‘Dead Man’, A Film by Jim Jarmusch:
Running Commentary 15 April 1997 – 30 June 1997
by Ralph Dumain
15 April 1997: FIRST THOUGHTS
I finally got around to seeing the film Dead Man. I think it was an excellent film, though I am still mystified by what substantial connection it could have to William Blake. Are there corollaries between the plot line and Blake's mythology? Instead of trying to establish connections, I will give my first impressions of the film, and then we shall see what emerges.
First, the pervasive feeling of desolation and loss. The frontier is not some brave new world, but a fearful landscape of death. William Blake has indeed arrived in hell when he arrives in the town of Machine. Blake's world of experience is not spiced up with any of the joys of experience, beyond his brief encounter with Thel Russell, which is what makes Blake into a dead man. The little sexuality that is displayed in the film is itself brutal and brief. One of Blake's first sights in Machine is a gun-wielding ruffian getting a blow job in an alley. Later, Nobody gets interrupted by Blake while having sex with an Indian woman in the woods, and she runs off. The whole scenery of the film from beginning to end is a world of death and desolation. The film is not about life at all, but about a man undergoing a living death.
Secondly, I think of the triangular relationship between the white man in America, the Indians, and Britain across the ocean. Before the bounty-hunting Cole kills and eats his surviving partner, he is asked about his ethnic origins in Europe. We never learn what they are.
Then there is the curious case of Nobody the Indian. He is a displaced person. He hates the whites, he performs Indian religious rituals, but he is relegated to being a loner, as he is no longer accepted by his own people. Also, his involuntary sojourn in England has given him a unique perspective on the white man and his origins. Curiously, this victim of western civilization finds that in the middle of the Caucasian hell he has been abducted into, there is a poet whose message he can relate to William Blake. This is one white man's medicine that inspires Nobody for the rest of his life. Obviously Blake can't be like the other whites. Nobody learns his Blake in English schoolsa real impossibility in the nineteenth century, and he learn lines from Blake's unpublished works that would not have been widely circulated then. Anyway, Nobody, having been processed through the dark satanic mills of western civilization, has become a lonely individual, a displaced person, like the historical William Blake and his namesake, the accountant Bill Blake. Nonetheless, Nobody is a decent human being, as he tends to the wounded Bill Blake even while calling him a stupid white man.
Thirdly, there is the theme of lack of communication, disconnectedness, and the absence of the real holy word in the horrendous world of experience in which all these displaced and wounded souls find themselves. Nobody mistakes Bill Blake for the real William Blake because of the identity of their names, and wonders why Bill Blake can't remember any of his poetry. Bill Blake is an accountant, who plays by the orderly rules of the east until the structured world to which he is accustomed dissolves into chaos in the wild west, which is quite disorganized regardless of the pretensions of orderliness implied by the town's name, Machine. Bill has to learn practical survival and play by the only rules he is allowed to play by, i.e. violence. There is no vision anywhere. The real Blake is absent, only appearing in the disconnected utterances of Nobody. When Blake approaches two federal marshals, he says, "Do you know my poetry?" before shooting both to death. This fulfills Nobody's earlier prediction, after having asked Blake if he knows how to use his weapon, that "Your poetry will now be written in blood." So this is American pragmatism, where vision cannot exist, where the only poetry is efficacious, violent action, which is what circumstance has reduced human possibility to. Far from being a new world of previously undreamed-of possibilities, the American frontier becomes human life reduced to its lowest possible levelUlro, a land of death, loneliness, and loss. The possibilities of communication, of vision, are irreparably disconnected. There is no place for the real William Blake's visions to be communicated or understood. Even the Blakean aphorisms don't offer much, though there are telling phrases that are meaningful to Nobody in his struggle against his white enemies: "The vision of Christ that thou dost see, is my vision's greatest enemy", as Bill Blake shoots the dishonest and deadly Christian trader. Blake is Nobody's ally in dealing with the weaselly white Christians.
Blake's home is really in the spirit world, for there is no place for him on earth, in America, where he can only live as a dead man. Nobody's self-appointed mission is to return Blake to the spirit world where he came from, where he belongs.
This is the broken world I see in the film. I don't know whether the plot is a correlate of Blake's mythical narratives or not. That may not be the decisive question. For the key to the film seems to be what is missing from the world it depicts.
