Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Stranger than Paradise: The “Cool” Cinema of Jim Jarmusch

Welcome to “Lights, Camera, I Like Movies!” As you may be able to tell from the title, this is going to be a blog about movies. But not just any movies. I’m going to mostly write about films that are foreign, old, challenging, “art house” or any other descriptor that usually scares people away. But I’m here to show you that not only can movies like these be fun, they have a lot to offer in terms of art and entertainment. For my first post, I’m going to focus on a pretty accessible filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch.

For over 30 years, Jim Jarmusch has been an indispensable figure in the American independent film scene. His 1980 debut, “Permanent Vacation,” was made on a shoestring budget, partly funded by his tuition money while he was enrolled in NYU’s graduate film school. I went through his filmography chronologically, and after watching “Permanent VacationI was almost ready to give up. It’s boring, pretentious, self-indulgent and visually pretty bland. But it showed enough promise that it earned him some attention in Europe, and he was able to make “Stranger than Paradise” four years later.

“Stranger than Paradise” is remarkably better than “Permanent Vacation,” and in many ways it is the quintessential Jarmusch movie, establishing patterns that would recur throughout the rest of his work. And if there was one word to describe the films of Jim Jarmusch, one that I would use and that many have used before me, it would probably be “cool”. But what is it about Jarmusch’s films that radiates this essence of “cool?” I normally consider movies that try to be “cool” a waste of time, and yet something about Jarmusch has kept me coming back. To find out what, let’s start at the beginning.

“Stranger than Paradise” begins with the character Eva, played by Eszter Balint (who recently came out of semi-retirement to star in the excellent Elevator saga on Louie), arriving in America. She comes from Hungary, and the grainy black and white images that follow (a dilapidated apartment, the seedy streets of New York City, the bleak industrial landscapes of Cleveland) seem to disappoint the starry-eyed Eva. Jarmusch’s vision of America is gritty, industrial, and oddly beautiful, but definitely not idealized. The main character of the film is actually Eva’s cousin Willie, played by saxophonist John Lurie, an aimless New York hipster who lives in a dingy apartment and comes across most of his money by gambling or stealing.

The rest of the film follows the low-key adventures of Eva, Willie and his friend Eddie. Low-key being the operative word, and adventures being an exaggeration. Like many of Jarmusch’s films, action is minimal, and the plot is nearly non-existent. It’s more about the small moments, like Eva walking through the streets of New York for the first time while she listens to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”. At times, the movie drags a little bit, but it’s not so boring that you want to stop watching, and something interesting always happens eventually.

The film establishes a lot of the signature touches which show up in nearly all of Jarmusch’s later films. The first of these the side tracking shot parallel to a street, in this case the previously mentioned shot of Eva walking through New York. Another element is Jarmusch’s use of non-actors and musicians as actors. Ezster Balint is a versatile instrumentalist for various projects, John Lurie is the saxophonist for the Lounge Lizards and Richard Edson (who plays Eddie) was Sonic Youth’s original drummer. Cool, right? Other musicians, like Tom Waits, Jack and Meg White, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, the Wu Tang Clan, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and many others, show up in Jarmusch’s later films. Even cooler! His reasoning for doing this mostly seems to be that he likes the experience of working with untrained actors, but still admires the performative aspects of being a musician. But I also think he just wants to hang out with a bunch of his heroes. I know I would.

Like many of his other films, “Stranger than Paradise” focuses on the underdogs, the outcasts and the outsiders of society. Jarmusch has a sympathy for this type of character, and nearly all of his characters are outsiders in some way. The film is also full of deadpan humor, and all of Jarmusch’s films are comedies in some sense. Visually, the film is influenced by European arthouse directors like Antonioni and Bresson, and the crisp black and white photography has a low-budget charm to it. It is also influenced by Japanese filmmakers, specifically Ozu in the way that the film is made up of longer, mostly static shots, which fade to black. And lastly, in terms of form, the film is largely plotless, more just a series of events and small moments that create an interesting whole, which could be said of most of his films. The plotlessness does make the film seem aimless at times, but as I said before, something interesting always happens before boredom sets in.

