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'Dead' Man Talking

Jim Jarmusch takes a detour from his rather unbeaten filmmaking path with 'Dead Man,' a turn-of-the-century odyssey of Native Americans and America. Surprising? It all came quite naturally.

May 05, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Those who've followed the work of Jim Jarmusch had no reason to suspect his current film, "Dead Man," was percolating away inside him. An accomplished poet of urban life, Jarmusch has always worked with a decidedly light touch, constructing lackadaisical narratives populated with low-rent hipsters prone to casual flourishes of irony and wit. "Dead Man," which opens Friday, departs dramatically from all that.

An epic odyssey set in the Old West, "Dead Man" chronicles the final days of a hapless Midwestern clerk who finds himself tossed about by the warring forces that gripped the U.S. frontier at the turn of the century. Starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer and shot for $9 million over a 10-week period that began in October 1994, the film is alternately a love letter, a condemnation and a eulogy for America on the eve of the industrial revolution.

Deviating significantly from formulaic westerns, "Dead Man" synthesizes allusions to the mystical traditions of Native American culture, 18th century British visionary William Blake and the existential theater of Samuel Beckett. Equally noteworthy is the fact that this is far and away the most nakedly emotional movie the New York-based filmmaker has conceived--which isn't to suggest he's lost his sense of humor. There are moments of great hilarity here, among them Robert Mitchum blithely conversing with a stuffed bear, and Iggy Pop wearing a dress and bonnet as he reads passages from the Bible. For the most part, however, "Dead Man" is a deeply philosophical film that poses some very challenging questions.

That Jarmusch would create a cinematic hommage to Native American culture actually makes sense; beginning with the 1984 film that launched his career, "Stranger Than Paradise," his work has always been profoundly American, and "Dead Man" cuts to the very heart of U.S. history.

"This is the story of a man forced to surrender to his own destiny," the 43-year-old filmmaker says during an interview at a Hollywood hotel. "Having said that, I should add that I intend the story be open to interpretation--and apparently it is. When the film played in Europe, several people told me they thought the lead character died in the first 10 minutes of the film, and literally was a dead man for the rest of the story," he laughs.

An articulate conversationalist with a broad frame of reference, Jarmusch speaks knowledgeably about topics ranging from world literature, U.S. history and Native American ritual to music, Darwinian theory and, of course, film. Now in the midst of an international promotional tour that ends in early June, he's clearly weary of explaining himself but does his best to be engaged and accommodating.

"The western as a genre doesn't interest me," he says in explaining why he opted to make a western. "I don't like John Ford, for instance, because he idealizes his characters and uses westerns to enforce some kind of moral code. It seems as if he's telling nice American stories, but his films actually reinforce all the worst things about America, and I don't like that subterfuge.

"The westerns I do like--'Blood on the Moon,' for instance, or 'Johnny Guitar'--appeal to me because they deviate from the formula. 'Johnny Guitar' is almost a Brechtian western--the main set in the film looks like a '50s ski lodge and the costumes also look '50s. 'Blood on the Moon' is a western that's shot and lit as if it were film noir--they're both oddities that don't fit with the westerns made of the same period."

The same could be said of Jarmusch's western, riddled as it is with references to William Blake. Asked how Blake wound up in his vision of the Old West, he laughs and says, "It's his fault--he walked into my damn script!

"The way I work is I collect notes for years, then I block out a month to sit down and actually write the script. In preparing to write this script, I read lots of material on Native American culture, and the night before I planned to start writing, I wanted to read something totally different to clear my head. Blake was important to me when I was in my 20s, so I picked up one of his books and was just blown away by how much he connected with the stuff I'd just put down. The character named Nobody, who's played by Gary Farmer, quotes Blake throughout the film, yet it sounds like Native American philosophy."

Jarmusch wrote the part of Nobody specifically for Gary Farmer, whose performance in the 1988 film "Powwow Highway" made a big impression on him.

"In that movie, Gary played this selfless, sweet, emotional human who isn't complicated by ego or driven by the normal things that drive people in such annoying and often insidious ways," Jarmusch says. "I just fell in love with that human being--and Gary is that guy to a large degree."

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