27 May 2006 | LeoniusP
For those who have eyes to see
During my late teens and early twenties, I was taken to see many films by a friend of mine who was the son of a Persian film director.
He was never interested in what I thought of a film until we were outside the cinema but told me how to watch the film, during the film.
One of the first films I saw was Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law in the Turkish quarter of Paris with French subtitles. We sat in the front row and roared. We were the only ones. It all seemed rather lost on the rest of the audience. All the way through he told me the things to see.
Here are a few. First, Robbie Muller's cinematography. Beautiful vistas moving to the pace of the film. Paris, Texas springs to mind.
Second, the recognition of amorality in the world; a world of "nature red in tooth and claw". All of Jarmusch's films that I've seen have a "rough diamond" edge running through them. An edge where the animal response is the correct one - the place that Hitchock always alluded to but never dared go to.
Third, "incompleteness" if there is such a word. Jarmusch always leaves questions dangling; Why was Carl Perkins better than Elvis (or vice versa)? Did Eva really go back to Hungary? Is Nobody already dead? In this sense, Jarmusch is more a novelist than a film maker - he leaves much for you to fill in with your mind's eye. Quite an achievement, considering how compelling the visuals of film are.
For me, Jarmusch's daring is that he allows the viewer to fill in a lot of the context for a scene. The context, naturally, defines the scene, yet Jarmusch is bold enough to let the viewer place it later. Perhaps much later, when you've worked it out.
So when I watched dead man, I was ready. The last Johnny Depp film I'd seen was Chocolat, superb. I understood and appreciated Robbie Muller's approach and I had most of Jarmusch to date under my belt.
Two things sprang to mind with Dead Man. The first was a Sci-fi novel, written because the author was 20 something and needed the money. The second was the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The first occurred to me because of the way I encountered it. I was researching and building eLearning systems at the time and the eLearning crowd hailed Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card as the eLearner's sci-fi novel. I read it and the basic lesson is that the training has to be so real that the student doesn't know when it's really real and, even then half thinks it's training.
The second occurred to me as a consequence of the first. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a manual for dying and being reborn. It has options such as getting out of the wheel of incarnation altogether or doing a damage limitation exercise on how limited your capabilities are going to be in the next life - and everything in between.
One of the central premises of this yoga is that life as we know it is a simulation of the real life - a kind of Ender's game, if you will. When one sees the finite from the position of the eternal, the question of where one ends and the other begins inevitably arises and it's this that Jarmusch captures so wonderfully in Dead Man.
William Blake (the real one) had none of this knowledge that we have today but what he did have is opium. Survey the poetry of the opium-heads. They all had a sense of eternal spirit - it comes with the drug. It gives the connectedness and empathy of E with the hallucinations of A but the chilled response to it all of weed.
Like Jarmusch, Blake, Coleridge and the rest recognise the harsh reality of the nature we live in, yet are still able to celebrate its beauty and the lessons that it has to teach us.
The pace of Dead Man is that of an opium hit, one only has to take the stuff or read the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz's Adrift on the Nile to see that. The Neil Young sound track is naturally irritating if one cannot settle down into the pace of the film. For those who understand it, it is the hypnotic metronome that keeps time for days after the film has ended.