No reason is given for why people should suffer so. Perhaps Nobody keeps quoting the following lines from Blake, possibly because he realizes there may be no Divine plan that explains his people's suffering; it's just a spin of the wheel of fortune, outside the world of vision, the realm of the spirit:
"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."
29 April 1997: FOLLOW-UP ON FIRST THOUGHTS
I think I am right about the persistent miscommunication and sense of absence characterizing the film. One example of failed communication: the recurring reference to tobacco in the film. Never having any tobacco and not realizing its significance, Bill Blake always responds: "I don't smoke", even when Nobody pushes Blake’s death canoe into the Pacific Ocean, which Nobody mistakenly thinks will carry Blake not only to the world beyond, but back "home", though England lies in the opposite direction.
19 June 1997: DEAD MAN REVIVED
Rummaging through my Blake photocopies this evening, I happened upon some Dead Man remains. Most important is "A Gun Up Your Ass: An Interview with Jim Jarmusch", Cineaste, vol. XXII, no. 2, 1996, pp. 20-23. Jarmusch explains many things, though he doesn't reveal all his secrets. His feelings about Native Americans remain central to his project, though he stated he did not want to romanticize them.
The interviewer is curious about Nobody's outsider status, and the fact that Jarmusch had to get him to Europe to give him coherence. Jarmusch replies:
"I read accounts of natives that were taken all the way to Europe and put on display in London and Paris, and paraded like animals. I also read accounts of chiefs that were taken east and then murdered by their own tribes when they got back because of the stories they told about the white manwhich became part of Nobody's story." (p. 23)
He doesn't say that the likelihood of a Native American in London learning about Blake in the last third of the 19th century is pretty close to nil, unless I am mistaken about Blake's popularity at the time.
Jarmusch discusses his own relationship to Blake and the similarity he felt between some of Blake's proverbs and Native American sayings, but he says nothing about possible symbolic correlates to Blake's mythology in the film.
I never took the trouble to look for such parallels myself. Maybe someone else could point them out. But I wonder whether that is even important. For I am convinced that the film is not based on William Blake (the poet) fundamentally, for it is premised upon miscommunication, misunderstanding, and the non-consummation of meaning. The film is about real loss, but not necessarily Los. Everything is fractured, incomplete, and devastated. I will continue shortly, but let me make a few digressions first.
The Cineaste interview does not dissuade me from my initial take on the film; it tends to confirm it. Jarmusch also gives some background in a one-page interview in the Village Voice, "Dead Man Talking" (by Amy Taubin, 14 May 1997, p. 68).
Jarmusch does address the surreal landscape of the film (as somebody calls it), and he does say that it is visionary.
But returning to my own analysis now, I have first of all to ask the question why it is called Dead Man, and why Blake (the accountant) spends most of his time dying, even while his life gets unexpectedly exciting. And why is sending off Blake to the spirit world so important to Nobody?
Don't you think there is something odd there?
Blake starts off as an accountant, ready to play the game by the rules but discovering that the rules don't apply in the Wild West. He tries to be reasonable and follow a logical path, but he cannot. His attempt at an innocent sexual encounter signals his downfall.
Blake doesn't get to dwell in eternity, even imaginatively, in this lifetime. If there is an eternity, it is strictly located temporally in the afterlife. Nobody thinks the spirit world (not this one!) is Blake's true home. The best Nobody can hope for in this world is that the ex-accountant Blake (who is mistaken for the poet Blake) can kill a lot of white people. Clearly there is much amiss.
The poet Blake says in an unpublished poem (in a letter?) that this earth breeds not our happiness, yet this tale of the American West presents a scenario that is far worse. Blake once wrote: "I shan't live five years and if I live one it will be a wonder", but he did live to a ripe old age and got his work done. The poetic visionary cannot even function as such in this world, keeping the vision alive and intact. Instead, in the Wild West, everything is fatally damaged and fragmented, even the legacy of Blake the poet. It is absence, including the absence of a coherent mythology or meaning to Blake, that governs the entire film. The center of the film is that which is missing, that which does not cohere, that which is unstated because there is no place for meaning to gel, and no place for anything constructive to be constructed. Only the dark satanic mills amidst the corpse-strewn wilderness.
Is this not a disturbing vision?
