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Johnny Depp Starts Here

Johnny Depp Starts Here

Murray Pomerance
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Johnny Depp Starts Here
    Book Description:

    From beloved bad-boy to cool and captivating maverick, Johnny Depp has inspired media intrigue and has been the source of international acclaim since the early 1990s. He has attracted attention for his eccentric image, his accidental acting career, his beguiling good looks, and his quirky charm. In Johnny Depp Starts Here, film scholar Murray Pomerance explores our fascination with Depp, his riddling complexity, and his meaning for our culture. Moving beyond the actor's engaging and inscrutable private life, Pomerance focuses on his enigmatic screen performances from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Secret Window.The actor's image is studied in terms of its ambiguities and its many strange nuances: Depp's ethnicity, his smoking, his tranquility, his unceasing motion, his links to the Gothic, the Beats, Simone de Beauvoir, the history of rationality, Impressionist painting, and more. In a series of treatments of his key roles, including Rafael in The Brave, Bon Bon in Before Night Falls, Jack Kerouac in The Source, and the long list of acclaimed performances from Gilbert Grape to Cap'n Jack Sparrow, we learn of Johnny onscreen in terms of male sexuality, space travel, optical experience, nineteenth-century American capitalism, Orientalism, the vulnerability of performance, the perils of sleep, comedy, the myth of the West, Scrooge McDuck, Frantois Truffaut, and more.Johnny's face, Johnny's gaze, Johnny's aging, and Johnny's understatement are shown to be inextricably linked to our own desperate need to plumb performance, style, and screen for a grounding of reality in this ever-accelerating world of fragmentation and insecurity. Both deeply intriguing and perpetually elusive, Depp is revealed as the central screen performer of the contemporary age, the symbol of performance itself.No thinker has meditated on Johnny Depp this way before-and surely not in a manner worthy of the object of scrutiny.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3779-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction: A Trick of Light
    (pp. 3-18)

    The rumor about Johnny Depp—that is, the story one is urged over and over to accept when by the popular media one is told about him—is this . . .

    Born in Kentucky he was particularly attached to his mother. His brother introduced him to heavy rock music:

    I was daydreaming of taking her out behind the 7-Eleven to drink Boone’s Farm strawberry-apple wine and kiss until our mouths were raw. ZZZZRRRIIIPP!! was the sound I heard that ripped me from that tender moment. My brother Danny, ten years my senior and on the verge of committing fratricide,...

  5. Depp Positions

    • Hungarian
      (pp. 21-34)

      Johnny Depp is not Hungarian. Not long into Tim Burton’sEd Wood(1994), however, he participates in a strange “Hungarian event.” As the title character, a happy-go-lucky Hollywood studio greensman’s assistant who dreams of making it big as a film director, he has accidentally encountered the celebrated horror star Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau, also not Hungarian) and they have quickly become friends. Lugosi is seventysomething, jaded, faded, masqueraded. Wood à la Depp is brash, bright, bungling, and bizarre—a man with not only a penchant for angora and high heels but also a knack for affectionate self-mockery, as though to...

    • Apprehending
      (pp. 35-41)

      At the very least, a scene like the “Hungarian” episode inEd Woodnicely illustrates the sort of problem that confronts the viewer’s paramount need to apprehend the screen Depp, to discover—grasp, penetrate, be satisfied with—him by finding and exploiting the elusive, even intangible, boundary that separates his person from his characterization. Regarding that boundary, take, for example, teeth. A few times inEd Wood,Ed opens his mouth to reveal (terrifyingly) that just beneath the cuddly angora exterior, the face with skin as smooth as that of a teenage girl, wait Draculaic teeth, misshapen, sharp, obscene (teeth...

    • Not Finished
      (pp. 41-46)

      In his bookFrame Analysis,among other things an excellent approach to the structure of stagings, Erving Goffman describes a feature of theatrical events that is of particular interest to me here: “Spoken interaction is opened up ecologically; the participants do not face each other directly or (when more than two) through the best available circle, but rather stand at an open angle to the front so that the audience can literally see into the encounter” (1974, 140).

      In motion pictures, of course, the audience, as John Van Druten once put it,isthe camera, seeing into the encounter because...

