Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Defense of Boring Movies: Dead Man

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

Dead man, dead man, be brave,
Dead man, dead man, be brave,
Be brave:
You shall be saved, by and by;
By and by, you shall be saved.

—"Dead Man," M. Ward

Last time I wrote on this subject, I explained in detail what I mean when I call a movie "boring" in a positive sense. To summarize: it's when a movie confronts you with questions and gives you space to think about them. Movies in this category aim to enrich or enlighten before they entertain, or even to replace entertainment altogether with these higher aims.

Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film Dead Man is, to quote Roger Ebert's 1½ star review, "a strange, that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning." Like the best boring movies, it's more interested in getting the viewers to ask questions and wonder about big ideas than providing them with a clear, coherent message. While most of the viewing public and mainstream newspaper reviewers at the time agreed with Ebert's pretty abysmal assessment, it did have some noteworthy defenders in the independent press, most importantly Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, my favorite Chicago periodical and local news source*.


The plot in a nutshell: a man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) goes west seeking a job, but is turned away and ends up a criminal on the run. In the process, he receives a mortal wound that will slowly kill him over the course of the film, and he meets a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who ends up guiding him through the rest of the movie, helping him accept and expect his death. All along, the two are pursued by and confront various people who wish to stop or kill them, and violent clashes ensue. 

The big questions and themes this movie wants you to ponder are several. The movie turns on its head the typical Western idea of pioneers courageously exploring and opening the frontier, with Native Americans as either an active opponent or scenic backdrop, or simply a non-presence; in Dead Man, white people are portrayed as primitive, violent, and intrusive, while the Native Americans are shown as fully human, interesting, and wonderful without quite being romanticized. The attendant questions include: what does it mean that our culture has told this story to itself this way, over and over, in Westerns and in other places? are we doing anything similar to other cultures or people, within or outside our country, today? And so forth.

The next big idea is the pointlessness and ugliness of violence. Violence is fun and sexy and great in pop culture, or sometimes just shocking and horrifying, but in Dead Man it is merely stupid, awkward, and weird. Why do we so rarely see violence depicted in these terms in our culture? How is it so rare that it is seen as utterly pointless and misguided, rather than a necessary evil or a plain good time? 

The biggest and most overarching idea is that the whole movie, like life, is one long journey toward death. The reality of death is something Blake has to confront, and it takes him a long trip and a lot of thought and talk to finally confront it, relatively peaceably. The viewers are invited to question their own attitudes toward death along with Blake.

If you're enticed, check out the opening ten minutes, in which all three big themes appear in nascent form. (Further enticements from this segment include a wonderfully bizarre turn from Crispin Glover, whom you may recognize as Marty McFly's dad in Back to the Future, as well as the beautiful and unsettling electric guitar score provided by Neil Young.)

Did you catch the big ideas already coming to the fore right here at the beginning? We get a glimpse of some abandoned, half-destroyed teepees, to which Blake reacts with fear, clutching his suitcase. And a couple minutes later, the men on the train start shooting at buffalo out of the windows of the train, which is not only a premonition of the awkward/pointless violence theme (how utterly pointless is shooting animals from a moving train?) but also an element of the theme of destruction of Native American livelihood by the intrusive, brutish white pioneers. Finally, note that the film-as-journey-toward-death theme is ever present: Blake is on a train and headed to the "end of the line" and, in fact, is already in "hell," according to Crispin Glover's character.

I really recommend this movie. Its pace is slow, even intentionally frustrating, but if you let it, the slow pace can give you the time you need to search for answers to the key questions, and to ruminate on the relevance of the big themes to your own life. It is, in other words, the best kind of boring.

* When inducting the movie into his New Cult Canon, which is the source of much of my knowledge of independent and little-known cinema (including Dead Man), Scott Tobias attributes Dead Man's current status as an acknowledged  masterpiece to Rosenbaum's review, and to a long run as a midnight movie at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. In other words, we in Chicago saved this movie; eat your heart out, New York.

Sidenote: without Tobias's New Cult Canon, I would probably never have heard of numerous movies that are now favorites of mine, like Primer, Near Dark, Brick, and The Iron Giant. This feature, and the AV Club in general, is very dear to me and has long shaped my knowledge and love of pop culture. It is also, alas, finished, as he and others have moved on from the AV Club to create an excellent film criticism website, The Dissolve.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, James. I feel the same way about Tree of Life, a film that a lot of my friends acknowledged had great merit but professed they did not enjoy. I loved the larger themes of nature, humanity, violence, and beauty and that--as you've shown here with Dead Man--the film gives you space and time to digest and wonder at these themes, their scope and magnitude. (Also, props for giving two excellent movies [Brick and Primer] a promo in your footnotes!)