Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blake’s Innocence: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man through a Theological Perspective

William Blake, protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Western Dead Man, died the moment he decided to go to Machine. Machine is his Hell, but not “the end of the line.” Up until he kills Gabriel Byrne’s character he is dying in the way in which we all are, moment after moment he comes closer to his day of judgment just as we all move closer to death as every second passes. After this bloody act, however, he becomes a marked man and lives on borrowed time. It is sin that causes his death: the sexual desire, the murder, and the greed all kill him. I argue that these sins (as in the seven deadly sins) manifest themselves in human form throughout the film as Blake continues on his spiritual quest.

Blake’s journey begins with the character taking a train ride into his own abyss. As the train progresses toward the town of Machine, he drifts in and out of consciousness the as groups of people, appearing increasingly wilder, get on and off while the landscape turns bleaker and bleaker. During the ride, the only person who talks to Blake (a conductor played by Crispin Glover), sits across from him and in the first words spoken in the picture begins:

“Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you were in the boat, and then later that night, you were lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’”

Two major developments arise from this scene: first, the audience notices a surreal/dreamlike quality which persists throughout due to the oddness that immediately opens the film and secondly, in speaking about the “boat”, the conductor is actually prophesizing Blake’s death. This death is not clear to the first time viewer; however, future problems are clearly foreshadowed when the conductor explains to Blake that he has come “all this way to Hell.”

Once reaching his final destination, Blake discovers that Machine really is a type of godless hell where his true journey will begin. In this town he sees death (in the animal skulls that decorate the buildings and coffins propped against them), filth (the streets are literally filled with dirt and manure), and sex and violence (a man in between two buildings forces a woman at gunpoint to perform oral sex on him). What is worse, things continue to deteriorate as he finds the job he has been promised by the owner of steel company (John Dickinson) has been given to someone else. With no money and no one to help him, Blake has hit rock bottom or so it seems. Having no other prospects, Blake goes to a bar and buys a small bottle of whiskey. After leaving, he sees a woman (Thel Russel) get thrown in the mud by a man who says “we liked you better when you was a whore.” Coming to her aid, Blake starts to move toward the good, he is overwhelmed with a sense to do right even though he is surrounded by forces of extreme evil. At this point he is invited back to the woman’s hotel room changing his luck for the better. Here he has a place to stay and a woman who loves him (at least physically). But this reversal of fortune does not last.

Meeting this mysterious woman, while providing temporal security, does not make Blake whole. In Thel his quest for a place of belonging has been satisfied but that sort of satisfaction is only temporary since everyone parts in the end through death (if not sooner). The separation between Thel and Blake does not take long. Walking in on the couple in bed together, Charlie Dickinson (former fiancée of Thel and son of John Dickinson) fires his pistol at Blake. Instead of slaying the protagonist, Charlie shoots the woman of his affection, killing her instantly. While physically alive, the bullet that killed Thel passes through her body and lodges its self into Blake, from this point on he is living on borrowed time. This bullet will eventually kill him; the narrative is now one long death scene. Afraid for his life, Blake then shoots Charlie in the neck, fatally wounding him. This random occurrence puts the spiritual quest into motion as he now has to leave his own personal hell. Trying to figure things out, unsure of what to do with his life that is clearly in the gutter, the search begins as he flees the town. The spirit is forced on him; his spirit is taking him to where it belongs, a crossing over from the real into the unknown. Throughout the whole dream-like-journey, William Blake begins to experience the frailty and confusion that defines reality and is personified here in the seven deadly sins in this case lust. One can see Charlie as lust incarnate because he lusted after Blake’s partner. In trying to kill Blake because of his desire for Thel, Charlie could be viewed as envious. This however does not seem to be the case considering this act is primarily a crime of passion. Charlie desires (but did not respect or love) the woman and that drove him to attack Blake, not because he was envious, but because of his total obsession with the girl. Upon killing Charlie, Blake has encountered and overcome the first of the seven but in order to finish the quest, he must overcome each of them in due time.

