There should be a periodical published on when critics are wrong. Dead Man is a film that was long overlooked upon its release. This was partly due to the fact that Miramax did a lousy job at distributing the film, but only a handful of critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum recognized this film as a masterpiece. I saw Dead Man on the first screening of its premiere.
After my first viewing, I had various problems with the film. I thought the film seemed too heavy on poetry and symbolism and I also felt that things didn’t seem real or authentic enough to be part of a historical period. Other times, I felt the film was confused about its mood. Sometimes it seemed deeply serious and other times it seemed silly and absurd. Not until repeated viewings did I discover how appropriate these observations were to the film.
The first line of dialog in the film comes after a long uneventful journey on the train. The train conductor comes in and says to William Blake: “Look out the window. Doesn’t this remind you of when you are on the boat..and when you look up at the sky you ask yourself ‘why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still?'” This line is a key element of the film because it questions the essence of reality. Dead Man is not a film that deals with reality in any conventional sort of way, at least not in the narrative sense and certainly not in our preconception of history.
Dead Man is a film that deals with a man’s journey through a series of death experiences. Blake’s destiny was originally to be an accountant for Dickinson Metalworks in the town of Machine. After some unfortunate events, William Blake is suddenly caught laying in the woods with a bullet next to his heart. A Native American named “Nobody” becomes his new mentor for his ill-fated journey.
The film feels fragmented with fades between scenes and a loose narrative structure. At times we feel the clock ticking and other times, we feel unconscious of what just happened. This was my experience anyway, when I first saw the film I remember Nobody telling his life story about traveling East. Something about how a whole city of people could move so quickly and then the rest of the story slipped my mind because it seemed too overwhelming and absurd. The key line to this moment however, was the name given to Nobody:”He Who Speak Loud Say Nothing”. Nobody’s life story is a reflection of the Allegory of the Cave written by Plato. Someone has traveled to another dimension but once he returns home and talks about his experience, no one believes him. The story told by Nobody also reflects the rise of capitalism and America’s shift toward a more homogenized society. Dead Man takes us on a psychedelic journey through Western and Native American culture.
We’ve come to understand through previous Jarmusch films that cultural influence is an inevitable part of life. Dead Man expands on this fact by demonstrating what happens when cultures clash. There is a hierarchal conflict with reality. Part of this is due to politics but it is also due to religious consequences. I’ve read reviews by critics who seemed puzzled by the reference to the poet and artist William Blake. There is a reflection to the poet’s Christian background and his influences with other mystical beliefs. There is a famous poem sited in the film: “some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.” As one culture dies, another is born.The film comes full circle when Blake ends on the boat looking up at the moving sky. This is a great film. I can still see this today after repeated viewings and always find something new.