“It isn’t auteur theory bullshit.”
– Jim Jarmusch in conversation with Tom Waits.
It was during the summer of 1990 that BBC2, one late Sunday night, decided to broadcast Down by Law (1986) as part of the third series of Moviedrome, the now legendary cult movie season hosted by director Alex Cox between 1987-1994. I was sixteen and it was the first Jarmusch film I’d ever sat through.
Although I was aware of the film’s existence I’d always avoided it. This was mostly due to the trailer that kept popping up on various video rentals. It looked so strange, grimy, and underground, and kept reminding me of the time I accidentally came across Eraserhead (1977) on Channel 4 one terrifying Friday night during the mid-eighties.
I didn’t know much, but I was cinematically aware enough to know that what I was watching that Sunday night was something often referred to as an Art Movie, which meant that this story could go anywhere, usually somewhere bad and incredibly bleak, or could just end abruptly with no explanations whatsoever.
These assumptions only added to the viewing experience. Not only was it an Art Movie it was a Cult Movie, which meant conventional rules did not apply and anything could happen in the next ninety minutes, or absolutely nothing. What surprised me the most about Down by Law was how funny it was, and how that oddball humour counter balanced an atmosphere of impending doom and melancholy.
It also felt incredibly surreal, without anything particularly surreal taking place. The strange music performed by two its stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, the otherworldly locations within Louisiana, the stunning monochrome cinematography created by the legendary Robby Muller, the off beat verbal exchanges that didn’t seem to serve the plot in any way whatsoever, and the incredibly languid pace made for a strange and beguiling experience. None of actors looked like normal actors and none of the film felt like a normal film. Watching nothing happen had never been so compelling, and I liked it.
During the introduction of the film Alex Cox remarked “All of Jim Jarmusch’s film’s are sort of the same, which is not meant as an insult, since they’re completely unlike anybody else’s. He’s probably the most original director working in the United States…” Has anything really changed?
Renowned for being a true advocate of independent cinema, his independence goes far beyond mere funding, with a constantly unique approach to filmmaking and narrative that he has managed to sustain from the very beginnings of his career. Some critics may dismiss some of his later work as being frustratingly esoteric, self indulgent, pretentious, and often a case of style over content, but you could never accuse him of predictability. One thing Jim Jarmusch has never been is obvious.
Permanent Vacation (1980) isn’t the most dazzling debut for such a seminal director, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Its sparse seventy-four minutes now form a condensed profile of his obsessions, concerns and trademark stylistic traits that would be more articulately expressed in his future canon of work to the point that it almost feels like a mission statement.
His commitment to avoiding obvious landmarks, capturing a different side of a location that’s rarely portrayed on film, and giving an over familiar terrain an otherworldly feel is immediately established within the first few minutes. Slowed down footage of a bustling New York is juxtaposed by static shots of empty, desolate and decaying urban spaces filled with boarded up windows, broken glass, dirty alley ways and rubble, with no signs of human life.
The young and somewhat anachronistic protagonist, a moody outcast played by Chris Parker, slowly wanders from one sporadic encounter to another, not sure what he’s looking for but hoping it’s more than he already has.
It’s a world populated by random vignettes and modern exiles searching for a story to be part of. The deadpan humour makes an appearance when Parker decides to bust a move to an Earl Bostic 45 in front of his unimpressed girlfriend in a purposely-overlong dance sequence.
The self-referential moment consists of a poster for the 1960 film The Savage Innocents, a movie directed by Nicholas Ray. Jarmusch was Ray’s teaching assistant during his time at NYU. Other cultural references include Ennio Morricone, The Angels song My Boyfriend’s Back, and French author Leautréamont.
There’s even travelling European ready to experience America, arriving at the same moment that Parker is ready to leave. Permanent Vacation has all the flaws of an average student film. But it also has all the elements that would be refined for the film that put Jarmusch on the map.
Stranger Than Paradise was released in 1984, the same year as top grossing box office blockbusters Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop. So it’s no wonder it still feels as if it’s been beamed in from a parallel nineteen eighties, with its stark black and white photography, minimal plot and meditative pace. It feels like it’s taking place within the shell of a film noir, where all the killers, cops and gumshoes have disappeared leaving empty spaces and a deluge of time that no one knows how to fill.
Stranger Than Paradise originally began life as a short (which remains the first act) that was later expanded into a feature. According to movie lore the original short was made possible by Wim Wenders donating left over film stock from The State of Things (1982), his semi-autobiographical tale concerning a film crew who are left stranded in Portugal having run out of film stock.
Jarmusch was determined to make something distinctly different, an extraordinary way of celebrating the poetry in ordinariness. First of all he refused to cast trained actors and instead gave the parts to musicians; John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards, Richard Edson of Konk and Sonic Youth’s original drummer, and Eszter Balint, a young violinist and songwriter from avant-garde Hungarian theatre group Squat Theatre.
He then filmed every scene in one take with semi-improvised dialogue and shot it with a predominately static camera, with each scene punctuated by a blank screen. Right from the very first moment he irreverently defies cinematic protocol with a complete disregard for dramatic incident.
When we are introduced to Eva (Balint), who has just arrived in America from Hungary to stay with her cousin Willie (Lurie), there is no shot of her sitting in a plane reading an in-flight magazine then looking out the window, or a montage involving passport control and the luggage carousel. All we are shown is a young woman standing next to a suitcase on what looks like a mount of wasteland, starring out onto an airstrip, as the over powering drone of an airplane turbine drowns out the world. What else do you need to know?