DEAD MAN REVIVED: FOLLOW-UP
Though I am generally allergic to scenarios in which the word "signifier" is used, I don't think one can get around that in the case of this film. For the film palpably demonstrates an inability to locate meaning. Blake the accountant is just a helpless patsy. And Nobody the Indian doesn't know what he is doing. He is trying to combine his own knowledge with what he picked up from Blake the poet in England. He is fooled by a linguistic slip-up (apparently lack of knowledge of Anglo naming proceduresnot realizing that there could be more than one William Blakeinto identifying Bill Blake with William Blake. Even though he calls Bill Blake a stupid white man, and this Blake doesn't know any poems, Nobody persists in making the identification and thinking that since this Blake is a goner, Nobody needs to send him to the spirit world. It is all completely useless. So even if Nobody embodies the values of the real poet Blake (indicating the possibility of cross-cultural communication and ultimate universal values, which can be embodied by conquered people too), Nobody is also helpless: he doesn't know what to do with what he has learned from Blake; he too can only follow old habits and follow rituals desperately designed to accomplish something meaningful, but which are ultimately pointless in the situation. People have debated about Blake's Eternity, but can Eternity merely be the afterlife? If there is no home for the poet here, perhaps that is so. But Nobody doesn't know where he fits into the scheme of things, and in trying to transplant Blake's ideas into his own Amerindian beliefs, he cannot accomplish anything. He is just another confused witness to the destruction of his world.
I liked that trader scene. Certainly Nobody is more deserving of identification with the poet, but he doesn't know that, because he literally doesn't know how to locate Blake (an Englishman who opposed empire). So, using semiotic language, one could say that the missing signifier "Blake" is the center of this film. And that is a brilliant narrative achievement on the part of the filmmaker, though most unsettling. The divided world that is a consequence of empire, in which all the participants of all the cultures involved are caught up in a partial understanding due to their being ensconced in one of the fragments (cultural/historical trajectories) makes it impossible to place the various cultural heritages and whatever lasting values they have discovered into a larger, pan-human context. Jarmusch himself apparently wished to do the same with Native American mythology that Nobody wanted to do with Blake, but Jarmusch is wary of pandering to the sickening spiritual idealization of Native Americans that has taken over popular culture, so he humanizes his Indians by making Nobody as awkward, off-balance, and bewildered as everyone else. Hence neither the mythology of Native Americans nor that of antinomian Christianity can serve as an Archimedean reference point in a divided world; they are resources to be drawn upon to be placed in larger context that has yet to be created.
24 June 1997: ADDENDUM
Of course Nobody had the ritual use of tobacco in mind, which was evident to me long before the end of the film. My point is that Bill Blake did not understand that, so his constant response "I don't smoke" is always funny, since he doesn't know what is going on. Here once again there is gross miscommunication, the inability to achieve a commonly shared meaning.
30 June 1997: RECAP
I really don't see the film as very Blakean. I don't think the film is about Blake; rather Blake is merely one of the ingredients. One of the most disturbing things about the film is that the Wild West literally has no room for a Blake to exist; that is how brutal it is. The gun is the only lingua franca in that territory. Even Nobody the Indian is limited in his use of Blake's vision. He is impressed by Bill Blake's ability to kill white men with his gun. So how does one relate the "visionary" quality of the film that Jarmusch talks about to Blake's vision? I don't know, for the whole premise of the film seems to be that this very relationship is a stretch. The film is not fundamentally an interpretation of Blake.
Jarmusch's film grew on me with time. I didn't think much of it when I first saw it. It was somewhat of a letdown, but I found its gaps so enthralling I couldn't forget it. When I realized that the center of the film was not Blake the poet but a gaping hole where shared meaning should be, I thought: pretty damn clever of Jarmusch to make a film about the inability to locate meaning in a shattered world. I customarily detest postmodern themes of this sort, but this time I was hooked.
Note: This running commentary (edited for presentation here) originated in e-mails to various parties. I am indebted to Prof. Ato Quayson (English Faculty), Director of African Studies Centre, University of Cambridge, for his encouraging feedback and stimulating comments. Dr. Quayson and I finally got to meet, and to view the film together and engage in further discussion, in July 1997. (Compiled and edited 15 January 2003.)
©1997, 2003 Ralph Dumain
Dead Man, Dead Criticism
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Uploaded 15 January 2003
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