Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white, surrealist, postmodern western Dead Man (1995) tells the story of William Blake (played by Johnny Depp), a timid accountant who goes on the run after a shoot-out in a frontier town. He is left mortally wounded, but is helped by a Native American named Nobody, who believes the accountant to be a reincarnation of William Blake the poet. Event promoter and former owner of club XXX Gallery Cassady Winston, aka DJ Enso, explains how the film changed his life.
I saw Dead Man in a cinema in San Francisco in 1995 or 96, when I was 14 or 15. I was attending a programme called San Francisco Art and Film for Teens, where we watched and discussed films, both new ones and the classics, and went to art galleries on Fridays and Saturdays. The film had a huge impact on me and later led to the launch of the XXX Movie Club, where we screened a whole variety of films during the week.
Especially in those days, and still a bit today, certain films really break me to the core. After I saw Dead Man, I fell apart for days. The thing that got to me was that William Blake is dead from the beginning
of the film. It’s a western, but it’s not really about violence, vengeance or any of these things. It’s about William Blake’s death and the path he has taken.
You could say the film is a journey, a microcosm, a whole lifetime in a second. It has weird pacing, like in a dream where you have experiences that feel like they last forever but they only take two minutes in reality. I came away from Dead Man thinking that we are really only on this planet for a split second. That realisation has driven a lot of the things I’ve done in my life. I like to take risks.
I also enjoyed other aspects of the film, especially its use of humour. Usually I’m not much of a fan of humour in an otherwise serious film, but this is an exception because the humour adds to its strangeness. And it’s also perfect how well the emotional soundtrack – largely improvised by rock legend Neil Young – fits together with the rest of the film.
Dead Man is consciously aware of its own artifice in so many ways. When characters shoot each other, it’s unrealistic – it’s stylised and clearly artificial. It brings to the fore the way the film was made. That’s been a theme in a lot of the art, music and books I’ve liked: honest fakeness. [Paul] Cézanne is my favourite painter for that reason – he brought the surface to the fore.
I love it when artists test the boundaries between genres, but also between the real and artificial, the true and false. In these liminal spaces, it seems this is where the interesting things happen.
Ultimately, Dead Man inspired me to just lay it all out there and do what I want to do.