Tribute to "Dead Man" by Jim Jarmusch
Commissioned – My own “Dead Man”
It’s the first time since I’ve started photography three years ago that I felt such responsibility towards my photography subject. Not because it’s paid, not because it’s commissioned. But because this work that I created out of my weird weird head means to Elise.
Almost a year ago now I had this idea of recreating films that moved me as a way of expressing myself, my fears, my joys, my needs. Later on I realized this work could become my original way of doing portraits for people. I worked with comedians but it’s the first time someone from my audience – Elise – asked to be part of this project. How happy I was when she asked! Getting recognition for your work (that is to say your soul) is one of the best feelings in the world. That and when my boyfriend helps me with my panic attack and when my cat purrs on me. Thus Cinema has the ability to bring people together (most of the time). Movies tell us about who we are and what we’d like to become. We share values and feelings and thoughts with our favorite characters. We feel less alone. When a character that you love gets hurt, you hurt with them. When one dies, a small pieces of you dies too. For several hours we just escape our reality and let’s face it, reality today is scary. While some are awakening, others sink into the deep fear. Fear of others, fear of change, fear of themselves.
Movies make me feel like this sad and mad world doesn’t exist. By becoming these characters I also escape and reveal myself at the same time. I’m not defined by only one thing. In reality I can at times feel that I am both fearful and brave. There are so many dichotomies that I feel wrestling inside of me: I seem to have low self esteem but I don’t want to let others change my beliefs that are important to me, I overcame depression but I still suffer from an anxiety disorder, I don’t use any product tested on animals but I still eat meat, I long to be outside yet sometimes I can barely go out of the house and take a walk down the park. I’m a libra basically. But when I think about these fictional or real characters that I’m impersonating through self portraits I reconnect to my true soul. That soul is courageous and constantly challenging herself. She values friendship and love over money and greed, she’s very sensitive (and yes that’s a good thing to embrace our emotions even the negative one), she cares too much and she found the strength to pursue her passion as a photographer now instead of waiting a lifetime to chase this dream.
Choosing the film “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch for Elise and for myself isn’t a coincidence. I have a complicated relationship to Native American culture. For a long time I thought I had Native Americans origins. Turns out I don’t. At all. It’s a long and strange story, and when I learned this it felt as if my identity suddenly crumbled because of much I had felt as though I was a part of this culture. But here’s what I learned, you don’t have to look like Native American or share their blood to have the same values. Values we by the way desperately need today. Respecting animals and the planet is something we should all care about. It’s our responsibility. Still the fur I used in these photographs isn’t faux fur. It’s real. Why? you may ask. Because at the dawn of time Native American people treated animals with respect and as their equals (because they are. And they probably are more evolved than many humans today). Every part of the beast they killed was used and not thrown away like today (animal skin isn’t saved after the animals’ death. There are farms « raising » animals just for the sake of fashion). I wish we could go back to that. Respect to every living thing. Celebrating animals for the food they provide to us, the skin they allow us to wear when it’s cold at night, the bones they let us mold into tools. Sure now it seems impossible to go back to that, but I want to remember.
I also want to state that Native American people are more complex and diverse than some may think. They’re not only either wacky spiritual or hopeless drunks as is often portrayed in films. They are so much more than that. They are literary figures, teachers, business owners, strong men, kind woman, mixed children. They wear traditional clothing and cow-boy boots, they want to stay in the reservation while some crave for leaving. They’re humans. But we never seem to think about them without their long history in mind; they cannot escape that part of their past.
By portraying Elise as William Blake in “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmush I’m making a statement about identity as a whole. Indeed, I’m not modeling in this series but portraits are a kind of self-portait. Therefore I’m talking about me through Elise. That’s the power of art to bond us together. When I do these projects I want to find a film or a character that resonates with my subject. That film came immediately into my mind for the aesthetic and the message it conveys, and also as it relates to Elise personal origins. We had the pleasure to talk a bit about our common interests so I knew I wasn’t making the wrong choice. Still little did I know how right I was by choosing this movie.
