Filming the Western Hellscape: High Plains Drifter and Dead Man
This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote in 2008 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. Screencaptures are my own. Critical analysis is original, except where cited from other sources.
Warning: this article contains spoilers!
Recursion and Ellipsis:
Imagining the Western Hellscape in Film
In classical conceptions of Hell, recursive action is always a popular form of torture. Both Prometheus and Sisyphus in Greek mythology were punished by repeated action. Banished to Hades, Sisyphus was burdened with the impossible task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have the boulder roll down again every time. Prometheus was eviscerated by birds every night, only to have his innards grow back the next morning and the torture begin again. In the Christian notion of the afterlife one of the characteristic horrors of Hell is having to repeat the actions of damnation for eternity, in a space absent time, in excruciating, maddening repetition. The very structure of what is considered a ghastly and hellish scenario relies upon the inclusion of these recursive tropes occurring in space outside time.
Narrative representations of Hell, however, are bound by the conventions of story, and must be ordered in time in some logical progression. Therefore, the story of Hell becomes the story of the journey into Hell. The space of the story must be given physical reality, transforming landscape into hellscape and conveying a sense of deferred timelessness within the confines of a limited temporal structure. That is the task required of two films, High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) and Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) which posit the American West as a type of Hell, a place where conventions are replayed, lives revenged and rehashed, all within a suspended and disconnected temporal space.
Embedded in both films is the framework of a recursive narrative. High Plains Drifter centers on the return of an unnamed Stranger, to borrow Chris Durham’s appellation, played by Clint Eastwood, to the town of Lago where he had previously been sheriff. Even before the film begins, there is a history established between the Stranger and the townspeople, a gap in knowledge revealed to the audience through the Stranger’s gruesome flashbacks. The temporal space of the film folds in on itself, collapsing and expanding to accommodate new information. The impetus for the narrative is in the Stranger’s returning, in itself a recursive action.
The Stranger back from the dead.
The Stranger proceeds to arrange the town and its citizens in a reenactment of the events leading up to his own death. The vicious gang of outlaws that whipped the sheriff to death are returning to Lago, and the townspeople could not be happier. Since the Stranger’s death (and absence), the town has congealed once again into a sycophantic and apathetic group. Instead of the forward progression of a frontier town traditionally portrayed in western film, marked by the coming of the railroad and technological and social innovation, Lago is starkly stagnant. They appear to remain in limbo until the outlaws’ release, at which point they are only too happy for history to repeat itself. The Stranger’s return is a purposefully ironic revenge. He exacts his retribution utilizing the same cycles of violence that were enacted upon himself, transforming a suspended, limbo-like Lago into the Hell from which he has returned. The Stranger constructs a concrete time and place for the citizens of Lago, building picnic tables from the planks of other building, painting the entire town red, setting it on fire, and renaming it “Hell.” His literalization of the hellscape, a town consumed by flames, fulfills the presage fear of one the citizens: “It couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden into Lago!” (Durham, 5).
Lago as limbo and Lago as Hell
However, the tools of repetitive torture, effective at exacting revenge, cannot reconcile the spatial and temporal ambivalence of the filmic hellscape. At the close of the film, the town is destroyed with no hope for recovery, either physical or spiritual. The Stranger, having laid to waste the real temporal space, does not have a place within that space, but remains separate from it. The place in the narrative for Eastwood’s
“quasi-satanic dead man…is not secure, but fleeting; in materializing, ghost-like, from the wilderness, and disappearing back into the hazy milieu at the respective beginning and ending of the film. The Stranger does not, like the typical hero, ride back into the wilderness, but into an unknown place, which might well be hell” (Durham, 5).
The Strangers emerges from the deathly miasma...
...and then disappears from the narrative amid a ghostly musical score.
