Dead Man, Dead Criticism

by Ralph Dumain

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Dead Man. London: BFI Publishing, 2000. [British Film Institute] (BFI Modern Classics) 96 pp.

Chapter 1: Jim Jarmusch as American Independent, Dead Man as Deal-breaker
               2: The Story
               3: On Tobacco
               4: On Violence
               5: On Music
               6: On the Acid Western
               7: Frontier Poetry
               8: Closure
Appendix: Aside on Authorship and Methods of Composition

Chapter 1: There is a difference of opinion as to when the Western ends and the post-Western begins in American cinema. Dead Man has a mixed and puzzled reception among U.S. audiences and critics. One critic thought it was too familiar, an anti-Western along the lines of Little Big Man. Roger Ebert gave it the thumbs down and confessed to being clueless as to Jarmusch's purpose. Rosenbaum himself was friends with Jarmusch but was critical of his earlier films, seeing little in them beyond irony. Dead Man broke with the earlier films. Its influence can be seen in Ghost Dog, Jarmusch's next film.

Jarmusch's early films and celebrated career as an independent filmmaker are summarized. Miramax made Jarmusch cut down this film following the Cannes premiere, but had no control over the 14 minutes worth of cuts he made. This is contrasted to Tarantino's servitude. Jarmusch blamed Miramax for lax publicity. The press is largely subservient to the industry.

Though he initially liked the film, Rosenbaum really didn't get it until exposed to several viewings. This film was not all the rage as Jarmusch's previous films were, so it took Rosenbaum a while to get an assignment to interview Jarmusch. Rosenbaum claimed that this film redefined Jarmusch's image and his audience, and that American audiences were especially sensitive to the content.

More precisely, I would define the political and ideological singularity of Dead Man in two ways: that it is the first Western made by a white filmmaker that assumes as well as addresses Native American spectators, and that it offers one of the ugliest portrayals of white American capitalism to be found in American movies. On the surface, the former distinction may appear to be a modest or incidental difference, but I believe it to be a profound and far-reaching one that affects practically everything else one might say about the film, morally and politically as well as historically. For the same reason, I regard it as both the linchpin of this study and what makes it, along with its portrayal of capitalism, a conclusive “deal-breaker” for a certain number of white viewers, even though many of them may be completely unaware of this fact and despite the fact that I'm speaking more of existential intent than of anything else. [p. 18]

I don't know what white viewers are thinking. Maybe there is something to this, but I find Rosenbaum's concerns completely extraneous to my own.

Rosenbaum is very much preoccupied with the genocide of the Indians, and with the appropriateness of Johnny Depp to play the lead character. Both Rosenbaum and Jarmusch make a big deal out of getting as many Native American viewers as possible. [p. 22] Apparently Native American audiences loved the film. Critic Tag Gallagher praised the film as a white film that attempted to assume an Indian's point of view. Rosenbaum doesn't agree that the film tries to do this. For him though there is an ethical question implied here. Native American critics praised the film. Jarmusch makes a point to Rosenbaum that he didn't want the Native American languages subtitled. Jarmusch also took great pains to get the translations. Ward Churchill is as critical of the anti-Westerns as he is of the traditional Westerns, but he praises this film as the best of the lot. Jacqueline Kilpatrick also has high praise for the film as realistic and non-stereotypical.

This is all a big issue for Rosenbaum, but I think it is a load of artificial, politically correct crap, betraying the ever-ready gullibility of the networked intellectual under a veneer of sophistication. Moreover, I accord no more credence to Native American intellectuals than to Caucasian American ones. (I recall hearing a few years back on Pacifica radio a talk given by a fellow I remember from my time in Buffalo—John Mohawk—on postmodernism for Native Americans, and I fell down laughing.) I suspect the naive spectator—perhaps even an Amerindian one—responds quite differently from what interests the intellectuals. And, whatever Jarmusch's stated intentions, I don't believe this movie carries a message validating authentic indigenous traditions or viewpoints. It does much better than this: it matter-of-factly puts all cultures on an equal footing, thus shifting the issue to the broken world all must inhabit.

Chapter 2: Rosenbaum sees this as Jarmusch's first political film and darker than his previous films. Jarmusch agrees it is darker. It is about two disoriented loners from two different cultures. It is also about guns, violence, American history, spirituality, Blake, poetry, and more. [p. 32]

Tobacco is the basis of a running gag in the film. Whenever Blake is offered tobacco—an Indian ritual—he always responds that he doesn't smoke, punning on our attitude towards smoking as compared to the Indians'. Blake never catches on to this or to anything else. Rosenbaum thinks that Blake earns Nobody the Indian's appellation “stupid fucking white man.” [pp. 35-36] I don't find this convincing, however. Nobody is utterly confused himself.

There is no romanticization of violence in this film. Killing is ugly and death is awkward and embarrassing. By contrast, the killing in Ghost Dog is skillful and aestheticized. [p. 39] However, Rosenbaum thinks that the curshing of the head of a dead marshall is an “image of astonishing, shocking beauty.” [p. 40] Rosenbaum reconciles the discrepancies in terms of the “gratuitous violence of white men.”

The bottom line of both Dead Man and Ghost Dog is that violence is an omnipresent fact in both American life and culture; how ugly or beautiful, meaningless, or meaningful it happens to be in separate instances is mainly a matter of what tradition it aligns itself with—an issue of style as well as content. [p. 41]

Only a stupid fucking white man could write tripe like this.

Aestheticized violence = fascism, which is why the cross-cultural (feudal Japanese samurai ethic cum Italian-American Mafia and African-American ghetto), New Age inspired, ritualistic murder saga Ghost Dog is a morally corrupt, ideologically bankrupt piece of shit that only a stupid fucking white man could make. In this respect Jarmusch is just another Tarantino.

