01 June 2015

Stupid Fucking Dead Man [White Elephant Blogathon]

[This year the WTT is participating in the White Elephant blogathon, coordinated by Philip Tatler of the Diary of a Country Pickpocket blog, wherein film writers exchange cult movies at random and write about whichever film they receive. Check out links to all the 2015 White Elephant pieces here.]

Dead Man was simply a bad draw. I have—let me scan that filmography again—never liked a Jim Jarmusch picture. Many people say that this is his finest film and I might share that opinion…but from me that’s not the same thing as praise. I tried to trade Dead Man to a white elephant friend of mine for Showgirls 2: Penny's from Heaven but he wouldn’t let me. Perhaps I ought to have tried harder to acquire something easily mockable across a thousand or so words.

My disaffection for Jarmusch bewilders. I like films that are black and white by choice. I like taking apart genre constructions. I like to laugh (but, perhaps crucially, I don’t embrace deadpan humor). I would go so far as to say I love much slow cinema of recent vintage—Our Beloved Month of August, Silent Light, Norte, the End of History are among my favorite films of the past decade. I’ve done Satantango and Shoah across multiple sittings. I wish Assayas’ Carlos were longer! 

But I also wish I’d been assigned Colin Farrell’s Dead Man Down or Sean Penn’s Dead Man Walking or 50 Cent’s Dead Man Running or Tom Everett Scott’s Dead Man on Campus. But plain old Dead Man has always been waiting for me, fated, at the end of the line for this stupid fucking white (elephant) man.

By not liking Dead Man, I find myself in all sorts of awful positions, like agreeing with Roger Ebert’s dismissal instead of throwing roses at its feet like many critics I respect. I'm heating my takes like an Amazon Movie Reviewer instead of a serious cineaste. I cannot find a friend who dislikes it and I've grown to believe that the movie is like a Magic Eye autostereogram that remains stubbornly 2-D for me alone. 

J. Hoberman wrote, “This is the Western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make,” more praise that chilled me to the core. Jarmusch himself is quoted as “not liking” Westerns. You don’t say! The director might as well superimpose his arched white eyebrows onto every frame of the film. I read a couple compare and contrast pieces tying Dead Man to The Wild Bunch, which made me all the bitterer that my fellow white elephanter did not write down that other off-the-top-of-my-head-cult-Western that treats gun violence in an opposite (that is to say, entertaining) manner.  

To watch Dead Man I sat as straight as I could in a kitchen chair—the futon was too risky, no matter how assiduously I'd caffeinated. Perhaps I ought to have burned cigarettes between my fingers all evening like a long haul truck driver..

At any rate, this film, Dead Man, which mocks attempts at introduction. Ohioan Bill Blake (Johnny Depp, who was doing that placid/reactive shtick long before Pirates) is heading West in an awful suit and no great hurry. He is or is not an unwitting reincarnation of William Blake, the poet and painter and Romantic and alleged early adopter of the free love moment and writer of that one poem you might have read about “The Tyger.” 

The arch opening sequence has Blake falling in and out of sleep on the train from the Erie to a town with the not-at-all-on-the-nose name of Machine. Jarmusch gives a full fadeout each time Depp nods off in his seat, as if the camera is closing its eyes too. And, every time he wakes up, there is an establishing cut to the gears of the train that, in a television serial, might increase excitement but here only roused my first tetchiness with the director’s methods.

Blake is on the rails for many days or, if you go by the growth of his beard, no time at all. Because this is a scare quotes Western and because it is aggressively slow-paced, Jarmusch helpfully punctuates most sequences with gunshots to help keep you awake. I tripped over them like the multiple snooze buttons on my alarm clock. The first fusillade is from men massacring buffaloes out the window of the train and these offhand gunshots go on throughout the film, every ten minutes or so.

I want to praise Crispin Glover, the soot-faced train fireman who accosts Blake with the one quote I take from the film: “Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?”

