Mad Poets: William Blake, Jim Jarmusch and
By Rick Curnutte.
Richard A. Curnutte,
Jr. is the Editor of The Film Journal. He has studied English
and Film at Ohio University and The Ohio State University. He
is a founding member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association
and a member of the Online Film
"Without contraries is no progression. Attraction
and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary
to human existence."
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "The
William Blake, largely considered one of the English language's
most important and influential writers and generally considered
to be one of the key people responsible for the birth of the Romantic
Movement in poetry, was really "not fully rediscovered and
rehabilitated until a full century after his death" (Appelbaum
v). A victim of misunderstanding and the prejudices of his Christian
contemporaries, it would take over a half century before Blake
was cast back into the mainstream of literary thought and study.
In his 3-volume The Letters of Charles and May Lamb, E.V.
Lucas commented to Bernard Barton that, "Blake is a real
name, I assure you - and a most extraordinary man if he be still
living (Lucas, ii. 424). Indeed, he lived, but by this time he
was destitute and living in virtual anonymity, as he would the
rest of his life, if for no other reason than his books were individually
hand-printed and illustrated (Wu, 49). In 1863, Alexander Gilchrist's
Blake biography brought renewed interest in the deceased poet,
painter and engraver.
His lifetime saw significant social and economical change. The
American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial
Revolution all happened in his lifetime. His contemporaries included
John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. He lamented the
effect that the Industrial Revolution had on man and his ties
to the land (Mack 785). He once said that every man's face had
"Marks of weakness, marks of woe". He was "liberal
in politics, sensitive to the oppressive government measures of
his day, [and] favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary
War and the French Revolution" (Appelbaum v).
There are still a number of inconsistencies within the canon
of writing about Blake's life and moral fortitude.
Scholars and historians have varying opinions on whether Blake
was a mystic. The Norton Anthology describes him as "an
acknowledged mystic, [who] saw visions from the age of four"
(Mack 783). Others have simply called him a visionary, a social
critic of his time and a prophet of things to come. His criticisms
were not only timely in his day, but are relevant today as well,
something that American maverick filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, wholeheartedly
agrees with: "This was an English visionary poet, painter,
printer and inventor. His work was revolutionary, and he was imprisoned
for his ideas. I can't honestly cite a specific, concrete reason
why he entered the script, except that while I was reading books
by Native American Indians on Native American thought, it struck
me that many of Blake's (the character) ideas and writings sounded
particularly true of Blake's (the author) Proverbs From Hell,
which, along with other fragments of poetry, are quoted by the
character Nobody throughout the film. For Bill Blake, the journey
of Dead Man represents life. For Nobody, the journey is
a continuing ceremony whose purpose is to deliver Blake back to
the spirit level of the world. To him, Blake's spirit has been
misplaced and somehow returned to the physical realm. Nobody's
non-Western perspective that life is an unending cycle is essential
to the story of Dead Man". (Margetts).
Indeed, it is this belief that, not only is life a journey that
continues even after death, but that everything in life is a part
of that great journey that is at the core of the relationship
between William Blake and Dead Man. Blake believed that
everything that lived was holy. He thought that Christianity encouraged
the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy
(Damon 344). Tying into this ideal, Jarmusch uses tobacco to convey
the difference between White European culture and Native American
culture. This culture clash is one of Dead Man's major
themes. The joke is that Nobody continually asks Blake for tobacco,
to which Blake always replies, "I don't smoke." The
humor, and the conflict, are in the different ways that tobacco
is used by the two cultures. For White Europeans, it's a vice,
something to which you can become addicted. Amid the Native American
culture, tobacco is used as a sacrament in ceremonies, it's used
for praying, to be given as a gift, to purify the soul. Blake's
response is an inside joke aimed at Native Americans. However,
Jarmusch believes that by the film's end, Blake has learned the
real meaning of Nobody's question. "He says, 'Nobody, I don't
smoke', but he knows, I think. I didn't want to make a little
lesson out of it, I just wanted to stick it in there, as a kind
of payoff." (Yabroff 5)
That such a simple thing as the way in which two different men
view tobacco is so important is exactly the type of conundrum
that Blake would have reveled in. In his text, The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell, "The Voice of the Devil", Blake
speaks to the spiritual implications of this scenario. In one
of many controversial entries, Blake points out that
"All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the
1. That man has two real existing principles, viz. a body and
2. That energy, called evil, is alone from the body, and that
reason, called good, is alone from the soul.
