Philosophy and genre politics behind the acid western film of Jim Jarmusch

by Anurag Minus Verma

“Nothing is original. There are a limited number of stories to tell. But there is an unlimited number of ways to tell those same stories. I am more interested in forms.“

-Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch’s name is not something which one can be associated with the genre films. Most of his films, made outside the support of the conventional studio system, have a distinct minimalistic indie flavor to it.

His characters are drifters, aimless young people who are constantly on the run. Sometimes characters are just drifting on the streets of the deserted city ( Stranger Than Paradise, Permanent Vacation ), sometimes swimming and running (Down by law), sometimes inside the cab ( Night on Earth ), and in the case of Deadman, they are on a spiritual journey on horses and boat.

Jim Jarmusch is interested in presenting the idea of America through the eyes of strangers or outsiders. He is interested in multiculturalism and the point of view of people who don’t belong to mainstream America. This is in fact the most consistent theme in all the Jarmusch films. In Stranger than Paradise, the lead character (John Lurie) speaks in the Hungarian language. There is an Italian main character in Down by law. Japanese characters in Mystery train. Night on earth consists of people from different nationalities. Here in Deadman, the character of Johnny Depp is an outsider in the city and his accomplice named ‘nobody’ belongs to the native Indian Race.

Dead Man is the film that comes at an important period in Jim Jarmusch’s filmmaking career. After the release of Night on Earth( 1991), Jarmusch took a hiatus of almost five years to make his new film Dead Man.

His earlier films were more about the style and cool nihilism where characters are flowing through strange relaxing boredom of their mundane lives. It won’t be wrong to say that Dead Man is one of the most self-aware films of Jim Jarmusch where he is trying to touch upon the loaded themes of spirituality, life after death, politics, genre revision et al.

Western Genre and Deadman

André Bazin once said, “ The western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself “.

The first narrative film ‘The Great train Robbery’ was the western film. Below is the iconic image of a cowboy pointing a gun towards the audience which has similarities with the poster of the film Dead Man.

Behind every genre, there is a literary source and for westerns, it was cheap dime novels. Dime novel, a type of inexpensive, usually paperback, melodramatic novel of adventure popular in the United States roughly between 1860 and 1915. Directors like John Ford helped in establishing the cinematic syntax of the western genre. But these simple tales of good vs. evil were soon replaced by the uber-cool Spaghetti Westerns- an Italian version of Western.

Spaghetti Westerns mark a very important period in the history of cinema. It emerged after the decline of socially relevant and critically acclaimed movement- Neo-Realism. The vanishing of Neorealism can be attributed to the changing scenario in Postwar Italy. As Landy described in her essay “ It was not that neorealism had vanished due to overexposure or the loss of creativity but, more to the fact that social and political concern had changed “.

It brings us to an important observation that the mood of the nation in a particular period in history is crucial in defining the genre system. The emergence of Noir films in the Post War depression era or Road movies in counter-culture of the ’60s does affirm to the fact that these films represent the value system of a nation at a specific era.

Genres films exist within a certain scope whose vocabulary and elements are already defined. For instance, a comedy or a horror film will have a particular set of attributes that are already known to the audience. Then the question arises why the audience invests their time in the repeated nature of the genre system where they are already aware of what is going to happen in the movie.

In the essay questions of genre, Steve Neale has pointed to Williams definition of Genre: “The repetitive nature of genre production and consumption produces active but indirect audience participation; successful genres are ‘stories the audience has isolated through its collective response ’ Hence genre filmmaking can be examined as ‘a form of collective cultural expression.”

Revisionist films are those which break the myth-making approach of the genre film by bringing in new elements in an existing genre which differ from the typical treatment of the genre.

Deadman belongs to the same category of Revisionist western film that tries to break some of the myth-making notions of a western film.

Poet William Blake and Deadman

Deadman is a story about a man’s journey to spiritual realms. To tell this story Jim Jarmusch has chosen the form of Western Genre which is a bit strange because the element of spirituality might be the last thing to expect from a western film. Also, what’s more interesting here is William Blake’s connection with this western film. As discussed earlier in this essay, the literary sources behind the western film are cheap dime novels but the source behind the Deadman are poets like Henri Michaux and William Blake. These sources also explain the treatment of the film.

Henri Michaux

This is the film where William Blake (Johnny Depp) comes to the town in search of the Job which eventually he didn’t get. By the turn to events, he goes on a spiritual journey with the help of an Indian named ‘Nobody’ (Gary Farmer). The film can be defined as a character’s journey from age of innocence to the age of experience. William Blake has printed two famous volumes of poems titled- Age of innocence and Age of experience. There is a scene where Johnny Depp is with a girl named ‘thel’ (Milli Avital). This is again a reference to William Blake’s book ‘The book of thel ‘, and specifically to the visual representation of the poem ‘the sick rose’. In one scene Thel gifts William Blake( Johnny Depp) a paper rose. Later in the scene, her ex-lover arrives in the room where she is making love with William Blake ( Johnny Depp) and the situation turns ugly. Gunshots are fired from both ends. This scene is Visual representation of this poem by William Blake.

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy?

Road Movies and Westerns

Deadman is termed as revisionist western but there are also elements of Road movie genres. The moment Johnny Depp’s character meets native American and they embark on a new journey the film acts like a Road movie; a genre that is about characters leaving behind their mundane world in search of self-realization.

Deadman in that sense can also be read as a multi-genre film. A film where the syntax of one genre is mixed with the semantics of another.

As Rick Altman wrote “ In addition, a dual approach permits a far more accurate description of the numerous intergeneric connections typically suppressed by single-minded approaches. It is simply not possible to describe Hollywood cinema accurately without the ability to account for numerous films that innovate by combining the syntax of one genre with the semantics of another. “

This leads to a larger question about the generic similarity of Road movies and Western film. Some have argued that Road movies have picked up where Westerns have left. For instance, Easy Rider (1969) is said to be a Western film but with a different value system, where early modes of transportation have been replaced by new inventions like motorcycles. Western films and Road movies explore the landscape and location which help in building a national identity. Monument Valley plays an important location in Easy Rider, the beauty of which is enhanced by montage shots of two young men riding on their super cool bikes.

Monument valley was entered into the cinematic space in John Ford’s westerns. So this particular location has a strong connection to the western film and its images can transport a spectator’s memory back to western films. Easy rider is also not shying away from the fact they are carrying forward the legacy of the western film which is evident in the scene where Protagonists of the film repair their bikes. This shot is cut to the feet of a horse that belongs to cowboys standing nearby dressed in traditional costumes. Needless to say, this scene refers to the relationship between western and road movies.

It is quite clear that it is not merely the genre that Jarmusch is interested in but he is more interested in the scope of a cinematic genre.

In the initial scene of the film many people in the train hunt buffalo with their gun. A man says “ they have killed many of them.“ Slaughtering buffalo is the sign of American imperialism upon the marginalized Indians by killing their source of livelihood.

Some U.S. government officials even promoted the destruction of the bison herds as a way to defeat their Native American enemies, who were resisting the takeover of their lands by white settlers. One Congressman, James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that “it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence.” Soon, military commanders were ordering their troops to kill buffalo — not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food.”

In Deadman, Jim Jarmusch is using this old genre to present a point of view about America.

As he said in one of his interviews “The western as a genre doesn’t interest me,” he further adds “I don’t like John Ford, for instance, because he idealizes his characters and uses westerns to enforce some kind of moral code. It seems as if he’s telling nice American stories, but his films actually reinforce all the worst things about America, and I don’t like that subterfuge“

*All images are taken from the internet. I don’t have any copyright over it.

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