He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved by men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
Blake, "Auguries of Innocence"
When I began graduate school twenty autumns ago I enrolled in a rather promising class with the simple name of "Literature and Film." Unfortunately, a large chunk of that literature turned out to be the yawn-inducing theories of the trendy; even more unfortunate were some of the cinematic selections that ranged from dull to mindlessly pretentious – but these are the wages of academe. Still, among these wax figures roamed works of tantalizing genius (such as this fantastic film) and a few others that engendered little more than indifference, including this film heralded as a landmark in independent cinema. The best thing I can say about Stranger than Paradise is that the foreign destination is Hungary. Studying Jarmusch's works, apart from a couple of more recent and commercial releases, one notices a curious and recurrent decision to portray the outsider against the basic plot conceit of flight or travel (Jarmusch's characters always seem to be fleeing). Another structural method is his unorthodox use of literary texts as motifs, with one author in particular being featured in this film.
Our premise is most unusual: a Native American takes William Blake the late nineteenth-century accountant and aspiring apiarist (Johnny Depp) for the long-dead poet of the same name. Yet before their fateful encounter, Blake must commit the crime that will justify the film's title; and since the setting is a Western, there are crimes aplenty to be had. Blake – who goes by Bill and hasn't a clue about poetry much less his glorious eponym – is first seen on one of those endless trains that seemed to travel for days through the American West. The other passengers smile at him with some pity because he, by all indications, is nothing if a mild-mannered gentleman quite out of his element in this Darwinistic morass. Responding timidly to the questions of a coal-charred fellow (Crispin Glover), Blake reveals that he hails from Cleveland, near Lake Erie, his parents are deceased and his fiancée is with someone else – in other words, he is absolutely alone. He arrives at the office of his prospective employer, the despotic John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his last role), is mocked and almost killed, and leaves without the job he was promised two months before. Broke and friendless, Blake wanders into a saloon. He is a boy in a man's world (he cannot even afford a large bottle), and we suspect that his only way out of this fix is to meet a girl. Not the right girl, mind you, but a girl (this is a Western and not a romantic comedy). He does indeed meet a girl; and he meets her the way you're supposed to meet a girl in Westerns – through a random act of cruelty or misfortune. The girl he finds, Thel (Mili Avital), is a very pretty former prostitute with the requisite organ donor requirements (including the heart of gold) who has become a "paper flower girl." More importantly, she has a crazy ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). The boyfriend walks in on the couple in bed, tries to shoot Blake but kills Thel, and is then shot by a reluctant Blake, quite obviously a first-time gun handler. When we learn that the ex-boyfriend was called Charles Dickinson and was the son of Blake's near-employer, a price is put on the accountant's head and our bumbling story devolves into a chase.
The Native American in this Cowboys-and-Indians tale is Xebeche or, as he prefers, Nobody (Gary Farmer). Spurred on as a young boy to hunt elk by tribal elders, Xebeche is captured by British soldiers and eventually makes his way to London as a circus sideshow. His enthusiasm for British ways – he perceives assimilation as his only hope of freedom – leads to his education in the finest of British literature, including Blake, whom he rightly deems a visionary. These two lonely men (Xebeche has been shunned by his people for his foreign manners) meet by chance, decide that they can only delay death for so long, and wander as the requisite odd couple through the American West. Xebeche explains his mores, his ways, and the ways of nature that are afflicted upon the "stupid whites" who continue to destroy his culture and land. But his description of his captivity is even more elegant:
And each time I arrived in another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly.
The duo are soon followed by three Dickinson-commissioned hitmen (in a great scene, we see them pointing guns at the huge portrait of Dickinson in his office before he arrives), one of whom is perversely deranged in a very modern way. And here I must permit myself an aside: there is a certain charm to Westerns that appeals most notably to teenage boys but which has always been lost on me and I mentioned before what some people think of rebels and rulebreakers. Perhaps I care little for them because they evince Darwinism at its worst, the predatory, vulturine methods of squatting, hunting, defending and not caring about anyone else except themselves. Dickinson, the embodiment of survivalist thuggery and greed, is a bully who likes fine clothes, a ruffian who likes fine wine, someone who will never forgive a wrong, whose grudges and vendettas extend through generations, someone who is sexist, chauvinistic, peevish, and childish in every sense, someone who will live and die by violence. In other words, he is nothing more than the gangster of today. That Blake misses his opportunity to work for him should be seen as kismet, especially given the events that ensue.
Yet something happens to Blake along the way, and it may be on account of the strange war paint that Xebeche leaves on his face while sleeping. He does not become the poet Blake so much as a modern interpretation of the poet, part decadent dandy and part vigilante murderer. Not that Blake has much to do with killers or any type of violence; but his poetry, glorious and beautiful and wonderfully prophetic has a scourge-like quality to it much in keeping with a Biblical avenger (mentioned in passing, as it were, by three loathsome fur trappers). The accountant Blake's last visions suggest hell, with the strangeness of pagan faces and their unholy rituals, garb and language. Perhaps the poet Blake might have lamented the crimes against the poor by alleged Christians in the New World as he lamented them in London. Whatever the case, some are indeed born without the faintest sliver of light or hope, and we who do not count ourselves among them must remember our privileges before we trespass against those of others. Not, admittedly, a very Western epithet. But the poet Blake was as far removed from such bedlam as anyone else, which brings us back to those sagacious auguries:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.