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Dead Man (1995): A Post Colonial Analysis Essay

America the land of opulence and opportunity. A haven for glittering fantasies of stardom and fortune. Fast cars, fast food and fast affairs; Tight skirts and loose morals. The home to Hollywood. Where Beatniks and hipsters march alongside tuxedo wearing millionaires in their Maseratis. Birthplace of the atom bomb and perhaps the equally significant Coca cola. Doesn’t matter which part of the world one lives in, everyone has a their own idea of what we call the ‘New World’- or at least we like to believe it is our own idea. Of course we do occasionally formulate our view of the ‘New World’ from a few suggestions made by the media around us. But most of us have reasonable intelligence to dig out the truth for ourselves. In other words we can think by ourselves- think by ourselves. Yes, I am quite certain of it. I’d like to think of myself as a mature and intelligent person, who does not need to be spoon fed someone else’s truth. Without doubt you would have a similar opinion of yourself.

Except of course if the headlines on CNN read ‘Woman denies affair with Tiger Woods’, we must assume it is a matter of urgent importance. That is quite understandable. After all CNN is a reliable source. They did cover the David Beckham affair story quite thoroughly. As usual I’m drifting away from the point. The point here being that we have a reasonably good idea of America today, and a little knowledge of its history too. We have gathered some information from our history books and some from the westerns Hollywood churns out every few years. And what a fascinating history it is. We can all picture bawdy, rugged outlaws in their suede leather attire, riding their mustangs and firing their colt pistols in the sultry dessert air. And of course the mythical protagonist riding out of the dust to challenge them.

History of America, correct? or wait, could it be…history of white man? Indie film maker Jim Jarmusch forays into American history with a different perspective, and a fresh take on the beloved western genre, in his film ‘Dead Man’. When it comes to history separating the myths from the facts can be arduous and at times futile. Because historical narration is by virtue, biased with relation to ideology and cultural hegemony. That being said it is vital to uncover history from multiple perspectives, in particular that of suppressed cultures whose voice has been censored throughout history. What is more, the fact that the past plays an important role in moulding our present ideologies and worldview, makes the task even more imperative. This brings us to the study of post colonial literature. At first, the reading of a western written by a white American, as a post-colonial text may sound presumptuous and phony.

However, in the following essay, I shall put forth my argument in favour of that, by bringing to light several key devices used by the writer, to turn the prevailing cultural stereotypes on their head. One of the key premise of the film revolves around themes that point towards the gradual capture of native American territory, the killing and displacement of the natives followed by measures to humiliate and deride the native American. Arguably, the United States may not be generally agreed upon as a post colonial nation, given the fact that the country was born out of a faction of the colonisers themselves.

However the term Post Colonialism if viewed from a broader perspective concerns with analyzing the effects of colonisation (whether they be obvious or covert). Therefore one may say that the study of post colonialism begins with the beginning of colonisation and not necessarily after the colonisers have been evicted. Jens Martin Gurr proposes a similar argument in an essay by quoting Ashcroft (an important writer on post colonial theory) : ”I herby agree with Ashcroft, who in his 2001 study of Post-Colonial Transformations provides an acute survey of terminological problems – and ultimately defends the use of the term (as his own title indicates): ‘rather than being disabling, this radical instability of meaning gives the term [post-colonial] a vibrancy, energy and plasticity which have become part of its strength’ “.

Art house filmmaker Jim Jarmusch first entered the limelight with his film Stranger Than Paradise which won the Camera d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and also the 1985 National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film. Before enrolling into film school on a whim, he studied literature and art history at Columbia university and it is perhaps his keen interest in poetry and philosophy, which transpires into his films. Although on the surface they appear to be idiosyncratic and sardonic, his films have a power which allows our imagination to cascade, without the use of gaudy gimmicks. Having lived on the periphery of mainstream culture himself, it is no surprise that discarding convention is a recurring theme in his films. Jarmusch mentions in an interview, the long period of creative vacuum before he started working on his 1995 feature Dead Man. During this time he read a lot of Native American literature the presence of which is quite apparent in the film. Although the film does not inform the viewer, it is set in 1870, as Jarmusch mentions in an interview.

To briefly summarize the plot- William Blake (Johnny Depp) a naive young man from Cleveland, ventures out west to start a new life based on a job offer as an accountant at Dickinson’s metal works. On reaching the strange new town called ‘Machine’, he finds out that the vacancy for his position as an accountant has already been filled. Dejected, he finds himself drinking outside a bar where he meets Mili Avital a flower seller. He ends up in bed in her shabby room. They are soon intruded upon by Mili’s ex fiancé Charlie Dickinson who tries to shoot Blake but ends up killing Mili who leaps forward to protect Blake, though the bullet passes through her and wounds Blake. Finding a gun on the bed Blake shoots Charlie and escapes through the window on Charlie’s horse. Charlie however happens to be the son of John Dickinson (owner of Dickinson’s metal work) who had earlier refused to accept Blake’s job confirmation letter. John Dickinson hires three assassins with a precarious reputation, to hunt down William Blake.