3. That God will torment man in eternity for following his energies.
But the following contraries to those are true:
1. Man has no body distinct from his soul, for that called body
is a portion of soul discerned by the five senses (the chief inlets
of soul in the age).
2. Energy is the only life and is from the body, and reason is
the bound or outward circumference of energy.
3. Energy is eternal delight."
In a key scene, Nobody asks Bill Blake, "did you kill the
white man who killed you?" Bill answers, "I'm not dead."
As with the tobacco conflict, Bill has misunderstood the concept
of life and death. His death is as much a part of his life as
is his breathing or the blood pumping through his veins. His journey
with Nobody, of course, becomes a literal journey towards death,
but the essential point of Jarmusch's film is that the Native
American is at peace from the beginning with the concept of his
own death. Indeed, he views it as an adventure, the next level
of existence. It will take Bill Blake a great deal of learning
to figure this out, all the way until he is literally becoming
a dead man, drifting into a sea of calm to meet death.
Jarmusch's choice to incorporate Blake's poetry into the lexicon
of Dead Man is, though perhaps, as he has suggested, a
coincidence, quite substantial. Blake's words are lyrical and
meditative, while at the same time political and socially conscious.
He was able to reap "remarkable results with the simplest
means" and he brought back a "rich musicality to the
language" (Appelbaum v).
His abhorrence for the Industrial Age is apt, especially in the
opening scenes, where Bill Blake is introduced to the Old West
becoming the New West. The early scenes convey a "sense of
an undiscovered West - a West that vanished before it could be
incorporated into national myth. That's all there on the train
ride from Cleveland to the Pacific, some time after the Civil
War, as the white passengers shift inexorably into barbarism."
All of these things point to a kind of divine pairing of talents.
Blake, the visionary poet of words and Jarmusch, the visionary
poet of images.
But the images have yet to be addressed. The influence of Blake's
writing is obvious in the narrative and especially in Nobody's
dialogue. But what, if any, effect did Blake have on Jarmusch's
visual and stylistic palette?
When Dead Man was released, many critics pointed to it
as a kind of turning point in his career. Though his early comedies
(Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise, Night on Earth) were
generally highly praised, they were often accused of being somewhat
pedantic and full of trite irony. Certainly, Jarmusch's deadpan
style lent itself to this type of criticism in these early films.
But Dead Man completely lacks any trace of Jarmusch's early
naiveté as a director.
Continuing his use of sparse black and white photography, Jarmusch
nevertheless paints an exquisitely rendered, often lyrical visual
work. Dead Man is a patient film, becoming meditative in
its final third, though it never resorts to tedium or melancholy.
Ultimately, Blake's influence on the film's photography and style
becomes clear. The story lends itself to the leisurely pace it
employs. A contemplative journey towards enlightenment needs a
steady hand. Pacing is everything here and Dead Man is
timed perfectly. Though the film is also about the eventual degradation
of the Old West ideals and, really, the Old Western film, Jarmusch
ultimately employs the same black and white visuals that nearly
every early film in the Western genre used.
All of these elements combine to create a uniquely diverse cinematic
experience. Dead Man results in one of the most effective
pairings of literary inspiration and contemporary filmmaker. William
Blake and Jim Jarmusch, separated by over 200 years of history,
met by chance and created the most original, effective and moving
film of the 1990s.
Appelbaum, Stanley. Introduction to English Romantic Poetry:
An Anthology. Mineola: Dover, 1996.
Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols
of William Blake. New York: Dutton, 1971.
Mack, Maynard, General Editor. "William Blake"
in The Norton Anthology: World Masterpieces, Expanded Edition,
Volume 2. General Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton,
Marcus, Greil. Dead again: Here are 10 reasons why Dead
Man is the best movie of the end of the 20th century.
www.salon.com/ent/feature/1999/12/02/deadman. Salon.com, 1999.
Margetts, Jayne. An Interview with Mili Avital and Jim
Jarmusch, Dead Man www.thei.aust.com/isite/celldeadman.html
This Swirling Sphere. 1996.
Yabroff, Jennie. Jim Jarmusch, Rock and Roll Director:
There's a reason he features the likes of Tom Waits and
Screamin' Jay Hawkins in his films--at heart, the man who
brought you Mystery Train and Down by Law is a rockstar.