Poetic Death {Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man}

“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)


Riding Easy {Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider}

As someone who is a fan of Jack Kerouac, and a fan of all the crazy souls who love and live to be on the road, Easy Rider (1969) is a film that is affecting. Today, on the day of Dennis Hopper’s death, I decided to sit and watch the film, his debut as a director. Hopper won for Best debut at Cannes in that year for the film.

Prepare for a real trip (drugs included) with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson across America from L.A to New Orleans, through mountains, down rivers, meeting freedom-loving hippies trying to live off the land to the other extreme of conservative white Americans who could hate you for growing your hair.

What is freedom? What is it today – to be free…?

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

I’m amazed to read online, that Hopper made a film that was almost 5 hours long, and it was edited for over a year and brought to its current size. I enjoyed the way the acid trip sequence was edited, to be able to translate the experience of a trip onto film, is usually a work of art.

The music is great! Good ol’ Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Hendrix and whole lot of others I must listen to. The opening credits cut to Born to be Wild…I don’t think anyone can re-create that magic of Fonda and Hopper on their bikes riding out onto the great U.S Highway…looking for their America. Like a true nature’s child, we were born to be wild, we have climbed so high, no never gonna die….

No, you are never gonna die.

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

I’m just a little person {Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York}

What is it about Charlie Kaufman, that throws you into the delight of complication?
I’ll call this the Kaufman emotion – one that I feel after watching anything written by him, or as right now in the film Synechdoche, New York —his first directorial venture.

Kaufman speaks in the same convoluted manner that we all speak to our own souls and those of others around us. Because this is your story….and also ours. Exactly how Cayden in Synechdoche says, “There are millions of people in the world. And none of those people are as an extra, they’re all leads in their own stories.”

In this film, he has so successfully given some words, characters and visuals to the ever difficult questions of life and death. Questions we ask ourselves at so many points of life. When the character of Cayden (fashioned after Kaufman himself?) is not sure of what he is trying to achieve through the concept of his next play, his actress (played by Michelle Williams) says, “It’s good that you don’t know…when you know that you don’t know, it is the first step to knowing.”

The beautifully constructed screenplay, is nothing but the circle of life that gives birth to its real, fictional and on-stage characters, lives and dies like a being and a world unto its own.

“The end is written into the beginning”…..a line uttered by Cayden’s love-interest……..says it all for me. For it is, isn’t it, in any written, spoken story just like life? A story that goes on and on, and never sees an end till death. Yet, it still goes on.
And as always, Kaufman blows you away with that one long monologue from one of his characters:

“As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time.”

Some of the songs have been written by Kaufman himself……and my favourite goes, “Somewhere maybe someday maybe somewhere far away………….”

I cannot express myself anymore. Excuse me, as Cayden says, “It’s Complicated.”

[I wrote this in March 2009]

Revolutionary Road {Posters of Motorcycle Diaries}

Listening to Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack for the Walter Salles film Motorcycle Diaries (2004), I’m putting up some posters of the film in different languages. Enjoy!

What we had in common – our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and a love for the open road.”

Keep The Cameras Rolling {LSD: Love Sex aur Dhokha}

I had read an interview recently of the actor Peter Greenaway in The Guardian, where he states that every religion is concerned with death, while art is concerned with life – which is essentially all about sex. How far you agree with him, need not matter here….but Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD (2010) does have sex at its central theme. And some other truths about life.

When I use the word truth, I use it in the sense, that the director or storywriter, would like to present his/her observations of the world around us through their story. It brings to my mind the ever present debate of cinema being an escape from reality or as Slavoj Zizek says, being even more real than reality itself and representing the ultimate truth about life. Think of the most unreal Bollywood film, or television soap..and it will still show you the truth…culturally and socially relevant themes, positive or regressive, made intentionally or unintentionally by the filmmakers.

But is truth stranger than fiction? And how far is the ‘reality’ shown on television really real? That is the underlying message for me in LSD. Cameras are rolling all the time, be it for a student filmmaker (his institute has a very sardonic name that I can’t recall right now), a Hindi TV news sting journalist or a CCTV camera follower in a supermarket. And we in the audience watch their camera footage, through the director’s camera.

True to his style, each one of Banerjee’s characters are so very well etched and rooted. His actors anonymity lends even more credibility to the story. Equally, it is socially relevant to our times, our vouyeristic age of technology coupled with mass media outlets, and their eventual corruption and lies. It is relevant to our social setup, wherein, a father is ready to let his daughter act in a film where she runs away to marry whom she chooses to….but his role as the patriach doesn’t budge outside in the reality away from the film sets. The women are strong, but are duped by their male counterparts be it in a family, a supermarket or a casting couch. The only woman who calls the shots here is the one at the head of a television news channel! It is gritty, funny, sardonic and sad….

For the only two people in this story who apparently love each other, face the worst of what reality can do.

I think LSD is a very important film for Hindi cinema…not just because it is termed as radical (that it talks about sex and is graphic, or uses digital techniques, does away with famous actors etc.) but because it is clever in sending across a message through humour, that what you see is not what you always get. The third eye here or the camera – reveals reality…which can be hyperreal as in the case of reality TV….or it can be an escape from a reality which is essentially cruel to its characters….or there is the reality….of Dibakar Banerjee’s camera itself.

I digress but I can’t help but end with a quote from Michael Haneke: “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.”