The quintessential independent film-maker, Jim Jarmusch is an ironist, a minimalist, and a dead-pan and dead-on humorist. Although his body of work is not everyone’s cup of tea, this writer finds him to be one of the liveliest, hippest auteurs to have come down the pike. Commenting on alienation by way of juxtaposing disparate characters in oddball situations, and then “showing life” rather than “telling stories,” Jarmusch creates films which are like visual poetry, little vignettes strung together like dark pearls. Through the events (some of them non-events) which transpire among his characters, we are shown a peculiar vision of life and the world: sometimes the underbelly, sometimes the backside, almost never a straight-forward, conventional point of view.
Jarmusch’s films are populated by petty thieves, cab drivers, escaped convicts, people who live on the fringes of society. It’s all small-time, down to Earth, often hysterically funny and simultaneously poignant. Honesty is the cornerstone of his work. It’s about the struggle to survive in a world that doesn’t allow interest in those who don’t have elaborate educations and pedigrees. Jarmusch is the champion of the marginalized.
Coming out of Akron, Ohio, the industrial heartland of America, Jarmusch went to New York in the mid-Seventies. The Lower East Side was a hot-spot of creativity during that time. The Nuyorican Poets Café opened. Galleries opened. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were making inroads into the art world. The Punk Music scene was thriving with clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where punks could hang out and play. Rent was cheap in a neighborhood that hadn’t been co-opted yet. Police presence was unheard of in Tompkins Square Park, (it was too tough a place), and one was likely to be beaten up by street gangs and accosted by drug dealers, but there was an energy that couldn’t be bought. This is where the mid-westerner settled. Jim Jarmusch’s early films reflect this punk paradigm. STRANGER THAN PARADISE, shows America through the eyes of a female Hungarian immigrant, disembarking in New York, and the eyes of two male characters; one is the woman’s low-life cousin who immigrated 10 years earlier, the other is his ditsy friend. Both of the men are unemployed and manage to squeak by on race track and card game winnings. The woman serves as the focal point of the clash of cultures, always inquisitive about the strange things she sees: TV dinners, football, etc. The characters never really do much of anything, just have subtle conflicts and personality differences, but in spite of this, the film is engaging. At one point Jarmusch keeps his camera on the two men for several minutes while they do nothing but drink beer and stare at the floor. Once one has been taken into the spirit of the film, this scene becomes laugh-out-loud funny. Taking place in Manhattan, Cleveland, and Florida, all three locales portray the same shabby kind of ambience. STRANGER THAN PARADISE was an out of nowhere sensation, winning the National Society of Film Critics “Best Film” of 1984, as well as the Camera d’Or award at Cannes. Jarmusch’s next film, DOWN BY LAW solidified his reputation, and introduced Roberto Benigni to American audiences. But that film lacked the sustained comic tone, and cross-cultural allusions of PARADISE. Two other feature length films followed, MYSTERY TRAIN, in 1989, and NIGHT ON EARTH, in 1991. Both were critically acclaimed and did well enough at the box office to parlay Jarmusch’s reputation as an independent auteur. Both of these films are collages, episodic sketches.
MYSTERY TRAIN begins with the arrival of an Amtrak train in Memphis. A Japanese couple has come to visit the shrines of Memphis: Sun Recording Studios, for example, where rock ‘n’ roll was born. The girl is an Elvis fan. Her boyfriend believes Carl Perkins was the true father of rock’n’ roll. Roger Ebert said: “(i)n the hands of another director, this setup would lead directly into social satire, into a comic putdown of rock tourism, with a sarcastic visit to Graceland as a kicker. But Jarmusch is not a satirist. He is a romantic, who sees America as a foreigner might – as a strange, haunting country where the urban landscapes are painted by Edward Hopper and the all-night blues stations provide a soundtrack for life.” The Japanese couple checks into the Arcade Hotel, which is straight out of 1940’s film noir, with neon signs and a linoleum lobby, and a night clerk who has seen it all. Other people check into the hotel during the movies long night of mystery, including the ghost of Elvis Presley, who’s version of “Blue Moon” is heard at one time or another during each of the mini-tales we see among the characters. This is fitting, since the film is really about legends, and people who believe in them.
