Mad Poets: William Blake, Jim Jarmusch and Dead Man
By Rick Curnutte.
Richard A. Curnutte, Jr. is the Editor of The Film Journal. He has studied English and Film at Ohio University and The Ohio State University. He is a founding member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association and a member of the Online Film CriticsSociety.
“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The Argument”, 1790
William Blake, largely considered one of the English language’s most important and influential writers and generally considered to be one of the key people responsible for the birth of the Romantic Movement in poetry, was really “not fully rediscovered and rehabilitated until a full century after his death” (Appelbaum v). A victim of misunderstanding and the prejudices of his Christian contemporaries, it would take over a half century before Blake was cast back into the mainstream of literary thought and study.
In his 3-volume The Letters of Charles and May Lamb, E.V. Lucas commented to Bernard Barton that, “Blake is a real name, I assure you – and a most extraordinary man if he be still living (Lucas, ii. 424). Indeed, he lived, but by this time he was destitute and living in virtual anonymity, as he would the rest of his life, if for no other reason than his books were individually hand-printed and illustrated (Wu, 49). In 1863, Alexander Gilchrist’s Blake biography brought renewed interest in the deceased poet, painter and engraver.
His lifetime saw significant social and economical change. The American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution all happened in his lifetime. His contemporaries included John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. He lamented the effect that the Industrial Revolution had on man and his ties to the land (Mack 785). He once said that every man’s face had “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”. He was “liberal in politics, sensitive to the oppressive government measures of his day, [and] favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution” (Appelbaum v).
There are still a number of inconsistencies within the canon of writing about Blake’s life and moral fortitude.
Scholars and historians have varying opinions on whether Blake was a mystic. The Norton Anthology describes him as “an acknowledged mystic, [who] saw visions from the age of four” (Mack 783). Others have simply called him a visionary, a social critic of his time and a prophet of things to come. His criticisms were not only timely in his day, but are relevant today as well, something that American maverick filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, wholeheartedly agrees with: “This was an English visionary poet, painter, printer and inventor. His work was revolutionary, and he was imprisoned for his ideas. I can’t honestly cite a specific, concrete reason why he entered the script, except that while I was reading books by Native American Indians on Native American thought, it struck me that many of Blake’s (the character) ideas and writings sounded particularly true of Blake’s (the author)Proverbs From Hell, which, along with other fragments of poetry, are quoted by the character Nobody throughout the film. For Bill Blake, the journey of Dead Man represents life. For Nobody, the journey is a continuing ceremony whose purpose is to deliver Blake back to the spirit level of the world. To him, Blake’s spirit has been misplaced and somehow returned to the physical realm. Nobody’s non-Western perspective that life is an unending cycle is essential to the story of Dead Man“. (Margetts).
Indeed, it is this belief that, not only is life a journey that continues even after death, but that everything in life is a part of that great journey that is at the core of the relationship between William Blake and Dead Man. Blake believed that everything that lived was holy. He thought that Christianity encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy (Damon 344). Tying into this ideal, Jarmusch uses tobacco to convey the difference between White European culture and Native American culture. This culture clash is one of Dead Man‘s major themes. The joke is that Nobody continually asks Blake for tobacco, to which Blake always replies, “I don’t smoke.” The humor, and the conflict, are in the different ways that tobacco is used by the two cultures. For White Europeans, it’s a vice, something to which you can become addicted. Amid the Native American culture, tobacco is used as a sacrament in ceremonies, it’s used for praying, to be given as a gift, to purify the soul. Blake’s response is an inside joke aimed at Native Americans. However, Jarmusch believes that by the film’s end, Blake has learned the real meaning of Nobody’s question. “He says, ‘Nobody, I don’t smoke’, but he knows, I think. I didn’t want to make a little lesson out of it, I just wanted to stick it in there, as a kind of payoff.” (Yabroff 5)
That such a simple thing as the way in which two different men view tobacco is so important is exactly the type of conundrum that Blake would have reveled in. In his text, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The Voice of the Devil”, Blake speaks to the spiritual implications of this scenario. In one of many controversial entries, Blake points out that
“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following errors:
1. That man has two real existing principles, viz. a body and a soul.
2. That energy, called evil, is alone from the body, and that reason, called good, is alone from the soul.
3. That God will torment man in eternity for following his energies.
But the following contraries to those are true:
1. Man has no body distinct from his soul, for that called body is a portion of soul discerned by the five senses (the chief inlets of soul in the age).