What’s interesting in the film is the ambiguity of all the characters and actors. Actors’ job is to impersonate people, any kind of people. Sometime the characters and the actors share similarities. Sometimes they don’t. Here it’s both. Johnny Depp plays William Blake (and the ambiguity with the writer is obviously intended), a shy accountant from Cleveland. In real life he presumably shares origins with Native Americans (and I say « presumably » as I didn’t find enough sources to back that information up) but more importantly he was adopted by a woman from the Comanche tribe. In the films he plays the white man and knows nothing about the Native American culture (spoiler alert) but throughout the course of the film he experiences visions, grieves over the death of a fawn, paints his face with it’s blood and finally he’s buried in the Native American tradition. He arrives in the town called « Machine » and tries to work there. The name of the city is meant to guide us looking at the cost of industrialisation. In a world where Nature is destroyed over and over again it sure resonates with me. Finally, Gary Farmer, a Canadian First Nations man plays Nobody, a Native American man. His name translated as « he who talks loud saying nothing » is a metaphor. Indeed Nobody has parents from two different tribes and was abducted and brought to Europe as the model “savage” stereotype that is often portrayed in films and novels. When he received the chance to return to his home he was nobody, a product of american and Native American culture and was laughed out by the members of his tribe forcing him to wander alone.
There are a lot of things to say about this film and what is said about progress, gun violence, the depiction of Native American people in movies and the importance of identity should make us look closer at what we think we know but actually do not know. Thanks to movies and documentaries we can change and alter our perceptions about these things. If you care enough there’s a great deal to learn from films. There’re not only aimed to make us laugh or cry. There a lot of emotions in-between. They can change worlds, make us see, change our opinions for the better and make us grow as human beings. In fact, when was the last time you saw a character and thought to yourself: “ I want to be like her/him. I want to do what he/she did” ? Think about it. Aren’t you inspired by fictional characters? I know I am. I still don’t have the strength to go on an adventure like Christopher McCandless did (“Into the Wild”, Sean Penn) but I’m getting there. And I know that having sex with my phone/robot isn’t something I’m looking forward to (“Her”, Spike Jonze) and that I actually belive robots will take us down someday ;-).
But let’s go back to this particular film “Dead Man”. It’s a tell of identity. At the beginning William Blake doesn’t really know who he is. He walks through life without even questioning it. He moves to Machine and tries to work there. That’s only when he finds out the job isn’t available anymore that his life suddenly changes. When he meets Nobody fir the first time he has preconceived ideas about everything but the Native American man changes his views on life. Along the film he becomes more and more touched by their culture. On the other hand, Nobody has a clear understanding of who he is. He’s nothing and everything. He belongs to Native American and American culture at the same time though he doesn’t belong to any of them either. As far as I’m concerned I sometimes feel lost and I’m struggling with who I really am. My mother is part American but when her father died when she was only three years old, she went back to France with her French mother. Therefore I’m American as well but I feel shameful telling people about it. As if being only ¼ American wasn’t enough to reclaim that part of my identity. Besides being American and being inspired by this culture is some kind of trendy. At least in my opinion. I never felt really concerned by political issues in France nor got the need to travel my country which my mother never really understood. But I know she’s right and that I should be equally interested in every aspect of every country. I simply do not feel this way for France right now. There’s a hole in my life. I never knew anyone from my American side. When they were still alive I never had the chance to visit them and actually never realized it was important and now it’s too late. I have no regret though. I just feel there’s a part of me I’ll never know, family I’ll never meet. The issue of identity present in the film thus resonates with me. Likewise I think the world we live in is too much concerned about unimportant issues. It’s always about money, greed, politics and the machine… Will these things matter once the earth’s dead? I don’t think so. I hope our generation and the next ones will reconnect to what’s essential to our humanity.
To cut a long story short this film tells us that we’re not what we look like, but that despite our appearances we are whoever we want to be. More importantly we’re constantly evolving and thus we can become whoever we’d like to be and connect to our soul. We’re not just a body, we’re a soul, a spirit within the flesh. We’re one thing and another. At least that’s my interpretation of the movie. Just another one of the beautiful messages that movies convey. We can all interpret a song, a movie etc in our own way. Maybe the artist has a complete different interpretation but it doesn’t make your way of seeing it wrong. And that’s how we can rely and connect to one another.
Art is supposed to transform us, change us and make us grow as human beings.