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Dead Man (1995), Part I

Dead Man (1995), Part I

Preamble

On the 8th of November 2016, the Nobel laureate for economics, Paul Krugman, wondered whether the USA had become a ‘failed state and society’. The statement found in a brief article written for the New York Times is a crystallised expression of his utter bewilderment, disbelief, and despair not only about the result of the election, or what could only be described as a ‘dumpster-fire’ of the campaign itself, but also about the elements of US society which had unfailingly made their presence known despite the alleged unintelligibility of their beliefs. Krugman, of course, had known of their existence and views. Yet, when their candidate was about to prevail, he admitted that he no longer knew anything about the country which he still probably considers his home.

Whilst Krugman is justified to express his shock, exasperation, and despair, the above statement makes one wonder whether the perceived ‘Great Divide’ of American society is only a recent phenomenon. It also makes one question whether the traditional understanding of American politics as the contest between opposing ideologies, that is, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’, is a correct one. Whilst it is certainly interesting to pursue these inquiries, they are beyond the scope of my project. Instead, I wish to reevaluate the story of the United States through the critical examination of select films which I find particularly illuminating. I am specifically interested in examining the nature and the origin of what we might call ‘American Contradictions’. Each of them is unique to America, either in theory or in praxis, and the Gestalt of such contradictions defines what America was, what it is now, and what it is going to be. Whilst each film in this series, ultimately, must be judged by its own merit, it is my hope that, together, as a whole, they may present a coherent portrait of the United States, not necessarily flattering, yet fascinating nonetheless.

 

The Waste Land

To begin our inquiry, there is no better place than Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man (1995). This film enjoys many distinctions regarding the ways in which it comprehensively shatters the narcissistic notion of the ‘Frontier’, which is universally accepted, both by Americans and non-Americans, as the defining feature of American Geist. Jarmusch’s sixth feature is an ambitious project which aims to transform America’s self-image, and suggests a different attitude toward its past and present, as well as its future. Dead Man is a truly important film not only because of its theoretical scope; it is a cinema of astounding beauty with considerable depth and complexity. It is a singular achievement both for Jarmusch as well as American cinema; never has an American film been able to produce a work that contains the potential to initiate a seismic shift in a given society’s self-consciousness with a profound philosophical, poetic, and comedic effect of this magnitude. And thus, Dead Man is at once a triumph and tragedy for American independent film. Despite, or because of, its magnificent quality, it failed to reach the majority of American audiences, and it was dismissed by critics as a typical ‘art-house’, ‘post-modern’, movie. America has a long tradition of punishing its bests, and once again, it cast one of its brightest offsprings into exile. The film has been a critical success internationally, yet its promise has never been materliased at home.

Set in the 19th century, Dead Man follows the fate of a quite ordinary chap, William Blake (Johnny Depp). Hailed from a town near Cleveland, Ohio, our protagonist is on his way to a colonial outpost, or the ‘town’ called Machine, to take up a position of accountant at Dickinson Metal Works. The journey starts uneventful enough; Blake sits in a crowded car with urbane passengers who are determined to avoid any form of contact with one another. Yet, as the steam train hurries along, the landscape begins to show the true nature of his journey; the forest becomes dark and dense, and Blake spots an abandoned carriage, as well as a destroyed tepee, the sights of which give stark forewarnings to our helpless protagonist. Across the desert, and over the mountains, the train flees into the unknown. The changes are not limited to the landscape; his fellow travelers apper different. Gone are the urban middle class to which Blake belongs. First, Blake acknowledges the presence of the rural population with whom he has had little or no acquaintance to this point. Then, awoken from a restless slumber, he found himself in the midst of a ‘wild bunch’; gun-slinging fur traders of the West, who confront the stranger with a mixture of naked contempt and savage indifference.

