115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Journey of Innocence & Experience: Burial and Manifest Destiny in Dead Man

Andrew Howe, La Sierra University

In Dead Man, the journey undertaken by William Blake is one of insight and revelation, but also a metaphor for Manifest Destiny. In essence, the film is a two-hour dying scene, not just for Blake but also the American West.  The burial canoe in the final scene represents a physical, as well as meta-physical, merger with the land and an apology for the excesses of Manifest Destiny.  This paper explores the film's employment of burial as a trope of such remembrance.

Proposal: 

Burial rites often play a key role in Western genre films. These markers of death are commonly presented as moments of shared memory, occasionally as sites of contested memory, and often appear as a continual reminder of mortality in a genre focused upon new possibilities and frontiers. The Western’s obsession with this narrative trope also reminds its viewers of the cost of Manifest Destiny, offers personal and communal loss as markers of masculinity, and provides revenge narratives with sites of contemplation and closure.  Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) is somewhat unique among such films in that it focuses upon an indigenous mode of burial, that of the burial canoe. The film has been referred to, by various critics, as being psychedelic, surrealist, and absurdist.  The film's protagonist--William Blake--embarks upon a journey of discovery while slowly dying from a gunshot wound he suffered early in the narrative. In Dead Man, death is not so much a physical merger with the land but rather a meta-physical one, with Blake’s own death standing in for the massive, and largely unheralded, numbers of indigenous dead consumed by the colossal appetites of Manifest Destiny. Blake represents the transition from innocence to experience, from naïve optimism about the project of Manifest Destiny through disillusionment and eventual rebirth. He is a white character who in the end is taken out to sea in an indigenous burial canoe, suggesting that re-evaluating American history is possible, and that those who come after may recognize Manifest Destiny for what it truly was: genocide. Burial exists as a barrier between finality and memory, an act that consigns what was (the immediate past) to what has been (the mythic past). As Slavoj Zizek notes: “the funeral rite exemplifies symbolization at its purest: through it, the dead are inscribed in the text of symbolic tradition, they are assured that, in spite of their death, they will ‘continue to live’ in the memory of the community." The canoe is a familiar trope, akin to the horse that carries Shane into his mythological sunset.  Coming at the end of Dead Man, however, the trope is destabilized. The journey is not heroic, the sunset not romantic but instead symbolic of a massive crime perpetuated on a continent-wide scale and hidden under layers of myth-making.

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