    • One Drag
      (pp. 46-60)

      In Alfred Hitchcock’sThe Man Who Knew Too Much(1956), there is a startling moment in which a man (James Stewart) must cradle a dying Arab (Daniel Gélin) who is whispering a secret into his ear. Hitchcock shoots the moment from a position looking up into Stewart’s face, registering his shifting expression as he hears the dying words and tries to decipher them. It is a stunning extended macro-close-up, shot in VistaVision for projection on an enormous screen that will be utterly filled with this querulous face. InThe Prince of the City(1981), Sidney Lumet recapitulates this shot, using...

    • No Thing
      (pp. 60-66)

      Johnny Depp is the first movie star to be an authentic illusion: this is surely a bizarre statement to make in a postmodern climate, in the shadow of a popular culture that fills the atmosphere twenty-four hours a day with what Baudrillard has calledsimulacra.For surely it has come to be a commonplace of cultural criticism that we live in a world of the unreal, the extraordinary, the illusory, the insubstantial, in which the absence of honor, dignity, form, meaning, desire, value, and principle have left a mammoth cultural vacuum, what Fredric Jameson has called, with perhaps too little...

    • Disappearance
      (pp. 66-86)

      Depp is a curiosity in the history of screen stardom in still another respect, one that has attracted more popular and critical attention than any other facet of his performances. This is the fact that he has made a career of playing many quite different roles, presenting to the public anything but a unified persona. The traditional movie star, who lingers in the background as we consider Depp and against the qualities of whose career we evaluate his, is quite a different presence, indeed was for years a person necessarily typecast. In Hollywood this happened in a systematic and dominant...

    • Blanc
      (pp. 86-90)

      Interviewed in New York late in 1995, Jim Jarmusch shared withCahiers du cinémathe reason he liked Johnny Depp. “He has a very fresh, very pure personality, a whiteness that makes you want to cover it with graffiti” (Saada 1996, 26). Notwithstanding the interest this comment bears toward a discussion of Jarmusch’sDead Man,to which we will come, it seems nonetheless a remarkable review of Depp as a figure of the screen. Surely the purity and freshness are evident palpably, in the trademark wide-eyed stare, the relaxed posture of the lips that do not always have something to...

    • The Outsider
      (pp. 90-97)

      When Jarmusch, speaking as a filmmaker, indicates a desire to cover Johnny with text, he is suggesting that he wants to socialize him, to render him both decodable and navigable. Already, without being written upon, his body is a text itself, a poem, a mystery, a metaphor, an epigraph inscribed in an untranslated and untranslatable set of glyphs. But Jarmusch is saying, in the plainest terms, that he wishes to imprint Johnny’s pristine, untrammeled surface with his own configuration of a character, because Johnny Depp permits himself to move through a dense terrain in a quest for understanding while himself...

    • Light and Darkness
      (pp. 97-106)

      No feature has more stunned viewers than the watery, hungry, reassuring, unrested “almond brown” eyes that have “made Johnny Depp a gorgeous pouting icon” (FeatsPress). With Edward Scissorhands, for example, we have the feeling that it is by way of the eyes he is made utterly vulnerable, and that if the world displayed to him when he comes down from his castle is ultimately a painful panorama there is also nothing of it that he does not see. With Donnie Brasco we have the sense of an immensely articulate, nuanced power of observation, an acoustic and optical magnification that makes...

  6. Interlude
    (pp. 107-118)

    How am I writing about film, and how am I finding Johnny Depp on the screen? In a voice and with a manner that is consistent with the biography of my own thought, to be sure, in all its precarious turnings and spontaneous attachments to, its windings upon, the thought of others who wrote about other experiences and instigations, who never had a thought of Johnny Depp. And then, more particularly, with something of the kind of attention that was committed by Roland Barthes when he looked at photographs.

    Writing about the photograph, that frozen wafer that reflects the conjunction...

  7. Johnny Depp Starts Here

    • Gilbert
      (pp. 121-135)

      GilbertGrape. A formal boy, not a Gil. A boy with dignity, good posture, a moral sense, a backbone. A boy who makes no superfluous gesture, his smile when he offers it always genuine because he comprehends—indeed, is capable of comprehending—no irony. His long red hair—red: it is really orange, the color of rusted farm machinery—is immaculately clean, although it is true we never see him cleaning it. (Depp dyed his hair “red like one of his childhood friends and [had] his teeth bonded and then chipped out.” “I remember kids growing up, how their teeth...

    • Spencer
      (pp. 135-142)

      On Monday, the thirteenth of April, 1970, at five minutes and thirty-one seconds after ten o’clock in the evening, Eastern Standard Time, one of the two oxygen tanks on the command module of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’sApollo 13burst, an event that is described by Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., the chronicler of the voyage, as having the effect of “spewing into space three hundred pounds of liquid oxygen, which meant the loss of half the craft’s supply of this element for generating electricity and water. The oxygen came out in one big blob, and in gravityless...