At this point, someone finally takes interest in Blake and speaks to him. The stoker of the train (Crispin Glover) appears and takes an opposite seat from Blake. Despite being the only person with whom Blake can converse, there is something unnerving about the stoker. Emerging from the infernal fire and black smoke bellowing from the furnace, he asks Blake to look outside the window. The stoker continues dreamily by uttering a strange observation: the way the landscape rushes by the train window reminds him of an experience on water; when one lies against the vast open sky in a boat on still water, despite the lack of motion, the landscape slides away, and one struggles to explain why. This strange utterance impresses the stoker to us as a mythical figure, despite that we won’t know his significance until later in the film. Then, suddenly, he initiates a seemingly normal conversation with Blake and inquires into his personal life. Blake reluctantly reveals his recent losses; the departures of his parents, as well as the split with his fiancée. The stoker insists that, though grave as they are, such losses cannot be enough reasons for Blake to come all the way down to this ‘Hell’. As Blake shows a letter from the ‘town’ of Machine promising a job, the stoker, though he cannot read the document himself, warns him not to trust no words written in no piece of paper out here. He emphasises with great fear that the ‘town’ of Machine is the end of line, wherein the only thing Blake is going to find is his own grave. At this point, it starts to dawn on us that this train is not taking Blake to an earthly destination; it is taking him on a mythical journey, and the stoker (an obvious nod to Kafka’s Amerika) is a modern day steward who brings our protagonist across the River Styx. Despite being unable to alter his passenger’s destiny, the stoker shows humaneness with his desire to know why Blake is on this one-way trip. In fact, he is the first of (only) three who demonstrates empathy and decency toward our protagonist, as he wanders the vortex of lust, greed, and violence.

As if the starkness of warning from the stoker is not enough to make a point, fur-clad, bearded men soon start firing their rifles through the windows; according to the stoker, they are shooting at a herd of American bisons, whose casualties reached a mark of over one million in the past year alone. This scene refers to the main reason why this formidable animal quickly approached a state of near extinction: violent senselessness. As this scene amply demonstrates, white settlers did not always kill them for profit; whilst the meat, bones, fur, and skin of American bisons were prized commodities, colonists shot them whenever possible, even when they could not gain anything from the killing. In just one scene, Jarmusch makes it absoutely clear: the so-called ‘Frontier’ is a territory of vicious absurdity. These ‘wild men’ demonstrate no sign of humaneness or civility; they are crude, violent thugs with guns, and these are the ‘people’ amongst whom our hero must exist from now on. Unfortunately, Blake is no longer able to turn back; he bet everything on this prospective job, and thus he has no money for the return journey. He soon discovers just how true the words of the stoker were. The destination, the ‘town’ of Machine, is one of countless white colonies, built around a specific enterprise, whose ‘boss’ (in this case, it is Mr. Dickinson, delightfully performed by the late Robert Mitchum) commands absolute power, and literally decides who lives and who dies. Typical of such a colony in the West, Machine exists to supply the needs of the enterprise by catering its workforce to alcohol and prostitution. As Blake walks into town, hard, hostile, and shameless stares stab him. The ‘street’ is ornamented with skulls of animals and humans, and Blake witnesses a woman being forced to perform oral sex on a thug in the open at gun point; noting a spectator, the beast points a revolver at him, as if weapons do all the talking in this wasteland.

