In response to the Jarmusch films shown on SBS recently, here are some observations and reflections on the American film maker. The films watched while compiling these thoughts : Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers.
Its all about the journey. The quest to know yourself, discover your dreams, find your place in this world. Depending on how readily you buy into Jarmusch’s study of people and how he presents it on screen, depends on how willing you are to sit through his observations. When it works, it is captivating. You are in a heightened state of suspense waiting for the inevitable. When it doesn’t, it’s a long road.
Johnny Depp, as William Blake in Dead Man, is wrongly accused and takes to the hills. He has a bullet in his chest, near his heart that cannot be removed by his Indian “guide” and its slowly killing him. The further they travel, the more Blake becomes the outlaw gunman he was accused of being and the body count mounts up.
Broken Flowers, Jarmusch’s most recent production, has Bill Murray (as Don) searching for a son he never knew he had amongst his ex-girlfriends. It is hard to believe that Don was ever a lothario he clearly was judging by his almost catatonic disconnection. Did he ever find his son ? That’s not really the point of course. Remember, its all about the journey; what did Don learn from his journey ? William Blake found peace by the end of Dead Man. Don finds some new possibilities in an old world.
Tom Waits in Down By Law (also wrongly accused and convicted) escapes prison, begins his journey with two unlikely companions and walks with purpose toward an unknown future. He leaves behind a desperate, drug addled and demotivated life.
Mystery Train by contrast is three stories where each of the parties are inbetween; that is, they rest overnight at a run down hotel from the journey they have been on and the one they are about to take. A Japanese tourist couple are visiting Memphis on holiday; one woman is returning to Italy with a coffin by plane; one woman is running away from her husband; three men are on the run after getting very drunk and shooting a bottle shop owner.
Stranger Than Paradise is sort of about a trip of two New York Hungarian immigrants who take a holiday to Cleveland, collect their cousin and take off for Florida. These are people however who do not really travel anywhere. Not even red hot pokers it seems would shake them from their torpor unless it is a trip to the race track.
Night On Earth is five unconnected stories of taxi drivers in five cities and their passengers. They are all of course perpetually moving but it begs the question whether they are going anywhere.
In Permanent Vacation, Allie runs not only from home, but from life too. Sort of like a tourist on a permanent vacation. As he nears his departure from New York, he meets a French boy, about his age, running away from home in Paris, searching for a new life in New York, just as Allie hopes to do in Paris. Although as Brer Rabbit said in Song of the South, “you can’t run away from trouble, there ain’t no place that far.”
I am reminded of Gandalf’s quote in the Lord of the Rings, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” And so it is with a Jarmusch film. It unfolds at its own pace. Neither hurrying nor dragging its feet. Characters are given time to unfold on screen. There are no quick cuts or fast edits. Frequently they cross from the very right of screen and walk out of shot on the very left. Jarmusch stays with his main characters for long times. The camera will follow them as though by observing them we might come to know them and understand what they are thinking.
In Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch’s first film, all the signature shots are there : the long takes, the run down city. But when you are left with a character you don’t have much empathy for and one who doesn’t do very much, you are left with aching boredom (thankfully the running time was relatively short at only 70 minutes).
I note too the dilapitated buildings that frame each shot (except for Dead Man which is set in the Rockies). All buildings are in a state of disrepair, filthy beds you would not trust to sleep in, crumbling wrecks in the worst spots of New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles or Paris and often as not, tagged with graffiti. Does this refer to the run down state of our protagonists or is it just simply "more interesting" scenery than pristine and forgettable apartment blocks ?
Actors cross between different films making the whole collection pieces of the same puzzle. Tom Waits plays a failed radio DJ in one (Down By Law) and is heard on a radio as one of the many audio links during another (Mystery Train) or for providing the original soundtrack in Night On Earth. Screaming Jay Hawkins gives a wonderful turn as hotel manager in one (Mystery Train) and we listen to him sing “I’ve got a spell on you” on a tape deck in another (Stranger Than Paradise). Neil Young, the subject of Year of the Horse, provides the soundtrack to Dead Man and Roberto Benigni appears in front of the camera in both Down By Law and Night On Earth.
I enjoyed Jarmusch’s later films more than his earlier ones. That is always a pleasing sign because it suggests that the filmmaker is becoming better at driving his narrative, able to select higher profile and more adept actors to fill his screen and has established a vision of what he wants to accomplish.
My favourite was Dead Man (with Depp) but in that the cinematography by Robby Műller elevated the story to something elegiac with the (very conscious decision) to make the film look like a series of Ansell Adams pictures, a famous US pioneer photographer whose pictures of the American outback had an art-like quality and a conservationists message.
Broken Flowers is at number 2 because Bill Murray is so great and the supporting cast of all those women are fantastic : Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.
A more recent update on Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai, continues these themes.