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Filmmakers On the Road with Jim Jarmusch

Dialogue: Jim Jarmusch with Jonathan Rosenbaum

  • Retrospective:February 4–25, 1994

When thinking about today’s ambitious filmmakers, one of the easiest ways to distinguish between Hollywood employees and those with more creative freedom is to look for logical and consistent developments from one film to the next—a clear line of concerns that runs beyond fads and market developments. While it is possible to see a director such as Alfred Hitchcock developing certain formal and thematic ideas in his pictures during the 1950s, there is little likelihood of such an evolution being possible in a studio director today—what with agent packages, script bids, multiple rewrites, stars who get script approval and/or say over the final cut, test marketing, and other current and standard committee procedures.

In this light, it is significant that writer-director Jim Jarmusch, virtually alone among American independents who make fictional narrative features, owns the negatives of all of his films. This means that, for better and for worse, all the developments—and the non-developments—that have taken place in his work between his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), and his fifth, Night on Earth (1994), are of his own making. Part of this power undoubtedly derives from the worldwide success of Stranger than Paradise, his second feature; but no less important have been Jarmusch’s clarity of purpose and cleanness of design. Thanks to these virtues, his career has shown an exemplary balance between experimentation and repetition, and healthy amounts of both business savvy and artistic self-preservation. In his steady rejection of Hollywood offers and his cultivation of a certain hip, international art house milieu, he has outlined a model for independence that combines French New Wave conviviality with some of the down-home brashness of storefront theater. Jarmusch’s mixed aesthetic doses the spare decorum of New York minimalism with diverse and often witty injections of European, Asian, African, and black American soul. He confronts dreams of escape and freedom with various models of constriction and confinement. Invariably, he invests energy in character rather than story, and he returns repeatedly to the idea of how to look at the same thing in different ways—or at different things in the same way.

The differences between and the similarities among his five features are in a way equally striking. Perhaps the most interesting consistent development is that each film is a bit longer than the one preceding it—suggesting that, in each film, he has a little more to say. (Permanent Vacation is 80 minutes long; Night on Earth, 128.) Also, Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise, and Down by Law (1986) are all “road movies” of a sort, featuring music by John Lurie and strategic pauses in dialogue. But each is a different form of road movie with a different sort of Lurie music; and each can even be said to have a different kind of silence. Both of the latter films are about the wanderings of two Americans and an unassimilated European through black-and-white landscapes that, while they change superficially, remain obstinately the same. Yet few performances can be more dissimilar than those of Eszter Balint (as the Hungarian) in Stranger than Paradise and Roberto Benigni (as the Italian) in Down by Law, even in their disparate behavioral poetry. Also, the matching landscapes of New York City, suburban Cleveland, and rural Florida in the former film, shot by Tom DiCillo, are worlds apart from those of Louisiana—New Orleans, prison, swamp, and a forest, shot by Robby Müller—in the latter.

The three-part construction of these two features is carried over into Mystery Train (1989), though here the time frame (one 24-hour stretch) and locations (a few dilapidated blocks in Memphis) remain the same in all three parts, while the central characters are different in each part. This set-up inverts part of the formal game plan of Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, though there are also a few interesting echoes of the previous films. (For example, each of the three parts features one or two foreigners—Japanese, Italian, or English.) Significantly, when Jarmusch moves from a three-part to a five-part sketch film in Night on Earth, which is about five taxicab drivers around the globe and their passengers, he retains simultaneity but alters its meaning by setting four of the five sketches in different time zones.

There is an interesting development within each of the five sketches, as Night on Earth moves from dusk in Los Angeles to dawn in Helsinki. Death—a central theme in the middle episode of Mystery Train—becomes equally important in the last two episodes; and the overall tone grows darker as the movie drifts eastward toward daybreak. But there are also certain recurring motifs and rhymes that suggest song-like refrains rather than developments. Take for instance the sunglasses worn at night by the drivers in Los Angeles and Rome and the blindness that serves as a theme of the Parisian episode—or the immigrant cabbies in the New York and Paris sections who both drive terribly. As is the case in all of Jarmusch’s features, these sketches—collectively comprising a different kind of road movie, with a different definition of the foreigner—create a complex new blend between sameness and difference. Are Giancarlo Esposito and Armin Mueller-Stahl, in the New York taxicab in Night on Earth, wearing exactly the same kind of floppy-eared hat, as Mueller-Stahl claims? Or are these hats different, as Esposito insists? Does it matter? As Eddie says about the city of Cleveland in Stranger than Paradise, “You come to some place new and everything looks the same.”

─Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the film critic for the Chicago Reader. His books include Moving Places, Midnight Movies (with J. Hoberman), Film: The Front Line 1983,Greed, This is Orson Welles (editor), Placing Movies, Movies as Politics, Dead Man, Movie Wars, Abbas Kiarostami (with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa), Movie Mutations (coedited with Adrian Martin), Essential Cinema, and Discovering Orson Welles (forthcoming in 2006).

Jim Jarmusch