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2014/03/16

Dead Man

by Dave Gourdoux


No film genre is associated with America and American culture like the western is.  Although on the decline for the past twenty years, there have still been far more western films made than any other genre.   Stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood became famous for the iconic roles they played in films that helped shape an American mythology; a mythology that was created to sublimate the ugly truths of our westward expansion and replace them with mythic tales of heroism and righteousness.  In other words, most westerns were about who we wished we were, rather than who we really are.

The greatest director of westerns (and it could be argued the greatest American director ever) was John Ford.  In nearly all of his films, Ford's poetic sentimentality is on display (two stunning examples of his non-western masterpieces being How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man), but it's never as powerful as in the best of his westerns.  In his westerns, Ford not only celebrated the American myth of the west, he helped create it.   In Stagecoach (1939), his most iconic western, he turned John Wayne and Monument Valley into archetypes of the American culture, larger than life icons of the mythic version of our western expansion.

Ford perpetuated and deepened the myths about the American west - the strong, silent and decent hero, the farmers and ranchers trying to tame a wild land, the dangerous outlaws and gunslingers, the newspapermen and saloon keepers and blacksmiths.   It was an uncomplicated and male dominated world, and women were divided between the sensual "dance hall girls" and pure and untainted schoolmarms.

Even when he tried to tear down the myths he created, Ford's loyalty was such that he struggled and was conflicted.  In his great 1956 film The Searchers, Ford tries to deconstruct the mythic character he and Wayne created by making the character Ethan Edwards filled with racial hatred and an almost psychotic search for vengeance.  The scenes with Wayne and Jeffery Hunter on the trail of Wayne's niece, who has been captured by the Cheyenne, are chilling and cold and uncompromising, and are unlike anything else Ford ever made.  Yet even in this film, in the scenes depicting the family at home, Ford can't get past the stereotypes he helped create, and he embraces the same low level humor and brawling cliches that he and countless imitators over the years filled mediocre westerns with.  It's the contrast between these scenes, the innocent idealism of the family and Wayne's brutal misogyny when out on the range, that makes The Searchers simultaneously fascinating and difficult to sit through.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the character of the newspaperman speaks the line that best sums up Ford's approach to the mythology of the American west:  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

So on the surface, there would appear to be very little in common with Ford's westerns and Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film, Dead Man.  Released a year after Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a deconstruction of the "man with no name" icon that Eastwood created, Dead Man challenges all of the western myths that Ford and others celebrated.  The myth of the rugged individual, the principled hero, and the good and hearty farmers and tradesmen who were building civilization out of the lawless frontier, are all ripped apart by Jarmusch's film.

But in the process of ripping apart these myths, Jarmusch establishes a stunning work of visual poetry that rivals Ford's best work; specifically, my favorite western of all time, Ford's lyrical My Darling Clementine (1946).


Dead Man is shot in vivid black and white. It opens with Johnny Depp, ridiculously dressed in a flamboyant suit that identifies him immediately as a greenhorn, riding on a steam train to the west. By the time the engine man, played by Crispin Glover, sits down and verbally assaults Depp, it becomes clear that the west portrayed in Dead Man is actually Hell.

The Hell imagery continues when Depp arrives in the town of Machine and makes his way to the factory where he thinks he has a job as an accountant waiting for him.  As he walks the mud filled, potholed street, he has to dodge loose pigs, he sees a stack of caskets, a horse pissing, a woman performing oral sex on a man in a doorway, and countless hard, mean-looking men who look at him with suspicion and mistrust.

Depp finds his way to the factory and is laughed at by the office manager (John Hurt) and his staff, who tell him the job he thinks was waiting for him has already been filled.  Depp then demands a meeting with the owner of the factory, played by Robert Mitchum (in his last film), an eccentric and intimidating character who talks to a mount of an enormous grizzly bear in his office.  Mitchum raises his rifle and forces Depp out, where he is derisively laughed at by the office staff at as he exits.

Depp, alone on the streets of this dark nightmare of a town, ends up in the bed of a woman named Thel (played by Mili Avatel), who makes and collects paper flowers.  They are walked in upon by Thel's ex-lover (Gabriel Byrne).  Byrne attempts to shoot Depp but Thel dives in front of him, with the bullet going through her chest and killing her before lodging in Depp's chest.  Depp shoots and kills Bryne, and escapes out the window, stealing Bryne's horse and riding into the black of the night.

Depp awakes the next morning to a strange Native American (in a great performance by Gary Farmer) trying to remove the bullet from his chest.  He tells Depp that he cannot retrieve it, it is too close to Depp's heart, and that Depp is already a "dead man."  He tells Depp his name is Nobody, and when Depp reveals his name, William Blake, Nobody, who it turns out was educated in England, mistakes him for the poet William Blake.  Nobody is a great admirer of Blake's poetry, and decides to guide Blake on a journey to the Pacific, so he can die in the ocean, where he and his spirit belongs.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Byrne was Mitchum's son.  Mitchum sends a trio of bounty hunters out to bring Blake back, dead or alive, and then offers an ever increasing reward, sending countless men into the wilderness to find Blake.

Gary Farmer as Nobody and Johnny Depp as William Blake
Thus begins one of the strangest and most beautiful journeys in all of cinema.  Blake and Nobody try to make it to the Pacific before Blake dies, while Blake, through his gun, becomes the poet Nobody thinks he is, and encounters many who are after the reward money.   The film is similar in structure to the Carol Reed classic, Odd Man Out, with Depp/Blake hoping to die in peace while a man hunt is going on for him.  The film is about identity, as Nobody mistakes Blake for a poet, and the white men hunting mistake him for a killer, until, with no real discernible identity of his own, Blake becomes both poet and killer.