Remarkably, all of this happens in the first twelve minutes or so (including title credit) of the movie. Utilising a seemingly ingenuous method of telling a nuanced story by frequently inserting blank moments provides Jarmusch a significant creative benefit in Dead Man; it enabled him to condense what must be normally a tedious process of reevaluating the notion of the ‘American Frontier’ into a dozen minutes at the very beginning of the movie, thereby freeing himself and the audience to explore hidden and willfully forgotten stories of America at its infancy with a rare clear-sightedness. Jarmusch’s swiftness in demolishing the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’ also owes to the painstaking accuracy with which the director represents the period. Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its objective description of the life in the ‘Frontier’ of the given period. This accuracy was not only applied to the way in which white settlers’ lives are represented; Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its non-stereotypical representation of Native Americans, and it is one of the very few films which feature a Native American as one of the main protagonists. (In Dead Man, Nobody, iconised by Gary Farmer, is one of the three main characters alongside William Blake and Cole Wilson, performed by Lance Henriksen.) Jarmusch's effort to represent Native Americans as agents is genuine and sincere; Dead Man features at least two distinct Native American languages, the Cree and the Blackfoot respectively, and some of the speeches in these languages include in-jokes exclusively aimed at Native American audiences and presented without English translation. Hence, despite its fantastical storyline and its characters, through the visual and sonic experience of the film, Dead Man not only escapes stereotypes, but also destroys them; these images are so powerfully different from anything we have previously known. Through the rest of the movie, Jarmusch continues to demolish the narcissistic notion of the ‘American Frontier’, the concept which fundamentally defines America’s self-image. From a political/cultural standpoint, every Geist must be represented by a grossly simplified notion, or better, an iconic image, in order to appeal to the imagination of the masses. History, art, and political theory are employed to create an appearance of coherence within a Geist, so that the members of a society may have a ‘rallying point’, if you will. The masses take such a collective identity for granted, and generally feel fiercely protective of the idea of what makes them who they are. There are two aspects of the construction and the maintenance of a collective identity: a theory and its aesthetic expressions. As we can observe in mythologies, theorising and its aestheticisation are oft manifested through one instance of expression. For Americans, however, there are two historically significant instances which are worth investigating. And, for the construction of American identity, one theoretician’s work proved to be decisive.

 

The Myth of the ‘Frontier’

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1931), a prominent historian known for his ‘Frontier Thesis’ (‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, 1893), proclaimed that white colonists’ experiences during the invasion of the western territories of ‘North America’ forged the ‘American character’, which consists of traits such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘egalitarianism’, disregard for high-culture, and strong predisposition toward violence (Turner relied on the definition of the ‘Frontier’ used by the government census at the time of his writing, and thus his ‘Frontier’ includes parts of the Midwest as well as some parts of the South, as opposed to the contemporary definition of the ‘Frontier’ as the western territory beyond the Mississippi River). Unsurprisingly, Turner enshrines the above characteristics; with his celebrated thesis, he sought to make a distinction between traditional European, more specifically English, character, and the ‘national character’ of the new republic in the latter’s favour. Such traits were ‘hard-earned’ by the ‘pioneers’, or white colonists who were motivated to move westward by the promise of gains through ruthless land grabbing. Turner went so far as to proclaim that each of such traits contributes to the establishment and the progression of American democracy. This is a controversial statement to say the least. Since his concept of America and its democracy consists of so many layers of contradictions, I shall consider some of them in a section reserved for the analysis of various contradictions affecting American Form of Life. Thus, at this point of inquiry, I shall only make one observation: As Turner was keen to make a distinction between Imperial Europe and democratic America, Turner’s theory leaves us with many questions. For example, Turner cannot explain the reasons why some ‘Europeans’ in America adopted the alleged ‘American character’ whilst others did not. Turner’s sweeping assertion of the singular importance of ‘Frontier’ is also suspect; ’Americans’ fostered diverse sets of regional cultures, and thus it is difficult to justify Turner’s selective bias for the ‘Frontier Form of Life’ over all others. Furthermore, Turner has no explanation whatsoever why Americans alone developed these particular traits; other colonial settlers world-wide did not develop what Turner considers as specifically an American character. Australians, for example, are known for their ‘mateship’, the opposite trait to the extreme individualism with which Americans identify themselves. Turner offers neither the explanation as to why some ‘Europeans’ developed the traits he declared American, nor the reasons why other European colonies did not develop similar characteristics. And thus, one must seriously question whether Frontier Thesis is what it aspires to be: an explanatory theory of the origin of alleged ‘American character’ and the nature of ‘American democracy’.

