made by the most European of American directors is a film that, metaphorically speaking at least, unavoidably has a certain amount of long pasta in its veins—and by association a freight of negative press to pull. Critically slagged since their inception, the Spaghetti Westerns in their heyday—roughly the decade 1963–1973—nonetheless made their impact felt on American audiences and presumably future directors alike.
Jim Jarmusch has acknowledged a number of influences on his 1995 Dead Man, ranging from the rarified (William Blake) to the more prosaic (Nicholas Ray), but so far as I can determine after some diligent poring over interviews and articles connected with the film, he’s never mentioned Sergio Leone. This is a bit odd, because there’s a Leone film out there with enough Dead Man parallels to either (if Jarmusch has never seen it) establish Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance as scientific fact, or (if he’s actually forgotten ever seeing it) to make Freud’s theory of unconscious motivations coin of the realm in popular thought once again.
Specifically, the film I’m talking about is the comedy My Name Is Nobody (Il mio nome è Nessuno), a film “presented” by Leone and directed by his protégé, Tonino Valerii, which had its American premiere in 1974. Most crucially, the idea for the film is acknowledged to be Leone’s.
Let’s examine some of the parallels. First, both films feature leading characters named Nobody, and it’s interesting that neither “Nobody” is called that just as a random mocking nickname or pun. The names have significance that is explicated inside each film. Dead Man’s Nobody (Gary Famer) elaborates that the Indian meaning is “he who talks loud, says nothing,” referring to his tales of being captured by soldiers and taken across America to England, escaping and so on, and to the white man’s learning that alienates him from his people and ultimately marks him as a person of no worth. My Name Is Nobody’s Nobody (Terence Hill) identifies himself as a nobody in his culture because he hasn’t earned his spurs, so to speak, especially in comparison with a legendary gunman like Jack Beauregard.
But it goes deeper. What really persuades me that Jarmusch might be making a nod to Leone’s largely forgotten film is the nature of the relationship between the Nobodies and the “dead men.” It may take a minute to agree with my characterization of Henry Fonda’s Beauregard as “dead,” and I’ll admit it doesn’t pervade the movie from the get-go like in Dead Man, but my point is that both Nobodies idolize a man they believe to be of mythic proportions, both attach themselves to him for no initially apparent reason, and both serve him as a teacher/mentor/guide. In the process each believes he has secured him with immortality (or more immortality).
The biggest difference is that MNIN’s Nobody turns out to have some rather pedestrian reasons mixed in with his higher purposes. Some might even argue that he is merely self-motivated throughout, though if that were the case, he’d have just killed Beauregard outright. Dead Man’s Nobody’s motives remain more obscure, although there may also be something of the self-serving in his desire to use William Blake (Johnny Depp) to kill white men.
Finally, both Nobodies set their charges off in boats to find other realms. That’s a dang lot of similarities to cram inside of a couple of hours, if you ask me. I’d go so far as to say that it’s almost the same movie.
Almost, that is, until Jarmusch’s art-house nervousness sets in. People aren’t gonna slag my movie, you can hear him thinking. This is a serious movie . . . And he’s right. Critics have justifiably observed that PhD candidates will be finding fodder in his Blakian references for years to come, and those will be fun dissertations to write (way more fun than 800 pages on a page from Kant). Jarmusch added a dissonant, unforgiving soundtrack and brought in Robby Muller’s gorgeous black and white cinematography to boot, achieving a film that looks like a moving Ansel Adams photograph.
Antiseptic pacing and the nearly hallucinatory detachment he foists on us from the beginning ensure that even when the somewhat loveable Nobody gets shot and the unfortunate William Blake takes that with him as his last vision to carry across the waters, no audience member can work up much more than a stunned, “Gee.” The idea of anyone squeezing out a tear over the whole thing is absurd, and one imagines Jarmusch himself might take offense at such display. He takes no gamble with this film against his place in cinema history, makes no forays into the whored-out land of audience-pleasuring, even if he does give us Johnny Depp in a union suit. Let ’em eat pasta . . . al dente, and as froid as their sang can stand it.
He needn’t have tried so hard. Timing is everything. Even if, as Jonathan Rosenbaum observed in Cineaste (1996, v22, n2), “Jarmusch’s honeymoon with the American press was over” by the time Dead Man premiered at Cannes, when Jarmusch birthed his child into the world, it was still guaranteed enough attention that scholars would remember it was there to be mined for its Blakian references or whatever else struck their fancy ten or twenty years later.
My Name Is Nobody has not had so kind a fate. Having a place in cinema history depends in large part on the intellectual and critical vagaries of cinema history and the reviewers and would-be historians who write it. A critical literature review for Leone’s film from back in the day includes by necessity such media bastions as Retirement Living; predictably they didn’t “get it,” finding it, “like a cake too dry, and without much taste.” (Oh, the ripping wit on those folks at RT.) Film criticism had simply not evolved to the point that any critics knew what to make of this film, and so Leone’s child, unlike Jarmusch’s, was born under the star of obscurity.
