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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.2 (2001) 171-200

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Graphic Violence
Native Americans and the Western Archive in Dead Man

Justus Nieland
Indiana University-Bloomington


JIM JARMUSCH'S HAUNTING WESTERN, DEAD MAN (1996), SET IN THE 1870S, opens with an extended pre-credit sequence that inaugurates the film's complicated relationship to America's historical archive—a record structured by conflict, hybridity, and violence. Cleveland accountant William Blake, a foppishly clad Johnny Depp, sits uncomfortably on a train headed west to the town of Machine, where he has accepted a job as an accountant at Dickinson's Metal Works. In a long series of quick blackout scenes, Jarmusch crosscuts insistently between the ominous chugging of the locomotive's wheels (conventionally, Hollywood shorthand for historical progress and Western expansion) and the interior of Blake's cabin. Inside, as the journey progresses, the changing passengers around Blake grow increasingly threatening, disheveled, and barbaric; outside, the landscape Blake observes becomes increasingly foreign. Near the end of the sequence, the train's soot-faced fireman (Crispin Glover) seats himself opposite Blake and volunteers this bizarre monologue: "Look out the window. And doesn't it remind you of when you're in the boat, and then later that night you're lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the [End Page 171] landscape, and you think to yourself, 'Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?'" 1 While oddly prophetic of the film's closing scene, which places a dying Blake in a boat to witness an historical tableaux of inter-cultural conflict, the boiler-man's dreamy rant also implies how past and present blur together, experiences transfer over time and space, and memories work as stratified temporalities, what Henri Bergson once called "sheets of the past." As such, this speech indexes the psychic mechanisms through which events (both being "in the boat" and "in the train" in this case) are experienced, archived, and recollected. Like contemporary theoretical debates about trauma, the boiler-man's trippy associative chain troubles any clean distinctions between feeling and experience, affect and event. Indeed, Dead Man can be understood as an examination—both thematic and formal—of the ethical implications of such time/space confusions for any attempts, including Jarmusch's own, to set historical, cultural, and indeed generic records straight.

Not surprisingly for those familiar with Jarmusch's work, Dead Man returns to such records through a decidedly unconventional narrative. Denied the accounting job in Machine, Blake is seriously wounded in a gunfight with the son of his would-be boss, whom the clerk kills in the first of a series of awkward and unstylized acts of violence in the film. Dying and forced to flee Machine, Blake becomes allied with Nobody, an outcast Native American and fan of apocalyptic English poet and "prophet against empire" William Blake, for whom he mistakes Depp's Cleveland accountant. 2 The majority of the movie follows Blake and Nobody's increasingly phantasmagoric movement westward through the wilderness as they are pursued by a rogue's gallery of self-cannibalizing bounty hunters and marshals. This trajectory witnesses Blake's gradual metamorphosis into a quasi-mythic killer of white men, his hallucinogenic entry into a Makah settlement (paralleling his earlier movement into Machine), and his death, his "passing through the mirror," as Nobody calls it, in the Pacific Ocean.

Part of what makes Dean Man a privileged point of entry into questions about the archive is its curious generic status. Not only does the film resist easy generic categorization (it has been variously called a meditation on death and transfiguration, an allegory, a vision quest, a tone poem, an acid [End Page 172] Western, an anti-Western, a revisionist Western, a "fairy-tale western that howls in the moonlight"(!), a political film, a metaphysical journey, and a poetic dismissal "of the United States of America's very existence") but it also—in its complicated relationship to the Western—launches an "independent" archival...


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