Dead Man, too, is a story formulated around repetition, doubling and mirroring, and a sense of timelessness, of a place where past and present are one combined, and in doing so, both states are negated. “Time/space confusion” is a key element to the journey in Dead Man (Nieland, 172). The plot is structured as a journey, first William Blake (Johnny Depp) traveling by train from Cleveland to the town of Machine on the West Coast, the “end of the line.” Then, after Blake unwittingly becomes an outlaw, he and a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) travel towards the Pacific Ocean, Nobody carrying a dead man to his burial. Whereas High Plains Drifter skews the traditional western in a more science-fiction direction, Dead Man is a completely postmodern reinvention of traditional Western time and space. The Stranger had to return to Lago for revenge, but then vanished back to wherever it was he had come. Blake enacts his dying eternally, again and again, from the film’s opening credits, to its final scene.
The recursive element of death is aided in Dead Man by the technique of ellipsis, that is, the leaving of something out. The film is filled with blanks, little pockets of black screen that sew the narrative together. This elliptical editing technique paradoxically expands the notion of time and space while deleting it. Jarmusch’s “prolific use of fade-to-black—creates a strange temporality that transcends the ‘purely empirical succession of time’ so characteristic of a movement-cinema invested in getting the viewer from one image to the next” (Nieland, 180). By leaving out point B in an A-B-C sequence, Jarmusch disregards the filmic assumption that each scene should follow the last exactly. Thus, omitting certain scenes broaden the potential universe of the film to include elements unseen. The elliptical process, then, is a partner to recursion because it allows the hellscape to perpetuate itself ad infinitum. Any part of a character’s narrative could be excised at anytime, replaced by a fade-to-black interruption, and yet the story would not collapse, but continue to exist. Dead Man offers a world where the characters do not form their own cinematic destiny in the West, but are merely passing strange through a hellscape unburdened by continuous editing or spatial temporality.
Blake lapses in and out of consciousness,
a form of recursive ellipses consistent throughout the film.
In both Dead Man and High Plains Drifter, the themes of repetition and ellipsis are demonstrated in their opening title sequences, and the films’ use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Each film relies heavily on the opening moments of their narratives because they will later return to their initial images and themes at the close of their films. Each opening presents a view of Hell which returns by the end of the movie.
Jarmusch’s film has a very long opening sequence, running more than ten minutes. The scene intercuts, by way of elliptical editing, between the chugging of the train and Blake’s journey inside the train. The black-outs often indicate sleeping, and slipping in and out of consciousness, as Blake endures his long, dull journey. His surroundings, both the landscape outside, and his fellow passengers, become increasingly unfamiliar; more savage, more strange. Depp plays Blake as a blank, his personality totally informed by his reactions to the rough-hewed fur trappers and gun-toting mountain men he so fears. The West is coded as “other,” a weirder, more violent world, a “phantasmagoric movement westward” (Nieland, 172).
Nowhere is this hellish quality more evident than in the opening titles, during a long monologue by the train’s fireman (Crispin Glover), who serves as a sort of creepy seer. He is the usher into Hell.
“Look out the window. And doesn’t it remind you ofwhen you’re in the boat, and then later that night you’re lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’”
Hell and its denizen.
The death and burial the fireman prefigures.
His image becomes reality, implying perhaps that he knows Blake’s fate precisely because he exists out of time, like the ancient Greek ferryman Charon, guiding men to Hades. The fireman tells Blake that Machine is “the end of the line,” asks him why he has come all the way “down to Hell,” and warns him that he will not find a job, but “just as likely… [his] own grave!” The fireman is Blake’s introduction to the hellscape, and he never sees or hears from the character again.
The fireman’s monologue is punctuated, as is the entire sequence, by two audio elements. The first is the constant and rhythmic chuffing of the train’s engine, signaling unrelenting descent into the Western hellscape. The second element is the score by Neil Young, which “underwrites and punctuates the film’s strange rhythm, which alternates uneasily between violent aggression and haunting placidity” (Nieland, 176). Several times, a guitar reverb will add a dimension of melodramatic comedy to a line, as when Glover’s character shouts, “That’s the end of the line!” The electric guitar also interacts with the film, like during the animated title sequence, when a riff “breaks apart” the bones arranged to spell out the title of the film, then fall and fade like fireworks, only to dissolve into the infinite black background. Young’s score itself adds another layer of repetition to the film. It is a minimalist, simplistic score with a few variations on a recurring theme.