As Turner’s thesis quickly became dominant amongst American intellectuals, there have been some competing views on America’s national character. Whilst Turner embraced the violent and lawless aspects of ‘Frontier Life’ as American ‘liberty’, Americans generally prefer not to face this aspect of their history objectively. This fact seems to suggest that the desire, or necessity, to construct a ‘positive’ self-image for Americans stems not only from the routine legitimation of its national sovereignty, but also from the determination to legitimise their ruthless colonial expansion at the expense of Native Americans as the means to achieve an (allegedly great) end. Whilst there are quite a few ways to construct a believable narrative to legitimise the birth of a nation, a particular concept has been enlisted by the establishment of the republic, such as the ‘Founding Fathers’ and their successors, for the defence of America’s colonial agendas: the ‘newness’ of the country which supposedly marked the new beginning for ‘humanity’. Despite the fact that the concept of a republican government originates from Europe, and that it is not the only form of democracy, Americans decided that the birth of their nation deserves a special credit: America must be a beacon of hope for ‘humanity’ as the first, and the original, democratic republic. Seeing their nation as the blueprint of future ‘human’ progress, Americans also regard their ‘newness’ as a unique virtue, that is, it is the declaration of a complete break from the Past. Energised by the new philosophy which signaled the break from ecclesiastical authority, the ‘new’ scientific advancement, and the brute force of Industrial Revolution, American intellectuals, like their European counterparts, were confident that the new dawn of 'humanity' was within their grasp, and, as the ‘people’ of new beginning, they wished to position themselves as the vanguard of progress. (The cultural significance of America’s self-identification with this concept is quite visible. For example, America’s obsession with ‘youth’ can be partially explained by their identification with the notion of ‘newness’, which they tend to regard as a virtue in itself.)

As I shall elaborate later, this Enlightenment aspect of America’s genesis creates a tension with its religious element. This stark opposition was evident from the very beginning, as the religious held some of the founding members of the government, most notably Thomas Jefferson, in suspicion and contempt, and the continuation of this narrative is very much at front and centre of American politics even today. The religious aspects of the nation fight to ensure that the ‘Age of Reason’ and materialism would not triumph, yet, the ideological opposition that supposedly divides ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurred with confusions. Except the Amish, Americans, including the religious, embrace the ‘newness’, the concept which is confusedly tied to America's national identity. ‘Confusedly’, because the alleged ‘newness’ is sometimes about various modern concepts such as democratic republicanism, non-traditional thinking and behaviours, or novel innovations in science and technology, yet other times, it is really about ‘new’ things, such as new weapons, new territory, new gadgets, new… anything. (There is also a religious element to the notions of ‘newness’ and the ‘New World’, and thus further complicating the matter. I shall postpone the discussion of this point to the Part II.) This is due to a certain historic contingency; America’s westward expansion was accelerated by one of the most significant technological advances of the day: the railroad. The ‘progress’ of the ‘New World’ was enabled by the industrialisation and capitalist economy, and thus capitalism and Industrial Materialism are indispensable parts of America’s self-consciousness: Despite the religious aspects of their Geist, these ideologies represent their ‘core values’. That being acknowledged, it must be noted that neither of these ideologies began in America; Europeans, especially British, must be credited for setting both capitalism and Industrial Materialism in motion by igniting Industrial Revolution. And thus, despite being the first democratic republic, from theoretical standpoint, there is nothing ‘new’ about America; it is a product of European experiment. And, like its future counterpart, the USSR, it was on course to overshadow its inventor, become the champion of Industrial Materialism, and carries the legacy of global imperialism inherited from their European counterpart.