Having undertaken the quest, the other six must be dealt with to reach enlightenment. No easy task, Blake seems helpless against these powers. However, to assist him in overcoming the personified sins, Blake receives a spiritual guide to lead him away from the evils of this world. Regaining consciousness in the wilderness after fleeing the scene of the crime, he finds himself in the presence of a large Native American trying to dislodge the metal from Blake’s chest. Here, Blake is acknowledged as a “dead man” for the first time when the man asks him “did you kill the white man who killed you?” He then responds “I’m not dead” but he is: he has yet to accept it but he is a dead man. This man named ‘Nobody’ soon takes on the Virgil-like task of guiding him through Hell where people are defined by one of the seven sins.

With someone to lead him through this cold, unforgiving world, he is now ready to take on the next part of the journey. A fugitive of the law, he wonders through the wilderness where he stumbles upon “three stupid white men” representing gluttony, greed, and sloth. Testing his disciple’s ability to overcome these evils, Nobody forces Blake to meet them head-on. Assessing the task asked of him, Blake would really rather not go stating “I don’t know them and they don’t look very friendly, what if they kill me?” However, his guide will not allow him to skip the parts of his journey that he finds difficult. He must deal with all of them no matter the sense of danger. Luckily, he has Nobody (a clever pun used in the film her) to “observe.” In one of the more hilarious scenes of the film, Blake goes down to meet the three men who are arranged into a sort of grotesque family unit with one of them taking on a motherly type role by wearing a dress and cooking their dinner. As Blake confronts the three men in the wilderness, the man in the dress (Sally Jenko) quotes the scripture but interprets it incorrectly. This man who preaches the “Word of God” but knows nothing of what he is saying and he lives a dubious lifestyle to say the least. Sally then represents slothfulness because he fails to love God with his whole heart, he reads the Scripture but never takes the time to learn its message and ultimately leads others astray for which he does not care.

The other two men Benmont Tench (gluttony) and Big George (greed) are just as evil and together they pose a very dangerous threat to the quest. Both the men want Blake (it is implied to use him sexual) but for different reasons. Benmont desires Blake because he was simply there. He does not need him at all; he wants to indulge just to do so embodying gluttony.[1] Big George, on-the-other-hand, wants Blake all to himself because Benmont wanted him too saying “if I want this one I’ll have him too by God.” This makes George greedy in the worst of ways since he uses Blake to assert power over his comrades asserting that if he couldn’t have him then nobody could. And Nobody does, coming to his rescue, killing thus helping Blake overcome the evils.

The remaining three evils out to destroy that quest take the form of the three bounty hunters out to kill Blake. The audience learns that these three are much more dangerous and much more a threat to Blake’s quest. These three hired guns, Johnny “the kid” Pickett (wrath), Conway Twill (envy), and Cole Wilson (pride) represent the most deadly of the seven and rightly portrayed as assassins. Pursuing Blake for their reward, the three begin to fight amongst themselves and the audience learns that Cole is the worst of them all. Telling Pickett about Cole’s past, Twill begins the first of the quarrel among the three saying Cole “fucked his parents, he killed them and he ate them. He ain’t got no God damned conscience.” Twill, seeing that he lacks Cole’s reputation as a killer, encourages Pickett to kill Cole since he is disrespectful to “The Kid.” Here one notices how the two evils manifest. Twill envies Cole’s status and wants to see him dead. He is envious both in the classic sense and in the more modern; he wants Cole to fail and also wants what he has. Pickett, because of Twill’s words, is less willing to deal with Cole’s demands and more prone to wrath. With this the evils start to consume each other and all are consumed by pride, the root of all sin, and do not actually come face to face with Blake but still pose a threat to his journey.

In Cole, the audience does not just hear about the evil things he has allegedly done, they get to see it firsthand. At times one thinks that Twill’s story may be part of his “legend” until he kills Pickett and eats Twill. After Cole shoots Pickett from behind for cursing at him, the two remaining sins come across two marshals (discussed later) Blake had recently killed. Falling into an extinguished fire pit, one marshals resembles a sort of sun god in the way that he is positioned. Cole says that he “looks like a goddamn religious icon” and grotesquely smashes his head with the bottom of his boot. One sees pride going out of its way to destroy the quest illustrated here with the head stomp. Pride wants to end the quest because it believes in only itself. It doesn’t need the spirit or a higher power, all it needs is it’s self. With this action Cole is basically saying “Screw God, I can do it on my own.” That is even too much for greed it would seem. But then again, pride doesn’t need the other sins anyway, through pride all the others follow but it is ultimately pride that ruins the quest.

