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Since there’s probably never been a review of a Jim Jarmusch film that didn’t use the word “deadpan,” I can’t help wondering if Dead Man didn’t begin with a misheard adjective. Wherever it started, though, this gloriously strange absurdist comedy ends up far beyond any of the director’s previous efforts. Indeed, Dead Man is the first Jarmusch film to answer satisfactorily the question of what to do after Stranger Than Paradise, the Zen-slapstick 1984 effort that established his reputation.
A mannered but persuasively spooky black-and-white chronicle of a psychic journey, Dead Man is a revisionist western, but it’s hardly Dances With Wolves. Protagonist Bill Blake (Johnny Depp) is an accountant introduced on a train ride from Cleveland to what he thinks is a new job in the curiously industrialized frontier town of Machine. Duded up in a plaid suit, he’s ludicrously out of place among the grizzled (and ever-changing) other passengers, who are introduced in a series of surrealistic blackouts that establish the film’s dreamlike logic and tone. When someone finally speaks, it’s a crackpot seer (Crispin Glover, aptly) who ominously tells Blake that Machine is “the end of the line.” It’s the first suggestion that Blake will be—or already is—a dead man.
Machine does prove the conclusion of the accountant’s ordinary existence. Blake walks to Dickinson Metalworks down a street full of coffins and dead animals, where the only sign of life is a man (Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and Depp’s band, P) getting a blowjob in an alley. At the factory, the office manager (John Hurt) tells him that the job’s already been filled; when Blake insists on verifying that news with the factory owner himself, Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) mysteriously materializes to confirm it with a shotgun.
Blake is quickly adopted by former hooker Thel (Mili Avital), now attempting to make a living selling paper flowers to the town’s roughnecks. They return to her room, only to be surprised by Thel’s former suitor, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne), the local industrialist’s son. That confrontation leaves Thel and Charlie dead and Blake wounded. Wanted for the murder of one of Machine’s most prominent citizens, the bleeding accountant takes to the road.
In the forest, he meets an Indian who calls himself Nobody—the name, of course, temporarily adopted by the hero of another odyssey, Ulysses. Nobody (writer/actor Gary Farmer, a Cayuga born on Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve) tentatively befriends Blake despite his frequently expressed opinion that the plaid-suited rube is a “stupid fucking white man.” The Indian’s respect for his new acquaintance grows dramatically, however, when he discovers his name; Nobody assumes that Blake is the English romantic poet, whose verse he greatly admires. “Then you really are a dead man,” Nobody exclaims to Blake, who doesn’t know enough about literature to understand the Indian’s confusion. (If he did, he’d realize that Thel is named after Blake’s death-struck Book of Thel, and that Nobody regularly quotes from the poet’s Proverbs From Hell.)
Blake and Nobody are pursued by killers hired by Dickinson, notably reputed cannibal Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), and encounter such Old West curiosities as a trio of Bible-reading weirdo animal skinners (one of them is Iggy Pop in a dress). Nobody takes peyote and has a vision of Blake’s future, and the former accountant picks up a gun and begins to defend himself against the bounty hunters on his trail. (In his transition from meek passivity to vengeful action, Depp’s Blake oddly parallels the actor’s last role, in the much less interesting Nick of Time.) “Your poetry will now be written in blood,” Nobody tells his new pal.
Dead Man is a tour of both the white man’s evil and Indian cultural diversity. (In the course of the film, Farmer speaks Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah.) Depp and Nobody flee the greed, malice, and myopia not only of heedless industrialism, but also of rugged individualism, and—in the person of a “heathen”-cleansing shopkeeper played by Alfred Molina—missionary Christianity. As they travel, the duo passes from the Plains Indian traditions into those of the Pacific Northwest, where an elaborately carved canoe waits to carry Blake to his destiny. As much as the story of a lingering death, this film is an account of the voyage of life—an eminently Blakean subject.
Elegantly photographed by longtime Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, Dead Man is more film noir than western, and the director has acknowledged the inspiration of the black-and-white costume dramas of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. (The haunted-forest sequences do recall the latter’s Throne of Blood, and Blake’s encounter with raccoon spirits owes more to Noh theater than to John Ford.) The film also sometimes suggests one of Wenders’ laconic road movies, with Neil Young filling in for Ry Cooder, who scored Paris, Texas. (Young’s caterwauling improvisational score gives the movie a funky spontaneity as well as another anachronistic touch.)