Chapter 5 deals with the aesthetics of the film: rhythm, fade-outs, Neil Young's musical contribution, the allusions in the names of characters.

In another interview segment (chapter 6) Jarmusch explains himself further. He wanted to get away from stereotyping Indians, including the stereotype of nobility. There are precedents for Nobody in that natives were taken to Europe and returned home, only to be killed by their own tribes. This is the first fiction film to feature the indigenous culture of the Pacific Northwest. [pp. 47-48] He went to a great deal of trouble to make the Makah village authentic.

Jarmusch sees this film as the realization of a countercultural fantasy. He gives a history of what he calls the acid Western, revisionist and hallucinogenic. [pp. 49-51] Usually the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement, but here it is the reverse, a journey towards death. Society becomes nightmarish.

Rosenbaum worries about some scene with trappers as homophobic and concludes that's it's not—more politically correct crapola. [p. 52]

Rosenbaum interprets the acid Western as “the replacement of capitalism with alternative models of social exchange proposed by the counter-culture that took root during the 60s”, with nostalgic overtones. He compares this with other visions, e.g. Robert Crumb's, and finds Jarmusch more '60s regardless of his age or when the film was made. [pp. 54-55]

Gregg Rickman propose a taxonomy applicable to Dead Man as compared to other Westerns: the comic Western, the ironic Western, and the Western under erasure. Naturally, this last variation, inspired by Heidegger and Derrida, becomes the preferred model. [pp. 55-56] Useless hype.

Concretely, 'under erasure' appears to pertain to the persistence of rejected conventions. The final shootouts in both Dead Man and Ghost Dog are seen as unsatisfactory versions of the usual theme. Nobody, the richest character is the film, is killed off perfunctorily as if he is just another minor character. Blake remains the star, as the “lone hero receding into the distance”, though in this case dying in a rowboat. [pp. 57-58]

In response to the charge that Jarmusch is too preoccupied with lowlifes, Jarmusch responds that he saw workers in Rome discussing poetry and that garbagemen in Paris love painting, but if you mention the word poetry in a bar in Wyoming, “you get a gun stuck up your ass.” [p. 63]

Dead Man could be considered more a poetic than a narrative film, uniting literature and cinema in a fashion not customary in the USA. Jarmusch works better with episodes than extended narrative. Jarmusch studied poetry at Columbia. [pp. 64-65] (There are some comparisons with William Blake and William Burroughs. [pp. 66-67])

Rosenbaum finds the image of Blake the accountant cuddling with a dead fawn beautiful and is impressed by Blake painting the fawn's blood on his face.The poet Blake's identity merges with the accountant's, as Blake's poetry merges with Native American folklore. [pp. 67-68]

A scene from the original script, cut from the film, is published (pp. 71-73) and discussed with Jarmusch. Jarmusch recounts how William Blake the poet entered into his scenario. Jarmusch took a break from reading books by Indians and took up reading Blake's Proverbs of Hell. [p. 75] He found several passages that seemed very Native American to him.

However, while Jarmusch confirms some Blake allusions in his film, there are other possible allusions that Jarmusch definitely did not intend. Nobody does not come from Blake's Nobodaddy, for example. [pp. 75-76]

Rosenbaum understates the situation when he writes, “it shouldn't be assumed that Jarmusch's use of Blake's poetry in Dead Man is informed by any consistent sort of literary scholarship.” [p. 76] It is pretty obvious from this account that Jarmusch's thinking was pretty haphazard, but Rosenbaum shows no interest in pursuing this question. Rosenbaum, in spite of his pseudo-intellectual pretensions and insiderist cinematic cultural capital, consistently shows himself to be intellectually vacuous and clueless and worst of all uncritical, a stupid fucking white intellectual, far less intelligent than Jarmusch and hence hardly fit to call himself a critic.

Rosenbaum, quoting Leslie Fiedler, shows how Dead Man falls into the literary pattern of Caucasian-nonwhite male bonding. Rosenbaum is also obsessed by homoerotic undertones.

Jarmusch concludes chapter 7 with this passage [p. 80]:

The process by which Blake the poet of the late eighteenth century is made to speak for another tribe a century later also enables him to become a shaman for us an yet another century after the action of Dead Man: radically decontextualised and then just as radically recontextualised, the words of a great writer continue to speak after traversing continents as well as several lifetimes, reappearing as the English translation of an otherwise lost language, an ignored and forgotten tongue. As Jarmusch sees it, that may be the only way that some kinds of literature can survive in the present by finding a new kind of use value.

What indescribably pretentious poppycock! This constitutes a complete suppression of the meaning of Blake's poetry and thus of the question of its congruence with the film in which it is incorporated.

The appendix, though, contains some useful information.

Please compare Rosenbaum's commentary on the film to my content analysis and see for yourself who has real insight and who does not. This waste of paper and money epitemizes the parasitic and diversionary nature of institutionalized film criticism, and its relationship to popular consumption of films, serious ones as well as the Hollywood crap most people see most of the time. The peculiar combination of sophistication and irresponsible cluelessness pervades the entire culture, in all departments, on all levels, highbrow or lowbrow. The institutionalization of interpretation and criticism means neurotic obsession and dependence on the internalized norms and containment strategies of one's chosen provincial milieu. The need is to always pretend to be aware while perpetually distracting oneself and others from the possibility of ever becoming so, always skirting the essentials and avoiding a coherent structuring of one's thinking emanating from a firm grasp of the fundamentals of any perceived situation. To be a professional critic is always to be diversionary and inauthentic, and real criticism can only come about by getting the credentialed critics out of the way.

22-23 January 2003, 24 February 2003
©2003 Ralph Dumain

Dead Man’, A Film by Jim Jarmusch: Running Commentary 15 April 1997 - 30 June 1997

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