Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch, 1995

After becoming a major advocate of American independent filmmaking during the late 80's/early 90's, and joining the ranks alongside such other directors as Spike Lee, The Coen brothers, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino as non-conformist filmmakers who's movies often evade the mainstream spotlight, Jim Jarmusch followed his succession of minimalist features by experimenting with colour filmmaking for a brief period with his two films Mystery Train and Night On Earth, both linked by their triptych formats (a style later revisited in 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes). 

After a nine year period, Jarmusch revisited black-and-white cinema with his 1995 film Dead Man, an existential Western set in late-19th Century America, starring Johnny Depp as 'William Blake', a greenhorn from the East who's journey to the West via. train represents a transition from one life, into the next. With his destination being the frontier town of 'Machine', his arrival is met sorely, and his shooting of the wealthy town-owner's son causes him to flee injured into the wilderness, where he encounters American-Indian 'Nobody' attempting to dislodge a bullet from his heart, unable to do so, and believed by 'Nobody' to be a reincarnation of the English poet William Blake, Blake is informed that he is the walking dead, starting his journey into unfamiliar territory with the guide of his unconscious mind 'Nobody'. 

With American-Indian 'Nobody's' passion of the poetry of William Blake bearing similarities in it's juxtaposition of culture to Jarmusch's 1999 feature Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which a black hit-man expresses a complete devotion to the 18th century philosophical and spiritual warrior code of the Hagakure, the hallmarks of Jarmusch's films are as apparent in Dead Man, as in any of his various other directorial works, with themes of estrangement from a character's native land and alienation becoming recurrent topics throughout his career. Dead Man's black-and-white imagery is a conscious effort by Jarmusch to abandon the dusty aesthetic of the Western genre and an attempt to gain a historical distance from the familiarity of colour, drawing influence from directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Ingmar Bergman, using very strong blacks and whites and placing emphasis on lighting and placement. 

Neil Young's instrumental score lifts the movie to an entirely different level, using a pump organ, a detuned piano, and most notably electric guitar tracks and feedback to create a strong unsettling and deeply emotional soundtrack that fits perfectly with the themes of the film. Jarmusch's output as a director is inconsistent to say the least, and criminally so, producing only ten feature length movies in a career spanning over thirty years, forgivable, considering his almost flawless oeuvre, in which he has managed to maintain his originality, and creative spirit in an industry rife with studio meddling and compromise.
words by danny walker.

The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa, 1960

Kurosawa would adapt the work of Shakespeare to the screen three times over the course of his career resulting in three of his best works. The two that would receive more attention would be the first, Throne of Blood an adaptation of Macbeth, and his take on King Lear, 1985’s Ran. With their historical setting these were obvious choices to make the transposition to the feudal Japan that Kurosawa would bring to the screen through his most famous works. Lesser known, and much more loosely adapted than those previously mentioned, is his take on HamletThe Bad Sleep Well.
It is a loose adaptation firstly as a result of Kurosawa’s choice to set it in contemporary Japan, and for the replacement of kings and queens with their modern equivalent, the rich chairmen of giant corporations. The film follows the story of Nishi (played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) as he marries the daughter of wealthy industrialist Iwabuchi in an attempt to avenge the death of his father, of which he believes Iwabuchi and his corporation are to blame. It’s primarily in the driving motive of the main character that the plot similarities are found, however there are flourishes reminiscent of the play to be found elsewhere, for example the brilliant opening sequence. Whereas in Hamlet
 the protagonist stages a play referencing his fathers murder, watching for the kings reaction to the scene to ascertain whether he did commit the crime, here Nishi has a cake delivered to Iwabuchi at Nishi’s own wedding reception, it is shaped like the company headquarters with a rose marking the window from which his father met his death. Upon it’s arrival the reactions of the senior executives lead anyone watching, including the paparazzi who linger around this scandal ridden company, to the realisation that they are most definitely implicated.

This opening sequence highlights one of Kurosawa’s real strengths as a director, his ability to balance so much of a film around a single locale. As one of the paparazzi at the wedding observes it’s like watching ‘a one act play’ and with Kurosawa’s ability to condense such a large amount of story into one scene, along with his penchant for framing all his characters within the one shot, it does have its grounds in theatre, somewhere from his choice of source material he clearly takes inspiration. This on screen theatre is seen throughout various works of Kurosawa, examples being the apartment sequence that takes up a large part of High and Low or the extensive wake sequence in Ikiru. Large amounts of story and character exposition occur purely through the dialogue, the performances, and the fantastic use of the score managing to build the tension.

Kurosawa had tackled corruption before, most notably in Ikiru although that was on a much smaller scale simply regarding one council office. Here he takes it right to the top with top boss Iwabuchi receiving anonymous instruction over the phone, with it only hinted at in the mildest way that this caller is some political figure and that the whole system is corrupt through to the top (a controversial suggestion Kurosawa was only able to make through financing the film by establishing his own production company). Between every high budget epic like Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa would punctuate with these smaller more personal ‘message’ films such as The Bad Sleep Well or his anti nuclear film I Live in Fear. It’s a great approach and it’s influence is apparent in the careers of directors such as Spielberg and Scorsese with their ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy. Despite being less grandiose these films stand as some of Kurosawa’s best, the performances from his usual collaborators such as Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura never fall short of greatness, and the widescreen cinematography, taking its cues from film noir with its use of light and shadow, give the film as epic a feel as ever.

words by pete bond.