“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.”
– William Blake
Taking off from Easy Rider (1969), which itself is a countercultural twist on the western genre, in that it converts the American highway and the wide wild landscape of the west into a space for bikers instead of white horsemen and Indians, is Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). It transposes the reddish-brown landscape we have associated with the genre into surreal high contrast black and white. It’s protagonist, Johnny Depp as the namesake of the literary William Blake, is an accountant from Cleveland thrown into a savage country and turned into an assassin by fate – a wanted man, a dead man.
“Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?”
Yes, why is it? Jarmusch’s camera captures the landscape from mountains to lush alpine forests as the characters traverse through it on horses. Together with Neil Young’s mystic soundtrack, it is a chase of whose end we know from the beginning. For as the opening title by Henri Michaux suggests, “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.” The opening sequence in the train gives us a glimpse of the various forms of landscape that Depp’s character will eventually have to cross again with a foreboding by the train’s fireman – “Look out the window. And doesn’t this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later than night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape.”
Dead Man also touches upon issues of race. The early westerns of John Ford for example depicted the Indian race in America as uncivilized and one that needed to be conquered by the white man. Here, the character called Nobody – an Indian who knows English and has travelled across the seas as an exhibit for his colonial masters talks about mimicking the white man and lauds the poetry of Blake. But they are still “stupid fucking white men” for him. He is nobody – caught between his tribe and the white man’s ways and his words flow in a poetic way like the poet he so admires.
A fear of contamination and heresy is also reflected by a catholic shopkeeper towards the end as Depp and Nobody buy tobacco at the banks of the river. Thus the film not only comments about the decaying form of the old western, but by making it in black and white much like the old westerns, also adapts it in a unique way. I have always enjoyed spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone for they combine beautiful photography of a mesmerizing landscape and the ever-present question of modernity taking over an older way of life with motifs of trains cutting through untamed lands. Dead Man opens in a similar way – a steam engine chugs along a snowy countryside. William Blake is in a similar position – a modern city man heading into gun country on a train. It is combined with more spiritual questions for a modern man – those of life after death. This is apparent with the ubiquitous presence of skulls and bones – both animal and human, in both the American and the indigenous Indian’s living spaces.
The pace of the film is slow and contemplative, very much like Blakes’s poetry. A poet of words combines with a poet of images. The sequence at the end as Depp grows weaker in the Makah tribe’s camp has a mesmerizing quality as the camera movement follows Depp’s headiness. The film is also humourous with secondary characters like Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton, a cannibalistic assassin, a gun-toting businessman and a dead Marshall who looks like a religious icon.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
Jarmusch’s Dead Man is an infinite visual treat with meditative photography, gentle pacing and fine acting. It’s all about a metaphorical death in the dying season of winter that passes on to another life as a dead Blake in a canoe rocks gently over the ocean.
Further Readings: Mad Poets: William Blake, Jim Jarmusch and Dead Man, Dead Man (Senses of Cinema)