Blake then finds himself in the care of an Indian who calls himself ‘Nobody’, and mistaking him for William Blake the poet, ventures on a self appointed mission to help William Blake return to the spirit world where he believes Blake belongs. And it is at this point, as Jarmusch himself states- ‘the real story begins’. Among the sundry post colonial writing techniques Jarmusch uses in his film, one may begin with analysing the use of the western genre. The western is a genre intrinsically linked to the American Psyche. And it has colonial ideology embossed all over it. In a classic western, the Native American is a mythical character, and one that is barbaric in nature. Jarmusch shrewdly attacks conventional perceptions, by using this fantasy world to his advantage. Although Blake appears to be the central character, he is in fact merely a blank impressionable canvas. It is in fact the Indian ironically named ‘Nobody’, who guides the lost and confused Blake through his strange journey in a bizarre world.

As the film proceeds one notices the subtle but recurring use of allegory, which tears down the veil of illusions and cultural stereotypes engrained by colonial ideologies. The west commonly justifies its superiority, by portraying the white man as a man of reason and the native as barbaric. However, in the film nobody is fluent in four languages (used by various tribes), while the ‘stupid white man’ as he mockingly calls him, shows cannibalistic tendencies. For instance, the fierce assassin Cole Wilson kills his comrades and then proceeds to cook and very casually gnaw on the remains of one of them. Being an offspring of parents from different tribes, Nobody was out casted until he proved his worth by displaying his hunting talents. However he was captured one day in the woods by ‘white man’. He thus narrates his childhood to Blake ”I was then taken east, in a cage. I was taken to Toronto. Then Philadelphia.

And then to New York. And each time I arrived at another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last”. He then relates how he was exported to England and exhibited like an animal in the zoo. He tried learning the ways of white man to end their curiosity of him, but it only kindled it further and they educated him. Here Jarmusch points out the usual pattern of colonial exploitation and exoticising of the natives and their subsequent indoctrination into western education. Also notice how Jarmusch cleverly uses colonial devices of mockery against colonial ideology. ‘Each new city contained the same white people’. It is not uncommon for white man to conclude that people of other races look the same, and create the illusion of ‘Us’ and ‘the others’.

Nobody also mocks Blake by wearing his glasses and hat. On returning home after escaping England, Nobody is rejected by his own people. A common example of how colonialism eventually divides the races it tyrannizes. This is also well exemplified in another film ‘ The Gods must be crazy’ in which a coca cola bottle discovered by a peaceful African tribe disrupts their harmony as although useful, it creates conflict of ownership. They then name it ‘the evil thing’.

Religion is another means of justification of heinous atrocities committed by the colonials. ‘Nobody’ is to them a ‘philistine’. When nobody enters a supply camp, the vendor prays to the lord to purge the darkest corners of the earth from philistines. William Blake is assured of the quality of ammunition on sale with the promise ‘the archbishop himself has blessed it’. Jarmusch also explores the divide between the Native American and the ‘white man’ with regard to their different ways of perceiving the world. While the native views tobacco and psychedelic herbs as sacred food to be used in ceremony, the western man views these as an object of addiction.

The native is at peace with nature but above all with his own existence and death. Nobody: Did you kill the white man who killed you?
William Blake: I’m not dead. Am I?

At one point William Blake is shot and fatally wounded. Nobody rescues him to his native village, where he Bill Blake may find a strong Canoe which would help him cross the sea and enter his home the land of spirit. Life to the Indian is merely a transient journey and death is a mere gateway to another world. Nobody: I prepared your canoe with cedarboughs. It’s time for you to leave now, William Blake. Time for you to go back where you came from. William Blake: You mean Cleveland?

Nobody: Back to the place where all the spirits came from, and where all the spirits return. This world will no longer concern you. Jarmusch through his inherent subversive style, effectively shows us the neurotic framework of the colonizer’s mind. How ideology was used to condition the masses to such an extent that the western dream of enlightenment became nothing more than a wasteland of decadence and decay. The rich culture of the Native American was conveniently labeled as barbaric. His message is important because centuries later the aftermath of colonisation can still be felt, perhaps in more subtle ways. Being a post colonial analysis the focus throughout this essay has been to view Jarmusch’s work in the light of it being a post colonial critique. However it must be noted that the film’s premise is largely philosophical in nature.

Bringing to light the neurosis of modern man, Jarmusch ponders upon our inherent urge towards enlightenment. Doing so he also questions the western notion of enlightenment which modern society has so willingly swallowed. He is not quick to assign labels of good and evil, but instead chooses to explore what it is to be human. It may be said that any post colonial critique would be redundant if its message is inflammatory. His criticism is not hastily delivered but well cloaked in allegory and wit. By the end of the film a dying William Blake with his ceremonial face paint could easily be mistaken for an Indian. It is here that the dividing line between ‘white man’ and the ‘other’ dissipates. The poet and mystic William Blake whose influence is palpable in Jarmusch’s work is quoted by Nobody throughout the film.

There is an element of absurdity here, being that the chances of a tribal Indian quoting an English poet, like he was churning forth an old proverb, are slim. But Jarmusch has created a world completely alien to us. Shot in black and white, with trance like cinematography, rough terrain and a raw minimalistic soundtrack by Neil Young, coupled with Native American themes and motifs, which can be seen through the hazy perspective of a dying William Blake as he is paraded through the Indian village, and escorted to his Canoe, give the film a ‘psychedelic’ feel, a term used by Jarmusch himself.

Director Terry Gilliam when asked to compare certain films said something on the lines of films largely falling into two categories. There are those that provide answers in cute saran wrapped packages and leave the audience satisfied(generally stupid answers). And others which provide none, but coerce the viewer to think, ponder and debate. Dead Man provides us with no answers. Instead it transports us to a strange fantasy world. And when we return from it, we see the same strangeness persist in the ‘real’ world around us.


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