There is a key scene where Blake loses his eyeglasses, and laments how he is virtually blind without them. Nobody, who in Blake's mind is annoyingly cryptic throughout the film, says, "Perhaps you will see better without them." Nobody's statement turns out to be prophetic, because without his glasses, Blake begins killing those who are after him.  Blake's identity at the beginning of the film is hazy and undefined; in his dandy suit, he is a living joke.  The journey he takes on his way to his death defines him, and he becomes a poet and a killer, a legend, and ultimately, a myth.

Through it all, once they get out of the town, the film is beautiful, as Blake and Nobody make their way through the wilderness.  Also, it becomes evident that while Jarmusch has no use for the standard western mythology, he embraces Native American mysticism and culture.  The final scenes, describing Blake's transcendence, are beautifully shot with great love and respect for the rituals they portray.


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the soundtrack to Dead Man.  It was composed and performed by Neil Young, and while there is a recurring theme that plays at key points in the film, the bulk of the music is Young improvising on electric guitar as he watched the film.   Although sometimes it's a bit over the top, overall it's perfect, as quirky and eccentric as you'd expect from Young, and as quirky and eccentric as the film.

Depp and Gary Farmer are both fantastic in the film.  Their friendship is played perfectly.  Depp handles the transformations that Blake endures in a low-key, underplayed fashion that is perfect for such an eccentric film with so many bizarre characters. He remains grounded, enabling the other actors to bounce their eccentricities off of him. Farmer's performance as Nobody is perfect, as he utters his cryptic lines with the same confidence, whether they have deeper meaning or are just nonsense.  He gives Nobody, a character who himself has a tragic past, depth and soul.   The rest of the roles are all wacky iconoclasts and are perfectly cast.   Besides Mitchum and Hurt and Glover, there is Lance Henrikson, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd as the first trio of bounty hunters Mitchum sends out after Blake.

Dead Man and My Darling Clementine couldn't be more different in the stories they tell.  While My Darling Clementine is respectful and honors the western myths it tells, Dead Man has utter disdain for the same myths.  For example, there is a disturbingly funny scene in Dead Man with Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton that not only mocks the male dominated western stereotypes but goes against everything Ford stood for as a film maker and story teller.  It's in their approach to the material, which can only be described as personal and poetic, that Jarmusch and Ford find common ground.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in "My Darling Clementine"
My Darling Clementine is a straightforward retelling of one of the western's longest standing and central myths: the story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral.  Again, Ford doesn't hesitate to embrace the mythic qualities of the story.  Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp is clearly the good guy, and Walter Brennan's Ike Clanton the bad guy. What makes My Darling Clementine such a remarkable film are the added touches. There is the conflicted character of Doc Holliday, a refined, eastern educated man who is dying of tuberculosis, and living a Walter White type of life as a gunfighter. And there is the stunning visual poetry and pace that ultimately makes My Darling Clementine so unique.  Ford composes his shots so that the sky is enormous - clouds play as big a role in the film as any of the actors.  As the Earp clan approaches the OK Corral in the film's climactic scene, the actors are positioned at the bottom of the screen, with the immense cloud-filled sky occupying the top two thirds of the frame.  It's as if Ford is saying, the Gods will be watching this moment, while the characters are small and inconsequential against the immense landscape.   This scene, and the scene where Wyatt Earp visits his brother's grave, are shot with the same reverence and beauty that Jarmusch shoots the final scenes of Dead Man

More about the character of Doc Holliday: in the finest performance of Victor Mature's career, Holliday is the rare conflicted character in a Ford film.  He becomes friends with Fonda/Earp, but it is an uneasy friendship, filled with tension.  Holliday has taken up with the worldly dance hall girl played with fiery sensuality by Linda Darnell; his ex-fiance from back east, a pure and beautiful school teacher played by Cathy Downs, shows up looking for the man she fell in love with back in civilization.  Holliday, consumed with anger and bitterness over his impending death, wants nothing to do with either one, and continues on his self destructive path.  But he remains an intelligent, educated man, and he can't let go of his past.  When a drunk actor in a touring theater group forgets his lines in Hamlet's soliloquy, Holliday finishes them, starting with the line:

                but that the dread of something after death
                the undiscovered country
                from whose bourn no traveller returns

This shows the conflict at the heart of Holliday, the appreciation for art and civilization versus the misogyny of his reputation as a gunfighter.  It's the knowledge of his own impending death that drives Holliday, this highly educated and refined and decent man, to the destructive and dangerous man he's become.  In many ways, Holliday is already dead.   

Compare that to the William Blake poetry that Nobody recites in 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

Both Blake and Holliday are already "dead men", and both of their fates are described in poetic terms.   Both men are looking to forge an identity before death claims them.  Their search can be seen as a metaphor for America's search for identity in the west.  In My Darling Clementine, Holliday chooses to fight with the Earps at the OK Corral; he dies a heroic death.   In Dead Man, Blake, after being prepared for death by a tribe of Makah Indians, finds his way out of Hell to the spiritual Heaven that is the Pacific Ocean. The American West is seen as corrupt and evil, and Blake's salvation depends on his ability to escape it.

What differentiates the two films is the vision of the directors.  What Ford finds heroic, Jarmusch finds repulsive. What Ford celebrates, Jarmusch rejects.

What makes both films so great, and what binds them, is the passion and artistry that Ford and Jarmusch use to articulate their visions.  Both films stand as brilliant and beautiful works of art.

For more about Dead Man, click here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112817/

For more about My Darling Clementine, click here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0038762/




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