Though I have not yet seen Jarmusch's new film, The Limits of Control, I see it has quickly become a divisive film, which only makes me want to see it more (as I eventually will). In the meantime, I revisited his 1995 film Dead Man, both as an appetizer and as a reminder of what draws me to Jarmusch's cinema.
The film begins in a surrealistic dream world reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2 as William Blake (Depp) travels from Cleveland to a town called Machine. Blake drifts in and out of sleep, as we so often do on long rides, waking up and looking around him in a mix of confusion and awe at the changing passengers who always seem to be staring at him. He looks out the window and sees brief glimpses of the American landscape -- prairies, wagons, teepees -- then falls back to sleep, indicated by a fade to black.
This opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is also a bit detached, a bit surreal. Blake remains half-awake with a bullet lodged in his chest, constantly moving but with no idea where to or why -- just like the train, there is a force that keeps pulling him forward and Blake always remains a passenger.
Blake's entrance into the town of Machine is probably best described as a nightmare. The town is full of Western iconography -- dusty saloon, saddled horses, tough cowboys, wooden storefronts built alongside a muddy main road -- but they are presented in such an exaggerated, cartoonish way that they immediately invert the root of American identity that is so thoroughly glorified through American Western cinema and mythology. Jarmusch also brings a critical eye to the capitalist structure of the town -- the iron mill -- which is photographed so as to seem like some hellish labyrinth. The offices look like something out of a Kafka story, while Mr. Dickinson, the big boss (Robert Mitchum with a shotgun) is the devil incarnate -- again reminding us that the West was a place of business opportunism more than anything else.
To call Blake a Western hero would seem laughable, though that is the position he is given. Unlike the wandering heroes of traditional Western films, however, Blake lacks courage, determination, masculinity, or any of the traits one would expect of the cowboys we've seen personified by John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. He completely lacks agency of any sort. The only time we see him really go after anything is when he wants some beans. In fact, Blake's (lack of) mission is displaced by (his Native American companion) Nobody's, who is certain that Blake is the reincarnated ghost of the 18th-19th century poet/painter/printmaker and that he must be returned to the other side. At first it seems like laughable mysticism, but as the journey becomes increasingly strange it becomes harder to tell what makes sense.
The journey becomes stranger through the changing scenery, which continues to get further and further away from the settings we are accustomed to in Western films, eventually ending up in what seems to be a magnificent redwood forest. The journey also becomes stranger through the increasingly strange characters -- Iggy Pop in a dress, a cannibalistic bounty hunter, bald twin sheriffs -- who come across Blake's path. The oddity of Blake's encounters perhaps reflect a critical reflection of the American character (blood-thirsty, cannibalistic, deranged, opportunists, racist, etc.), which is strongly contrasted by the amusing, insightful, and entirely charming Nobody. Jarmusch does not even seem to try to offer some balance in his portrayal of white Americans in contrast to the Native Americans (there is not a single likable white person in the film aside from Blake), and perhaps Jarmusch would insist that after what the Native Americans had to suffer there doesn't need to be -- things can be a little more black and white in terms of good and evil. I think Little Big Man made the same point. It's condemnation, though, is lightened by the nature of the caricatures and by the tone of the scolding, which is often comic. Perhaps the best summation of the critique comes from Nobody's catchphrase: "Stupid fucking white man."
Jarmusch seems constantly interested in the individual finding his place within a world often seen as harsh or absurd (and usually in America). The journey plot allows for the narrative to be constructed around a series of tableau, allowing for unique individual encounters that can exist independent of each other. Think of Don Johnston's journey into his past and the series of wives in Broken Flowers or the American scenes uncovered through the journey of Willie and Eddie in Stranger Than Paradise. Knowing this, it makes complete sense that Jarmusch would make a movie like Coffee and Cigarettes which takes his love of individual set pieces and fragments them into their own entities within a tapestry of a larger film.
These set pieces are heavily dependent on the idiosyncracies of conversation and our ability (or inability) to communicate. In Ghost Dog that communication is independent of language, as seen through Ghost Dog and Raymond the ice cream man, while in Coffee and Cigarettes it is all about wordplay and the gap that exists between intention and delivery. In Dead Man Jarmusch gives special attention to words through his quoting of William Blake's poetry through Nobody and the fact that Nobody can speak several languages. Despite that, there is a contradictory insistence that words are meaningless -- as displayed through the promise of a job in writing which yields no job, and a particularly funny scene in which Nobody puts on Blake's hat and mouths empty words (as a white man would) so as to make speech seem silly.
What strikes me most about Dead Man, however, is the numerous scenes which play on the senses. The black and white photography, though adding a distanced, historic feel, is so beautifully photographed (by Robby Muller) that the tactile quality is incredibly enhanced. The touch of Blake's hand in the river, for example. This is added upon by the meditative tone of the film, which lends itself to a more poetic, reflective mood in which more can be absorbed by the image. It is of course very ironic that Blake remains blind through half the film (since Nobody steals his glasses) since all around him is incredible beauty.
At the same time, however, that sensory quality of the film makes the violence that much more keenly felt. Certain scenes -- such as Nobody trying to extract the bullet with a knife, or a bounty hunter squashing a skull -- are absolutely cringe-worthy. We never forget the bullet lodged in Blake's chest and are constantly reminded of his mortality, and thus ours. And maybe that's the whole point (the film is called Dead Man, after all). What does it mean to be alive? What does death take away from us?
The most poetic and unforgettable moment in which we are reminded of mortality comes when Blake unexpectedly finds a dead fawn in the forest with a bullet through its neck. He lies with it and puts his hand on the body while Jarmusch photographs the scene from a God's eye view, making Blake, the fawn, and all of existence seem frail, fleeting, and (most importantly) tender, and even beautiful.
By the end of the film I feel somewhat disconnected, as if I too am floating along some river on which I have been placed and do not understand. Yet the experience of it is something unique, and to me quite rewarding. Perhaps "minimalist" and "existential" may be adjectives that are turn-offs for some, but they really only describe part of the film, and they hardly touch on the experience of it.