Dead Man (1995)
Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1
If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.
As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.