Recently our friend Jean took a trip to China, returning with a bagful of boxed sets of films – Hitchcock, Herzog, Fellini and others, including Jim Jarmusch. For 120 DVDs (nice ones so far) he paid around $1 each. Setting up a little projection room in our bedroom, we’ve begun to look at some films and I’ll probably try to do some catching up on such over the winter break here. Decided to try Jarmusch, having heard some of his films I never saw were really good. I approached with a skeptical mind since so far have disliked his films precisely for the qualities others seem to love them: their self-conscious “hipness” and supposed “humor.” I find the alleged deadpan is more an arch stupidity, and hipness is something I have always loathed. So liking Jarmusch was likely going to be a very uphill slog.
Deadman, much lauded by critics (including some friends of mine), is in my book, DOA. As usual with Jarmusch, we have a mix of hip (do they wish) actors and pop singers, old one’s being paid homage, each acting in wildly differing modes seemingly determined by how seriously they do or don’t take their roles and lines. And as usual Wenderesque stabs at philosophical profundity are dropped like happy little turds littering the filmscape. Film critics being what they are, eagerly lap these up as signifiers of something deep lurking inside the celluloid shadows flying by.
Hence with a dazzly lacquer of borrowed meaning slapped over the vapidity within, Jarmusch imagines to appropriate Blake’s vision by aping his words, and having them delivered in dollops as dull-witted jokes or didactic set-pieces, or here and there recited directly by his certified hipster cast. Cool. His mise-en-scene zig zags from sit-com setups derived from his apparently beloved Honeymooners, to artsy tracking and lifting over-head shots à la Brothers Coen (and many others – it’s just how these shots are set up that stick them into rarified self-conscious artiness). In the opening passages homage is made to a stable full of standard western (movie) cliches – pumping steam engines, Shiprock NM, glorious western landscapes, and a melange of standardized “western” characters decked out in much-considered costume department flamboyance. Depp, playing a somewhat nerdy accountant from Cleveland, one Bill Blake – apparently a Jarmusch surrogate – is on a voyage further than expected, an odyssey to death. Forsaking any semblance to realism, but then wanting a touch of it too, Jarmusch concocts a tourist’s dream geography trip, with historical zingers zipped in to underline his (now rather shopworn) revisionist “western history,” so the passengers on his history-train leap to the windows, guns apoppin’, slaughtering unseen buffalo, glide by a decimated burnt out forest, abandoned teepees, and other bleak images recorded by Robbie Mueller in dense black and white.
On debarking in the town of Machine (perhaps the Black Hills Deadwood area), the name of which thuds with deep meaning, our hero enters a version of 19th century industrial hell populated with characters and actions straight out of a sit-com. Of course, being in a Jarmusch film they do their stupid jokes flat, the famous “deadpan.” Or they try to – some of it is too inane to suffer straight so the likes of John Hurt look leeringly out from the characters as if they are wondering how they let themselves get suckered into such drivel.
Being a western, naturally a prostitute comes quickly into play, wherein her ex-beau, Charlie, son of the factory owner Dickinson, played by a doddering Robert Mitchum on his last legs, arrives at a moment of seeming enflagrantism with our guy Billy, pulls out his six-shooter and Depp is wounded in JFK magic-bullet fashion, as his new gal takes the bullet for him. He manages to pop off a shot and kills Charlie and escapes, stealing a pinto, which as it happens belongs to Mitchum who hires 3 famed wild-west gunmen to track down Blake and git his hoss back. This avalanche of plot contrivance is accompanied with an equal flush of lame jokes, mostly “in”, which Mr Jarmusch evidently thinks wit.
And then things get serious: awakening from his stupor, Blake finds an Indian (we can tell by the extravagant feather head-dress), Nobody, fingering his wound, who ponderously announces he can’t get the bullet out, and young Bill is in for a journey to the other side. Here and there the film grinds to a halt for explicatory passages explaining Nobody’s curious history and the reason why he knows the poetry of William Blake, with whom he imagines Mr Blake to be the reincarnation thereof, though Bill doesn’t know Blake from shinola. Off on our mystic journey, Nobody periodically mutters and blubbers would-be profundities extracted from Indian lore, or William Blake, the English mystic, and other Indians are met while traversing the tribal landscapes westward enroute to the Pacific Northwest. I read that in one part some linguistic in-joking is made for those-in-the-know in Creek and Sioux. Mr Jarmusch evidently finds such things clever, and critics mistake it for wisdom. While purportedly deeply researched about American Indian matters, their materialization in the film compose a mish-mash of, well, ethnologic stupidity. “Well, whaddya want in a fucking sit-com, dumb white man,” as Ralph Cramden might have blurted.
