Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man Talking
"Hey, speaking of Lee Marvin," Jim Jarmusch starts to recollect, then pauses, his voice so graveyard-deep and seemingly Chesterfield-aged it sounds like bygone times, when men were made of calluses and sunburn and you could smell 'em coming. I watch his hands, waiting for him to draw, but the silver-haired stranger never reaches for what you assume would be the inevitable cigarette.More laconic legend than mere mortal -- this being the man who way back when swung through the creaky saloon doors with a film named Stranger than Paradise and turned the ghost town called Indie Film into a going concern -- Jim Jarmusch watches back, eyes cinched in the thousand-yard stare of the much interviewed man. We've been talking for the last half hour or so about his latest endeavor, the woozy, mind-wideningly allegorical western called Dead Man. It's been an illuminating chat: a kind of trailside semiosis, with Jarmusch acting as trusty scout, reading a few of the tracks and droppings left along the path traveled by the film's hero, an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake (played by a bloodied, bewildered, and slowly expiring Johnny Depp) who heads west to find his destiny.But all the while Jarmusch has seemed somehow elsewhere, down deep within himself perhaps, following some smoky coil of personal memory that's as warm and savory as a hickory wind. When the talk at last turns to Lees -- bourbon-tongued crooner Lee Hazlewood at first, then the mighty Marvin -- a window seems to open and the room floods with the scent of leather and a sense of release. In his robust, Ohio-toned voice the director grins and announces with pride: "I got to try on Lee Marvin's boots.""We were down in L.A. going through some wardrobe stuff," he explains, happy as a miner with a pan of nugget-filled silt, "and my costume designer called me over and said, 'Hey, take a look: these are Lee Marvin's boots from Cat Ballou.' Now, I wear like a size 10 1/2, 11, but Lee's boots were way too big for me. I wore 'em around for a few minutes anyway and man, did it make me feel like, 'Hey, I got Lee Marvin's boots on -- don't fuck with me!'"He's not exactly beaming (is he ever?), but it's clear that just recollecting that Marvin moment has stirred the fire pit of Jarmusch's soul. At last he reaches for a lonesome cigarette.Ride the high country"It is preferable not to travel with a dead man."So wrote the novelist Henri Michaux, somewhere or other, in a context Jarmusch claims to have long forgotten, though he never forgot the quote: now it's Dead Man's opening epigraph. "I'm not quite sure what it even means," Jarmusch fesses up, "but the first time I read it I thought, 'Oh man, that's what I want on my tombstone,' because it seems like some kind of joke. And when I was writing the film it just kept coming back to me. It's true, too: it is preferable never to travel with a dead man because it's a big drag. You know, literally -- you've got to drag him along."It's also true that Blake's epic journey, set in the proto- industrial epoch of the 1870s, is, well, quite an undertaking. Fresh from his parents' funeral, young William -- who from all indications is oblivious to the visionary fervor and next-world insights of his 18th-century namesake -- spends his last dollar on train fare across the country to a town called Machine, where he's been offered a job at the Dickinson Metalworks. "Machine?" whines the mystery train's soot-faced engineer (a typically bent Crispin Glover, who lends the film the first of its cavalcade of curious cameos). "That's the end of the line!" On cue, the train's passengers -- a motley band of buckskinned trappers -- throw open their windows and begin to blast away at a herd of passing buffalo, and city boy Blake (dandied up like a frontier-style Little Lord Fauntleroy) dives under his seat.The town of Machine is a vision of Fritz Langian (if not David Lynchian) moral decay where hogs nose through mud-thickened streets, miscreants force oral pleasures from women at gunpoint, and overlord Dickinson (a flaxen-maned Robert Mitchum, re-upping his hypermacho patriarch of Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill) runs his metalworks with a foot-long stogie and a loaded shotgun. And it proves to be everything Glover promised: no job, no hope, no future. Still, as an innocent drawn to innocence, young Blake soon finds himself in the arms of the comely ex-bar-girl Thel, and just as quickly in her ex-lover's (a grim Gabriel Byrne) line of fire. Shots are exchanged, Thel and her ex (who turns out to be Dickinson's son) expire, and Blake flees town with a memory of his brief encounter lodged next to his heart in the form of a slug of still-cooling lead.While Dickinson calls out the hired killers (among them an endlessly blathering Michael Wincott and a flesh-hungry Lance Henriksen) to avenge his son's death (and more importantly, to retrieve the prize pinto that Blake rode off on), Blake wakes up in the company of a new friend: a gigantic Native American (played by the terrific Gary Farmer of 1988's fondly remembered Powwow Highway) who's busily working his equally gigantic knife ever-so-delicately into Blake's heart wound. ("I was given the name He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing, but I prefer the name Nobody," the