In anticipation of next Friday’s release of Only Lovers Left Alive, this week’s Round Up is dedicated to its director, Jim Jarmusch.
The Ohio filmmaker is a seminal figure in American independent scene and has been crafting his own uncompromising brand of movies since the early ’80s. His style can be succinctly summarised in a quote from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, which is featured in his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly […] matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Accordingly, his films often focus on strange and trivial details, and the camera will often be left running after a conversation has finished.
More often than not, there is conflict between the lazy and the active, and his treatment of different races and cultures is impressively mature. His characters always come before the story, and what story there is usually serves as a basis through which his excellently rendered characters can do their thing. He tends to not go out of his way to deliver to the audience, i.e. his characters won’t talk about stuff they already know about each other just so the viewer can have an idea of their age, decision-making process, origins, occupations or whatever.
This is part of his fondess of neglecting expectations, which as a result can make his films difficult if you aren’t aware of how he works. On making 2008’s The Limits of Control, he notes how he intentionally removed all the things that viewers have come to expect; ‘So we’re making a film that’s about an assassin, but we’re gonna take out action, violence, sex, we’re gonna take out a lot of dialogue, we’re gonna take out a lot of plot. Well, what the hell is left? Can you make a beautiful film without those things, which is what we attempted to do?' Essentially, Jarmusch is one of those people who wonders what a film would be like without all the clichés, the happy endings, the romantic subplots – and so his movies are refreshing for anyone who’s ever asked themselves the same thing.
The humour which pervades his movies is downplayed and rarely so obviously set up, allowing it to come through in a more natural style, which is great because things are generally funnier when you don’t expect them. An asset to this approach is his unusual choices of actors, usually musicians or comedians, as well as the surreal tone of his movies often implied by his excellent choice of composers. There is often some form of social criticism involved, but he tends to place a stronger emphasis on aesthetics; as a result, there is never any doubt that you’re watching a Jim Jarmusch movie.
Here are six of his most notable works:
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
On a budget almost as minimalist as its plot, Stranger Than Paradise is the work that announced Jarmusch as a key filmmaker in the American underground, winning awards at festivals all over the world, including the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Grainy and deadpan, Paradise depicts the US as a country of poverty, the non-event and the ‘get rich quick’ schemes, following a hipster called Willie (John Lurie) as he drives around the country with his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson). It therefore shares a skeleton with Kerouac’s On the Road, with the distinction being that none of the characters are ever seen to be enjoying themselves. However, it’s precisely Willie and co’s tragic boredom that makes the film so entertaining, and any film that can get laughs from its awkward silences is worthy of commendation.
Down By Law (1986)
Much funnier than its predecessor (although not as ‘Jarmuschesque’), Down By Law sees John Lurie joined by fellow musician Tom Waits and Italian actor Roberto Benigni in a prison movie unlike any other. Lurie and Waits, a pimp and a DJ respectively, have been framed for various crimes and Benigni, the only nice character in the film, is there for manslaughter. The trio form a comic goldmine, lightening up a movie which makes pessimistic comparisons between the inside and outside of prison, largely thanks to Robby Müller’s dolly-heavy camerawork.
Night on Earth (1991)
A collection of almost Warholian vignettes, Night on Earth is comprised of five simultaneous taxi journeys involving people from contrasting walks of life. With a soundtrack composed by Tom Waits (instead of Jarmusch’s usual collaborator John Lurie), Earth has an otherworldly feel which is aided by its cosy cinematography, low-key manner and constant hum of wheels on the road. Some of the stories are heartwarming, others heartbreaking, but most of them are funny, though the film wouldn’t be what it is without its accomplished cast. Night on Earth remains one of Jarmusch’s most interesting and enjoyable works, and although it ostensibly means very little, you will doubtlessly find a lot to like with this one.
Dead Man (1995)
Steering headlong into the Western, a genre Jarmusch and his cinematographers commonly reference, Dead Man follows William Blake (Johnny Depp) as a feeble accountant from Ohio who lands a job in the hostile town of Machine. After being shot, he meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), an opinionated Native American who acts as his spiritual guide and protects him from the hired guns sent out to shoot him again. With Neil Young’s eerie solo guitar for a soundtrack, Dead Man is a surreal, funny and often needlessly violent movie with another great cast, this time including John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henriksen as an incestuous cannibal, Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing fur trader and Robert Mitchum in his final film role.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Relatively unusual for a Jim Jarmusch movie, albeit one that feels right at home within his filmography as a result. With a gloomy soundtrack by RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) and lucid imagery by Robby Müller, Ghost Dog is an atmospheric Samurai thriller starring Forest Whitaker as its eponymous hero, a mysterious hitman who is at first employed by the Mafia and then at war with them. It has that aching feeling that all the best ‘lone ranger’ movies have, as well as apocalyptic undertones typical of many late-90s thrillers. Plus, there are tons of great characters and lines to be found; a recommended entry point for anyone interested in Jarmusch’s work.
Broken Flowers (2005)
A great example of the third decade of Jarmusch’s career, Broken Flowers follows Don Johnston, a sort of Don Juan descendant played by Bill Murray, as he tries pathetically to find his 19 year old son. Murray proves to be an excellent vehicle for Jarmusch’s type of humour, and Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-jazz provides one of the director’s best soundtracks to date. As is typical with Jarmusch, there is no good or bad light shone on the aging womaniser and the movie avoids sentimentality. What occurs instead is a weird as hell trip down memory lane for a man who’d much rather keep the past in the past.
Next week on The Round Up…
Vol 4 of the Round Up will focus on Lars von Trier, whose brand new two-part sex epic Nymph()maniac will be broadcast live to cinemas across Britain on Saturday 22nd February. The screening will feature introductions from select cast members and a Q&A will ensue afterwards, with questions pulled from Twitter. The Round Up feature will give an introduction to the Danish filmmaker’s often controversial work.
Also worth looking out for over the next week or so are reviews of the Robocop adaptation, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. Also, look out for a piece on the LEGO Movie just in case I manage to see it (although I can’t see myself getting into a kids movie with my beard and glasses…)
 Sight & Sound, March 2014. pp. 50-56.