Monday, April 23, 2018

Dead Man

DEAD MAN (Jarmusch, 1995)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Apr 24, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

I first watched “Dead Man” (1995), Jim Jarmusch's idiosyncratic take on the Western, in a tiny theater at the end of an alley next to my graduate film school. The second time I watched it was... the very next day, and the third time the day after that. Back then, paying for three movie tickets in three days meant eating ramen noodles for the next two weeks, but I had a good excuse. I had fallen in love.

After watching the film again on this new Criterion Blu-ray release, I've now seen it more than thirty times, and the blush of first love has deepened into the pleasure of a committed, long-term relationship. I have thought often about why the film continues to occupy my thoughts on a regular basis more than twenty years later. For your sake, dear reader, I will limit myself to just three reasons why I love “Dead Man” beyond all reason, and why I believe it is one of the best films ever made.


Super-short superficial plot synopsis: “Dead Man” relates the story of an unlikely friendship between two genuine outsiders, Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a hapless accountant from Cleveland , and Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American loner exiled from his own people. Blake hops a train West for a job, quickly gets shot, and Nobody helps to treat his wounds, then to guide him through the Western landscape (circa 1870s) to his mysterious final destination. They shoot a bunch of people along the way.

Depp, fresh off “Benny& Joon” and “Ed Wood,” was not yet a superstar but was riding a rocket to Hollywood's upper echelon. He's marvelous as a clueless Easterner desperately out of his element, but Gary Farmer absolutely steals the show. I used to describe Nobody as my favorite supporting character in all of cinema, but I realize now that's misleading: he's the real protagonist.

Jarmusch risks depicting Nobody as a “magical Indian,” whose primary function is to help the white man learn an important lesson. But Nobody is such a rich character with a vibrant inner life that he frequently shares. He is a man of letters, who spends his time “wander(ing) the earth” engaged in deep philosophical contemplation. Contrast this with the limp figure of Blake, defined largely by his paralyzing passivity and his garish checkered suit. Nobody has plans and ideas, while Blake doesn't have a clue.

This explains why one of Jarmusch's most audacious gambits works so brilliantly. When Nobody asks “What name were you given at birth, stupid white man?”, said stupid white man replies, “Blake. William Blake.” This sends Nobody into a frenzy as he assumes he is in the presence of the literal reincarnation of his literary idol, the British poet of the same name.

It's an absurd assumption that could leave viewers skeptical of Nobody's sanity, but consider the fact that Nobody simply wants it to be true. Depp's Blake is a blank slate upon which Nobody chooses to write his own story. Though he ostensibly serves as Blake's guide through the wilderness, he's actually realizing his own fantasy. That fantasy involves not only hanging out with William Blake (and frequently reciting Blake's poetry), but molding him into something new, the person Nobody wants him to be, a killer of “stupid fucking white men.” Near the end of the film, Nobody beams as he brags of his accomplishment in song, “William Blake is a legend now. He's a good friend of mine!”

Farmer's performance is thoroughly endearings as he gradually reveals Nobody's plans with quiet confidence, and occasionally stopping to bask in the glow of his friendship with the new, improved William Blake he's created. Farmer is an impressive physical presence as well, and has the kind of magnetic face directors can only dream of, a special effect in its own right. I've loved him in every film I've seen him in, but never more than as the unforgettable Nobody who also, by the way, has just about the greatest origin story in the history of cinema.

REASON TWO: Robby Freaking Muller

Though it limited his potential funding, Jarmusch insisted on shooting “Dead Man” in black-and-white and he wisely secured the services of cinematographer Robby Muller for the job. Jarmusch had already worked with Muller on the gorgeous black-and-white “Down By Law” (1986), but somehow Muller found a way to top himself with “Dead Man.”

The film's imagery ranges from the abjectly grotesque to the sublimely beautiful. When Blake trudges through the industrial town of Machine to report for a job he has already lost, he sees a horse pissing in the mud-soaked street, a prostitute giving an alley blowjob to a grimy gunman, and bleached animal bones providing the town's only apparent decoration. Later in the film, a thick boot will stomp on a dead marshal's skull, sending viscous black blood spurting from every orifice. “Dead Man” portrays an American West and a Native American people all but destroyed by the technology and violence of European invaders, and Muller captures the historical horror with grim efficiency.

And yet, as Nobody and Blake wend their way steadily to the Northwest, staying just ahead of the gunmen hired to pursue them, viewers are treated to breathtaking shots of forests of thin white birch trees and magnificent redwoods stretching high out of sight. In one of the film's most memorable shots, a panorama of ocean waves seems to cover all of existence, further enhancing the growing feeling of awe inspired by Muller's lush black-and-white nature photography. The film's characters may not survive this Western charnel house, but the natural world will endure and ultimately thrive no matter how many stupid fucking white men try to destroy it.

REASON THREE: Greatest. Soundtrack. Ever.

The great Roger Ebert, may he rest in power, described Neil Young's original score for “Dead Man” as the sound “of a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” Mr. Ebert, I revere you, sir, but you went and lost your damn mind when you wrote that.

