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The Films Of Jim Jarmusch: A Retrospective

The Films Of Jim Jarmusch: A Retrospective

There’s no one in independent film quite like Jim Jarmusch, one of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers. Born to Episcopalian parents in Ohio in 1953, the director fell in love with B-movie double bills his mother left him in as a child, and fell into counter-culture arthouse movies in his teens. The director studied Journalism at Northwestern before dropping out and studying literature at Columbia, moving to Paris for ten months and then returning and applying to the film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he worked under legendary “Rebel Without A Cause” director Nicholas Ray, who encouraged the filmmaker’s unique, particular approach.

Jarmusch is a sort of perennial outsider: at 15 his hair turned grey, which his friend and collaborator Tom Waits thinks made him “an immigrant in the teenage world. He’s been an immigrant — a benign, fascinated foreigner — ever since. And all his films are about that.” And it’s not hard to see Waits’ point — from little-seen debut “Permanent Vacation” and breakout follow-up “Stranger Than Paradise,” to more recent star-laden films like “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits Of Control,” he’s painted a bleak, disconnected, wryly comic view of the world that’s never quite given him mainstream success, but has made him one of American indie’s most consistent and valuable filmmakers.

Jarmusch just got underway on production for his latest film, vampire tale “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which stars Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin alongside Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, and that should arrive in theaters in 2013. But today sees the Criterion re-release of his third film, 1986’s “Down By Law,” on a shiny new Blu-Ray, and to mark the occasion, we thought it’d be a good time to look back over Jarmusch’s unique filmography (of fiction features, at least). Read on below.

“Permanent Vacation” (1980)
Never widely available in the U.S until the Criterion release of “Stranger Than Paradise” in 2007, and rejected by Tisch professors as “a waste of time” (the school refused to let him graduate as a result), Jarmusch dropped out to make his 16mm feature debut, which helped launch his career. The film stars Chris Parker as Allie, a bored, jazz-obsessed young man who wanders New York, encountering various oddball strangers (the film feels like a predecessor to Richard Linklater‘s “Slacker” in many ways). It certainly feels like a student film, with all the indulgence that comes with it — Jarmusch is a little too in love with his influences for the film to stand on its own. But it’s a particularly accomplished student film at that — the cinematography, by future “Living In Oblivion” director Tom DiCillo, is terrific — with the helmer showing a keen eye for the city and its quirky characters, even if some of the clearly non-professional actors are weak. And in fits and starts, it’s great, with Allie’s encounter with a stranger in a movie theater (the excellent Frankie Faison) who explains the Doppler Effect to him, being a particular standout. It’s a minor, early experiment to be sure, a director finding his feet, but it’s an intriguing, if inessential insight into his development all the same. [C+]

“Stranger Than Paradise” (1984)
While “Permanent Vacation” planted the seeds and stylistic notions that would come to define the undoubtedly individual filmmaker, it would be “Stranger Than Paradise” that demonstrated an assured hand and a playful enthusiasm while documenting the lives of a lumpen trio lacking any considerable ambitions, but remaining relatable, even likeable, in spite of pervasive shiftlessness. Willie (John Lurie) welcomes Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) with minimal enthusiasm, but grows to appreciate her presence along with similarly unambitious Eddie (Richard Edson). Jarmusch takes his time, and you get to know the trio well, even as the plot develops with little insistence on narrative movement and minor stakes. The director also makes extensive use of the stone-cold Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You,” including a welcome sequence of Eva schlepping a massive boombox down the street while Hawkings goes nuts on his most famous cut. To write about “Stranger Than Paradise” robs the film of some well-earned mystique — talk to anyone who loves the film and they’ll come at you with impressions and emotions, as unconcerned with straightforward summary as the characters of the film are with honest living. [B+]

“Down By Law” (1986)
“My mama used to say that America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top,” a character says in Jim Jarmusch’s third feature, and certainly, Roberto (Roberto Benigni), Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie) are not the finest citizens the New Orleans jail in which they meet has ever seen. Yet in it’s own curious, sweat soaked, humorous and elegiac way, “Down By Law” quietly makes the case that even outsiders and fuckups can find friendship, hope, love and opportunity. Arrested individually, but brought together in the same jail cell, this rag tag trio form an unlikely alliance, bonded by Roberto’s hilariously broken English (the actor really was learning the language at the time, and the notebook of phrases he carries was his own) and optimistic spirit. When they manage a jail break, their escape into the swampy bayou finds them evading the law while hoping to make a fresh start. Moving at a languid pace perfect for its deep south setting (aided by Robby Muller’s utterly gorgeous black and white photography), and following a loose narrative that is more built on their interaction than any particularly plot-driven motivations, “Down By Law” follows Jarmusch’s previous efforts in tracking a journey that moves in no predictable direction. But its characters are equally driftless, with Zack, a radio DJ escaping a rotten relationship; Jack, a pimp on the run, and Roberto, a misunderstood stranger in a strange land. But by the end, each find, if not redemption, a glimmer of hope at the very least, with the open road full of opportunity for both Zack and Jack, and love for Roberto that is “like in a book for children.” Exceedingly charming and heartwarming, “Down By Law” is a satisfying jazz riff of a movie, an endearing little song that finds both melancholy and joyful notes of lives moving with no particular purpose. [B+]