Music functions much the same way in the opening of High Plains Drifter. The score by Dee Barton is more traditional than Young’s, utilizing a steady drumbeat recalling the marching of soldiers into battle. This steady rhythm is common in the Western genre, however, in High Plains Drifter, the rhythm takes on a darker, more forceful connotation. The sound is allied to the steady movements of the Stranger’s horse, an unflappable and unstoppable force that comes upon the town of Lago. The drumbeat is coupled with an eerie whistling sound effect, like wind sweeping across the plains. The sound is reminiscent of the Theremin-induced soundtrack of science-fiction films. The two sounds combined create a powerful, cleansing force, at once earthly and otherwordly. As Eastwood’s character enters the town, the soundtrack quiets and the diegetic sound takes hold. These sound effects are heightened, accentuating the deafening silence of Lago itself and the uneasy presence of The Stranger, the sound of whose horse’s shuffling hooves mingles with the harsh cries of seagulls to create a stark and unsettling environment. As Durham notes, “the sound effect of the Stranger’s horse and spurs are amplified, suggesting a presence that is threatening as well as other-worldly” (Durham, 4).
Because the films are dislocated from a strong sense of reality-based temporality, their characters are likewise suspended, untethered from their mortal coil. Both William Blake and the Stranger are “protagonists, who, while appearing to be alive, are already dead” (Curley, 1). The boundaries of reality in these two films are so loose, in fact, that Curley’s definition can be taken literally, or even figuratively. William Blake is branded a dead man from the moment Nobody finds him, and Blake is the only character not to acknowledge his inevitable death. While Nobody carefully prepares his soul for the peaceful afterlife, Blake begins to buy into the violence inherent in the Western hellscape and his place within it. Towards the end of the film, it seems Blake believes the fireman’s moniker of the West as Hell: “Before executing the missionary, who asks God to damn Blake’s soul ‘to the fires of hell,’ Blake remarks flatly: ‘He already has.’ This scene codes Blake’s transformation as damnation” (Nieland, 188). Blake’s blasphemy is obvious. However, typical of a hellscape transposed of time, the traditional merits of the clergy are inverted. Alfred Molina’s missionary is a vile racist. Blake’s nonchalance is in keeping with the blankness of his character. He is dead, both in spirit and personality. He is written by the text of the hellscape, transformed into a demon by Hell.
Blake embraces his identity as a dead/wanted man.
Likewise, Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter is dead, or back from the dead as a resurrected ghost, or spirit. Whatever the precise interpretation, it ultimately does not matter what he is, only how he moves and what he does. The Stranger passes through Lago’s cemetery in the opening credits, which recurs at the end of the film, this time, with his headstone added. Much like ancient Greek plays, the theme of proper burial and ghostly retribution are central to the film. But instead of the ghost transporting himself to the mortal world, the Stranger transforms the earthly landscape into a paranormal hellscape. Like William Blake, Eastwood’s character is coded “as death-like” because “Eastwood’s screen presence is a minimalist one, one which de-emphasises notions of identity through the understated basis of physical and vocal expression…Eastwood’s presence [is] one of ‘not being there’” (Durham, 3). Within the character of the Stranger there is another form of ellipsis, of absence and omission. The man is posited either as ghost, a body without a soul, or as just the opposite: the soul searching for his body, so that he may finally rest. The emptiness of his character allows for other filmic elements to come to the foreground, like the heightened sound of the Stranger’s horse, or the eerie wind that follows him into Lago. The Stranger is acting out his previous life, repeating it until he achieves peace.