Central to Nobody’s teaching is the need to forgo one’s desires by eliminating pride. It is important to note that Nobody has also undertaken a spiritual quest and has learned that pride is the root of all sin. Not respected in his tribe because his parents belonged to warring tribes, Nobody is an outcast among his people. Wondering alone as a boy, he was kidnapped by whites and his spirit seemed to have left him. Taken and forced to become a sort of living museum or a type of zoo animal for the white world, he is an outcast there as well. Taken to England as a “young savage,” he imitated them so they would lose interest but it only grew. Put into schools, he discovered the work of William Blake. After eventually escaping, he goes back and sees the destruction of his people. Once reunited with his people, the stories of his adventures angered them, he was called him a liar and given the name “He who talks loud but says nothing” (but he prefers to be called Nobody). Pride made his tribe deny him as a person so he became a true outcast. Ridiculed by his own people, left to wonder the earth alone, he was then able to realize his true identity: a nobody.

Even with a fellow outcast who has experienced and learned first hand the negative effects of evil, Blake has trouble following his master. Blake does not always listen to his guide and frustrating him, causing him to lose focus, delaying the quest. As a result, the guide leaves him from time to time. He does this in order to allow Blake to grow on his own. Nobody hints at why he leaves him to fend for himself when he says that “quest for vision is a great blessing… to do so one must go without food and water, all the sacred spirits recognize those who fast, it is good to prepare for a journey in this way.” Here, Nobody leaves Blake because he knows that his student is unable to fend for himself so fasting is really his only option. He must experience the world for himself not rely on others. Through this he will be ready to let go of the desires he holds so dear. Blake, at this point, wants some peyote but Nobody says it is not for him, he is not ready for this part of the spiritual journey. The visions would be too much for him at that point. On the drug, Nobody sees Blake for what he is, a dead man, in the form of a skull. That is what we all really are as far as the flesh goes, but as Blake shows, the spirit goes on anyway and searches for meaning despite eventual death.

Returning to the scene where Blake kills the two marshals, this concept becomes even more interesting. In shooting them dead, one observes Blake beginning to accept his new way of life. When they see Blake in the distance, they ask “are you William Blake?” He replies “yes I am, do you know my poetry” and shows them his new talent by killing them. While he does this he quotes the poem “some are born to endless night.” In this scene, Blake demonstrates that he now embracing the quest that he has undertaken and all that comes with it. Although he is committing unlawful acts that one could argue are wicked in nature, he does what the quest demands of him. Things of the world lose their importance in light of the truly significant. Urgency decides the odyssey. The old Blake is dead and the new Blake must accept his new way of life.

Underlying much of Nobody’s philosophy is the poetry of the historic William Blake which causes some confusion among Nobody, Blake (the character), and the audience. Early in the film after calling Blake a “dead man”, the two characters begin the following dialogue:

Nobody: What name were you given at birth stupid white man?
Blake: William Blake.
Nobody: Then you really are a dead man.

Nobody: You were a poet and a painter, now you are a killer.

In this sense, the past really doesn’t matter in the film as a whole, whether he was a poet or an accountant is not the point. The quest is infinitely within the present. What was done in the past is of little concern, but he cannot escape it. He is always responsible for his past mistakes but in the spiritual quest it is not the most important thing. The quest is in the here and now, the past does not dictate it, it only dictates where he is, not where he goes or what is happening. So when Nobody says “this gun will replace your tongue, you will speak through it, and your poetry will be written in blood,” he illustrates the fact that change is inevitable and Blake’s former life is no longer relevant. The irony of this case of mistaken identities becomes even more significant when looking at the poem “Auguries of Innocence” written by the historical William Blake frequently quoted by Nobody. Consider the last lines of Blake’s poem:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some are Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro' the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Here, Blake is discontent with the wickedness of humanity. Because man is wicked, he is a creature of the night, Cole and Nobody are both equal in this aspect. What separates them, however, is Nobody’s piety and Cole’s lack there of. This illustrates that everyone’s choices ultimately lead them to death but those with faith become souls who dwell in the day.