All of these elements make Jarmusch distinctive, but he is by no means a stagnant or predictable filmmaker, and his style has certainly evolved throughout the years. His next film after “Stranger than Paradise” was 1986’s “Down by Law” (my favorite film of his), which is in the same vein but makes several improvements. “Down by Law” is the story of three lowlifes in New Orleans who end up in jail together and plan a break-out. The trio is played by John Lurie (who delivers another solid performance), Tom Waits (who is perfect for his role and knocks it out of the park) and Roberto Benigni (who isn’t as annoying as he usually is).  The story of petty crime, jail time and prison break is simple on paper but the actors all have great chemistry, and the black and white cinematography by Wim Wenders’ regular DP Robby Mueller is fantastic, as is the use of some Tom Waits songs from “Rain Dogs.” It’s not a very radical departure from the style of “Stranger than Paradise,” but it is a significant refinement.

His next few films still contain many of these key elements, while still being experimental and evolving the formula. 1989’s “Mystery Train” is a fun, if a bit boring, triptych about rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis, and 1991’s “Night on Earth” consists of four segments which take place almost entirely in taxi cabs across the world. “Mystery Train”is mostly just more of the same,  but with with a larger cast of characters and bright color photography, while “Night on Earth” was a hit-or-miss experiment (it’s essentially a half-good movie), the most major departure probably being that he used mostly professional actors like Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, and Aki Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää. It seems to mark a transition in his casting choices from musicians he thinks are cool, to actors he thinks are cool.

And that really nails one of the things that makes Jarmusch movies so cool and enjoyable to watch, without being hollow: he is anti-pretentious. For the most part, his films don’t aspire to be anything more than they are, which is an assortment of interesting moments and characters, all in service of a unified laid-back aesthetic. They’re an opportunity to hang out with a bunch of bohemian musicians and actors for a while, and maybe see some cool visuals, good dialogue, and interesting music on the way. Simple pleasures. He often steals things he likes from other films, but manages to shift them into something uniquely his own. The ultimate distillation of Jarmusch’s laid back aesthetic may be 2003’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which is a compilation of 11 short films, all of which are of actors and musicans shooting the shit over a pot of coffee and copious amounts of cigarettes. If you’ve ever wanted to see Jack and Meg White discuss Tesla coils or Bill Murray hang out with the Wu Tang Clan, this is your movie.

In his later career, Jarmusch has experimented more with genre, which has led to films like 1995’s “Dead Man” and 1999’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,” two underrated deconstructions of the Western and Samurai film genres, respectively. He also made “Broken Flowers” in 2006, a deadpan dramedy with late-career Bill Murray in full on sad-sack mode. It is probably closer in tradition to his earlier works than anything he’s made since.

2009’s “The Limits of Control” is probably the biggest departure from what one would usually expect from Jarmusch. Unlike most of his movies, which are largely plotless, it’s really plotless, about a mute hitman who wanders around Spain collecting clues and meeting a colorful cast of mysterious characters. With a doom metal soundtrack featuring Boris and really great cinematography, I found the movie to be hypnotic and also pretty funny at times. Most critics seem to disagree, but I would still recommend it.

His latest, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” is a uniquely Jarmuschian take on the vampire lore. Jarmusch’s vampires, Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are thousands of years old, and they spend most of their time reading obscure authors and making experimental drone music. Essentially, they’re history’s oldest hipsters, and it’s a delightful movie to watch. Maybe the most incredible thing about Jarmusch’s oeuvre is that unlike many of his contemporaries, he has remained an independent filmmaker and stayed outside of the Hollywood system. I’ve got to admire his integrity, because since the beginning he’s made films on his own terms, and it shows in the singular vision of his work.

Jim Jarmusch definitely has a distinct style, but that doesn’t mean he’s easy to pigeonhole. He has been directing for the past three decades, during which he has put out some of the most interesting and vibrant films that American Independent cinema has to offer (as well as some less good ones, but his track record is pretty solid). Discounting “Permanent Vacation” (which, again, is pretty bad), his style really began with “Stranger than Paradise,”groundbreaking for how little it cared about being groundbreaking in any way. His films since then have been a deceptive mixture of more of the same and wild experimentation. The result is a filmography with consistent threads running through it (empathy for outsiders, focus on music and musicians, and a low-key deadpan style of comedy) but fresh innovations and surprises as well.

And all of them, above all, are pretty cool. To anyone who hasn’t seen one of his films, I would recommend you jump in. “Stranger than Paradise” and “Down by Law”are both great starting points, and both are available online on Hulu Plus or at Penrose Library.

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