2. Energy is the only life and is from the body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of energy.
3. Energy is eternal delight.”
In a key scene, Nobody asks Bill Blake, “did you kill the white man who killed you?” Bill answers, “I’m not dead.” As with the tobacco conflict, Bill has misunderstood the concept of life and death. His death is as much a part of his life as is his breathing or the blood pumping through his veins. His journey with Nobody, of course, becomes a literal journey towards death, but the essential point of Jarmusch’s film is that the Native American is at peace from the beginning with the concept of his own death. Indeed, he views it as an adventure, the next level of existence. It will take Bill Blake a great deal of learning to figure this out, all the way until he is literally becoming a dead man, drifting into a sea of calm to meet death.
Jarmusch’s choice to incorporate Blake’s poetry into the lexicon ofDead Man is, though perhaps, as he has suggested, a coincidence, quite substantial. Blake’s words are lyrical and meditative, while at the same time political and socially conscious. He was able to reap “remarkable results with the simplest means” and he brought back a “rich musicality to the language” (Appelbaum v).
His abhorrence for the Industrial Age is apt, especially in the opening scenes, where Bill Blake is introduced to the Old West becoming the New West. The early scenes convey a “sense of an undiscovered West – a West that vanished before it could be incorporated into national myth. That’s all there on the train ride from Cleveland to the Pacific, some time after the Civil War, as the white passengers shift inexorably into barbarism.” (Marcus, #7).
All of these things point to a kind of divine pairing of talents. Blake, the visionary poet of words and Jarmusch, the visionary poet of images.
But the images have yet to be addressed. The influence of Blake’s writing is obvious in the narrative and especially in Nobody’s dialogue. But what, if any, effect did Blake have on Jarmusch’s visual and stylistic palette?
When Dead Man was released, many critics pointed to it as a kind of turning point in his career. Though his early comedies (Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise, Night on Earth) were generally highly praised, they were often accused of being somewhat pedantic and full of trite irony. Certainly, Jarmusch’s deadpan style lent itself to this type of criticism in these early films. But Dead Man completely lacks any trace of Jarmusch’s early naiveté as a director.
Continuing his use of sparse black and white photography, Jarmusch nevertheless paints an exquisitely rendered, often lyrical visual work. Dead Man is a patient film, becoming meditative in its final third, though it never resorts to tedium or melancholy.
Ultimately, Blake’s influence on the film’s photography and style becomes clear. The story lends itself to the leisurely pace it employs. A contemplative journey towards enlightenment needs a steady hand. Pacing is everything here and Dead Man is timed perfectly. Though the film is also about the eventual degradation of the Old West ideals and, really, the Old Western film, Jarmusch ultimately employs the same black and white visuals that nearly every early film in the Western genre used.
All of these elements combine to create a uniquely diverse cinematic experience. Dead Man results in one of the most effective pairings of literary inspiration and contemporary filmmaker. William Blake and Jim Jarmusch, separated by over 200 years of history, met by chance and created the most original, effective and moving film of the 1990s.
- Appelbaum, Stanley. Introduction to English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology. Mineola: Dover, 1996.
- Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. New York: Dutton, 1971.
- Mack, Maynard, General Editor. “William Blake” in The Norton Anthology: World Masterpieces, Expanded Edition, Volume 2. General Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1995.
- Marcus, Greil. Dead again: Here are 10 reasons why Dead Man is the best movie of the end of the 20th century. http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/1999/12/02/deadman. Salon.com, 1999.
- Margetts, Jayne. An Interview with Mili Avital and Jim Jarmusch, Dead Manwww.thei.aust.com/isite/celldeadman.html This Swirling Sphere. 1996.
- Yabroff, Jennie. Jim Jarmusch, Rock and Roll Director:There’s a reason he features the likes of Tom Waits and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his films–at heart, the man who brought you Mystery Train and Down by Law is a rockstar.www.addict.com/issues/2.06/html/hifi/Features/Jarmusch/Addict.com, 1996.