The very carefully crafted mise en scne of Jim Jarmusch has a painterly eye for mood and detail. Understated, but elegant. The scenes of Los Angeles, for example, in NIGHT ON EARTH, resemble hyper-realist urban landscape paintings in motion. That film was more star-powered than Jarmusch’s previous ones. In the opening vignette, Gena Rowlands as a business suit clad talent scout, and a young, gum-chewing, chain-smoking Winona Ryder are the actors. In the second episode, Armand Mueller-Stahl provides the cross-cultural locus, looking around wonder-struck at the “beauties” of the American cityscape at night. In all five episodes of the film we are taken along on a cab ride, each of which takes place in a different city on Earth, first Los Angeles, then New York, Paris, Rome, and finally Helsinki. Roberto Benigni once again does a stint, as the Roman cabbie, who has a hilarious encounter with a priest who is on the verge of a myocardial infarction. A more recent, and more mature piece of work was DEAD MAN, which starred Johnny Depp in a hip post-modern western that skewered the glamourization of violence in the western genre. Along with Depp we are treated to quirky roles played by Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton (in one of his funniest roles), a fine array of other character actors. Gary Farmer shows up as the mysterious Indian called “Nobody”, whose trademark line is: “stupid fucking white man”. Depp, the white man referred to, portrays a Candide-like character named William Blake, an innocent in the wilds, whose trip to undertake employment in a gritty, grimey town named Machine takes one horrible turn after another. He is too late arriving, doesn’t get the position he was coming to fill, is taken in by a young lady-of-the-evening, whose ex-lover shows up (Gabriel Byrne), kills the girl, is killed by Blake, who in turn is mortally wounded in the exchange of fire. The remainder of the film is taken up with Blake evading, and systematically bumping off, every bounty-hunter, lawman, and grocery clerk who draws down on him. All the while being aided by Nobody, who mistakes him for the visionary poet whose name he shares. With a jarring, feedback laced guitar score by Neil Young, and stunningly beautiful cinematography by Robby Muller, DEAD MAN was a quantum leap for Jarmusch, in both style and subject. It is darker, and scarier than any of his previous films. A disquieting and apocalyptic piece of work: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
GHOST DOG, Jim Jarmusch’s new feature film is another commentary on the escalating violence in American society. It tells the story of a laconic hit-man who follows the Hagakure, the manual of the samurai. The title character is played to a turn by Forest Whitaker, in the most substantive role he’s done since the biopic BIRD. Jarmusch describes the film as a: “gangster samurai hip-hop Eastern western,” with elements of all those genres, but not actually being any one. The film is really a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic “Le Samourai” which starred Alain Delon. That film has already received homage from other directors, including John Woo. With a hypnoticsound-track by Wu Tang Clan leader, The RZA, (who does a walk-on cameo as a camoflage clad inner city warrior), the film opens with an aerial shot of a pidgeon flying, its wings flapping to the hip-hop beat. We see a bird’s eye view of Jersey City, New Jersey. The bird is a carrier pidgeon, the archaic and esoteric method of communication used between Ghost Dog and the man he owes fealty to, a mafia lieutenant named Louie, played by John Tormey. Ghost Dog is dispatched by Louie to carry out a hit on a mafioso who has been an un-wise guy in taking up a romance with the Don’s daughter. Arrangements have been made for the daughter to be away on a train while the hit takes place, but after Ghost Dog successfully completes the contract, he turns a corner in the bedroom only to find the Don’s daughter, who didn’t catch the train. She is sitting in a chair, watching a Betty Boop cartoon and reading “Rashomon.” She is spared, but her witness of the killing makes the Don decide that it is now necessary to eliminate Ghost Dog too. This ignites the machinery of the story line.
This Jim Jarmusch treatment is a departure from his earlier films, which seemed to owe a debt to Japanese realist cinema, particularly the films of director Yazojiro Ozu, who detested narrative flow. The philosophy being: life doesn’t have a plot, why should movies? In GHOST DOG however, there is an actual sequence of events, beginning with the killing overseen by the Don’s daughter, and culminating in an inevitable denouement between Ghost Dog and Louie. We are shown a flashback episode how the hit man came to have such peerless loyalty to Louie, the man Ghost Dog calls his “retainer”. In that scene we see a much younger Ghost Dog (portrayed by Whitaker’s younger brother Damon) being mugged by a group of street thugs. Louie happens onto the scene, confronts the muggers, and pulls his gun, killing the man who was about to kill Ghost Dog. Since the conceit of the film is that Ghost Dog follows an ancient oriental warrior code, perhaps his fierce loyalty to Louie is predicated on the ancient oriental practice of devoting one’s life to the person who has saved it. This film shares the same thematic core as its predecessor DEAD MAN. Both films being protracted meditations on violence and the inevitability of death, (both films also being liberally sprinkled with sardonic humor), as well as a commentary on honor and things of a spiritual nature. Interspersed throughout GHOST DOG are on-screen excerpts from the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai; the first one stating: “Every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead”. Ghost Dog’s demeanor throughout the story indicates that he is completely reconciled to the idea, as he goes around with style and aplomb, rubbing out every member of the cartoon-watching, cartoonish mob who are after him.
Between those scenes we are allowed to see a different side of Ghost Dog in the only two approximations of friendship of which he seems capable. There is a little bookworm of a girl he meets in the park (Camille Winbush), who trades reviews with him on the books they have read, and ultimately becomes something of a spiritual heiress. Nearby the park, there is an ice-cream vendor (played by Isaach De Bankole, who had the role of the Parisian cab-driver in NIGHT ON EARTH), who speaks no English, but never-the-less manages to communicate with Ghost Dog, who speaks no French, and ultimately becomes the heir of everything material which Ghost Dog has. There is a warmth to these scenes, but virtually the only time we get to see Ghost Dog smile is when he is with his pidgeons, and in the woods once, when he is scoping out the Don’s estate, he happens to spy a pileated woodpecker. Although there were moments when the willing suspension of disbelief was difficult, even for a fan-from-the-first-waters, this movie was resonant and rewarding, and succeeded on a number of levels. It is currently in limited release in the art-house theater circuit. All of Jim Jarmusch other films (with the exception of PERMANENT VACATION, his first) are available as videos. They are sometimes difficult to locate, not being anywhere near box-office block-buster status, but well worth the effort to find, and the time to watch.