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Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man

posted by Mel on 5/05/01

I was at something of a loss as to which movie I'd come upon to christen the third day of holiday-flavored rankling for this sordid affair. There were several prospects collecting dust on the shelf, but none of them seemed appropriate for my mood: sullen and inexplicably sore, as if I'd been soundly beaten with a pillowcase full of doorknobs while I slept last night.
I've never been one to sit around and lament the horrors of writer's block, so I snagged Exene and hit the half-past-noon showing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the local shit-indie cineplex. The first time I'd caught Ang Lee's martial arts superflick was last week, at the premiere somewhere in the diseased underground of the Topanga suburbs, where I'd been almost alone for the viewing; this time out, there was a line halfway around the block. I wandered the bizarre queue with sis, finally coming to the end before a dilapitated antique store and promptly posing the question: "What the fuck are these people doing here?"

About two hours later, we got our answer. Those people were cluelessly wandering into another hype trap spun nimbly by the crock that is the Los Angeles Critic's Group, who had voted the martial arts epic its top choice for the loser crop of movies that had been pumped out by Big Lens this year. Joe and Jane Block Committee had apparently opened the paper, seen a byline or two, and decided that this had to be the film that the Industry was so happy to recieve their dollars for. Actual participation as audience members is never the trump card for any American not attending Rocky Horror, so here they came: two fucking business brains sitting in front of us, one derelict old human manure heap slumbering noisily two rows back, and one set of happy white parents who apparently thought a foreign action masterpiece would be a good place to spend the afternoon with their two very young kids.

The credits rolled, and I just smiled. The film really is fantastic. Fucking fantastic as a matter of fact, a sleek retooling of the popular Hong Kong fighting angst tradition that has blended human frailty with superhuman fighting sequences and philosophical inquiry into the nature of the soul. Ang Lee places his three generations of female martial arts superstars squarely in the center of the picture, and the turn they provide is more empowerment for women than a century of femme-rock gatherings and overbaked blather about the new design of the Hollywood chick.

To summarize, Michele Yeoh doesn't have to lick a fucking steering wheel to get her point across.

And perhaps that's the problem. Movies where the brain has to get involved--be it tangling with a complex ending sequence or something as simple as subtitles--isn't the forte' for modern moviegoing audiences. Beaten senseless by Hollywood, we all flock to the movies to escape the realities of daily life, only to find them packed in under a giant screen like a cosmic sardine tin: some dumbshit hotshot with his cell phone plastered to his skull, the unaware bastard with his foot on your neck, the screaming kid. We've become so used to films wasting our special time that the cineplex is no longer the sanctuary that it once was. We now treat our cinematic church with the same mindless patriotic aplomb that we do our highways, resturants and city parks. Let someone else clean up the fucking mess, we're AMERICANS, after all.

It'd all be fine, too. Just stay the hell away from the theater or play hookey and catch a matinee. But the popular concept and simpering demand made by your average sweatpig and their painfully short attention span for Tinsel Town to make "better movies" gives the whole situation the comic heft it needs to piss anyone who thinks before they spit off.

You know why you don't get better movies, folks? Because you're too complacent, stupid, and generally satisfied with garbage to bother. It's a thin line between erudite and livestock, and while I'd love to boot every self-impressed "film scholar" who verbally jerks off about "brilliant fare" off the Suicide Bridge in Rose City, I do like to assert some grey matter to the movies I slap my seven to nine bucks down for.

A little foresight. That's all. Maybe if I hold back on dancing off to see The Grinch, I won't have to smear the hell out of its sequel in another two years. Maybe it'll encourage some studio fathead to think twice before throwing us this tripe. Maybe it'll somehow boost the collective consciousness of the American moviegoing public.

Maybe I, as one person trying helplessly to be self-aware in a time that does not reward such, can make a difference in the world.


Anyways, the fact that our snobberish friends in the circle jerk club of local critics were hailing Crouching Tiger as the second coming of the Hong Kong action epic prompted me to consider the nature of the underappreciated homage'-slash-genre-redefinition picture. Just as the aforementioned movie gives the cheesy grandeur of its forefathers a fighting chance with an able director and brilliant stars, so have a few others tread with blockbuster success: Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven breathed new life into a style of cinema believed to have died in the middle of the 1970's, Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead took that edge and serrated it into exploitational delirium, and Jim Jarmusch's little-seen 1995 offering Dead Man infused brains, poetry and sardonic humor into the modern rebirth of the western.

Not Tim Robbins crossed with Billy Bob Thornton

Jarmusch is good Hollywood. An intrepid director and writer whose penchant for effortless cool and ecclectic body of work have made him into the Jim Rose of the Industry--some kind of psychosomatic ringmaster for a canvas freakshow of film oddities--Jarmusch's success is primarily built upon the fact that he's confident enough to do whatever the fuck he wants with a movie. In the modern movie world, where a director can piece together an entire feature then have it edited into an unrecognizable mess by the studio he guns for, Jarmusch trusts his inner weirdness enough to let the strange flow where it will.

Dead Man benefits hugely from Jarmusch's casual brainstem. The story revolves around the arrival of William Blake (Johnny Depp, down for whatever as usual and introducing the nebbish outsider people were confused by in Burton's Sleepy Hollow five years later) upon industrial summons to the frontier town of Machine. Having completely torn his roots up to pursue the position across the country, Blake is promptly pissed on and shown the door by local steel magnate and John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, leathered to perfection) on the premise that the job has already been filled.

Depp with Gary Farmer

Blake winds up drunk and aimless on Machine's streets, eventually coming across hooker-turned-flowersmith Thel (Mili Avital, most notably seen in Stargate). A fellow outsider on the rocks, Thel ends up in the sack with Blake, but neglects to mention her manic depressive beau in the form of Gabriel Byrne's Charlie Ludlow. Before common sense and cooler heads prevail, Charlie's barged in and popped Thel with a colt slug--Blake returns the favor in his drunken stupor, leaving two dead bodies and hitting the fugitive trail with a bullet in his chest. He's picked up in an unconscious fugue by an outcast Blackfoot named Nobody (Gary Farmer, an underappreciated genius in his own right) and mistaken for the poet that shares his name. Eventually, Nobody ends up bringing Blake back to half-life and the pair proceed to carve a path of fatalist realization and black philosophical understanding through the wilds of the untamed America.

Pursued by bounty hunters over the revelation that Ludlow was actually Dickinson's sonny-boy and slowly dying from the bullet lodged in his ribs, Blake transforms from idle sap to nihilistic handgun prophet en route to his final destination. This isn't a plucky buddy comedy or a rowdy pistol-packin' body count flick, as every life taken gets its own sick kind of regard in execution and visual impact. Bullets simply thud and produce streams of monochromatic viscera, bodies collapse and consequences are a reacurring theme. Jarmusch has a great stroke and fine instincts behind the camera, pushing for a brooding flavor when the script needs it and disarming violence with uncomfortable laughs elsewhere.

The other strength of Dead Man is the phenomenal cast. Jarmusch truly knows who his people are, and he packs every role with genre dynamite. Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Crispen Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, John Hurt and Steve Buscemi all swing through long enough to make an impact with whatever scant lines they're given. The only noticible exception is the lack of Christopher Walken's invitation to the party--it should be a testament to the ethereal wicked-niftiness of Dead Man that this is probably the only movie ever made that doesn't suffer from it.

Get your brain in an existentialist gear, grab some sushi from the local supermarket deli and stay in with Jarmusch and company. It's well worth the sinking feeling.


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