Director Spotlight: Jim Jarmusch
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been digging into the earlier filmography of American indie film pioneer Jim Jarmusch. I had seen some of his more recent movies (Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die) before, and for the most part was very pleased by how consistently he features an idiosyncratically mellow, meditative tone. At the same time, his films experiment with diverse characters, locations, and concepts that distinguish each vision from one another. This was a really rewarding spotlight as I was even able to find one of my new favorite movies. I thus don on Jarmusch by my own insistence the title of “king of vibes.”
Now, to the movies.
Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Locations: New York City, Cleveland, Florida (unspecified)
Cast: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
Talk about a fab trio. This pleasant if not wholly uneventful romp of Hungarian émigré Willie, his friend Eddy, and his visiting cousin Eva immediately reminded me of Bande a Part, although with a little less dancing and a little more comfortable silence. Willy and Eddy live day to day by scamming poker games and gambling and really not much else. Eddy (easily recognizable as the actor playing the mechanic in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who takes Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari out for a spin), is the least inspired wholly satisfied person you will see for weeks. Eva, a breath of fresh air among these two dimwits, raises the bar ever so slightly with her passion for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and a desire to get out of routine and explore.
It’s really not much more complicated than that. The movie goes to great lengths to reflect the mundanity of life and a detachment from one’s surroundings. The simplicity of the black and white cinematography makes every place look the same. Driving far only gets you to a new geography, not a new frame of mind. It is a little pessimistic in that sense, as you feel like you’re just witnessing the world without any sense of imagination, but the characters are so low maintenance that it also proves quite cathartic. You’re simply along for the ride.
Down By Law (1986)
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Cast: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
A pimp and a radio DJ find themselves framed for crimes they didn’t commit and sharing a prison cell. With the appearance of a third, a spirited Italian immigrant, the men hatch a plan to escape. This is, admittedly, my least favorite of these movies- but then again, the bar is set relatively high. Lurie and Wait both act and score the music for the film, which has a pretty rockin’ soundtrack, I might add. Like Stranger than Paradise, it’s shot in B&W, but there’s it didn’t operate on as tight of a shoestring budget which shows through in the way Jarmusch captures the smoggy New Orleans environment. You see both the city and the bayou in such a way that the setting seems to come to life as its own character alongside the convicts.
The cynical Waits and Lurie are not quite so intriguing as show-stealer Roberto Benigni, whose authenticity and openness are attention-grabbing and heartwarming in comparison. The best news of this movie is that Benigni’s on-screen sweetheart Nicoletta would go on to be his wife (and both would go on to star in other Jarmusch films). Their romance is the highlight of this well-shot but somewhat tedious journey to freedom.
Mystery Train (1989)
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
Cast: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Steve Buscemi (etc.)
This is the first film of the five to experiment with point of view. It showcases three separate stories all revolving around the Arcade Hotel: two Japanese tourists who have come to visit Graceland, an Italian woman who got caught in an unplanned layover, and a drunken trio of men who find themselves in trouble with the law. Generally, I find that type of structure underwhelming, since it relies so heavily on the strength of all of the components to make for a rewarding payoff, but this one worked pretty well. Memphis is not a city I know terribly well, yet I got the impression that Jarmusch was giving an honest, if not slightly enhanced, portrayal of its aura. Each story has a commendable arc, equal parts funny and profound. Plus, you get the frequent reference to Elvis Presley and his legacy on the town. His phantom even appears at one point in a hotel room.
Jarmusch continues his pattern of focusing less on plot and more on ambiance, getting an understanding for how the characters feel during their temporary stay. The host of the hotel and his busboy serve as the connection link, and even in their limited screen time they are a highlight. It’s futile to compare one segment to the other, since you perceive that you’re watching real people whose lives are accidentally intertwining. It pokes some fun at the randomness of the universe (a theme continued from both Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law), but it also wonders about where the mind wanders when one is finally “laying low” at the end of the day. This is a mood film at heart that is admired by many for its relative straightforwardness and, for lack of a better word, coolness.
