Stupid White Man: Jim Jarmusch’ Dead Man

Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’ 1995 ‘acid western’, is currently available online as part of the IFFR Unleashed: 50/50 programme, celebrating 50 years of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Dead Man was not well received at the time of its release (at least in the US, it did better in Europe), but has since gained quite the reappraisal and following. Deservedly so, Scout Tafoya and Kaj van Zoelen feel, as they discuss its place in the western genre, the portrayal of Native Americans, Leni Riefenstahl and so much more.

Dead Man

Kaj van Zoelen: I had forgotten just how good Dead Man is, rewatching it now for this article. I loved it when I first saw it 15 years ago, and loved it possibly even more now. From Robby Müller’s gorgeous cinematography to Neil Young’s hypnotic guitar noodling to the way the film just glides along, all lulling me into this dream state, with a dash of William Blake’s poetry. Jarmusch uses this surreal journey for a complex commentary on the western genre, on white America’s historical relation to Native America and as a correction to the way the latter often has been portrayed in (western) film. Which he does both through subtle symbolism and on the nose dialogue, like having Native actor Gary Farmer cursing the white man for being stupid several times. Jarmusch’ west is not only a west where law, lawlessness and violence are one and the same, but a west in which the white man’s hypocrisy and stupidity are exposed, while not falling into the trap of othering the Native American characters as either noble savages, hapless victims or a violent anonymous force of nature standing in the way of the white man’s progress.

Dead Man

Scout Tafoya: This is a movie I’ve written about a lot, thought about a lot, read about a lot, one of those rare movies where unpacking it is as rewarding as watching it. I don’t remember If I’d even seen it by the time I read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s BFI book about it. That was the kind of obsessed and bizarre movie goer I turned into. I was driven by the idea of finding the most arch and obscure things in the canon, and if I couldn’t watch them, I’d be damn sure to read every word ever written about them. I had seen enough westerns to know that Dead Man was different, even by the standards of anti-westerns. Even in the 70s directors still weren’t too keen on hiring actual first nation actors and then giving them anything to do. Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Winterhawk (1975), Alien Thunder (1974). These are still mostly movies that can only look at native Americans. And that was nothing new. Natives were museum pieces. That was how American culture needed them to be. Extinct. Something white people could spin a noble myth around. A eulogy’s easier to write than an apology. And even when white men finally started asking natives for their participation, they weren’t telling their stories. Much as I like Walter Hill, he made Geronimo (1993) so shortly before Dead Man came out. I would have half-died of embarrassment.

Dead Man

I have a question for you: what did they tell you happened over here? What words did they use when talking about what white settlers did to the Native Americans? Here they lied. Softly. We didn’t know what happened. Little Bighorn. Wounded Knee. We didn’t know what went on there, these may as well have been statues, places to visit, aware that something enormous transpired. The thing that’s tough to quite get used to when you’re born on the coast is the flatness of the land in the interior of the United States. You can see everything. Must have just fried the brains of Europeans. They leave the crowded burgs and hilly villages and farms for a place with no end. All that land and someone else was on it harmoniously. It did something to them. And so they made it into a kind of waking, living hell. By the time most Westerns start they’ve taken most of it, left more corpses than you could ever meaningfully count. Just took it all and killed everyone. I know most countries have this dread origin, but I live here and I see evidence of what happened all the time. All this beautiful land, and all the settlers could do was kill the people on it and turn it into one truckstop town after another. This place had nothing but promise born out of respect. White people corrupted the notion of both.

The western was one of the few places you could meaningfully stage a protest because it was where the believers sought refuge. Boomers who’d fought in wars or worked the same dead-end job for decades, they wanted to see themselves in the form of rugged conquerors. Men who only found tenderness at the end of a trail where only their god could see them finally warm to the idea of something other than violence. John Ford, who never exactly wanted them, gave them a place to hide. Men loved to watch men on trails, living out the accursed manifest destiny because they were “given” things like the open road and a little bit of land, but more than that, cowboys had purpose. That’s the thing about Jarmusch’s western that I think I love most in the macro: his cowboy is a poet, and his purpose is to die. To take as many white men with him as he dies. There’s comfort in it because Robby Müller was painting his impression of a William Blake canvas, but it’s not a movie that wants you to be comfortable. The music screams, each character is a worse bastard than the last, racism and disease and murder everywhere you look, even the Arizona wilderness looks inhospitable. It’s like laying on a bed of nails.

