[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]
"It's preferable not to travel with a dead man." Henri Micheax
William Blake leaves Cleveland to start a new life in Machine.
© Miramax Films
Dead Man begins with pulsating images of Johnny Depp riding a train--looking out the window, reading, observing other passengers, sleeping. It's your typical ride through the Old West in the 1800s. But when the train fireman (Crispin Glover) starts speaking to Johnny's character, William Blake--a timid accountant headed from Cleveland, Ohio, to a town called Machine, where he's been promised a job--you realize that everyone's a bit off: "I wouldn't trust no words writ down on no piece of paper, especially from no Dickinson Metalworks out in the town of Machine," he warns him. "You're just as likely to catch your own grave."
Dead Man is hard to describe. I'll let writer/director Jim Jarmusch explain it instead: "Dead Man is the story of a young man's journey, both physically and spiritually, into very unfamiliar terrain. William Blake travels to the extreme western frontiers of America sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Lost and badly wounded, he encounters a very odd, outcast Native American named Nobody, who believes Blake is actually the dead English poet of the same name. The story, with Nobody's help, leads William Blake through situations that are in turn comical and violent. Contrary to his nature, circumstances transform Blake into a hunted outlaw, a killer, a man whose physical existence is slowly slipping away. Thrown into a world that is cruel and chaotic, his eyes are opened to the fragility that defines the realm of the living. It is as though he passes through the surface of a mirror, and emerges into a previously unknown world that exists on the other side."
It's true: Johnny gets fatally wounded early on in the film and spends the rest of the movie slowly dying. It sounds really depressing, I know, but it's actually very entertaining! He meets so many unique characters on his journey who are at once comic and tragic, scary and violent, and always captivating.
This is Nobody.
© Miramax Films
- Robert Mitchum, in his final role, plays Mr. Dickinson, founder of Dickinson Metalworks. He hires bounty hunters to find William Blake and, at their first meeting, turns his back on them to address the giant stuffed bear in the corner of his office.
- One of the bounty hunters won't stop talking and sleeps with a teddy bear; another is practically silent, and the third thinks the other two are weirdos.
- William Blake eventually comes across the campsite of fur traders played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris. Admiring his hair and his outfit, they fight over the new stranger.
- William Blake's constant companion is Nobody (Gary Farmer), who leads him on his journey to the other side. A fan of William Blake, the poet, Nobody is always quoting random lines of his poetry--much to the bewilderment of William Blake, the accountant.
All the while, William Blake is going through a transformation. The timid accountant becomes a fearless outlaw, who is increasingly weak physically but stronger spiritually.
"Do you know my poetry?"
I always think of Dead Man as a poem. Maybe it's because Johnny's character has the same name as the 18th century British poet whose writings are used and referenced throughout the film. Or, maybe it's because every time I see Dead Man, I discover something new in i. Whenever I watch it, I marvel at it.
I don't think I always felt this way. When I first saw it, I probably left in a daze contemplating it's strangeness and meaning. But this one grows on you.
Shot in black and white, the cinematography by Robby Muller is beautifully crisp. The graphic starkness of the images is exciting. While the story is set in the 1800s, the film is layered with a fantastic soundtrack of acoustic and electric guitar by Neil Young. Despite these mix-and-match elements, the film's surrealist, atmospheric tone, and the nature of the story, I always feel like I'm there, experiencing it.
My Date with a Dead Man.
It was fate that I was in New York for an internship when Dead Man was released in 1996. I doubted the film would ever become mainstream enough to make it anywhere near my home in Ohio, so I was lucky to be in a big city where I could find it. I found the one little theater showing Dead Man in New York and joined six other people in the audience at a weekend matinee. One of my bosses at the time also saw the movie that weekend, and we gave our reviews to our coworkers Monday morning.
Me: "Oh, I loved it! I thought it was really great!"
Boss, shaking her head with a scowl: "I hated it."
Critics took a similar stance. Some claim that Dead Man is one of the best movies of the '90s, and maybe even the 20th century, while others say there is no worse way to waste your time watching this thing. I guess I'm part of the first group, along with at least my mom and my uncle. Dead Man didn't make any money, and it was really expensive to make it historically accurate regarding Native American culture and the Old West of the 1800s. This movie is noted as providing one of the best representations of Native Americans by a non-Native American filmmaker.
© Miramax Films
For his role, Johnny skipped sleeping some nights so that he'd look weary and worn on screen. "He really is one of the most precise and focused people I've ever worked with," Jim Jarmusch said. "The whole crew is kind of amazed by that. That's a side of him that I'm not really familiar with--I'm more familiar with him falling asleep on the couch with the TV on all night. In real life, it's sometimes hard for him to decide where to eat or what to do, but as an actor, he's very precise."
As usual, Johnny was excited for the experience of working on this project. "I did Dead Man so I could work with Jim Jarmusch. I trust Jim as a director, and a friend, and a genius." Watching Jim Jarmusch's movies are always an experience too--good or bad. While I haven't seen them all, my other favorite of his films is called Night on Earth. Comprised of vignettes about cab drivers and their passengers, it takes you around the world and introduces you to some interesting people doing interesting things--all during the same evening. (Rent it too and have a double-feature!)
The Kitties are on the journey.
When I first thought of starting Johnny Kitties last year, Dead Man was one of the movies that sparked an immediate idea for an illustration. I was sure I'd draw Johnny's meeting with Robert Mitchum and that I had to get the bear in there. But while Mitchum's role is great, it's more of a cameo appearance, and his scene with Johnny is pretty abrupt. Watching Dead Man again recently, I realized that the real star and scene-stealer in this movie is Gary Farmer as Nobody.
Here, Nobody (Norman) leads William Blake through the forest, on their journey to the spiritual world. In this scene, William Blake doesn't say anything but observes his surroundings. I always imagine he's looking at these gigantic ancient trees that were here before him and will remain here after him. There will always be things out there bigger and wiser than we are.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it's that kind of movie.
Johnny and Jim take a little detour.
Jim, Johnny, and Frank get down to business.
© Rocket Pictures
At the Cannes Film Festival where Dead Man premiered, Johnny and Jim Jarmush participated in another film called Cannes Man, a satire about a producer, Sy Lerner (Seymour Cassel, who--on a bet with a friend--picks a random guy off the street to promote and cons stars at the festival into signing on for his next project. Forget that there's no script, he tells them. It's going to be written by his latest discovery, Frank Rhino (Francesco Quinn), who he claims is the hottest young writer since Hemingway and Faulkner. Johnny plays it up as the typical Hollywood star with his temperamental director. Surrounded by bodyguards, they share drinks, cigarettes, and a bit of meditation amid the madness.
This film is full of cameos, but I think theirs is the best one. My favorite moment? Frank being instantly chummy with Johnny, putting his arm around him while Sy pitches their possible involvement in the project. (So inappropriate, right???) Johnny eventually acknowledges Frank during the discussion: "Hey, you know what? You're touching me. You're invading my personal space."
Johnny makes a miraculous recovery and goes undercover in Donnie Brasco.