At this point it is helpful to turn to the historical William Blake, a painter/poet/printer known for his religious fury, argues that man’s corruption causes all suffering. This belief, shown best in his interpretation of “The Book of Job,” illustrates Blake’s indignation for his country and among other things religion. Blake believes that Job, for example, was not innocent and just. He feels that Job was punished for being too indulgent and greedy. In his painting “All of His Children were Eating and Drinking”, Blake shows Satan destroying Job’s family who chose pleasure over the love of God. The transitory life should give way to the religious life of faith in God and the world to come. In “Dead Man”, Blake is a man who indulges in sex and alcohol while lusting for money, qualities that ultimately kill him. His poetry is different than that of William Blake the poet because his is literally written in blood. Poetry for Depp’s Blake shine through as his character’s body count rises and he has thus damned his soul to Hell. This Hell is the one he has created through the sins that Blake criticizes. Our lives are a series of choices that we must live with which are echoed in Blake’s lines “It is right it should be so;/ Man was made for Joy & Woe;/ And when this we rightly know/ Thro' the World we safely go.”

Now that Blake is starting to let go of his former life, he begins to let his attachments drift away slowly fading into the universe. Death is approaching but now is almost ready to accept it but pride still attempts to end the quest. For example, finding a dead baby deer, Blake rubs its blood on his face. This strange sequence is meant to show the viewer that Blake is readying himself for his being one with the universe culminating in death. As he lies with the deer, spooning it, he looks up at the sky signifying his being in the world and his relationship to nature. He is preparing himself while at the same time blending into that spiritual world that he catches glimpses of in the sky. This is followed by a beautiful scene where Blake and nobody travel by horseback through dense forest of trees that are much older than America itself setting the journey in a timeless realm. In the past, present, and future these trees have stood, it is difficult to see the mighty sequoia in any other way than as a metaphor for infinity. Their lifespan, which can reach several hundred years passed the two millennia mark, until only in the last 50 years was thought to be the longest of any organism on the planet and the species still remains the dominate metaphor in nature for eternity.

Following this leg of the journey, Nobody tells Blake that he will be taking him to “the bridge made of waters, the mirror. Then you will be taken up to the next level of the world, the place where William Blake is from, where his spirit belongs. I must make sure that you pass back through the mirror at the place where the sea meets the sky.” Now he is almost ready to finish the journey and little more is need to prepare Blake for the end. He has all but let go of the world as we see in the episode where Nobody takes Blake’s eyeglasses. Even though Blake says “I can’t see anything without them,” he does so jokingly without much desire. This becomes even clearly when Nobody warmly replies “perhaps you will see more clearly without them.” His possessions no longer matter to him, the only thing that does is the quest.

In the trading post scene, the audience sees how far Blake has diverged from his old life. As he walks into the post, the man behind the counter is a religious figure who dresses like a monk. The monk blesses him on his journey and as he is choosing ammunition he tells him that the bullets were “blessed by the archbishop of Detroit.” When Nobody walks into the general store, the owner says “now Lord Jesus Christ, wash this earth with his Holy light, then purge its darkest places from heathens and Philistines.” Nobody, referencing William Blake’s poem “The Everlasting Gospel,” retorts “the vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision’s greatest enemy.” With clear racial tensions present within the scene, Nobody asks to buy tobacco but is told that they are out, he is then offered beads or a blanket. These items, it has just explained, are deliberately contaminated with the small pox virus in order to infect “his people.” After this blatant disrespect, William Blake asks for some tobacco to which he is given a few “twists,” he explains, out of his own personal stash for only personal friends. Because of the wanted posters that are literally everywhere (posters with his likeness are found in the depths of the forest where very few are likely travel, they almost cover a building, and occasional are seen blowing in the wind) Blake is recognized as the fugitive on the run. For a moment the situation becomes tense as the audience and Blake believe the man is going to pull out a weapon in order to collect the hefty sum of money offered for his capture, however, the man pulls out a pen so Blake may sign one of them like a celebrity would sign an autograph. Instead of signing, Blake stabs the man in the hand with the quill. While this particular scene in the film marks another instance where Blake embraces the pilgrimage and its necessary responsibilities, the truly important image here is that of the monk/shop owner. Like Sally Jenko before him, this figure is another allegorical figure of religious hypocrisy. The monk, however, transcends Jenko’s bigotry because he actually understands the scripture yet uses it to justify the part he plays in the genocide of the native people.