Dead Man

KvZ: What did they tell me happened over there? I do remember learning about the blankets carrying deadly diseases being distributed deliberately in high school, though it’s possible we were only taught that happened in South America by the Spanish. I learned at least something about how the USA was built on the displacement and genocide of Native Americans (and the enslavement of Black Africans), though I don’t remember if it was the textbooks or my quite leftist history teacher providing context. Besides school, I remember Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee being prominently placed on my dad’s bookshelves in several places throughout the years, imprinting the title in my memory and making me ask what it was about. He sometimes told me about how when he and my mom went to the US before I was born, he went to the Hopi nation in Arizona and what a great people they were. By the time I saw Dead Man for the first time, I had been there myself and with my parents walked part of the Trail of Tears in Mississippi.

My question to you is: if the western of old was the refuge of the believers in whitewashed white American masculinity, what does it say about us that we seem to find refuge in this elegy of poetic death, so comfortably lying on this bed of nails? Is it just the way Robby Müller paints the American west as a beautiful hellscape? Visually he makes locations from Arizona, California and Washington State flow freely into one another. Which could be the way his Dutch eyes see this western landscape, or even the way Jarmusch perceived this mythical landscape from his Ohio origins, or a reflection of what Gary Farmer’s Nobody says in the film: ‘Things that are alike, grow to look alike.’ Though by the end we’re firmly in the westernmost corner of the USA, on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. There’s nowhere left to go, except to die or take to the sea again. It’s a fitting place to end this journey of death.

Dead Man

I wonder if I by now am so familiar with Neil Young’s guitar sound that I find his instrumental wails and screams to be more pleasant than the bed of nails you describe. Although there’s a good chance that when I saw this movie for the first time, it was actually my introduction to Young’s music. And I found it soothing even back then. Perhaps this says more about me than about the music.

Jarmusch’s cowboy is a poet indeed, and killing white men is his poetry (as he says himself in the one scene in which he could pass for a traditional western gunslinger). But he only really becomes a poet because the Native American character Nobody deems him to be so, and sees him as the reincarnation/continuation of the actual William Blake. I love the way this notion is never even questioned and is entirely possible in the spiritual surrealism of this film. Plus it makes Nobody, even though he’s more or less a supporting character who even disappears for a while, the driving force of the white man’s fate, instead of the other way around, from their first meeting until the very end.

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ST: I think your enjoyment of Neil Young’s music has more to do with your Dutch temperament than the music itself. Even now it seems to say “you’re watching a movie,” in a way that even something like Ron Carter’s contemporary jazz score for Bertrand Tavernier’s 100 Years War drama Beatrice (1987) or Tangerine Dream’s baroque and enormous work for The Keep (1983) doesn’t. I think that’s got something to do, incidentally, with why we find comfort in movies like this. Watching The Searchers (1956), Wagon Master (1950), Rio Bravo (1959), The Big Country (1958), pick your poison; these are wonderful experiences, even knowing what we now know about all of the elements it juggles lopsided. They demand accounting, reckonings. The eerie thing about a movie with retrograde values is that it continues to grip the viewer’s lapels years later. “This is what we were. Ignore this at your peril.” You can drink in the beautiful compositions but you do so with one eye fixed at the date. Racism, sexism, the implicit approval of genocide, these things are stitched into the Western, you can’t ignore them. Well…that’s not true. You can, but what then does that say about you, the viewer?

Dead Man

I had a little trouble cracking Howard Zinn or Dee Brown and then looking back at John Ford. Took me years to realise that the work was on me, not either of them. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Stagecoach (1939) now have to exist side-by-side. It’s a more forward-thinking culture that can keep them in their heads at once than dismissing one for the other. Art is for us. To relegate some of it to the scrap heap because we don’t like its politics seems… well to ignore the purpose of the whole enterprise. I dislike Leni Riefenstahl on both moral and aesthetic grounds, but she’ll always pop up like some carnival game Nazi stooge to be swatted away every few months. I can’t dismiss her from history or from conversations around her art form or her chosen company. Someone somewhere finds her worth discussing, vehemently as I disagree that there was ever value in her work even on the shakiest art history grounds. But this is the purpose of what we do: we must reckon with the object. Otherwise we’re not critics.