This is nothing short of a tragedy. Folks, this film is a masterpiece on the meta-level. It may have been the first postmodern film ever made. It took nine years before anybody ever caught up to it. Peter Bondanella, in Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983) astutely accords almost an entire sentence to the fact that “More than a film about the West, My Name is Nobody is a work about films on the West . . .” For the slower students, he comments that “Jack Beauregard’s fictitious death in a final gun battle with Nobody is filmed in the presence of a photographer, as if to underline the film’s self-reflexive character.” And for all that, this movie even has the good manners to get out of your way and let you have a good time watching it, too—taking the proverbial piece of brush and wiping away its tracks, dissolving your admiration for its pastiche construction of a violence dodging zen-like anti-hero into a rousing good ol-fashioned get ’em in their tickers real Western climax. How pomo is that, y’all?
Here’s how it does it: For about the first two-thirds of the movie, trick photography, slapstick, Terence Hill’s groupie-esque over-acting, Fonda’s look of genuine discomfort, rubber-band-sounding instrumentation on the soundtrack, and some of the worst over-dubbing ever seen convince you that you know what kind of film you’re seeing: a deliberate spoof on every convention of spaghetti-western movie making, done by the makers themselves. It’s an inside joke, and they are asking you if you are smart enough to see it. Their presence, once detected, becomes very palpable. You almost feel like turning around in the theatre and looking for these guys—“Hey!”
Leone, Valerii, and Co. are getting even with everybody who said their films were bad. They’re sliding a film that’s too smart for the nay-sayers right under their noses, knowing that the majority are going to be too stupid to catch it—thus calling into question their standing to call anything bad to start with. Exercise one in self-reflexivity. It’s a film about films, but it’s also an act of revenge, pure and self-contained.
On one level, this is a really baaaaaad film. Its antics are pure hokum, but it’s mixed with just enough “serious” action that the filmmakers knew it would fly just like every other Western. And if you are smart enough, or aware enough, or tuned to the right frequency, or whatever, you can sit there and know that you are seeing something that’s way bigger than its actual footprint. This is a film that some little ol’ man in Italy, whom you will never meet, is using to say something to you, using to present you with a message about his life and his work and what other people think of him—which in any event is probably more than is ever going to be thought about you—and you can understand him. And you realize this is probably what it means to be an artist of some kind. And here you are thinking about this kind of stuff, watching probably one of the silliest, most improbable little “Spaghetti Westerns” ever made.
All this alone would be bad-ass genius enough. But they are not done with you. You are not to rest secure in your wooly little cocoon of slapstick comfort, pondering about movies about movies and what it means to be an artist because here comes the Wild Bunch, 150 pure-bred sons-of-bitches on horseback, and Jack Beauregard’s chance at immortality.
When Jack sends his lathered horse away with a slap, and puts on his steel-rimmed spectacles, you know a few things all at once. You know that Nobody has succeeded in setting him up. You know he’s decided he can’t run from it any more. You know he’s really going to face them. You know he can’t see to do it. You know each one of us will have to face our own death one day and that the only thing that really will matter is if we will able to summon the calm dignity of Jack Beauregard in that moment. You know you are not supposed to have to face real jeopardy for your characters in a slapstick comedy. You know this is too damn much to think about when minutes ago you were happily munching your corn and thinking about how cool it would be to be an Italian artist. You know you are not supposed to care like this. You know you’ve been sucker punched, set up worse than Beauregard himself. You can feel their presence at your back again, and you’re mad about it. How dare they?
But you don’t have time for all that, because as pissed off as you are for being sucker-punched, until you know everything comes out all right in the end, they manage to keep you suspensefully on the edge of your seat for the rest of the ride, which ranges from charismatic spectacle to tooth-grinding “say it ain’t so, Joe” anti-climax—maybe you believed it, maybe you didn’t, but you still can’t quite let your breath out until it’s over.
What this amounts to is a wholly cathartic emotional experience made possible by the fact that you weren’t expecting one. On reflection, emotional catharsis is what the great Westerns used to be about before they got so worn out and shoddy that they couldn’t work for anyone any longer. Hmmm . . . emotional catharsis . . . sucker punch . . . revenge of the Spaghetti Western . . . what this amounts to is a total reinvention of the genre. By pulling us outside the experience, making us deconstruct the whole movie-watching thing, and then whip-sawing us back into it when we least expected it, a dead moment in time came alive again—briefly—for an audience soon to be jaded out of their minds on disco.
Please, nobody get me wrong. I think Jarmusch is one of the finest directors ever. Dead Man is a lovely piece of work—significant. Visual poetry, certainly.
I’m just saying, by way of contrast, that My Name is Nobody—nice hot steaming pile of pasta that it is—is a Philm.