Night on Earth (1991)
Locations: Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, Helsinki
Cast: Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez (etc.)
If you were wondering which one of these films ranks at the top of my list, it’s this one. This multi-national dialogue-driven greatest hits compilation illustrates what I think to be Jarmusch’s prime assets as a director. It’s been a really long time since an anthology movie has kept me engaged throughout (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a chore, I apologize to the Coen Brothers for thinking so), so being able to immerse myself with the ease into the scenarios five times over was a very pleasant surprise. Night on Earth features five taxi drivers in five different countries around the world all having a special encounter with a customer on the same night. Right off the bat, it catches your attention- five cities around the world. Jarmusch had worked with foreign actors and languages before: Hungarian in Stranger than Paradise, Roberto Benigni in his key scenes in Italian in Down By Law, an entire forty minute segment of Japanese tourists communicating in their native language in Mystery Train. But traveling to France, Italy, and Finland to do entire twenty minute bits in those respective languages? That’s the kind of thing that blows me away. That is the kind of filmmaking that excites me, that inspires awe as I consider the interconnectivity of the whole world.
According to IMDB, Jarmusch wrote the whole script in eight days (with Benigni’s wild-driving, repenting monologue being almost entirely improvised), and chose the cities based on the specific actors that he wanted to work with in mind. Since each story is happening late at night, I made the smart decision to view the film late at night- an experience I would highly recommend to potential viewers who wish to mimic the supreme comfort of having a thoughtful talk in a taxi without actually being in one. It is evident by now that I am partial, but what I find particularly impressive is how Jarmusch transitioned from one town’s energy to the next, a suddenly companionless cabbie that melts into a series of instantly transportive establishing shots. The night seems quiet except for the individuals inside the vehicle, which heighten the intimacy of the scenarios.
Especially curious is the sober tone that Jarmusch decided to end the movie on, although I will not delve further into that component as to allow some element of mystery. I hope that someone else will find this film as fateful of a discovery as I did (another Tom Waits score)! The vibes are, indeed, immaculate.
Dead Man (1995)
Location: Machine (unspecified west)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover (etc.)
Dead Man feels like a massive departure from Jarmusch’s other work. The slight hiatus must’ve contributed to a new curiosity- a period drama (a western, if you will). The story of an optimistic young man, William Blake, turned rogue with a high price on his head, aided by outsider Nothing . Not quite a drama in the normal sense, this movie is equal parts gritty, campy, and psychedelic. How best to explain that odd juxtaposition of adjectives must begin with the score. Neil Young composed the distorted guitar chords that accompany each of the numerous transitions. The sounds were the first thing I noticed when I started the movie, and the primary aspect that lingered long after it finished. It makes a hazy, imprecise effect when put side by side with quite stunning B&W rural visuals (by cinematographer Frederick Elmes, known for Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, and Synecdoche, New York). If not for the rugged atmosphere and old timey costumes, the film would not deliver the connotation of a western. The first half of the film is a little off-kilter and almost threatening, as Blake becomes the target of abuse. It’s difficult to determine whether people are being entirely serious- the violence feels like a gag. You start to believe like you’re being left out of some sick joke. Then, in a strange but astonishingly smooth turn of events, the film moves into surrealist territory.
Alas, this is the first time, I’ll admit, that there were been some aspects of the film that went over my head. The vivid sensory elements as well as Johnny Depp in his prime’s powerful stare seemed to rise above whatever dialogue was being initiated in the alternate perspective of the bounty hunters. There is quite a bit in the relationship between Blake and Nothing and the stillness in nature that captures Jarmusch’s signature pensiveness, but it moves away from the “day in a life” model and into a more complex semblance of symbolizing spirituality. Of all the movies featured, this is that one that will likely need more than one watch to get to the bottom of. Or, perhaps, the truth is exactly as it appears (but what’s the fun in that?) As far as I know, this is the only “old-timey” movie he’s made thus far or is planning to make, but in my opinion, it would not be so bad if he attempted another.