Wenders’ most unearthly film, though, was about angels who wanted to become human, while Dead Man goes in the other direction—away from real life, and away from the urban-hipster cool of Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Though punctuated by corny gags, Dead Man manages to convey the seriousness of Jarmusch’s interest in transcendence. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a post-punk jester, but this is one comic quest that reaches its destination.
Some have argued that pop-art patriarch Andy Warhol never really recovered from the 1968 shooting that nearly killed him, so I Shot Andy Warhol could also be described as the story of a walking corpse. Except that former journalist Mary Harron’s first feature is mostly not about Warhol (impersonated blankly by Jared Harris, who also has a bit part in Dead Man). Instead, the film focuses on failed Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas, a woman whose 15 minutes of fame Harron fails to justify.
To the extent that Warhol is interesting, it’s because it’s the story of a scene: the Factory, one of the most remarkable salons in the history of art for art’s sake. But Harron’s guide to this fascinating demimonde is not Lou Reed (who refused to cooperate with the project), poet/whip dancer Gerard Malanga (played by Donovan Leitch the younger), transvestite “superstar” Candy Darling (Stephen Dorff), or even vicious heterophobic wit Ondine (Michael Imperioli). It’s Solanas, who was never really accepted by the Warhol crowd—or anyone else. Her Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM) didn’t attract a single member, and the only published work of her frustrated writing career was the SCUM Manifesto, rushed into print by high-grade-porno publisher Maurice Girodias (smartly played by Lothaire Bluteau) after Solanas was arrested. The original edition included a commentary by Solanas acquaintance Paul Krassner: “Valerie is a working paranoid….She only wished she were relevant enough to cause others to want to manipulate her.”
Some 25 years later, Harron and co-writer Daniel Minahan mean to make Solanas relevant at last, and they give it a good try. So does star Lili Taylor, in both dramatic scenes and straight-to-the-camera monologues from Solanas’ manifesto, which is contemptuous not only of men. (“The female can easily—far more easily than she may think—condition away her sex drive, leaving her completely cool and cerebral and free to pursue truly worthy relationships and activities; but the male, who seems to dig women sexually and who seeks constantly to arouse them, stimulates the highly-sexed female to frenzies of lust, throwing her into a sex bag from which few women ever escape.”) Taylor’s intensity aside, however, the interesting things are mostly around the edges.
Solanas, who died in 1988, was a native of Atlantic City (where, she said, she was sexually abused as a child) who came out as a lesbian and a misanthrope while studying at the University of Maryland. “The male is a biological accident,” she concluded, which didn’t prevent her from seeking the patronage of Girodias and Warhol after she arrived in Greenwich Village, where she survived as a panhandler and sometime hooker. Through pal Stevie (Martha Plimpton), she met Candy Darling, who she followed to the Factory. While becoming a bit player in Warhol films, Solanas kept waiting for the pop-art impresario to produce her play, Up Your Ass, which was so scatological that some Factory regulars were sure Solanas was a cop trying to set them up for an obscenity bust. When he rejected it, Solanas determined that Warhol has leading a conspiracy against her.
Harron’s conceit is that Solanas and Warhol were kindred souls, fellow wallflowers at a Factory party where Yo La Tengo (supplemented by Antietam’s Tara Key) pretends to be the Velvet Underground. But Warhol was cool and ironic where Solanas was overheated and earnest, and even in a film that focuses on her it’s hard to conclude that Warhol’s would-be executioner was among the more interesting of his hangers-on.
Mixing authentic mid-’60s hits with some string-section themes by John Cale and a few covers by ’90s bands (the Velvets-struck Luna does “Season of the Witch,” Bettie Serveert does Nico’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine”), Warhol conjures the Factory more convincingly than did Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Still, this is a movie that should come with a study guide. As someone who’s already done the research, I savored watching Warhol’s world bustle with such players as director Paul Morrissey, actress/writer Viva, superstar Jackie Curtis, photographer Billy Name, business manager Fred Hughes, and scenemakers Ultra Violet and Brigid Polk. For many viewers, however, the question won’t be, “Who shot Andy Warhol?” but “Who are all these people?”CP