Shot again outside of the trading post, Blake is now a magnate for “white man’s metal.” But the two continue on their path now abandoning their horses as they float down the river of forgetfulness leaving that world behind. Blake asks “is this the boat that will take me across, into the mirror of water?” Acceptance has almost come for Blake but he still must go further which Nobody illustrates when he answers “this boat is not strong enough for that William Blake.”
As they follow the current into the unknown, Nobody witnesses signs of destruction to the homes of his people. Teepees and canoes are burning just off the river’s edge, but he also sees signs of hope in nature and also in a totem pole which stands tall as a reminder of faith. It is again important to remember that this quest is not only Blake’s but also Nobody’s. While Nobody had his own spiritual breakthrough long ago, he still finds himself on the course being called to fulfill a greater destiny. Even though he has already reached a destination of sorts, the spiritual quest never really ends. It is like the fish that swims toward the great shore which it can never reach but swims on anyway. It can only end in death.

With the journey coming to an end, the two happen upon an Indian village. Here he is accepted and finally belongs. However, due to his own desires he is still searching for acceptance in the temporary world which in the framework of the film is only a short-term-solution. In his clouded, faltering mind he begins to realize this and has visions leading to a kind of peace. He is finally ready to let go, he is ready to die.

After drifting in and out of consciousness, Blake finds himself on the canoe that will end his journey. The fact that this lake is called a mirror by Nobody is also significant because mirrors are an alternate reality. They are fixed and empty yet show an infinite world that one cannot cross over. Recall Blake’s lines “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour,” these lines illustrate the significance of death that one cannot comprehend while holding on to life. It is impossible to comprehend Infinity and Eternity because of our limited understanding just as it is impossible to crossover without death. The mirror of water is a strange motif in another way. When looking down at water, one sees the reflection of him or her self, but, if this person were to become submerged then the mirror is not what it appeared to be and our perceptions have been fooled.

Just before setting him out to sea, Nobody assures him “it is time for you to leave now William Blake, time for you to go back to where you came from.” In a darkly humorous moment, clearly on the brink of death, Blake asks “you mean Cleveland?” But he understands that the venture is coming to its close and the spirit is finally separating from the flesh that has taken him so far. Nobody confirms the ultimate, saying “back to the place where all the spirits came from and where all the spirits return. This world will no longer concern you.” After pushing Blake’s canoe into the unknown, Nobody encounters Cole (thus pride) who even to the very end attempts to hinder Blake’s progression. The scene haunts the audience in part because of the contrast between Nobody and Cole. Totally opposing forces, one represents piety and the other the destruction of religion and the soul. Nobody practices his religion and respects his fellow man while Cole is a despicable character that does nothing outside of his own self-interests. In the end these two characters cancel each other out. Blake, however, has already been set free by this time. Not only does evil lack any power over him but his guide as well is of no more use to him illustrated by the two shooting and killing each other in a final showdown. Barely looking up, his final attachments have been removed.

While everyone’s journey in this world leads to death, the journey does not end there for Blake the poet or the character. Depp’s Blake is in Hell and it is not until he lets go and accept his death that he is able to end his suffering. For Blake the poet, this world is one that is corrupt and filled with suffering. It is only the peace of death that ends suffering for all.

[1] To further this argument it should also be noted that Benmont wouldn’t give Blake any beans even though he clearly had a surplus.

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