Inspired by the story of a man’s transformation and the music of Neil Young, today’s Guest Blogger, Richard Upchurch, writes about Jim Jarmusch’s film, Dead Man and learning to enjoy the process and the journey of being an artist.
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 2nd 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, and 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
By Richard Upchurch
Cue Dead Man. Black and white. Lonesome, echoing, gritty guitar laid over the grinding sounds of metal train parts. Views from a moving train car, looking out onto relics of a decaying Native American village. Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp), heading west to make a fresh start. You bet your ass I’m gonna watch this movie, and bet the farm; I’m gonna love it.
I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and long before I was aware that Elvis’ “Mystery Train” was playing on the record player or that there was another King down the road by the name of B.B., I was letting my imagination run wild in my back yard- the Natchez Trace Parkway. My mom would turn me loose out the back door, and off I would traipse through the woods, across the two-lane blacktop parkway, to my “playground,” the site of a former Chickasaw village. Once a thriving village, by then, it was decaying remains; outlines of structures and signage depicted what had once been. I would walk the dirt paths and push the large red button on the interactive map, and as the narrator described “daily life,” I would wonder where they had gone. I imaged myself a brave warrior, the finest of fort builders, and the best at foraging muscadines.
From this village, I would venture further down a path to the train tracks, putting my ear to the rail to see if I could feel the vibrations of an oncoming train. I would imagine hopping a boxcar and riding to some distant land. I would be both Chickasaw brave and transient scratcher until dark began to fall, and my mother’s voice would cut through the woods, calling me home for dinner.
Given my childhood geography and experience, the West that Jim Jarmusch has created resonates. It isn’t an idealistic, John Wayne western, and the descriptions “deconstructed” and “hallucinatory” are appropriate. Dead Man isn’t the easiest to digest, and it is certainly filled with brutality and murder (and yes, occasional comic relief provided by Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, and Jared Harris). It paints a clear portrait of the exploits and the wrongs caused by Western society’s “progress,” and it echoes Neil Young’s lyrics in “Pocahontas”, “but the firesticks and the wagons come and night falls on the setting sun.”
It was in Kitchen 112B, my college dorm room, that the sounds of Neil Young were embedded in my system. It wasn’t as much my dorm room as it was a salon. Once I came back from fall break to a room full of people listening to and playing music, none of who were my roommates. When I asked how they’d gotten in, someone said, “the window was open.” That’s just how it was with that space; it was always open. It was here I discovered “Pocahontas”; I learned to play it in a dropped “d” tuning, and there’s something about Neil’s melody I’ve never been able to escape. His dark and haunting lyrics allude to a yearning for a simpler time, before the white man’s destruction of Native Americans and their land.
Neil Young’s soundtrack serves as a haunting voice in Dead Man, and there are echos of his songs, like “Cortez the Killer” and “Pocahontas”, in the movie’s imagery. Minimalistic electric guitars serve as a secondary guide for Blake’s quest across a deteriorating, western landscape, onward to the town of Machine, filled with destruction and decay. It is here, at the end of the line, where Blake’s journey really begins.
One of the most important components in creating art is process. It is in the process that the accidents happen, straying from the original path, giving way to discovery. It is precisely when I think I know something, that someone comes along and points out there is a different way. This is the beauty of creativity. It is not until Blake’s spiritual guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), “He who talks loud says nothing,” removes Blake’s glasses that he is able to see more clearly. In the creative process, we must allow someone or something to remove the glasses so we may see more clearly.
To witness Blake transform from Cleveland accountant to wanted fugitive to bold and fearless poet” I am William Blake, do you know my poetry,” we must join him in his quest– moving slowly, deeper into a heart of darkness, the untamed West. I have always found Blake’s transformation empowering. There have been times in my life that it seems impossible to embrace myself as “artist.” It was easier when I could say composer, musician, or even sculptor. But I realized I can be all of these things and call myself “artist.”
There are moments in the creative process when I find myself too embedded to see clearly. We have so many tools at our disposal, access to so much information, everything happening instantly, and I would argue that we rarely see a “less is more.” Dead Man returns me to the idea of simplification; black and white, minimal dialogue, and time seems to slow almost to a grinding halt. Near the end of the film, when Nobody is leading Blake through the village to the “builder of great boats,” time seems to slow; guitars engulf the imagery, and your eyes are flooded with what feels like Blake’s hallucination. You feel him recognize that he is now on his way somewhere else.
I return time and time again to this movie to be reminded of this journey; we all are moving towards something. Scribbled on a piece of notebook paper, taped on a wall in my friend’s apartment is a Neil Young quote, “For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography has a hell of a lot to do with it. You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to either be on your way there or on your way from there.” Mississippi, Kitchen 112B, Neil Young, New York, Dead Man: all part of the landscape of my journey.
Richard Upchurch is an artist. He likes sound. He builds things. When Neil Young lyrics in his head aren’t beckoning him to hop a boxcar for the west coast, Richard can be found in Red Hook Brooklyn building voice recorders and making things.