As Only Lovers Left Alive, the latest film from director Jim Jarmusch (which screened at the 51st New York Film Festival last October) prepares to open at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 11, there is renewed interest in the filmmaker's work. It couldn't have come at a better time: From April 2 – April 10, the Film Society will honor Jarmusch with “Permanent Vacation: The Films of Jim Jarmusch” an expansive, eleven film retrospective celebrating the auteur's career achievements. A select number of Jarmusch-directed music videos and short films will also screen before each feature.
Jarmusch has worked with some of the finest actors working today, including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina and Cate Blanchett. To learn more about some of Jarmusch's most significant work, we asked some of our favorite film critics and scholars about their personal favorites.
Night on Earth
My favorite Jim Jarmusch work (besides Stranger than Paradise) is Night on Earth (1991), an engrossing, quirky set of tales about 5 taxi drivers and their “fares,” ranging from comic to poignant. In particular, the NY segment delightfully chronicles the futile efforts of Giancarlo Esposito's character to get back to Brooklyn, until he is picked up by German immigrant Armin Mueller Stahl, who drives as haltingly as he speaks English.
Stranger Than Paradise because it was groundbreaking in its perfect melding of No-Wave minimalist art with American independent filmmaking; “Deadman” because it is a masterpiece about the roots of American violence and mysticism; and Only Lovers Left Alive because it is one of the most romantic movies ever made.
Dead Man is one of many Jarmusch movies centering on journeys through time and space with wandering characters who are as perplexed by their experiences as the audience watching them. Although it presents itself as a western, it’s actually a dreamlike meditation on life, death, order, chaos, and the value of friendship in a violent world. Overlooking such splendid assets as Robby Muller's rich cinematography, Neil Young's moody score, and amazing performances by everyone from Johnny Depp and Robert Mitchum to Gary Farmer and Iggy Pop, the tone-deaf distributors at Miramax dumped it with a minimal release. But discerning moviegoers have kept it very much alive, and it remains in the uppermost strata of Jarmusch’s remarkable filmography.
Stranger Than Paradise was the first American independent film I saw that effectively combined elements of European art cinema with hip American fashion and a wonderful sense of deadpan humor. It was simultaneously an honest portrait of alienated youth and a wry commentary on that same state. That it landed critical acclaim and established Jarmusch as a major global talent proved that it was also a true movie of the moment.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the chillest distillation of Jim Jarmusch’s cultural and formal ideas. It’s a hip-hop meditation on order and chaos, a trance-inducing remix of received cinematic shapes and Wu-Tang sounds. And Forest Whitaker is the perfect focal point, the gentleman gangster as good neighbor, quietly keeping birds, hanging out at ice cream stands and always willing to lend you his favorite book.
My favorite Jarmusch film happens to be his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s a distillation, I believe, of what the director has attempted to varying levels of success throughout his filmography, to celebrate both the achievements and foibles of humanity’s most offbeat personages. Only in this case he has two alter egos — a pair of vampire lovers portentously named Adam and Eve—standing in as the observers. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is the morose romantic living in the past. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is the upbeat first adopter optimistically looking towards the future. Together both represent Jarmusch himself, a white-haired creature of the night whose reclusive tendencies belie the genuine admiration he holds for all of humankind.
My favorite Jim Jarmusch work to date is Night on Earth. It's really a delightfully entertaining film. I found it amusing and touching in equal measure, and that's kind of a rare blend, especially for Jarmusch, at least in my eyes. It's the one movie of his that I always come back to.
I first studied story structure around the same time I saw my first Jarmusch film, and that film was Mystery Train. With Aristotle and Robert McKee in mind, I entered Jarmusch’s portrayal of Memphis, Tennessee. As the film introduced each set of characters, I became enchanted by their respective journeys: the Japanese couple, the Italian widow, the armed and inebriated man coping with a break-up. More than anything, though, I was fascinated by the film’s triptych arrangement. Despite the clearly delineated independence of each narrative, the film’s flow felt so seamless, and the stories’connections seemed to unfold so organically. Upon seeing Mystery Train’s execution, I began to venture outside my love for story and consider more closely how a film effectively imparts a narrative. I understood that a film isn’t just the story itself — it’s the telling.
Arguably the purest distillation yet of Jarmusch’s abiding stranger in a strange land ethos, Dead Man is a peyote-fueled vision quest that gazes unabashedly into the abyss of frontier history, where our collective destiny was made manifest through mechanization, wanton brutality, and fitful stabs at indigenous genocide. Dead Man is, in a word, the Western made weird. Jarmusch turns the shopworn iconography of the genre on its ear through sheer estrangement. There’s nary a Fordian vista here. Instead, Jarmusch’s eponymous corpse manqué, William Blake (Johnny Depp), trudges across otherworldly landscapes captured in chilly grayscale by Robby Muller’s impeccably impassive camera eye, at times accompanied by nothing more than the tempestuous plaint of Neil Young’s squalling, fuzzed-out guitar. Whether suffering the gnomic chastisements of Gary Farmer’s Nobody (whose “Stupid fuckin’ white man” became so instantly iconic that he got to reprise it in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), or the dubious blandishments of a cross-dressing Iggy Pop, Blake’s journey to the end of the night takes him where “the sea is gone with sun” (to quote a different Rimbaud poem than the one which serves as the film’s epigraph).