Downtown hipster Willie is initially hostile towards Eva’s presence, adamant that having a relative stay in his squalid apartment is not only a burden but detrimental to his cherished lifestyle of TV dinners, trips to the cinema and hustling card games with his best friend Eddie, comically oblivious to the notion that the disruption to his “lifestyle” is actually giving him a life. When Eva and Willie eventually warm to each and find common ground it’s their sudden impulse to reunite that literally separates them as they’re both inadvertently planted on different corners of the globe.
Jarmusch’s creative instincts paid off and Stranger Than Paradise remains one of the most original and influential films to come out of the eighties, proving that low key, experimental, avant-garde underground cinema doesn’t necessarily have to be bereft of humour. It’s also one of the only American films to reflect a cinematically neglected tier of blue-collar life without becoming a sanctimonious morality play. Willie and Eddie no doubt perceive themselves as outlaw hustlers, although their moneymaking schemes are somewhat slight (betting on horse races and cheating on card games). It’s not the law and incarceration they’re running from, it’s the fear of full-time employment.
Jarmusch’s warping of genre conventions begins with Down by Law, a visually immersive, timeless, absurdist fable of enchanted grit, and the only prison escape movie where the intricacies of the escape are neither meticulously planned nor seen.
It’s all about the interactions between the characters, Zack the DJ (Tom Waits), Jack the pimp (John Lurie), and Roberto the fish out of water tourist (Roberto Benigni), inarticulately attempting to survive as they wade through a sad and beautiful world. One of the last scenes, in which Roberto passionately dances with his newfound love in front of Jack and Zack, begins as something socially awkward and embarrassing and then slowly evolves into something far more poignant and life affirming. It’s as poetic as you could possibly ask cinema to be.
Jarmusch would end the eighties with the endearing Mystery Train (1989), which consists of three tales that take place during one night in a rundown Memphis hotel, all loosely linked by the legacy of Elvis and revolving around the advent of a mysterious gunshot. The film’s triptych uses an overlapping narrative technique associated more with literature than film, later appropriated by a generation of less subtle directors with more mainstream aspirations. It’s a film completely enamoured with the lyrical magic of nocturnal transience and chance meetings, some that have a prevailing significance over one’s life and some that don’t.
His follow up Night on Earth (1991) does share certain themes and has a similar to feel to his previous film, but the accusations of Jarmusch lazily treading familiar ground are unjust and misguided. It is another anthology, this time taking place during five taxi journeys across five different cities, but it’s scope is wider, it’s tones are far more shifting, and I always felt it had far more in common with the stories of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolf and Paul Auster rather than the subdued weirdness of Mystery Train. His next full-length excursion into chatty vignettes wouldn’t be until 2003 with the enjoyably uneven Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of short films he’d been making in between takes since 1986.
No one could accuse him of being repetitive when it came to the release of Dead Man in 1991, a film that left a lot of people scratching their heads, mainly fans of Johnny Depp. It’s certainly one of Depp’s finest performances before he succumbed to unhinged joys of silly voices and face paint. It’s also one of the most enigmatic and original Westerns ever created, along with being one of Jarmusch’s greatest cinematic achievements.
A cryptic and genuinely surreal metaphysical adventure, rife with quotable humour, that proves far more rewarding the second time around. What initially may seem just plain bloody weird, on second viewing often reveals itself to be steeped in cultural, philosophical and humanistic substance. As much as I’d like to think that Down by Law could be his classic masterpiece, the incomparable experience of Dead Man is a just cause for re-evaluation.
Subsequent to the release of Dead Man, Jarmusch would take the progressive creative objective of derailing genre constrictions, character archetypes and audience expectations even further. The excellent and absorbing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) stars Forrest Whitaker as a Bushido obsessed, Hagakure quoting assassin taking down an aging and inept Mafia. Broken Flowers (2005) sees a reluctantly reflective Bill Murray as a middle-aged ladies man searching for a son that may not exist in a mystery where the mystery is never solved. The Limits of Control (2009) has a Zen hit man (Isaach De Bankolé) fighting the cause for culture, in an action film where all the action has been removed.
Which leads us to Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), a horror film without any horror, apart from the fact that the two lead characters (played by Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam) just happen to be vampires.
His most romantic film to date follows the relationship between vampire lovers Adam and Eve, immortals trapped in a disposable age, searching for anything equally lasting in a world slowly turning to shit. It turns out the only things that really last is their acceptance and love for each other, and authentic creative endeavours. Although they’re fully prepared to feed off the young and pass on their curse when things gets desperate and too unbearable.
Like all Jim Jarmusch’s films Only Lovers Left Alive is about connections, a theme so prevalent in his work that all of his film are connected in someway. Using visual and auditory motifs, or the re-appearance of certain actors and characters, every new film he makes has at least one reference to his previous film, with the obvious exception of his debut which contains the previously mentioned reference to his life before becoming a filmmaker.
But for me the most unique and lasting images created by Jim Jarmusch are those final scenes. Chris Parker on a boat heading to France watching New York shrinking in the distance, Willie the hustler dashing to catch a plane as Eva enters an empty room, Zack and Jack walking down two dusty roads in opposite directions, a train leaving Memphis, a severely drunk, recently unemployed Finnish man sitting sprawled legged on a snowy roadside, William Blake floating off into the unknown, a child sits on a kitchen floor contemplating the book given to her by a man she’s just seen killed, Bill Murray’s Don Johnston stood in the middle of the crossroads, baffled and unsure which route to take, a hired hit man with a new identity walks out of a terminal and into blinding light, a young affectionate couple who are about to have their lives completely altered.
They are all moments that capture life in transit, that strange place of uncertainty between recent events seeping into your memory and expectations of what might lay ahead, always moving forward, never looking back.