40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Review: "Dead Man"

Jim Jarmusch, the director of the 1996 film Dead Man is an indie director who definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer, creating films that can be both entertaining and infuriatingly inaccessible, as well as outright dull and plodding. Dead Man falls into all of those categories.

Shot in striking black and white by Jarmusch's longtime cinematographer Robby Muller, Dead Man is a sort of neo-Western, set sometime in the late 19th century. Johnny Depp is William Blake (not that William Blake...or is he?), an accountant on a train ride to the town of Machine, where he has a job waiting for him at the Dickinson steel mill. And it's a long train ride. Really, really long. Jarmusch spends at least the first ten minutes of the film showing us Blake's long, long, journey to Machine.

I suppose it's meant to convey Blake's inner emotion, but in reality it just went on way too long. We get shots of the train speeding through different landscapes, starting with forests and ending in a bleak desert. We get shots of Blake in the train. Cut back to shot of train speeding to its destination. Back to Blake inside train. With different people in the car each time, getting progressively scruffier. And so on, until we finally reach the end of the line and the town of Machine. Before reaching the town, the train's fireman (Crispin Glover) warns Blake that Machine is actually Hell.

As Blake walks through the town on his way to Dickinson Metal Works, it does appear hellish, a bleak town with bleak residents and various bits of bones in piles.

Once at Dickinson Metal Works, Blake learns that his job has been filled by another man. Blake demands to see the owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). Blake is granted a meeting, which turns out to be brief with a raving Dickinson inexplicably demanding that Blake leave his office (at gunpoint). He does, and with his last few dollars (he had spent all of his savings to get to Machine) buys a bottle of booze at the town's saloon. While at the saloon a woman selling paper flowers (Mili Avital) is tossed out of the saloon into the muddy street. Blake helps her out of the mud and she asks him to walk her to her home. Blake ends up spending the night with her, but in the morning her fiance, Charles Ludlow Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) discovers her in bed with Blake. He shoots her; Blake shoots Dickinson and kills him, while taking a shot himself. The fiance is John Dickinson's son. Blake escapes the room and steals a horse.

Wounded, he passes out, and when he awakens, he's been tended to by an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who is convinced that Blake is actually the spirit of the poet William Blake -- in other words, Blake has died. Nobody is determined to get Blake back to the spirit world where he belongs.

Neil Young provides the music for the film, and his guitar playing suits the mood of the film.

The rest of the film takes us on the long journey to Blake's ultimate destination. Jarmusch is a director not very concerned with pacing. It's all so dull, yet it's meant to be meaningful or somehow insightful, a metaphor for...whatever. What is it about indie filmmakers and how the boring, overlong moments in their films are supposed to actually be something more than what they are? When we watch a "mainstream" movie that plods along, we'd call it what it is: horribly boring. The fans of Jarmusch will possibly content that I do not "get" it, but I do. Blake is on a metaphysical journey. It's all meant to be taken as allegory. Sure. But it's still dull.

On his tail are a trio of bounty hunters, including one who talks way too much (Michael Wincott) and sleeps with a teddy bear (not yet invented in the time the film takes place, but hey, we'll let it slip, since this is an indie film) and one who doesn't speak much at all (Lance Henricksen) but turns out to be a cannibal. That's a nice indie film touch. There are other strange characters in the film, including Iggy Pop in drag as someone who can cook up a mean pan of beans.

Eventually Nobody and Blake reach the village of Mikah, and Nobody puts Blake in a canoe and sets him off on his journey to the spirit world.

Dead Man comes in at 121 minutes, which is at least 30 minutes too long. (I'd say 120 minutes too long, but that would be mean-spirited). Having seen other Jarmusch films, I knew what I was in for when I watched Dead Man. And like the other Jarmusch films I've seen, I really didn't like Dead Man. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters on screen. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as Blake, of course, and the supporting actors are also very good, especially Gary Farmer as Nobody. The film suffers from slow pacing and a boring story. If you're a Jarmusch fan, I'm sure you'll love Dead Man.
** out of ****


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