Born in 1953 to middle class parents in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Jim Jarmusch spent his childhood regularly being left in movie theatres to watch matinee double-bills by his mother, a former film critic. In spite of this ploy, his first love was reading, and he majored at Columbia University in English and American Literature in 1975, wanting to become a poet. Instead he went to NY University’s Tisch School of Film, where he met his future partner and co-operator Sara Driver, Tom DiCillio and Spike Lee.
Jarmusch’s graduation film, PERMANENT VACATION (1980) was a great hit in Europe but found no support in his homeland. Starring Christopher Parker as Aloysius Parker, an early slacker who goes by the name of ‘Allie’ –perhaps an abbreviation of ‘Alienated” due to his inability to engage with anybody, he goes through life totally dissociated. This could, in part, be attributed to his mentally ill mother whom he visits in a grubby psychiatric ward in New York. Parker meets the street musician John Lurie, steals a car, and has a meaningful conversation with a popcorn seller who is obsessed by Eskimos. Finally, in autobiographical touch, he sets off for Paris: Jarmusch himself spent his last university year in the French capital. PERMANENT VACATION is without a narrative, it deals with Parker’s encounters with a world he does not understand. Going through life in a slow motion dreamscape, he is, like many Jarmusch heroes, a stranger in this world, and feels comfortable as the permanent outsider.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984) was the first of Jarmusch’ “Triangle-Films”, where eccentric characters feed of each other, taking the narrative not so much forward, but keeping it among themselves. Here, the trio is set in a sort of permanent state of purgatory – rather like a Sartre play, but with much more humour. Willie (John Lurie), is Hungarian born but speaks perfect English, unlike his niece Eva (Esther Balint), who has arrived in New York to be ferried to an aunt in Cleveland by Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson), the latter making his living by playing the horses and cheating at cards. Eva upsets the male comradeship at first, but after she steals food and cigarettes for them, Willie is very much taken by her and buys her a dress. Eva is not impressed: “I think it’s kind of ugly”, she says. After surviving a snow storm, the men deliver Eva to the aunt and Eddie comments on the way back the motto of the film: “It’s kind of funny. You are some place new, and everything looks just the same”. Beguilingly filmed in black and white, the film is composed of single shots each giving way to a black screen.
DOWN BY LAW (1986) is the story of three prison inmates in New Orleans who escape into the swampy Bayou: Roberto (Roberto Benigni), Zack (Tom Watts) and Jack (John Lurie). Roberto is learning English and his hilarious use of the language (via a phrase book), is one of the main attractions of DOWN BY LAW. Zack, a radio DJ, on the run from a miserable relationship and Jack, a pimp equally trying to leave his past behind; may not be the finest of men but Jarmusch gives them every opportunity to find the better part of themselves, in this delightful road movie. But the real star is Robby Müller’s monochrome camera which finds poetic images in this minimalism, driven by interaction rather than narrative. Jarmusch had found his signature style which he would continue to hone until his characters are left bereft of any identity, the minimalism robbing them of attributes; making them pure functionaries of their roles, with the audience finding little to love or hate.
MYSTERY TRAIN (1989) follows a group of disparate characters through an interconnected series of seemingly haphazard events, all linked by a shabby hotel in Memphis. In the first story (“Far from Yokohama”), a pair of Japanese teenagers are on the search for the grails of American pop music, but end up in the Hotel. The second episode (“A Ghost”) features a depressed woman staying in the hotel on the way to the airport, where she will take the coffin with her dead husband back to Italy. The third segment features Steve Buscemi and Joe Strummer as comically inept criminals. Featuring the ghost of Elvis in the middle section, MYSTERY TRAIN is one of Jarmusch’s most innovative aesthetic achievements.
No wonder therefore, that he stayed with this structure for his next outing NIGHT ON EARTH (1991). Five cabbies drive their customers in as many cities around the world: Winona Ryder ferries movie agent Gena Rowland around LA; Armin Müller-Stahl’s passengers are Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perezin in NY; Isaach De Bankole takes Beatrice Dalle through Paris; Roberto Benigni shows Paolo Bonacelli Rome and Kaurismaki star Matti Pellonpaa drives his fellow country folks Kari Vaananen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Slamela in the Finnish capital Helsinki. All the action happens at exactly the same time. Jarmusch captures the glorious night time drives, romantically well-supported by Tom Wait’s songs. The actors are brilliant and Jarmusch again creates his own little universe, separated from everything we might call real. Again, the narratives are just there to make the film hang loosely together.
Robby Müller again shot DEAD MAN (1995) in glorious monochrome, perfectly matched by Neil Young’s soundtrack. Since this Western is Jarmusch’s most narrative-driven film, one understands why he usually chooses different formats. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, a rather sterile account who travels to a town at the very end of the world in the Wild West, to find a job. After killing a man in self-defence, Christian Bale has to flee, a bounty on his head. He meets an Indian called “Nobody”, who mistakes him for the great English poet. The two of them embark on a journey to find a place in the spiritual world. Haunting, poetic and rather unnerving, DEAD MAN is often too enigmatic for its own good but the atmosphere of permanent death is so overwhelmingly gloomy that the viewer is eventually transported away in dark undercurrent of hopelessness. AS
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