But if I may psychoanalyse us for a moment, the reason we find comfort in Dead Man, The Wild Bunch (1969) and my personal maudit Heaven’s Gate (1980) is because there isn’t the same reckoning required. An anterograde western like Dead Man’s politics are on the surface and they are at least an attempt to square what’s been left out of the great narratives on the subject. It comes out and says this is a genre and a country built on genocide, and it continues to this day. Agreeing with a movie like Dead Man is easy, which makes drinking in the landscape even easier. They flatter folks who’ve done the homework, who aren’t still trying to hide in myths. Who are aware that the world doesn’t end every time you turn a movie on. Dead Man is a movie for people who don’t want to hide from what the West really was. I never had any stake in the myth. I never fought in a war, never believed that the white man was ever just right. It’s harder to watch a movie with a racist hero, but I won’t shrink from the challenge. I’ll just do so knowing that a more enlightened text lies to the side when I need to breathe.

Dead Man

KvZ: I think you’re really onto something here. I can indeed easily enjoy the nastiness in Dead Man, because I can do so more or less guilt-free while also still giving me the pleasures of the western, like the masterfully created aesthetics. Whereas films like The Searchers require that reckoning while watching (The Searchers doubly so because it both critically takes the racism and violence head-on as a building block for America’s white communities, yet is not free of another form of racism itself).

I guess coming from across the Atlantic, and from a country even that hardly ventured into North America beyond New Amsterdam (now New York), I have even less stake in the myth. At least not beyond this mysterious attraction to the genre and its myths (I even ended up writing my thesis about it). Where then does that attraction come from? Speaking only for myself, perhaps it has something to do with being the antithesis of western protagonists, growing up in another continent preferring the indoors to the outdoors in the city. I also think not being able to drive and getting car sick as an adult is part of why I love car chase scenes so much.

Dead Man

I do think there’s a difference between reckoning with the racism in westerns and reckoning with the likes of Leni Riefenstahl. The first is grappling internally (and then as critics externally) with parts of films that are wrong versus parts that feel right, whereas Riefenstahl is just all wrong all the time (you said it more eloquently). I find her work easy to dismiss, except perhaps for the visual influence of a few select shots on Hollywood’s ‘epic aesthetic.’ I find similar works like The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Jud Süß (1940) much more vile and tougher to digest. Not just because of the overt and obvious racism that propped up heinous, deadly beliefs, movements and regimes, but because with their dramatic manipulation comes an incredible power and danger that I’ve never seen in Riefenstahl’s work.

But to bring it back to Dead Man, one thing I do wonder about a little is the use of language. Specifically, the conversations in Cree and Blackfoot, which are intentionally not translated or subtitled. One the one hand, this is actually great and another feather in Jarmusch’ cap. These dialogues are there just for the pleasure of those that speak these languages, apparently even including in-jokes only meant for Native Americans. Finally, at least a small bit of the American western that exclusively does not cater to a white, English-speaking audience. However, a part of me wonders if this also doesn’t also further add somewhat to the ‘othering’ of the Native Americans to stupid white men, by rendering their voices effectively unheard? Or is that just another stupid white man’s thought, and is Jarmusch’ choice to highlight and augment Native voices in this way more a preservation act?

