Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A few years ago, when I was the curator of the Magic Lantern film program at the Frye Art Museum, the Frye hosted a traveling exhibit devoted to “The Old, Weird America.” The title came from Greil Marcus’s book about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but the exhibit expanded to include ideas about a certain character of folk America. Along with a lecture I gave about the Westerns of the 1960s and 70s, we showed Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), which fit into the overall theme.
With Jarmusch’s films revived this month at the Grand Illusion Cinema (Dead Man plays Nov. 16-21), I thought I would print my introduction to the film. As you will see, the words are an attempt to frame Dead Man in a tradition—a way of seeing the conventions of the Western through the eyes of a New, Weird generation. The same kind of framing, coincidentally, also happens in the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, by Jarmusch’s contemporaries the Coen brothers (opening Nov. 16). Here’s the talk:
This film presentation today is inspired by the Frye’s Old Weird America exhibition, and matches up in a variety of apt ways; for one thing, Dead Man is a film that has been passionately extolled by the critic Greil Marcus, who called it “The best movie of the dog days of the 20th century,” and of course it was Greil Marcus who coined the phrase that gives the exhibition its title, The Old Weird America. If the spirit of the exhibition rests in a generation or so of younger artists grappling with the folk culture of those old, weird ways, then I think we can include Jim Jarmusch, the writer-director of Dead Man, in that group—a distinctly postmodern artist, born in Akron, Ohio, in 1953, who looks at the Old Weird America with puzzlement, skepticism, perhaps a sense of attraction as well.
Two weeks ago I talked about revisionist Westerns of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and how they grappled with and sometimes demolished the mythology of the American West. Dead Man is Jarmusch’s hypnotic Western for a postmodern age, a movie that is self-conscious in the way it plays with old Western movie traditions but that also mixes in a heady blend of other sources: Native American ideas, hints of Eastern religious beliefs, and the poetry and mysticism of the great English artist William Blake, whose namesake (and possibly reincarnation, or something) is the somewhat befuddled protagonist of this film, played by Johnny Depp in one of his typically inventive performances.
If you boiled the movie down to its plot, it could be mistaken for a typical Western: a man ventures from Cleveland to the Wild West, and through a series of violent occurrences and misunderstandings, becomes involved in a manhunt involving hired gunslingers and an Indian guide. It could serve as the template for a conventional Western, but Jim Jarmusch has no interest in making a conventional Western and in part is borrowing this durable structure in order to overturn and question it.
But even as a revisionist Western, Jarmusch makes Dead Man unpredictable. He may be saying something about the way the Industrial Age was already befouling the supposedly virgin West, and he may be criticizing the Old World’s tendency to separate things into distinct categories, such as Body and Spirit, or Life and Death (categorization which the poet William Blake objected to greatly and laid at the feet of the Bible and other sacred codes, and which this movie, in the voice of its spirit guide, a Native American named Nobody, played by Gary Farmer, renounces). But they don’t explain the movie’s wild humor, or its sudden unexpected violence, or the odd music by Neil Young, another keen interpreter of the Old Weird America, or the sheer visual black-and-white beauty of it (cinematography by Robby Müller). It’s also necessary that Dead Man be as slow and contemplative, almost Zen at times, as it is; without its deliberate pace drawing you into its philosophies, it would merely be a lecture.
What is the movie about? The title cues us; we might be watching a film about a man who is already dead, or on his final journey anyway; or the movie might exist to force us to reflect, as we sit here in the theater looking at the screen, that like Bill Blake from Cleveland we are also on that journey, and that perhaps this illustrated rehearsal for that ultimate trip is Jarmusch’s way of suggesting the process is more organic, natural, and peaceful than our old weird ways of thinking have led us to believe.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.