Innocence and experience materialize in the poetry of William Blake as opposing forces; the former embodied within natural objects, passions and love, whereas the latter, like any good romantic, is found in the blackened corruption spreading across the land, engendering the extreme squalor of England’s industrialization. This kind of violence finds its home in Jim Jarmusch‘s Dead Man, a film not of bodies ambling through the dilapidated urban sprawl, like much of the director’s earlier work, but of violence committed against nature and one another, and of the white Americans of the 19th century carving up a stolen land bereft of color. It should come as no surprise that Jarmusch’s research into Native American culture and texts formed the core of the script; indeed, the care he gives to specifics — such as the languages spoken by the native character of Nobody (Gary Farmer) and the various references made by him to traditions and sayings — gives us the feeling that Jarmusch has crafted a Western which eludes its usual audience, instead converting the optimistic westward travel seen as standard fare to the genre into a melancholic march towards death — one mediated by the poetry of Blake. Dead Man begins with William Blake (Johnny Depp) traveling west to the industrial town of Machine, after having spent the last of his money to do so. There he finds that the job of accountant that he thought awaited him has already been taken, and soon after, he becomes embroiled in a dispute between a jealous boyfriend and his ex-lover, leaving him mortally wounded and on the run. Blake is rescued by the oracular figure of Nobody, an outsider to his tribe, because of his mixed-tribe ancestry and his experiences among the white men, with whom Blake travels to the North-West to prepare for his journey into the spirit world.
Jarmusch avoids contrasting Cole in the reductive fashion that might be suggested when Native Americans are associated with nature in this context; indeed, rather than being synonymous with nature (or the ‘noble innocent’ for that matter), it’s simply that what they are, and what their violence is, doesn’t compare to the abject cruelty seen in moments such as the trader’s offering of a smallpox-ridden blanket — as had happened so many times before.
Visions of desultory violence pervade many scenes, directed by the multitude of white men that fire relentlessly out of train windows to aid in the mass slaughter of buffalo, or to denigrate each other in the sordid swamp of Machine. This sullied land reeks of the ‘experience’ illustrated by Blake’s poetry, a kind of bemusing and senseless violence of which life necessarily makes one cognizant. Thus, the Blake of the film is one of experience, described by Nobody as having transitioned from poet to “killer of white men,” he now can recognize the cruelty of man before progressing into death. At opposing ends of this dichotomy between innocence and experience is Nobody and one of the bounty hunters, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen). Cole is significant as an exemplar of the malicious, almost cartoonish, violence of the many white characters; he goes so far as to cannibalize his fellow bounty hunters. Jarmusch avoids contrasting Cole in the reductive fashion that might be suggested when Native Americans are associated with nature in this context; indeed, rather than being synonymous with nature (or the ‘noble innocent’ for that matter), it’s simply that what they are, and what their violence is, doesn’t compare to the abject cruelty seen in moments such as the trader’s offering of a smallpox-ridden blanket — as had happened so many times before. Whether or not the overt solemnity of Dead Man is successfully deflated by Jarmusch’s dry sense of humor is sure to differ from viewer to viewer, yet there can be little disagreement that the pastoral texture of the film’s photography, and the scratchy reverb of Neil Young’s guitar-centric score, conjure a sense of filmic poetry, one guided by its own rhythmic meandering and subdued sense of inevitability.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.