It is interesting to note that, despite his belief in the uniqueness of American Geist, Turner appears to appreciate the notion of ‘newness’, the notion embraced also by pre-Frontier colonists. Given his rejection of all things ‘civilised’ and 'European' as non-American, this strikes us as a curious phenomenon. Hence, it is important to note what the concept of ‘newness’ specifically meant for Turner. Whist Turner accepts the notion of America as the ‘New World’, he applies a different understanding to this concept. For Turner, ‘newness’ has nothing to do with an advancement of ‘humankind’, whether speaking philosophically, scientifically, technologically, or even morally; it is only about the rebirth of European settlers into a new people: according to Turner, they were born again as American people through their colonial struggles. In fact, he vehemently opposes the modern, Enlightenment narrative of humanism; he famously argues that European settlers became Americans for the first time in the wilderness of the ‘American Frontier’, wherein lawlessness reigned and thus conflicts were primarily settled with force and violence. Turner proclaims that American democracy is not the end result of the work of European philosophers and political theorists; it was forged by the bloody colonial struggles in the ‘Frontier’, and thus it bears the weight of its particularly American heritage. He even offers a warning that, with the completion of territorial expansion in the North America, the ‘American Frontier’ will cease to exist, and the stifling influence of ‘civilisation’ and the government institutions might annihilate the newly discovered American ‘freedom’, which thrived without the ‘interference’ of the government or other established social institutions. White colonists of the ‘Wild West’ relied on ad-hoc organisations which ‘performed’ many governmental functions such as law enforcement and judiciary, in the form of ‘rough justice’. For Turner, such a primitive form of society observed in the ‘American Frontier’ was a prerequisite condition of American ‘liberty’. His concerns about the survival of American ‘liberty’ and democracy have been addressed by many, and some sought to apply the concept of ‘Frontier’ by setting America’s territorial ambitions to overseas, space, and cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, Turner does not reject Industrial Materialism so long as it furthers the interests of white colonists. Turner simply regards the power of industry as an integral part of American Form of Life, and does neither question Industrial Materialism's origin nor its role in the formulation of American Geist. He was only interested in constructing an effective narrative for the case of American 'Frontier' as the singularly most important influence on the birth of 'new people' and 'new civilisation'.

For Turner, thus, some Americans are mere ‘Europeans’. The ‘Founding Fathers’ are mere 'European' theorists. He also discredited the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, a group of Puritans who fled England in seeking their religious freedom; for Turner, they are English, not Americans yet. Generally these two groups of colonists are regarded as the first ‘Americans’, yet Turner exhibits uninhibited hostility toward them. His open contempt towards the organised civic society of Europe and New England, and his peculiar definition of American character, are eerily familiar. One can readily recognise the manifestation of Turnerian disdain of civic values in contemporary ‘democratic’ grassroots movements in the United States (I shall elaborate on why many populist movements in the US, and elsewhere, are ‘democratic’ only on paper in the later section about American Contradictions). Whilst it is hard to understand many Americans’ irrational rejection of basic social programs such as healthcare and retirement pension as ‘government overreach’ and ‘overregulation’ by the Washington élites, once one traces their rejection of the civic society back to Turner, despite its irrationality, these American reactions begin to make sense. Whilst there is no way to precisely measure the influence of Turner’s polemics, given what we see today in the United States, it is permissible to think that Frontier Thesis may have been the most decisive factor for the determination of American Geist. Hence, we must ask ourselves: Why has Turner’s thesis been so influential? Whilst there are a few reasons for its enduring popularity, two factors must be noted in order to diagnose one of the most dangerous elements of populist narratives: There is a certain vagueness and crude simplicity in Turner’s thesis. Because it is vague, it is easy to interpret as we please. And due to its oversimplification, it is also very easy to follow.