Young recorded the soundtrack while watching an early cut of the film (see Extras below), prowling around his recording studio, reaching for various instruments for different scenes, though none featured as prominently as his relentlessly rumbling electric guitar. I don't know exactly to what degree Young improvised to the footage, but the result is nothing short of monumental.

Young's repetitive electric guitar, often heavy on reverb, punctuates many of the open spaces in the film, sometimes filling in a single breath, sometimes underscoring the image – when we see train wheels churning in close-up, Young's guitar mimics the circular motion. Other times, a wall of sound builds to all but consume the otherwise placid image, a transcendent effect for those who dig it, no doubt an irritation to those who just hear a man dropping his guitar.

I am not a music critic and don't know the language necessary to describe Young's work accurately, so I'll settle for an anecdote. I bought the CD of this soundtrack as soon as it was available (more ramen noodle nights for me) and it's been a defining aesthetic element of my life ever since. I keenly remember listening to the untitled 14-minute guitar track on the disc while watching the sun set behind the hills at Badlands National Park. I timed it so the final chord faded out just as the last ray of sunlight was extinguished by the banded rock face. A part of me never quite left that moment. I can't listen to the soundtrack while driving, though, because I become completely lost in its tide.

I feel bad that I haven't even mentioned the greatness of Michael Wincott's hyperactive performance as a chatterbox assassin-for-hire or Lance Henriksen as a cannibal with a toothache, or the glorious cameo by Robert Mitchum as a corrupt titan of industry, or that infinitely sad and beautiful tableau with the baby deer, or that shot of the horse on the shore which I only just realized reminds me of a similar moment in “Aguirre” or...

If I let myself go on about all the reasons I love “Dead Man” (oh, man, Crispin Glover too) without reserve, I'll never stop. And that would be a disservice to you. Instead I think I'll just go watch “Dead Man” again. I hope you'll be inspired to watch it, either again or for the first time, as well. 

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K restoration supervised and approved by Jim Jarmusch improves greatly on the mediocre home-theater releases previously available. The black-and-white contrast is sharp and bold throughout and the image showcases a fine grain structure. Image detail is particularly noticeable in closeups on faces, but also in the ways the individual trees really stand out sharply. Overall, this 1080p transfer is a very strong one, as we would expect from Criterion.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track. The lossless audio is most important for presenting the greatest soundtrack ever in an appropriate fashion, but this is the first time I've listened to the film at home and been able to pick out some of the conversation snippets that are intended to just be barely heard at a distance.

Also, one of the distinctive features of “Dead Man” is that Nobody and other characters speak multiple Native American languages, including Blackfoot, Cree, and many others, none of which are provided with subtitles. This was intentional on Jarmusch's part, a nod of respect to Native American viewers, and Criterion has wisely not provided subtitles here, except to indicate specifically which language is being spoken.

English subtitles are provided to support the English dialogue.

The films is accompanied by a selected-scene commentary track by production designer Bob Ziembicki and sound mixer Drew Kunin. The commentary doesn't cover every scene, but they do offer analysis or anecdotes for most of the film, and it's a welcome change to get the perspective of crew members on a commentary track instead of directors and actors.

Jarmusch continues his practice from previous Criterion releases of conducting an audio-only Q&A session in which he answers questions submitted by fans. This was recorded in November 2017 and runs about 48 minutes and presents Jarmusch with the opportunity to go off on tangents or just to speak about some of his favorite artists or hobbies.

We also get a new interview (27 min.) with actor Gary Farmer who shares his reminiscences about working on the film, and argues persuasively that Nobody should have met with a different fate than he does in the film. This is the rare actor interview I wanted to run much longer.

In “Reading Blake” (7 min. total) three of the supporting actors in the film read snippets of William Blake's poetry. I mean no disrespect to Mili Avital and Alfred Molina, who both do a great job, but you're going to leave this feature with Iggy Pop reading William Blake as your new fetish.

Criterion includes 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes, the same reel of deleted scenes from the old Miramax DVD. I have always found these quite revealing, and I particularly wish one extended death scene had been included in the final cut.

The gem of the collection is 25 minutes of footage shot by Jim Jarmusch of Neil Young performing the film's soundtrack. With scenes playing on monitors on stage, Young goes from acoustic guitar to organ to electric guitar, bobbing in place as he fully immerses himself in the moment. I find this footage every bit as riveting as seeing Miles Davis perform the legendary score for “Elevator to the Gallows” and it's a privilege to be a witness to this kind of creative effort. We also get a Music Video for the film with Young's music playing over edited scenes from the film (3 min.) - this was also included on the old Miramax DVD. While playing this video, you can also switch to an audio track of Johnny Depp reading William Blake, the same passage as is included on one track of the soundtrack CD.

The collection wraps up with a Trailer (2 min.) and a photo gallery of about 50 stills, many of which show color images from the set, a real treat for fans.

The slim insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and an essay about the Neil Young soundtrack by music journalist Ben Ratliff.

Final Thoughts:
I have nothing left to say. Actually, I have everything left to say, but I'll leave it for another time. “Dead Man” is a masterpiece. This Criterion Blu-ray release is the finest presentation of the movie yet available.