The slick and the dead
With Down By Law, Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch established himself as the coolest cult director around. He tells Trevor Johnston why he’s heading back in time and way out west with Johnny Depp in Dead Man.
Let‘s face it. you‘d be shocked ifyou found him wearing a Hawaiian shin. Jim Jarmusch is black jeans. black shirt, silver quiff. You might have seen his hilarious cameo recently in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster‘s Blue In The Face. Well. that’s him. Mr Laidback. takes his anecdotes at a measured pace. interests include smoking and the movies — if not smoking in the movies.
He‘s damn good at impressions too. You liked his Nazi ofﬁcer voice on screen? In person, he‘s quite uncanny as Tom Waits (his drinking mate whom he met on an all-night session in New York in I984)
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Johnny Depp in Dead Man: ‘lle’s treated like some movle star, but really, he’s an artlst.’
and. even more unlikely. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum. who has a small part in the writer- director‘s latest movie. Dead Man — an idiosyncratic take on the classic Western with Johnny Depp in what you could probably call the title role.
Mitchum. in ﬁne or'nery form. plays the frontier town head honcho who confides in a stuffed grizzly bear and sends out a posse in pursuit when he reckons Depp is responsible for shooting his son and ﬁancee. Depp in the meantime has picked up a bullet for his pains, though all he ever wanted was a job as an accountant. and what he least expects is to be taken in hand by an Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer). who mistakes him for William Blake (the William Blake) and sets about organising the sort of funeral rites appropriate for such a great spirit.
Along the way we get Iggy Pop in a dress. Lance Henricksen as a mean-assed bounty hunter. and lots of Neil Young practising his feedback on the soundtrack. Did someone say ‘classic Western“? This is your Jim Jarmusch Western. like Stranger Than Paradise was your Jim Jarmusch road movie. or Down By Law your Jim Jarmusch prison picture.
‘I just needed to get out of the city and work in landscapes that were devoid of human constructions.‘ he says ofthis unexpected lurch into the l9th century. shot by cameraman Robby Miiller in the kind of silvery monochrome that looks like it could be a hundred years old.
‘And I do like Westerns in that they always seem to be a way in which America comments on itself or looks at itself. Even if you don’t like the ideology that‘s stamped all over a John Ford ﬁlm, it can still be fascinating in the way it reﬂects a lot ofthings about the culture. After all, America is built on guns. built on violence. built on genocide. It‘s like the people were given guns and told to shoot everything that moves. Every Indian, every animal. Go shoot ‘em all because that‘s how we’re gonna make our country.‘
Dead Man certainly reflects the notion that America is still a frontier society (‘I have guns myself, I was raised with them,‘ says the boy from Akron, Ohio, rather offhandedly) and its gunﬁre, cannibalism and head-crushing psychosis is something of a departure
'for the ﬁlmmaker who brought us the comic mantra
‘I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!‘.
Jarmusch himself. though. reckons the carnage
‘isn‘t exploitation. or poetic Peckinpah slow-motion. - or isn‘t-it-cool-to-shoot people. it has consequences.
The lilm tries to show the ease with which you can adapt to violence. particularly in America. It‘s almost as if it becomes Johnny‘s job. something he does in order to survive as far as his own death. Johnny‘s subtlety and his physical presence enabled him to capture this essentially reactive side of his character. and he seemed to understand the emotional curve of the story without overdoing it. He doesn‘t have to wave flags at the audience to tell them “Hey! I change here!" and I've a lot of respect for him as an actor because of that. He‘s treated like some movie star, but really. he‘s an artist.’
True. Dead Man isn‘t as far up the Johnny-Depp- Weirdsville-O-Meter as. say. Arizona Dream. but quotations from William Blake. Indian mysticism and a key character called Nobody do push Jarmusch‘s movie in a somewhat trippier direction than we might have expected — and it‘s not entirely down to Neil Young‘s guitar freakout score either. The critics at Cannes last year didn’t altogether know what to make of it when it premiered in the competition in a looser and longer cut than the ﬁnal release version (which Jarmusch himself is a lot happier with). Don't worry though. the slow-fuse humour is still there and the man in black is keen to assure everyone that it's not such a difﬁcult movie to grasp after all.
‘To me the central story of Dead Man is a very simple metaphor. and it has more to do with physical life than death. It‘s a voyage that we take. Death is the end point and it‘s important in the ﬁlm as a way of accepting the whole journey. To me. death is the great contradiction: we all know it‘s gonna happen. but no one can say what it‘s going to be like, so we‘ve invented all sorts of structures around that which are primarily systems to control people. I personally ﬁnd something purer in Buddhism or Native American or Aboriginal spirituality than someone saying that Christ tells you you have to do this, don‘t do that or you‘ll fry in hell. It‘s pretty funny that people are willing to base their lives on that.‘
Dead Man opens at the Cameo, Edinburgh. on Fri 5 July and the Glasgow Film Theatre on Fri 9 August.
The List 28 Jun-ll Jul 1996 28