Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Now You Are a Killer of White Men: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Traditions of Revisionism in the Western

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Now You Are a Killer of White Men: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Traditions of Revisionism in the Western

Article excerpt

Reviewers of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man called it everything from "staggeringly boring [and] utterly pointless" (William Arnold qtd. in Baltake) to Jarmusch's best film since Stranger Than Paradise (Ansen 75; Klawans 36). But nearly all agreed that the black-andwhite Western was a departure not only from Jarmusch's previous films, which took place in contemporary urban settings, but also from the Western as a genre. It was called an "anti-Western" (Baltake), a "Post-Western" (Leong), and a film that "bears very little resemblance to any other Western you've ever seen" (Jones 45). Some reviewers took pains to distinguish Dead Man not simply from Westerns as a whole but also from Westerns such as Little Big Man (Jones 45) and The Wild Bunch (Spence D.) that were likewise seen in their time as signifying a rupture in the genre; Joe Baltake contrasted Dead Man with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Bad Company, The Culpepper Cattle Company, Dirty Little Billy, Kid Blue, The Hired Hand, and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, which "seemed like aberrations at the time of their release-anti-- Westerns-but, in retrospect, now loom as the last great period for this lost, lamented genre."

Baltake's comment, taken with the variety of "anti-Westerns" to which Dead Man has been alternately compared and contrasted, testifies to a certain confusion, or at least a fluidity, about what exactly distinguishes a traditional Western from a revisionist one. Indeed, revisionism itself is something of a tradition in the Western. There is a long history of Westerns positioning themselves against previous Westerns, claiming to present a newly sympathetic and realistic view of Indian culture and a new condemnation of white conquest, only to find themselves a generation or two later the traditional Westerns against which new ones are positioned.1 This pattern is probably due to the fact that, as scholars such as Roy Harvey Pearce, Robert Berkhofer, and Armando Prats have shown, "revisionist" Westerns participate in the same ideology they attempt to criticize. Dead Man, with its surrealism and black humor, certainly does differ from previous Westerns in many respects, but it also has a great deal in common with them, particularly in its treatments of the Indian,2 the white villains, and the white hero. Specifically, the Indian depends for authoritative representation on white discourse, and his alliance with the white hero serves to exonerate the latter from the other whites' project of conquest and establish him as inheritor of the American Eden. The structure of the film resembles what Richard Slotkin has identified as the myth of the West: the separation of the hero from his society and regression to a more primitive state, in which he achieves "regeneration through violence" (12) in preparation for a new society (14).

This is not to say that Dead Man, or any Western-or indeed any film-mindlessly replicates the dominant ideology of the filmmaker's culture. As Judith Mayne contends, there is no such thing as a purely "dominant" (traditional) or "oppositional" (revisionist) film or interpretation; it is more accurate and useful to consider all films "negotiations" of dominant and oppositional elements (172). I have chosen to focus on the "dominant" or traditional elements in Dead Man not because they are the only ones there, but because they have not received attention. Just as it is fruitful to examine films dismissed as wholly conservative for potential ruptures in their conservatism, it is also fruitful to examine a film like Dead Man, presented and received as revisionist, for ways in which its revisionism falls short. The point is not to castigate Jarmusch, nor to imply in some essentialist way that a white filmmaker is incapable of making a "respectful" film about Native Americans, but to cast light on narrative patterns that might affect such a project.

The plot of Dead Man is as follows: An accountant named Bill Blake (Johnny Depp) spends his last cent to move West only to find that the job he expects no longer exists. …

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