    • Himself
      (pp. 142-154)

      As Carl Sagan once wrote, “When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what’s in store for you” (1994, 215). The artist and filmmaker Terry Gilliam having been obsessed for years with the idea of making a film of Cervantes’sDon Quixote,and a suitably munificent producer having turned up in France, he finds himself in pre-production in Spain with a team of highly energized, not to say nervous, colleagues and somewhat dismayed to discover that the actors’ contracts have not been carefully written in such a way as to guarantee their presence for rehearsal. Particularly...

    • Raoul
      (pp. 154-161)

      A remarkable scene near the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s bizarre and oneiricFear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

      On the empty highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, “somewhere near Barstow,” Raoul Duke (an exceedingly wired Johnny Depp, with a cigarette holder that seems to be cemented to his teeth) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (a porcine never-sober Benicio Del Toro) are screaming along in a flame red Chevrolet convertible whose trunk, as Hunter S. Thompson writes in the book of which this film is in many ways an extraordinarily faithful rendition, “looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We...

    • Raoul, Again
      (pp. 161-166)

      But we may ourselves seek mastery, measurement, exclusion. We may approach Johnny Depp from a rational perspective, with a desire to estimate him. Thus, we may seek to know what is this “America” of the American Dream, in order to know who is this Johnny inside the Raoul Duke bravely seeking it in order to expose it to the light of day. It is certainly a dream, and a culture—as Duke points out in the film—where one learns to be disappointed.

      A fully-fledged American capitalist aristocracy was in place by the turn of the twentieth century, and included...

    • Don Juan
      (pp. 166-176)

      In Jeremy Leven’s rather bizarreDon Juan DeMarco(1995), Johnny DeMarco, a young New Yorker claiming to be, dressing and speaking in the garb and language of, and in general demanding that others acknowledge him as Don Juan (Depp), is contemplating suicide on top of a building (beneath a huge billboard that says, “The Beaches of Canary Islands SPAIN Unlock the Mysteries”). Bereft of his adored and beautiful Doña Ana, he finds life not worth living. He is talked off his ledge by a canny but burnedout psychiatrist (Marlon Brando), who, riding up to greet him in a cherry-picker crane,...

    • Donnie (Joe)
      (pp. 177-188)

      We meet Donnie Brasco and get close to him, indeed fear for his life, before we learn that he does not exist.

      Ostensibly, Mike Newell’sDonnie Brasco(1997) is a film about an undercover sting operation aimed at the arrest of certain members of New York crime “families.” Central to “Operation Donnie Brasco” is the placement within the close precincts of such a “family,” specifically in a bond of trust with the key lieutenant Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio (Al Pacino), of FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone (Depp) who is pretending to be a fence and low-caliber hood named “Donnie Brasco.” We...

    • Glen
      (pp. 188-194)

      Glen Lantz in Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street(1984) is a cardboard figure seen against a cardboard ground, that of the suburban culture of a cadre of high school students, longtime friends and make-out partners, who are being tormented by an invisible and seemingly all-powerful force from The Beyond. The Force is Freddy Kreuger, the ghost of a dead child-killer, who torments the children of the people who burned him alive by inhabiting their dreams, especially dreams set in boiler rooms, gardens, and other closeted spaces. While the kids giggle in the bedroom of some of their parents,...

    • Axel
      (pp. 194-200)

      There is a strangely revealing moment early in Emir Kusturiça’sArizona Dream(1993). Axel Blackmar (Depp), an erstwhile and meditative employee of the New York City Department of Fisheries, has been lured by his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo) to drive to Arizona, where their Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) is about to be married (to Millie [Paula Porizkova], a girl young enough, and apparently attractive enough, to be sleeping with Axel instead), and one evening he is sitting with Leo in Leo’s pink stucco house watching home movies of himself as a child, his now-deceased parents, and Uncle Leo. Like every...

    • William
      (pp. 201-205)

      A timid, somewhat brittle-looking white man in spectacles, William Blake (Depp) rides on a train west from Cleveland to the town of Machine, across Indian country, to take up a promised position as clerk in an industrial concern. He is something of an innocent, a “naïve young guy who’s trying to get his life together,” according to Depp (Goodall 1999, 193); his train ride seems to last forever. (He is on the train. Fade. He is on the train. Fade. He is on the train. Fade. He is on the train. Fade . . .) When he arrives in Machine...

