Once upon a time in the west

CINEMA: Jim Jarmusch's new film is strange even by his standards. Here, he tells Kevin Jackson why 'Dead Man' is no ordinary western

Kevin Jackson
Saturday 22 June 1996 23:02

Most of the significant characters in Jim Jarmusch's films are a long way from home. A core sample of his exiles and emigres would include the heroine of Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a young Hungarian woman who lands a job serving hot dogs in Cleveland; the cheerful, poetry-loving Italian killer languishing in a Louisiana jail in Down by Law (1986); the young Japanese Elvis fans who check into a Memphis hotel at the start of Mystery Train (1989); the old East German cab-driver who can't find his way around New York in Night on Earth (1992). What does the director find so haunting about stories like theirs? "I guess it's because I'm a white American," Jarmusch ponders, "and everyone I know is ... you know, their blood-line goes somewhere else. Except the Native Americans I know."

Jarmusch's lonely, polyglot crowd has now been swelled by the two principal characters - one white, one Native American - of his latest film, Dead Man, quite certainly the only western ever to begin with an epigraph from the French poet, artist and mescalin connoisseur Henri Michaux. Set at some unspecified date in the latter half of the 19th century, and shot by Wim Wenders' long-time collaborator Robby Muller in careful shades of black and white, Dead Man follows the misadventures of a timorous young clerk called William Blake (Johnny Depp) - he is wholly unaware of the English mystic with the same name - who travels way out west in search of what proves to be a non-existent job in a ramshackle, early-industrial settlement town tyrannised by the likes of John Hurt and Robert Mitchum. "It's meant to be a little Kafka, a little Dickens," Jarmusch notes, "that sense of being in a world that doesn't make sense to him, and where everything's going wrong."

Before long, Blake is facing the business end of a Kafka-style accusation of murder. Wounded and bewildered, he sets off into the wilderness with a pack of bounty-hunters - one of them a notorious cannibal - close behind. And here he meets the film's second displaced person: Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American who, earlier in his life, had been captured and shipped to England. But his exiled loneliness had been assuaged by the discovery of works by a great and strange English poet: William Blake. (Jarmusch says that this part of the story came to him very late: he happened to pick up a copy of Blake after studying American Indian thought, and was "blown away" by the similarities.) Concluding that this wounded white man is the poet himself, Nobody takes care of Blake and they set off towards encounters both violent and mystic.

Dead Man seems like an eccentric departure for a man who has previously dealt with odd bits of geography (is there any American film besides Night on Earth that portrays kamikaze drinking in Helsinki?) rather than murky wrinkles in history, but Jarmusch insists that it's close to home in many ways. "You wouldn't know this from my work, obviously, but ever since I was about five years old I've been fascinated by Native American cultures. My grandmother was really interested in the subject, and she got me interested by giving me an arrowhead from a local tribe in Ohio. When I was eight or nine she drove me down to southern Ohio to see the great serpent burial mounds. Then when I was about 20, I read [the anthropologist] Frank Boas, and became interested in the cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Everything about them, their art, their architecture, got under my skin."

If Dead Man has its distant roots in Jarmusch's inspiring granny, another childhood episode seems to bear on his films as a whole. When he was about seven, he recalls - this would be around 1960; Jarmusch was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1953 - and had recently become aware that not everyone in the world speaks the same way, he saw a war film on television and noticed that the Nazis were talking in English. (Those who have seen Jarmusch's engaging cameo in Blue in the Face may recall his miniature dissertation on the way Nazis hold their cigarettes.) "When I asked why, they said, 'because it's a movie'. And that really bothered me. It led me to understand that the world is a bigger place with a lot of different languages and that America tries to homogenise it all."

This mild childhood trauma had its echoes later in life, when Jarmusch became friendly with some Native Americans and talk turned to the (at best, lazy) way in which westerns portrayed the continent's original landlords. "They told me that, in John Ford's film The Searchers, they have Comanche characters, and yet Ford cast them with Navaho people. Now, this would be like me making a film in New York and saying, well, I need some French people but I don't have any, so let's just use some Germans and let them speak German to each other because nobody will know."