By seeking to vindicate the white settlers’ experience through the colonisation of vast territories which was to become known as North America, Turner’s thesis created a simple image according to which Americans still wish to be defined today: rugged, resilient, and fiercely independent ‘people’. Turner’s description of so-called American character proved to be highly effective and soon became the cornerstone of American history courses. The sweeping success of Frontier Thesis owes to its simplicity and vagueness. Being a historian, Turner relied on his observation of contingent matters of fact, that is, the reported facts on the ‘American Frontier’. Yet, Turner was very discriminating; remarkably, he ignores some elements of white colonial life, such as religious orientations (or its lack thereof in some quarters), social classes, and economic developments, and implicitly allows one prerequisite condition for the entitlement of this character: whiteness. Since Turner’s theory is intended to be an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis supposedly explains the origin of an already existing phenomenon: America’s national character. And thus, there is no need for one to have an actual experience of participating in the colonial expansion in the 'Frontier' to adopt 'American' character; yet, still, a Turnerian American is expected to be white. This means one thing: so long as someone fulfills a sufficient condition of being a white American, one could adopt and identify oneself with Turner’s characterisation. Yet, Frontier Thesis and Turner’s American character have been embraced by all spectrums of American society as a national identity, and, logically speaking, quite justifiably so. Whilst white suprematists regard whiteness as a necessary condition to fit the category of ‘American’, and Turner himself might have agreed with them, this assessment is based on a category mistake; given the nature of the theory, which is based on matters of fact, the observed whiteness of colonists is contingent, not necessary; these colonists happened to be whites, yet there is nothing to tell us that they absolutely had to be so. Whilst the colonists to whom Turner referred were whites, and thus his thesis strictly colonial in nature, the whiteness is, again, a sufficient condition based on the observation of a contingent matter of fact. The lack of necessary condition for the entitlement of 'American character' adds a certain vagueness to the membership criteria of being an 'American', and thus allows loose interpretations of his theory; at least in principle, regardless of race, gender, social class, and religious affiliation or its lack thereof, all Americans can identify themselves with the alleged national character, hence the popularity. Additionally, Turner’s theory is crudely simplistic; it is in fact a sweeping conjecture in a strictest sense of the word. Whilst his observation of the ‘American Frontier’ and its influence is useful in explaining certain American attitudes of the past and the present, Turner attributes too much credit to the influence of the white colonist experience in the ‘Frontier’. Whilst Frontier Thesis captured the imagination of an American populace, and it has been generally accepted as a self-evident truth, American society is too complex to be summerised neatly by a single theory. It is oft described as an ideologically ‘divided’ society, yet if one carefully considers, it becomes clear that American society has been made up of wildly complex segregations that is better described as a fractured, not divided, nation. And thus, despite its popularity, the alleged ‘American character’ must be considered as a popular myth. It is a story fabricated by a white settler to glorify his country's colonial origin, and thus, it is inherently and unprohibitedly narcissistic.

In truth, there is nothing to understand in Turner’s thesis. As an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis is a complete failure. In fact, notwithstanding Turner’s intention, Frontier Thesis does not explain the origin of American character: It created it. Turner merely answered the need for Americans to establish a unique national identity, as all social groups strive to do. His work was timely, and his thesis proved to be very pleasing to Americans. As William S. Burroughs oft quipped: Tell them what they want to hear, and they will believe anything you say. Turner’s Frontier Thesis was a propaganda piece which created the national character of the United States by weaving a seemingly coherent narrative based on some matters of facts, rather than what it pretended to be, that is, an explanatory theory of an already existing ‘American character’ as such. And what Turner achieved with his thesis is critical to the formation of American identity, for Turner managed to create a narrative which at once justified American society, with its lack of cohesiveness and its many contradictions, as a new form of civilisation. And this formula proved to be powerfully and enduringly appealing to Americans. Even today, despite academic scrutinies, Turner’s thesis remains dominant, and the popularity of Turnerian American identity has always been relentlessly exploited by politics, commerce, and media to a nauseating effect. Whilst historians and politicians have been keen to benefit from Turner’s story, and have been spinning it for all its worth, it still needed an external support to capture the imagination of the masses, and it was a particular genre of American cinema, that is, Western movies, fulfilled such a role. Whilst Turner's thesis has been dominant in history courses, in a society with anti-intellectual attitude, a single theory, however respected, cannot have a powerful influence on the society at large. Fortunately for Turner and his thesis, Western films made Turner's view accessible to the masses, and successfully popularised it. This is precisely why Jarmusch chose to deconstruct this genre in his sixth feature film as a way to confront America’s self-image. In order to comprehensively debunk the celebrated image of ‘American people’ represented by this genre, however, Jarmush needed to do more than the objective representation of the ‘American Frontier’. He must identify its living icon, and expose what it really represents. (To be continued)

Dead Man (1995), Part II

Dead Man (1995), Part II