30 June 2011

29 June - "Ain't you glad the sun kinda sets. Prepares you like?"

Dead Man (1995)
dir. Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, 2005)

Johnny Depp (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993)
Gary Farmer (Smoke Signals, 1998)
Crispin Glover (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993)
Lance Henriksen (Cyrus, 2010)
Robert Mitchum (Scrooged, 1988)
Iggy Pop (Tank Girl, 1995)
Billy Bob Thornton (Love Actually, 2003)
Alfred Molina (The Da Vinci Code, 2006)
Jared Harris (From Within, 2008)
Gabriel Bryne (Stigmata, 1999)

The hard part, sometimes, is figuring out what's supposed to be symbolic and what's just a detail thrown in to just mess with your head. Dead Man is a movie like that. It begins with a silent and seemingly endless train ride in which the surroundings become more and more alien. Johnny Depp is wearing a very silly looking plaid suit in a caricature of propriety, the dignified man reduced to a fool. He checks his watch as if it matters. The lonesome twanging rhythmless music contributes to the feeling that something is always just about ot happen, but it never does and altogether the frustrated anticipation confirms the suspicion that, yes, this is what Limbo will be like.

A few weeks ago I met Gary Farmer at the Cayuga Picnic on the Share Farm at the northern tip of Lake Cayuga, New York. I was too shy to say hello but someone I was with pushed me up anyway and introduced me- even though Gary Farmer was right in the middle of eating!! I was totally flustered and tried not to say anything at all lest it come out in garbled nonsense syllables (something that happens only in cartoons and in my life). Here's the picture:
And here he is in Dead Man, tending to William Blake's bullet wound.
Gary Farmer's character in Dead Man, Nobody, is on the most basic level an Indian guide. However, in keeping with the bizarre tone of the rest of the film, Nobody is alternatively arcane and vulgar. At times he's bonking a chick in the middle of the woods and scolding William Blake for interrupting "a very romantic moment," and at other times he's reciting poetry and speaking in mysterious allegories. The line I keep going back to is this,

"Things which are alike in nature grow to look alike, and the speaking stones have lain a long time looking at the sun...Some believe they descend with the lightening, but I believe they are on the ground and are projected downward by the bolt."

Because I haven't quite yet figured out what this movie is supposed to mean (And I am determined as Hell to prove that it means something). I keep going back to that line and trying to figure out how it relates to the rest of the story.

The most obvious interpretation of Dead Man is that, like Lost or The Sixth Sense, Dead Man is about a man traveling into the afterlife. I prefer to think that William Blake does not die in the physical sense when he is shot by the factory owner's son, but that Dead Man is about learning to walk with dignity through life that may indeed take you on a path "through endless night."

I've this theory for a while that the recreational abuse of certain mind-altering substances has to do with a cultural mindset that is alienated from the transcendental state. That sounds wordy. I mean that because drugs like tobacco or alcohol or mushrooms or whatever have been traditionally used in ceremonies in order to access powers or spirits or knowledge which exists beyond and above the everyday world. It was controlled, it was mediated, and so maybe people abuse them because they are trying to access that transcendent state but they don't even why or how or the reason. So what happens in Dead Man is that everybody keeps asking William Blake for some tobacco and he keeps saying, No! I don't smoke! And when he finally gets some it's from a MISSIONARY! Don't you see what's happening?

He's trying to find God, but realizing that life nor death nor afterlife is straightforward like a westward train track. God is conflated in culture and nature but these things are as stones on the ground while the spirit ascends like smoke in a twisting cloud. 

So I don't think Dead Man is about death, I think it's navigating life. Nobody is the benevolent, but sometimes absent and confused Spirit of Goodness, and the bounty hunter, Cole is the force of darkness, the black devourer of souls. What Nobody implies by his speech about the speaking stones is that we are delivered upon this earth with a plan, no, nothing about William Blake's plan turned out successfully, but we find ourselves on the earth and what happens next is up to you.

More than anything, I would like to emphasize that this film is very visually striking.

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