Deconstructing Western Roads

 

"I like fresh air, the wide open spaces, the mountains, the desert. Sex, obscenity and degeneration don't interest me." - John Ford

 

"The Western as a genre doesn't interest me. I don't like John Ford, for instance, because he idealizes his characters and uses Westerns to enforce some kind of moral code." - Jim Jarmusch

 

Civilization

Film critics have variously labeled Dead Man as a "neo-Western", a "droll parody of the Western" and a "postmodern Western". And because it doesn't really fit into any of these categories, one critic has even suggested that Dead Man constitutes its own sub-genre, the "Acid Western". It is certainly true that the film uses, and inverts many of the conventions of the Western genre. Dead Man explores some of the issues of a traditional Western, such as civiliation, violence and corruption, but goes beyond this in incorporating the issue of industrialization in to the context of a Western. The overall image of the West presented by the film is rather gloomy: the West of Dead Man is a dismal place, and has nothing in common with the traditional Golden West; there is nothing glorious about the kind of civilization we see in the town of Machine. Also, the epic panorama so typical of classic Western films is completely absent from Jarmusch's movie: there are no shots of the great wide open country. Instead, for William Blake the Western landscape consists mainly of dense forests. Perhaps most radically subverted by Dead Man is the myth of white civilization struggling to survive on the frontier. Instead, it shows cowboys shoot at buffalo from passing trains and we see beyond the dusty facades of the frontier town of Machine.

 

In truth, Machine is an industrial pit where greed and corruption reign sovereign in the shape of the factory owner Mr. Dickinson. Played by Robert Mitchum, this Mr. Dickinson is the powerful patriarch who rules over the town and its inhabitants. Dickinson, who is overshadowed only by a huge portrait of himself embodies the spirit of capitalism. He presides over property and capital, and - gun in hand - decides who is to live and who is to die. The film never explicitly states what it is that Dickinson's Metalworks actually produce, but the most prominent and lethal products of white civilization are clearly identifiable as the iron horse (locomotive) and the gun. Of the two, the railroad is unambiguously welcomed by the traditional Western as an emblem of progress and new technology. It promised to be the perfect tool to convert the wilderness of the West into civilized land, and became a popular symbol of the American dream in the course of the nineteenth century. In Dead Man, however, what was traditionally the threat to civilization is turned into the threat of civilization, meaning white civilization based on technological progress, expansion and exploitatio n. Metal seems to visually symbolize progress and technology in Dead Man, and the Indian Nobody's reference to bullets as "the white man's metal" strongly connects the issue of civilization to another prominent aspect of the traditional Western, that is violence and gun-law.

"Are you William Blake?"

"Yes. Do you know my poetry?"

Violence

The traditional hero of the Western is the cowboy on horseback who, in his quest to restore civilization and order, may use whatever violent means necessary to defeat the forces of evil and anarchy. Though Blake in Dead Man encounters plenty of destruction and defilement, instead of restoring white civilization he resists and opposes it. He is essentially a passive character in a genre that is based on active, aggressive male characters with stable and confident identities. As is discussed in more detail in the section on Crises of Identity, Blake's identity is readily transformed in the course of the movie. His relation to violence at the outset is completely innocent and his naive question why Thel keeps a pistol tucked under her pillow, is answered with a sarcastic "because this is America". In fact, every time someone fires a gun in this movie, the visual effects of both the action and its result are awkward, unheroic, even downright pitiful; killing is a messy act without any pretense of stylishness or justification.

As such, it creates a sense of discomfort in the viewer that is usually expressed in embarrassed laughter. Symbolically, the bullet's entrance into the human body seems to parallel the machine's entrance into the natural state of the West. What the Indian Nobody regards as "the white man's metal" thus signifies the intrusion of technological progress into what was once a pastoral idyll associated with Native American culture.