With this in mind, Jarmusch was careful to have the various languages - Blackfoot, Cree, Makah - spoken audibly and accurately on the soundtrack of Dead Man. "We showed the film to an audience of Native Americans up in Toronto, and they were really surprised and pleased; when it came to the scene where Nobody meets up with his girlfriend, they all said, 'Oh, she's speaking Cree, right on!' ... You know, I wanted to make some Native characters that weren't just cliches."

It may be this interest in the multiplicity of the human types cast up by the surface of our planet that has helped make Jarmusch conspicuously more successful overseas than in his own country, where a lot of his back catalogue isn't even available on video. His films are, for example, strikingly popular in Japan - "They out-gross the Coens, they out-gross Spike Lee; I've thought a lot about it, and I still don't know why that is, though maybe there's something about the way I film that reflects the aesthetic you see in Japanese paintings."

Or perhaps it's that the Japanese have sensed Jarmusch's admiration for their older cinematic masters, such as Ozu and Mizoguchi, and are returning the compliment. Jarmusch says that he wanted the black and white of Dead Man to recall the historical films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, or American films of the Thirties and Forties, before colour became near-universal. "Robby [Muller] and I wanted to go back to the time when the whole grey scale was a palette, rather than the more popular, recent way of using it, very hard, like in Ed Wood, which was good for that film but exactly what we didn't want for ours..."

In Jarmusch's personal pantheon, Ozu and Mizoguchi are joined by "anyone whose style is very pure, whether it's Bresson, Dreyer, Ophuls ... and then of course the Americans like Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich and Nick Ray". Jarmusch had the good fortune to get to know the last of these directors well, during his third and final year at New York University film school. He'd been on the point of dropping out for lack of money, but the programme's director had managed to land him a fellowship which would pay his tuition and a part-time job as assistant to the new visiting professor, Nicholas Ray - who, sadly, was dying.

"The very day after Nick died I took the money I'd been given for tuition, about $12,000, and used it to shoot my first feature [Permanent Vacation] guerrilla style." This naughty act of initiative meant that Jarmusch was not awarded a degree - "or not till 1992 or something, when I noticed that they were using my name in their ads". But it also attracted enough attention for Jarmusch to raise the $150,000 it took to shoot Stranger Than Paradise - whose spare, static camera-style, he explains, owed rather more to his poverty-row budget than to the formal precedent of Ozu noted by the more erudite critics.

Since then, the sums available for his films have been steadily hopping upwards, though they're still laughably small by studio standards. Down by Law cost about $1m, Mystery Train $2m, Night on Earth $4m and Dead Man $9m - "though it really needed $11m or $12m. Two line producers refused the project because they said that we were out of our minds to do this kind of period film for $9m. And I went ahead and did it and they were right: we were out of our minds."

Even people who don't care too much for Jarmusch's narrative style - spare, downbeat, unemphatic to the point of listlessness - will probably agree that he's managed some astonishingly sumptuous effects on his shoestring financing for Dead Man. Take the film's overture, in which Blake's journey across the plains by railway is evoked by a wordless set of images and fades to black as Depp's character, incongruous in his city clothes, stares anxiously around the carriage and dips into and out of sleep. "You know, it's funny, I was sort of proud of that, patting myself on the back - 'That's a nice minimal solution to an entire train trip across the continent' - and then about four months ago I watched Go West with Buster Keaton. Oh, man! He gets on a train, he's traded all his belongings and been ripped off, left with only enough money for his ticket and a big submarine sandwich, and as he's crossing the country the film keeps dissolving to the sandwich getting smaller and smaller, and I'm like, 'Wow! Talk about minimal genius! I am nothing compared to Keaton.' "

In the course of a gruelling shoot - which covered states from Arizona to Oregon, went from 106-degree heat to thick snows, gave almost everybody heavy flu and culminated in the loss both of the final set and its replacement in flash-floods - Jarmusch was wearied to the point where he was barely even speaking to Muller, who is one of his closest friends. Though he says that the end product is, with Down by Law, the only one of his films that he really likes, it seems a fair bet that he'll want to set his next project entirely in one apartment. "Yeah," he agrees. "In a phone booth."

'Dead Man' (18): selected cinemas from 5 July.

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