An oddly peaceful and serene picture with a high body count, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai features Forest Whitaker in the role he was born to play. Starring as a stoic contract killer in debt to a mafioso who once saved his life, Whitaker plays the title character, carrying out a specific code of honor tied to ancient Japanese samurai customs. Also a bibliophile and a lover of animals and hip-hop music (the film features original work by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, who also makes a cameo), Ghost Dog kills to honor “his master.” Although the film is ultimately a serious affair dead set on what it's preaching, (Jarmusch employs an abundance of onscreen text to recite proverbs of samurai culture), the film is also funnier than you'd expect, as Jarmusch takes us from the city streets — the film was shot in Jersey City and New York State — to the bucolic countryside, where Ghost Dog shoots down some great character actors who wish him dead. All throughout, Jarmusch maintains a consistent tone, incorporating disorienting dissolves and fade-to-blacks, off-color humor and a talented cast (including Tony Award winner Cliff Gorman and Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé) that always satisfies.
During a recent, extensive interview with Charlie Rose, the widely cherished Bill Murray claimed he could probably do no better than Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and I’m inclined to agree. What begins as a playful detective scenario — the deadpan Murray finds himself awash in awkward encounters with ex-flames in order to find out which one may have mothered a long-lost son — quickly transforms into something quite devastating, as the eternal Don Juan (sorry, Don Johnston) discovers how much damage his antics have done. It’s one of the few movies that critiques the male gaze, not to mention highlighting how self-serving these kinds of journeys really are, with no consideration to how the recipient of his visits might feel by him popping in unannounced to “check in.” The last scene — from the conversation with the traveling kid to the very final shot of ultimate scrutiny — never fails to bring me to tears.
Dead Man gets my vote. Jarmusch's films either explore facets of life from the point of view of an outsider, or otherwise non-judgmentally observe the lives of the outcast themselves, but with Dead Man I think these themes are at their most potent because they play not just on our perceptions but also directly address the role Hollywood has had in perpetuating them. Neil Young's score transforms Jarmusch's meditative, sharply-observed style into a hypnotic, dreamy one, and that makes Dead Man both his most unique film and his best.
As of late Jarmusch has been tackling the genres becoming an experimental saboteur and with Only Lovers Left Alive he plays against Anne Rice’s vampiric oath of decadence and experiments with the audience’s proclivity for certain staples and tropes of the canonical vampire film. He does this by balancing the bricolage of folklore with his deadpan humor that characterizes all dialogue, a Jarmuschian idiosyncrasy. In Only Lovers Left Alive, scenes are loquacious and heavy with humor giving it comedy like last year’s Vamps, Amy Heckerling’s underrated vampiredy. It’s obvious as to why Jarmusch has tackled this genre next: he is enamoured with the deliciously seditious reality that a tacky B-grade movie genre accentuates and emphasizes the importance of erudition — both of self and otherwise.
While it's hard not to choose Dead Man, for the life-changing role it played at such a crucial and impressionable moment in time for me as an ignorant aspiring filmmaker, I'm gonna go with Down By Law. Its distinct fusion of artistry and humor blew my mind at the time and taught me that one need not sacrifice art for entertainment or the other way around.
Coffee and Cigarettes
Since these words have been solicited on account of a Jarmusch retrospective, perhaps the question to address is not which Jarmusch films you need to see, but which ones to catch projected. Optimum screening conditions likely aid the visual richness of his black-and-white works more so than they do the color ones, which could put wonders like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Dead Man, and Coffee and Cigarettes ahead; at the same time, though, Jarmusch’s dexterous use of music is immeasurably helped by a good theater’s audio setup, regardless of whether a spectator's goal is to float across L.A. to the tune of RZA's score while watching Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or to enjoy the eclectic range of songs that take audiences from Tangier to Detroit and back again in Only Lovers Left Alive.
I go to a Jarmusch film to be absorbed in it, and I find that seeing one in a movie theater has been my best way to reach the state of the heedlessly dancing young man in Jarmusch’s debut film Permanent Vacation. As I wrote that phrase just now I also found myself remembering the sights and sounds of a classily-dressed, impeccably beautiful Isaach De Bankolé walking down streets in Madrid to accompaniment by the Japanese experimental metal band Boris in The Limits of Control. Limits, which shows Bankolé’s largely silent hit man engaging in a series of terse, mysterious exchanges with eccentric go-betweens, was the second Jarmusch film I saw in a movie theater, following Broken Flowers, and I felt completely caught up within the movement of the film, as though I were happily riding in a car without knowing or caring much where it went. Four years earlier I had thought about the Bill Murray movie — essentially about an odyssey that a man takes through his past — as straightforward storytelling with some unshakable weirdness to it. After seeing Limits, though, I vaguely understood that what I thought Jarmusch had taken from Lubitsch and from Ozu for his films could also have come from Michael Snow: A sense of human interactions as always being bounded by finite quantities of time, with the hope that we’ll die before the fun does. I think that this sense runs throughout Jarmusch’s films, all of which seem to have been made with great pleasure.
Permanent Vacation: The Films of Jim Jarmusch, our complete 11-film retrospective, runs through Thursday, April 10. For schedule, tickets and information about our 3+ Film Package (spend less, see more!), click here. Head to our YouTube Channel to check out a series of talks conducted with Jarmusch here at the Film Society and read more on Jarmusch, including Amy Taubin's review of Only Lovers Left Alive, over at Film Comment.