On the trek westward Bill Blake and his shaman boyfriend are tailed by the 3 heavies, who, being heavies, eliminate one another until down to one, last found gnawing on anothers hand, who conveniently shows up in the last scene wherein Bill, zonked out and hallucinating in a passage through an Indian village (multiple layers of imagery!!!!) has been put off to his end in the Pacific, Nobody waving him off Indian-style, as our gunslinger materializes and shoots Nobody and is shot as old Willy Blake is put, literally, out to sea.
While sometimes elegantly shot by Mueller, this film clangs against itself, a mess of directorial confusion, everything seemingly thought out, but badly so. In interviews Jarmusch gives an impression of intelligence, but it never shows up here. Instead there is showiness, an insider’s self-absorbed cleverness and, of course, all that ever-so-hip we-know-so-much-more-than-you attitude. Episodic, fractured by idiot sit-com setups and dialog, distracted with homages to lame westerns and now-dead actors, and self-conscious to a massive fault, Deadman limps along, hobbled by its own intricate smartiness and failing to generate one iota of its wished for poetry. If it were not for Neil Young’s minimalist electric-guitar sound track moving things along, I don’t think it would be watchable, even to the cognoscenti who adore our NYC Mr Cool’s every glib in-joke.
Old Willy Blake gets hijacked and abused, (along with the natives) while hip Jim waxes wise to his little audience of wanna-be’s and film critics lost in the miasma of way too much film stuff and not nearly enough of life.
Deadman, says Wikipedia, cost $9 million to make, and grossed $1 million. Tells you something.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Mili Avital, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, John North, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Eugene Byrd, Alfred Molina, Steve Buscemi and Crispin Glover.
Jonathan Rosenbaum waxing “masterpiece” as found on Jarmusch’s own website. A fanboy’s paen. Wikipedia on Jarmusch. Dennis Grunes, detailing the film far better than I, but concluding “this isn’t a great film.”
As can be seen in the above, it is more or less the critic’s (or fanboy’s) duty to explicate and fill out all the stuff that somehow doesn’t materialize on screen. I am utterly simpatico with a hard critique of America’s fraudulent Western self-mythologizing, and yes, I can say lurking inside Jarmusch’s film that is there, but it doesn’t work on screen because cinematically and poetically it is simply MIA. Not because Jarmusch doesn’t intend it, as he most certainly does, but because he is so busy being hip and clever that he forgets that he doesn’t really have a clue outside the crudest of cliches how to attain what he wants through art . All the artsy in-crowd slathering of names and cutesy cinema and literary references doesn’t cover for the failure in orchestrating meaning and form into a coherent dramatic whole. Deadman drags into the sea, and all the critical conundrums in the world can’t breath vitality into something that was never alive to begin with.
In the name of duty, I then watched Ghost Dog, in which Jarmusch appropriates another text hoping its glow will rub off. In the lingo of the west, “It don’t.” Of which more later. In the name of seeing how 3D is, also went to see Avatar, of which, again, more later.
[This note came in from the keeper of The Tarpeian Rock:
I’m writing this email in response to your sentence: “Deadman, says Wikipedia, cost $9 million to make, and grossed $1 million. Tells you something.” I’m not exactly sure what point you’re trying to make with this (certainly not one about popularity related to value, I imagine), but just the same I wanted to shed some light on why the film likely failed to break even or turn a small profit (if you care at all). Harvey Weinstein bought the distribution rights from Jarmusch at Cannes with the plan to recut the film for its American release. Jarmusch — “protected by his contract and his ownership of the film’s negative” — refused. This caused Weinstein to quickly lose interest in the film, resulting in Miramax deciding to not promote it. (DEAD MAN was the first Jarmusch film to not receive even a capsule review in The New Yorker, for example.) All of this info is taken from pages 55-57 of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s MOVIE WARS. You can read the specific pages HERE if you want to know more. (Of slight interest to you perhaps, on page 57: “I should add, Siskel and Ebert went out of their way to support relatively independent efforts such as Jon Jost’s All the Vermeers in New York.” Relatively independent? Unless there is something I don’t know about your films (or Vermeers specifically), it seems utterly absurd for Rosenbaum to use the qualifier “relatively.” …I wonder what his idea of “truly” independent film is?)
To add to this a little further detail, I just note that Ebert reviewed Vermeers because I personally contacted him, reminded him that he’d reviewed – favorably – my first short film, Portrait, way back in 1964, got him to agree to see the film which then got 2 thumbs up on TV. I’m glad he did, but it took a little arm twisting. Regarding Deadman, I seriously doubt even with a good PR campaign it would have made a dime. Ghost Dog, a far more, in a stupid way, accessible film, only did 3 mil in USA, 9 global.]