For those of you who have been paying attention to the tagline of this site, you know that I review (mostly) dumb movies. When I make my foray into good films, they tend to be genre films. My movie viewing is unpretentious, and I tend to choose movies for their value as entertainment rather than for their artistic value. Yet, sometimes I stumble across a movie that speaks to me in spite of the complete lack of Godzilla or Jason Voorhees. When I first came across Eraserhead by David Lynch, I chose it because I’d heard it was a weird, good movie, but I finished it because it spoke to me on a deeper level. I’m not sure what makes art good. Aesthetics has always seemed too slippery a discipline to pin down what makes a piece of art pleasing. It doesn’t help that you can have completely two completely different reactions to the same work of art. For instance, a song that’s fast and dissonant might be perfect to a fan of punk but anathema to a fan of R&B, because those two groups experience those same sonic qualities in the song, speed and dissonance, in fundamentally different ways. The only thing that I can say for certain is that when you come across a work of art, if you deem it art, you recognize something deep within it. ‘Deep’ is a trite description for so-called “true” art but incredibly apt, in that it not only describes the substance of a work of art but the unfathomable nature of it as well. To me, art has an element of the ineffable and transcendent. If we take Eraserhead as an example, it’s as if there’s some meaning just beyond reach; even though I can’t explain the symbolism of the puffy cheeked girl in the radiator or of the screeching deformed baby thing, I know there’s something of substance there. Dead Man is one of those movies I’d qualify as art, as having an element of the ineffable, the transcendent; it’s worth noting that it’s not nearly as weird as Lynch’s movie though, in case you were worried about that.
Dead Man is about an accountant named William Blake, living in 19th century America. The movie starts with William on a train to Machine, the train’s last stop and far away from his home in Cleveland. He’s on his way to work as a bookkeeper for John Dickinson, the owner of a metalwork factory. However, when he goes to claim the job, he’s told the position has already been filled. William tries to protest, arguing that the letter promises him the position and that he’s spent all his money trying to get to Machine, by he’s scared off by Dickinson, who pulls gun on him. With nowhere left to go and nothing to do, William goes to the local saloon and buys a drink. He comes across a woman named Thel, who asks him to escort her home then invites him into her bed. Later on, Thel’s former lover Charlie, who has been gone for a long time, stumbles upon the two in bed. Charlie shoots Thel, who tries to put herself between him and William, and in turn William shoots Charlie with a revolver near at hand. William stumbles from the crime scene with a bullet wound in his chest and steals a pinto to get out of town.
The next day, Dickinson hires three killers, Cole, Conway, and “The Kid,” to track William down and kill him. We learn that Charlie was Dickinson’s son, Thel was his fiancé, and the pinto William stole belonged to Mr. Dickinson. Elsewhere, William wakes up to an American Indian named Nobody trying to dig the bullet out of his chest. He then asks if William has tobacco, a question William receive from various people through out the movie; William doesn’t smoke. Upon learning his full name, Nobody mistakes William for William Blake, the Romantic, visionary poet, whom he idolizes. The two press on into the wilderness, their destination unclear, and the assassins trail after them.
What follows are a series of vignettes as William Blake slowly transforms from a buttoned-up accountant into a kind of poet warrior at one with nature, encountering and gunning down trappers, bounty hunters, and a store clerk on his way west with Nobody. The three killers follow hot on their heels, but the psychotic Cole guns down his partners along the way and continues on his own. Towards the end of the movie we learn the true purpose of their journey. Nobody has been leading William Blake to the Pacific to send him to the realm of the spirits. William is injured by a gun wound inflicted by a bounty hunter, but this time he’s really dying. Nobody sets William adrift on a canoe, wrapped in a ceremonial blanket. Cole finally catches up with the two and kills Nobody, but Nobody shoots and kills him at the same time. William Blake then drifts off into the Pacific. Fin.
The premise of Dead Man alone is quirky and interesting, but the execution makes it all the better. The film moves at a slow, steady pace, but it never becomes boring. There’s always enough going on in each scene to keep the momentum going; the dialogue is always in engaging, whether the characters are engaged in philosophical musings or humorous banter. The ability to keep the film’s momentum going is an even more impressive feat when you consider that it’s not apparent where William and Nobody are going until the end of the movie. However, I think that this is in part due to the episodic nature of Dead Man. The scenes are pretty much whole unto themselves. Though they are carrying the larger narrative with them, they have their own short narrative arcs or snippets. In turn, the episodic nature of the film and apparent aimlessness of the protagonists lends a more dreamlike quality to the movie, aligning with the strange spiritual quest that William Blake goes on as he moves away from civilization into the wilderness, becoming a poet that speaks with bullets instead of words and killing white men. Even though I’m not sure I understand all the philosophical musings about William’s quest or why that quest entailed becoming a poet warrior, it makes sense in the dreamlike world of the film and certainly appeals to the sense of the ineffable.
It’s a tragedy that Dead Man did as badly at the box office as it did. The film only made one million back from its nine million dollar budget. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that a slow-paced film more focused on dialogue and mood than plot would do poorly in theaters, but with a premise as cool as Dead Man’s and a soundtrack by Neil Young, it really deserved a better reception than it got. Thankfully, it’s streaming on Netflix for those of you who’re interested in giving it the attention it deserves.