Indian says, hailing Sergio Leone admirers everywhere.) No sooner has Nobody offered Blake his sincerest concerns and warmest terms of endearment -- "stupid fucking white man," he spits -- than he recognizes the Blake that Blake himself cannot see: the lost soul of a visionary poet who must be safely guided back to the spirit world.Druggy and mood-driven, Dead Man is Jarmusch's virgin passage into genre filmmaking and away from urban clutter and downtown drollery -- not to mention his darkest journey into the loss of human control -- and it's by far his chanciest piece of filmmaking. For viewers long acclimated to the Akron native's ironic and largely language-based lunacy, the film's blood-soaked vision quest through forests of paint-white trees and riversides strewn with burning wagons and arrow-felled settlers will be something of a shock. Stick with it. A quasipsychedelic voyage led by the peyote-fueled Nobody, written in the pistol-poetry of Blake's ever-more-active gun, and evocatively scored to the now-roaring-like-a-bear-cub-in- a-rusty-trap, now-tinkling-like-Bambi's-tears strains of Neil Young's plaintive, postneoprimitive guitar, Dead Man is one of this film year's richest offerings so far.Odd of the West"I'm not a big fan of the genre," Jarmusch says, almost as if wondering to himself why he drifted toward the western. "But I like the periphery of the genre, the oddball westerns -- like Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious -- which almost seem Brechtian. And I do like the post-acid westerns, like Greaser's Palace and Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, and Peckinpah and the stuff that Rudy Wurlitzer wrote. But I'm not much of a John Ford fan. Well, I mean as a filmmaker I am -- the way he crafts his stories is amazing -- but I really have an aversion to that reinforcement of moral codes in Ford. I guess part of it has to do with John Wayne, and the way Ford idealizes rather than humanizes him.""But Dead Man is only kind of a western," Jarmusch maintains, "because Blake's such a passive character. He starts out as this blank piece of paper, and pretty soon everyone's trying to scrawl graffiti all over him. That's what's going on when Mitchum's saying, 'He's an outlaw, he's a killer, he's a scum.' And then Nobody does the same thing by telling him not only are you a killer of white men, you're the dead poet William Blake. Everyone's sort of writing and projecting things onto him."When confronted with the suggestion that this may be his least language-based film -- unlike, for example, Down by Law, in which the difference between looking "at the window" and looking "out the window" turns an adverbial dilemma into a richly screwball digression -- Jarmusch admits that writing Dead Man made for some "tricky" readjustments of his writing style."Even though it's a period film, I didn't want the characters to talk in a 'ye olde' kind of way, so I didn't have the same freedom to use slang and misunderstanding as in the past. But on another level it's a lot about language. Like when Nobody quotes William Blake's line, 'The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow.' You're dealing with a line that was written by an English visionary poet, and yet it sounds very Native American. And there are four native languages spoken at various places in the film without ever being translated, and some of that dialogue -- especially the stuff involving Nobody's girlfriend -- is very funny, especially if you speak Cree. It's a little gift for people in the audience who do understand Cree, and for everyone else -- well, they're in the position of Bill Blake, who doesn't know what the hell they're saying and thinks everything is just more 'Indian malarky' -- which is a line that Johnny [Depp] contributed.""And I managed to get a few little things in there around the edges to make myself happy," Jarmusch grins with renewed glee, "like sticking Lee Hazlewood's name on a wanted poster, and having Nobody's other name refer to my favorite James Brown song, 'Talking Loud and Saying Nothing.' Even some of the dialogue holds special meanings for me, like when Lance Henriksen looks down at that dead marshal and says, 'Looks like a goddamned religious icon' right before he crushes his skull. Something about the contradictions of that moment -- the 'goddamned' religious icon and then that over-the-top Evil Dead skull crush -- it always reminds me of Sam Fuller."When I admit that Henriksen's cannibalistic killer, Cole Wilson, is one of my favorite touches in the film the talk turns for a moment to the opportunities the western offers for myth-making. "I decided I'd make Wilson this notorious figure, and I really enjoyed having the other characters in the film speculate on all the extremes he'd gone to in his career, like whether or not the legend that he'd fucked his parents was true," Jarmusch says."I really love the way people get legendary and encrusted with these myths -- stuff that may not have happened at all, including the slaughter of children in Nazareth by Pontius Pilate," he says, winding the conversation down and wrapping it all up with a final throaty Cecil B. De Mille chortle. "That's probably something somebody just took from the story of Moses and just said 'Well, we got big box office out of Moses, let's just stick it in here and see how it goes.' "