving a gaping staff deficit at the mall (Nobody being denied tobacco [sort of like Mystery Train’s Elvis’ friend being called boy]), Nobody tells Blake, from out of the sky’s the limit, 16-times married ditty, “You will be taken up to another place where William Blake belongs, a place where the sea meets the sky.” Their having done with retail forever, Nobody paddles a river canoe while William, bleeding from the recent mishaps, contemplates something beyond market value. On their leaving behind their not quite final site of friction, the pinto, like the fawn, an uncomplicated genius of integrity, runs alongside the shore until the hills become impossibly steep. They reach a village where a sea canoe workshop awaits. Though near death, William is given to understand that he is expected, by the crusty locals, to reach the ceremonial scene by way of at least some input of his own. (Perhaps some fetishist aspect of the “other place” is in play. Perhaps, like Nobody, they don’t like whites.) On his falling from Nobody’s grasp, many of the locals express displeasure. In time, William is dressed in aboriginal ceremonial garb and placed in his customized sea canoe. On the ride in, Nobody had told his special friend, “I’m proud of you, William Blake…” Did that mean simply that the spunky geek he nearly left for dead had toughened up a mite? Or did it cover graces which he (Nobody) himself had been awakened to by a first close encounter with a “fuckin’ white man”? The denizen of the forests tells the seafarer, “Time to go back where you came from. This world will no longer be your home…” Ambiguity to the end! There is a final smile over the ceremonial tobacco. There is an exchange of waves. As the sea canoe meets the current to deep waters, William is distressed by the figure driven by sadistic survival coming up behind Nobody’s point of send-off. The relentless, even iconic self-seeker shoots both William and Nobody, while the latter shuts down the one-track mind. This is a far more inflected approach to enduring verities than most funerals afford.
(I have no idea how this volatile flood of dilemma could be aptly covered by a few dozen words or a “video essay.” Such films as Dead Man are designed to activate in the viewer the crises of equilibrium onscreen in their unique monstrosity. Commentary upon that trajectory is neither literature nor film but construction catalyzing the film craft not merely responsively but anticipatory of a wider and problematic momentum in the heart of the work. These transactions have nothing to do with how the viewer is pleased or displeased. Finding one’s way to this variegated resource involves delight without pressing the point.)
Several thematic initiatives amplify the sea-to-sky problematicness which has vividly played out within the action. One that should not be overlooked is the musical factor, provided by Neil Young’s guitar gambits—always harsh in various unsettling ways; and often plaintive. Two quite ferocious lasers underline the consequentiality of venerable, cloistered conformity and carnal, kinetic going for broke. On the train, the city slicker who has a longer ride ahead than he could ever imagine, chooses to pack a magazine on bee-keeping. Nobody, choosing rhetoric making some sense for a change, tells his guest, “The eagle is never worse than when finding wisdom from the crow.” Perhaps its most far-reaching moment of sensual game-changing occurs after the Randolph Scott moment, when William, leading (quite aimlessly) on foot his pinto and the lawmen’s donkey and property comes across the dead fawn on the forest floor. He adds touches of its blood to his forehead, nose and chin, adding to the war paint provided by Nobody. The warrior that William now is lies down beside the fellow-mortal and covers the little body with the bear-skin coat he had appropriated from the trappers. Though much is unknown, we do assimilate more fully the non-Panzer quality of his killer instinct, detectible on the train ride and during the non-job interview. At the farewell, Nobody’s repeating the poetic vision, “Time for you to go back where you came from…”elicits from a remarkably jaunty William, “You mean Cleveland?” But if the return to creative struggle is to be assessed in light of William’s dawning appreciation of combat along with cherishment, Cleveland could be as good a place to look to as anywhere else. (The well-spoken fireman was part of a crew based in Cleveland.)
Rampant streams of Joan of Arc (William being a controversial and eventful visionary) and Marquis de Sade (preluded by fellatio on Main Street Machine), well-exposed in several Jarmusch nightmare/ dreams, operate, as before, as reminders that deadly hatred can be outmanoeuvred but not removed. William’s last moves in solitude amidst uncanny seas are emblematic of where he pretty much always was.