“Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” – William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell” c. 1793
Many critics and commentators of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, an artfully grim, post-classical “acid western” from 1995, have casually noted its relationship with the work of William Blake (1757-1827), both because the film’s main character, portrayed by Johnny Depp, shares his name with that English poet and printmaker and because some lines of Blake’s verse are recited in the film. The rather nightmarish lyricism of Dead Man seems to embody a kind of Blakean voice in its reconfiguration of moral order, as well as in its anxieties regarding the encroachment of modernity and systems of capitalism. I would like to expand or refine this perspective somewhat by arguing that the film holds more consequential affinities with, to speak more broadly, a nineteenth century voice and a deeply Romanticist sensibility, which may be observed in the film’s status as a kind of non-rational meditation on the death of the American landscape and as a mysterious trip into what might be regarded as a kind of collective or national unconsciousness. The film, which feels more anguished and funereal in some respects than the rest of Jarmusch’s work, synthesizes many of the central concerns of nineteenth century literature, and in some ways can be seen as a troubling footnote to the Romantic tradition and to what it ultimately signifies in culture.
The transition from an orderly, “Augustan” Neo-Classicism to a kind of unbridled Romanticism at the dawn of the nineteenth century can be seen, generally, as a collective shift in aesthetics which tended to gesture away from public rhetoric and toward more personal feeling. This is a movement which sees an increased interest in human imagination and the non-rationality of the mind, in overwhelming emotion and powerful feeling (as opposed to intellectual thought or public discourse), and especially in the terror, beauty and ultimate mysteriousness of the natural world. At first glance, Dead Man appears to be operating within this modus operandi. The film’s overtly hallucinatory or surreal aspects, such as a run-in that Blake (Depp) has with Iggy Pop and a gnarly band of cannibals, or its deliberate blurring of figures in motion at various moments, recall the incoherent and intensely private fantasies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe.
The stark black-and-white photography by Robby Müller enacts a kind of shotgun marriage between archetypal western aesthetics and various incarnations of the gothic. Visually, the film combines an earthy and intense fascination in the American wilderness with more disquieting elements of memento mori – a series of scarred gestures made toward death. If the film can be read narratively as an extended account of one man’s experience dying, then this iconography reminds us that the film also deals with a larger, more collective death, that of the natural landscape and of the moral codes of an earlier epoch at the hands of capital and rising industry. These details lead me to believe that Dead Man is not simply an update on Romantic aesthetics, but a truly post-Romantic work: an exploration of what nineteenth century ideals might look like or mean in a postmodern context.
Although a cursory glance through contemporary reviews of Dead Man yields a considerable variety of interpretative readings (it’s a film that respects its audience enough to allow for a great deal of agency on the part of the viewer), one similar note that appears in much of this literature is the film’s status as a kind of trip or journey. This is a work that deals quite explicitly with what it means to traverse or move through a particular stretch of landscape, and it lingers on the violence (physical, psychic and political) that underlines this act of moving. On a narrative level, this is made evident in the characterization of Blake as a wanted man, a figure on the run from dogs snapping at his heels, and as a person moving toward his own death as the film’s duration progresses forward. But it’s also made clear in the film’s portrait of Nobody (the American indigenous actor Gary Farmer), who acts as a kind of guide and healer of sorts on behalf of Blake during this trip but who is also himself in a kind of limbo given his status as a half-Blood, half-Blackfoot Native American who’s been socially outcast from his tribe.
Jonathan Rosenbaum has discussed the film’s refusal to glamorize or afford any respect to its depiction of violence, or as he puts it, “a refusal to traffic in the stylistic alibis of Hollywood.” I agree with Rosenbaum that these stilted, ugly and very brief scenes seem to linger on a kind of disturbing, psychic debris which feels very far removed from the more slick pyrotechnics of a Tarantino or a Scorsese. Dead Man’s punk ethos and depiction of social misfits on the outskirts of civilization, which ultimately amount to a kind of outlaw elegy of sorts, always remind me of the haunted and sensitive films of the great Hollywood filmmaker Nicholas Ray. Jarmusch himself has compared the self-contained nature of individual scenes here, combined with the distinctive use of fade-outs and ellipses, with that of classical Japanese cinema. Dead Man, though, is finally much more than a list of influences; for all its oneiric singularity as a work of fiction, it’s a film that possesses a great deal of respect for history.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.