The rest of the supporting cast in the film is mostly familiar faces with longer hair than usual: Billy Bob Thornton’s like barn hay, John Hurt’s appropriately lank, Gabriel Byrne’s in dignified waves, Iggy Pop’s hanging under a bonnet, etc. But none of these cameos satisfy as much as Bill Murray riffing with GZA and RZA in Coffee and Cigarettes. I mean, I also really enjoy Michael Madsen’s performance in the “Black Widow” video but I don’t require an entire film of such ham sandwiches.

Allow me to get even fussier: I hate Robert Mitchum’s presence in Dead Man. He plays the Machine factory magnate who tells Blake that he won’t be getting the position in the accounting department hed been promised. His chewy scene with Depp is the ultimate degradation of beef-it’s-what’s-for-dinner era Mitchum, who looks much the worse for wear (as they say, your jowls never stop growing as you age). He spouts sub-Louis L’Amour clunkers like “The only job you’re goin’ to get is pushing up daisies from a pine box,” and parodies the indelible glower of his youth.  


Mitchum is one of the best and most important actors in film history. It is simply unacceptable to depict him before an ironic oil portrait of himself with a cigar and a shotgun to bring him down to size. If an artistically irrelevant figure like, say, Johnny Depp wants to appear in a film standing next to an ironic oil portrait of himself, he can do so. But I repeat: Robert Mitchum should not be brought down to size by Jarmusch or anyone else. 

And there are so many more slow minutes after the Mitchum sequence left me so embittered! Mostly it’s Depp getting shot in the chest (very gently) and meeting his traveling companion for the duration of the film: a man called Exaybachay/“He Who Talks Loud But Says Nothing”/Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody is full of droll lines like, “stupid fucking white man,” which are accurate if not terribly creative (Blake is out there in the forest spooning fawns, after all). Watching their sequences is like watching all the interminable two-characters-walking-together-through-the-woods scenes from a whole season of Game of Thrones at once, without the benefit of interruption by roaring dragons or upmarket whores.

They are playing a long game of who said it: William Blake or a Native American sage? It’s sort of fun but not the same thing as good writing. “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow,” could be Blake or a Blackfoot or could be an aimless non sequitur.

Another sonic irritant is the jagged soundtrack provided by Neil Young, his electric guitar and his electric guitar’s reverb. His riffs are incomplete thoughts, random ten-second bursts I Chinged into two hours of film (when put all together, the theme is rather good). 

In defense of Jarmusch, I think the main problem with the dialogue could be William Blake, dead poet. My second punishment, after the film, was reading this guy afterward.

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 Endless Night.

Digital commons provide thousands of lines of Blake that oscillate between nursery rhyme claptrap and fortune cookie hoo-ha. I read from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and got as far as I could before I was too discouraged to continue. “The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white. / Exuberance is Beauty. / If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.” Right then. If “Auguries of Innocence” is any indication, Blake might be a most excellent writer AND illustrator of Hallmark bereavement cards. “Joy and woe are woven fine, / A clothing for the soul divine. / Under every grief and pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.”

But back to the film (I must constantly guard against calling it Deadpan). More horseback riding, more crispy Robby Müller cinematography, more tedium—there is no threat that Blake will be caught by the bounty hunters sent after him. He cannot die until he reaches the sea. At some point he gets face paint and a way cooler coat...passes some totem poles...I swear I was awake the whole time...

When they arrive at last at the inky, Styxian body of water, Nobody says, “I prepared your canoe with cedar boughs” and, after that one nice shot of his arm dripping blood into the water, Blake floats off into eternity under one more staccato burst of gunfire and jangling guitar. I think I’m supposed to feel whoa that’s deep man but instead I want to have Jarmusch to tell me something I don’t already know.

I’m a dead man. That’s why I spend as much time as I can on writing, because my end is as certain as William Blake’s—the bullet is in my chest already. I just want to die having read better poetry and seen better films than this one. I only wish is that, after the film ended and I finally slept, I had kept better track of my dream world, its mood and pictures, taking note of whether the landscape moved while I laid still.