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ST: I think the point, if it can be boiled down to one specific point, of not subtitling the language is Jarmusch admitting that he’s the outsider, he’s the small white man being dragged through a history lesson written in flames and faces. Yes there’s something revolutionary about presenting and as you say preserving Native language and culture in a kind of “cool” anti-western, the sort of oddity that was sure to gain a cult following, one foot in the counterculture, one foot in the machinery of mainstream art, because this is what America chose to do away with, what the American cinema treated like some heathen pidgin speak whose only purpose was to put the fear of God into the settler, this is what we never bothered to learn. If we feel like we’re lost, we simply can’t imagine the history and heritage our ancestors destroyed (this is the part where I say “hopefully not mine.” My grandfather was born in the South Western US to native, likely Sioux or Navajo, and Spanish heritage, the kind of product of that area taught to feel shame about their grandparents having been born on this continent because they didn’t fit in with manifest destiny. The history books say that your people were the ones the white man was sent by god and Washington D.C. to destroy if they won’t learn – or, more insidiously, breed – away their heritage with willing whites. He was born with pale enough complexion to pass for white and he married a Sicilian girl from Philadelphia, and so our family lived as white people; I’m paler than Depp in this movie on my best days. The genetic lottery saved his life. His siblings died in poverty, abandoned by the state for their name and their skin colour).

Most of my life was spent in a game of pong with identification. As a boy you want to see yourself in cowboys and soldiers, gun toting agents of the good and righteous. You don’t see that if they were righteous they wouldn’t need guns. You grow a little and you see yourself in the depressives of the cinema, Depp’s perpetually bleeding lost soul, Warren Beatty’s two-bit hustler in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Brides as the last honest men in Heaven’s Gate’s Johnson County, Jarmusch himself, the New Yorker with the monstrous hair and the cigarette in his mouth, trying to give the world back some of its balance and meaning. You grow more and your grandmother finally starts spilling some of the secrets of the family tree, confesses that your great grandmother died alone in squalor, that your great grandfather’s last name wasn’t even the one you wear now, that your heritage was something kept hidden out of shame, and to survive, and that those secrets twisted my grandfather into a violent and impossible man. Then you go back and watch those westerns and you start to see in the snatches and scraps of native culture, a thing you pined for all your life but to which you have no connection, no way of reaching out for it. You can’t present yourself as a white man without a tribe and say “yes, this is my struggle, too.” Because it just isn’t. I’ll never know what it was like to see white men moving through your world, strangers who wouldn’t bother to learn your language, who dismiss it. Disgraced senator Rick Santorum from my home state of Pennsylvania just a few days ago, carefully referencing the Griffith movie you mentioned earlier: “We came here and created a blank slate… We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Dead Man

Cultural destruction and erosion, the ability to decide what is remembered, that is perhaps the most powerful tool that colonisers have. That’s why Jarmusch introduces Nobody with one primary trait when we meet him: he reads. He knows that in literature and in language the white man hides his secrets, his shame, by changing them into points of pride. He had to learn the language of his oppressors, he had no choice, but that knowledge is a weapon now, more powerful than the gun that doesn’t save his life. The worst people are the ones who decide that history was this at the exclusion of that. A fact cannot have an attitude, so beware those who purport that they do. These same people, these cannibals and assassins who moved through the world trying and failing to make it white, they believed the arc of history could continuously be amended to make them the heroes, but they weren’t smart enough and they weren’t fast enough. Eventually the work of lying about manifest destiny fell to fatted cretins and moneyed scabs, people with no inherent authority. It has become akin to lobotomising yourself to accept the outdated “truths” about who made the world and why. There may not be much left of life on earth but it eventually outran her worst people. It’s impossible now to simply say “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” Someone will tell you you’re wrong and they will have facts to disprove you and you will look like a fool to dispute them. It’s not nearly enough, the way that this work finally got done, and the way it proliferated because some white people finally stopped arguing and started listening. Not nearly enough.

I say Dead Man is forward looking because it seems to hint that the closer you come to your end, the more clarity the truth will have in your mind. We will never see some tribes restored to their fullness, to the beautiful societies that once dotted the land, in harmony with it. It’s too late for that, but we were so close to losing it all, the heritage, the history, and it remains. It’s still here. Tycoons and industrialists and ideologues and fools couldn’t bury it with all their money and all their power. They lost. They took the earth with them, but they lost. Dead Man says that there is nothing more important than knowing the truth. Doing something about it will probably get you killed, but you should try anyway because we all die. And the only thing worse than death is dying stupid.

This Essay International Film Festival Rotterdam article was published in May 2021