“Mystery Train” (1989)
While its importance cannot be overstated, it’s funny to think that Steven Soderbergh‘s “sex, lies, and videotape,” largely considered to be the starting point for the current state of American independent cinema, was released the same year as Jim Jarmusch‘s “Mystery Train,” a movie that, structurally and stylistically, now comes across as bolder and more influential all these years later. Temporally unmoored, “Mystery Train” follows a group of disparate characters through an interconnected series of events, all surrounding a shabbily rundown hotel in Memphis (manned by singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and an almost velveteen Cinque Lee). The first story, “Far from Yokohama,” features a pair of Japanese teenagers as they search for the essence of American music (only to find the aforementioned hotel); “A Ghost” concerns a widow dealing with taking her husband’s coffin back to Italy, sidelined by an emotionally upset young woman staying in the hotel (and Elvis Presley‘s ghost); and the third story, “Lost In Space,” is a  totally unhinged comedic crime opus starring Joe Strummer and Steve Buscemi. We kid you not. If you’ve never seen “Mystery Train,” it might be (barring his appearances on “Fishing with John” and “Space Ghost“) the most purely pleasurable thing Jarmusch has ever been involved with – a rollicking rockabilly song of a movie that predates the chronological jumble of Quentin Tarantino and the bold stylization that would come to define independent cinema in the coming decades. But don’t think about that stuff. Just watch. And turn your TV up really, really loud. [A]

“Night On Earth” (1991)
Sticking with the international portmanteau feel after “Mystery Train,” the low-key, confined “Night On Earth” is arguably Jarmusch’s most unfairly undervalued picture. Following five cabbies and their passengers — Winona Ryder driving movie agent Gena Rowlands in L.A.; Armin Muller-Stahl driving Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez in NYC; Isaach De Bankolé driving Beatrice Dalle in Paris; Roberto Benigni driving Paolo Bonacelli in Rome and Matti Pellonpaa driving Kari Vaananen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Slamela in Helsinki — at the same point in time, the film gets off to a slightly rocky start with the L.A. section. It’s immaculately written as ever, but Ryder is firmly miscast as the world’s least likely cab driver. The rest of the segments are terrific, however. The warm and funny New York section feels like an extension of the mutual admiration society between Jarmusch and Spike Lee, thanks to the casting of Esposito and Perez. The genuinely hilarious Rome segment, with Benigni in top form, and finally, the strange, bleak-yet-hopeful Helsinki scene (arguably our favorite of the five) are also standouts. There’s a particular poetry to the nighttime cab-ride, and Jarmusch captures that romance without forgetting the alienation of city life outside the windows. The actors, Ryder aside, are uniformly terrific, Tom Waits’ song-score is lovely, and the film is oblique and yet strangely accessible — it’s a fine entry point for anyone new to Jarmusch’s world, and one that we wish his fans discussed more. [B+]

“Dead Man” (1995)
A spiritual psychedelic anti-Western to end all anti-Westerns, many argue that “Dead Man” is Jarmusch’s masterpiece, and it’s a claim hard to argue. Featuring a lonely and ominous reverb-soaked guitar-noise soundtrack by Neil Young and utterly breathtaking black and white cinematography by the great Robby Mueller (known for his work with Wim Wenders), the atmospheres and aesthetics of “Dead Man” are top notch, helping shape a tenor that is sinister, solemn and elegiac. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, an bookish accountant who travels to an inhospitable, end-of-the-line frontier town to claim a job, and finds himself on the run after he inadvertently kills a man in self defense. With a bounty on his head, Blake runs into the excommunicated Indian named “Nobody” who mistakes him for the famous poet, all the while seemingly presciently aware of his fate and then taking him on a journey that prepares him for entrance into the spiritual world. Featuring an outstanding cast of character actors — Gary Farmer as Nobody with appearances by Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, Cripsin Glover, John Hurt and more — the film is idiosyncratically rich and textured through almost every cinematic element known to man. Called “the best movie of the end of the 20th century” by pop culture essayist Greil Marcus, its evaluation has long since been reappraised, but even folks like Roger Ebert were short-sightedly confounded by the film during its day. Their loss. Drenched in an unnerving sense of looming death and emptiness, the haunting “Dead Man,” also manages to be oddly sardonic and melancholy with its reconciled acceptance of the inevitable. An unforgettable post-modern classic. [A+]

“Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999)
Reverberating with the rhythms of an original score by the RZA, Jarmusch’s hip hop genre experiment stars Forest Whitaker, decidedly playing against type as the title character. The moody, introspective Ghost Dog, once rescued by a sympathetic mob boss, now honors his retainer as organized crime’s most inscrutable hitman. A complete stylistic right turn, “Ghost Dog” owes its inspirations to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, as Whitaker’s taciturn bear of a hero is entirely a man out of time. Not only are his traditions and beliefs outdated, many of them based on the ancient Japanese tome The Hagakure, but he’s a hoodie-cloaked Luddite, camping out on rooftops, sending messages via carrier pigeons. Most amusingly, Jarmusch emphasizes the bleeding together of traditions: Ghost Dog openly heists cars with fairly sophisticated technology, while the elderly Italian gangsters rap along to Flava Flav. Despite the deadpan amusement of Henry Silva lecturing colleagues in regards to ancient civilizations, “Ghost Dog” also works as a straightforward genre exercise, with a number of slick shootout sequences emphasizing stealth and secrecy over overt violence, with almost no backing music. But the entire film would fall apart were it not for the nakedly human turn by Whitaker, who bestows his shadowy countenance with an easy smile and a delicate touch that makes it simple to see how he’d befriend a young girl and an overzealous non-English speaking ice cream man (a charming Isaach De Bankolé) in the midst of his bloodletting. [A]

“Coffee And Cigarettes” (2003)
The now verboten (at least in the Big Apple) indoor smoking found in Jarmusch’s 17-years-in-the-making feature, composed of eleven short films unified by the common theme of conversation shared in tandem with coffee and cancer stick huffing, suggests perhaps that time stands still in the otherworldly environs of “Coffee And Cigarettes.” It’s a world where Bill Murray can serve GZA and RZA, who prefer herbal tea to straight caffeine, and one where Steve Coogan can tap into a well-practiced celebrity jerkwad persona only to be shown up by a kindly, earnest, and unassuming Alfred Molina. There’s a prevailing era of cool here with icons and respected craftsmen (among them Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Steven Wright, Jack and Meg White, and many more) rubbing shoulders without making a big thing out of it, but maybe the navel-gazing that comes with that is detrimental to the overall product. Some conversations pop while others are still-born. A curio, to be certain but not a major contribution in Jarsmuch’s filmography, nor one that sees the director move forward in any considerable way. [B]

“Broken Flowers” (2005)
As an aging lothario, time moves slowly for Bill Murray’s Don Johnston. Now limited to spending time alone, he wastes his days bs’ing with neighborhood snoop Winston (Jeffrey Wright) while lounging in an unglamorous, Murray-ian sweatsuit ensemble. A fateful letter arrives on his doorstep, notifying him of two surprises: he’s a father, and the son he never knew is coming for him. With the sender unknown, Don embarks on a panicked road trip, arriving at the doorsteps of each significant past lover without once mentioning the letter. This game of emotional Russian Roulette takes its toll on the withdrawn protagonist as each futile visit slowly reveals the depths of his loneliness and the debris left behind by his libidinous recklessness, the uncovering of the biological clock, purposely buried underneath crumpled sheets. While there’s a certain unlikelihood in Murray bedding the likes of Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and even a trailer-parked Tilda Swinton, the film boasts an array of wonderfully vibrant moments, both touching and painful, as past lovers reconnect, smiling and ignoring the mutually inflicted scars they wear on their sleeves. Jarmusch patterns his film as something of an emotional travelogue, Johnston retracing his steps, seeing the blood left behind in his footprints, and ultimately reaching the truth behind Hollywood’s popular “damaged ladykiller” persona. [B+]

“The Limits Of Control” (2009)
An opaque, surrealist, but striking assassin film, Jarmusch’s take on the hitman man genre is sort of like what would happen if you merge Jean-Pierre Melville’s largely silent and still “Le Samourai” with the reality loops of Alain Renais’Last Year At Marienband.” Featuring an incredible international cast — Gael Garcia Bernal, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Bill Murray, Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas, Paz de la Huerta, French actor Alex Descas (from Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum”), Japanese actress Youki Kudoh and more — Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control” centers on a mysterious loner and assassin (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé) hired to kill a U.S. businessman in the heart of Spain. But this is no ordinary killer. Possessing a meditative stillness and a rigid code of discipline (no phones, sex or guns), using his imagination, Bankolé’s lone man killer bends the rules of subjective reality, which helps him transcend simple matters of physics, time and space. Along the way, he travels to Madrid and Sevilla, picking up clues and paradoxes from fellow agents, but lurking in the shadows are other imaginative killers who are setting up a double cross. Or at least, that’s one way to read the film. Set to a gorgeously droning wall of ambient noise-metal, this oblique anti-thriller isn’t an easy film to penetrate, but its odd humor and hypnotic, swirling mood is one of the most arresting head trips of Jarmusch’s career, and one that resonates far and deep into the psyche. [A-]

– Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth

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