    • Edward, George, Jack, and Bon Bon
      (pp. 206-222)

      Complaining about Ang Lee’s “laborious”Hulk,David Denby mutters, “Without some sort of pop madness roiling around in the basement of the material—some kind of lawless impulse—a monster movie has very little reason to exist. If a man who turns into a behemoth isn’t a metaphor for forbidden human desires, then what does he represent?” (2003a, 84). Setting aside the lawlessness of the monster, or at least his penchant for loitering outside the precincts of civilization as we know it, we might wonder at Denby’s thoroughly capitalist reading of the monster film (by which I would include the...

    • Cap’n Jack (Four Preludes)
      (pp. 222-232)

      To fans addicted to Johnny Depp’s “beauty,” “youthfulness,” and “romantic allure,” Gore Verbinski’sPirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearlmay seem something of a tumble, not to say a wholesale fall from grace, and his dissolute, utterly dissipated—while still inexcusably young—Captain Jack Sparrow a sad excuse for a dashing pirate. No Errol Flynn this, at any rate, although one can see that at no moment is the actor beneath Cap’n Jack unconscious of the legacy of Errol Flynn. The apocrypha about this performance, based, to be sure, on comments from the actor and also hurled...

    • Raphael
      (pp. 233-237)

      Johnny Depp’s first and, to this date, only directorial effort in film,The Brave,presents the last seven days in the life of Raphael, a young Native American living “at the end of the line,” with his wife and two children in a shantytown. The brother of a suicide and an unemployed ex-convict who is virtually unemployable in racist White America, he resorts to making a contract with McCarthy, a wheelchair-bound overweight hypernarcissistic snuffmeister (Marlon Brando), whereby after a period of one week he will present himself to be tortured to death in exchange for the sum of $50,000. The...

    • Mort
      (pp. 237-242)

      In a mid-twentieth-century contribution to the journalCollege English,Walker Gibson makes a distinction between authors and speakers. If, as for Gibson, the “real reader” of a text is one “upon whose crossed knee rests the open volume,” we may surmise that the “real author,” these days, is one beneath whose fingertips lay the keys of a keyboard. Next to him is, perhaps, a mug of steaming coffee. On the floor is a dozing dog. A fire burns nearby in a fireplace. Bookshelves behind him are filled with volumes, several shelves being dedicated to his own publications that are present,...

  8. Depp Theory

    • The Theoretical Response
      (pp. 245-257)

      What if we argue that the history of visual art since the seventeenth century has been a rhythmic alternation between the enunciation of the desire to see and the enunciation of the logic of sight? What if we find in it a constant repetition of the pleasure of looking interrupted by the divagations of theory? If the pleasure of looking is mysterious, esoteric, implicit, profound, pulsive, centrifugal, and anarchic, surely the theory that explains the vision is rational, exoteric, explicit, superficial, harmonic, centripetal, and also monarchic, in the sense that it posits some supreme logical center around which the act...

    • The Purely Sensational Johnny Depp
      (pp. 257-260)

      Johnny Depp is a pure sensation, something that is accessible to us long before the entrenching postulations of theory give it a name and suggest an angle from which it can be seen to best advantage. As a presence, he leaps off the screen to tangle with our sensibilities, our anxieties, our deepest feelings. Critics and fans alike speak of how beautiful he is. A colleague of mine who has met him attests, “In personhe is even more beautiful.” Easily, yet confoundingly, we begin to relegate his films and his performances to the popular, the kitschy. He raises a...

  9. The Image Views Himself Disappear
    (pp. 261-270)

    Like much of the rest of Western mainstream culture, theNew York Times,once an admittedly too-cloistered sanctuary of informed opinion and haughty, self-congratulatory insider knowledge, has thrown itself brazenly at the feet of Hollywood—this, to a degree so flattering and self-deprecating, if also smarmily chic, that it now, apparently onceeveryautumn, publishes an “annual movie issue” of its Sunday magazine. “Where id was, there shall ego be,” Freud wrote. Here one might well say, “Where high culture’s exclusivity was, there shall pop culture’s shameless marketing be.” On page 96 of the issue for November 9, 2003, for...

  10. Works Cited and Consulted
    (pp. 271-278)
  11. Filmography
    (pp. 279-296)
  12. Credits
    (pp. 297-298)
  13. Index
    (pp. 299-308)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 309-310)