Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – Jim Jarmusch special

Jim Jarmusch Collection (Blu-Ray, Soda Pictures)
For better or worse, Jim Jarmusch has reached a point in his career where his name and image have developed into a cinematic brand. The name ‘Jarmusch’ conjures an esoteric New York cool, characterised by directionless outsiders stumbling from one chance encounter to the next, all soundtracked by some of the most respected names in alternative music. While all of the above is accurate, the ‘hipster cool’ label attached to Jarmusch’s work undersells the breadth, warmth and intelligence often found in his films. This Soda Pictures release of his first six films, all restored for Blu-Ray quality, offers a great opportunity for rediscovery. Inside you’ll find the tales of Lower Manhattan strangers often associated with his name, as well as some more unusual surprises, such as a postmodern acid-western, and a comedy about a Louisiana jailbreak. Dead-pan delivery, carefully composed stillness and a focus on the overlooked events of everyday life have long been associated with Jarmusch’s style, no matter what genre he chooses to work in. Watching these six films, we see not only how this style evolved, but also how Jarmusch varied and played with it throughout his career. As the writer and director of all six of the films, they also offer a revealing portrait of Jarmusch the auteur. These are stories about the invisible barriers that can separate us as individuals and the bonds that can form when people from other worlds are forced to interact. These are also stories featuring sharply observed characters, often depicted with more tenderness than Jarmusch typically receives credit for.

The set introduces us first to Jarmusch the inexperienced student filmmaker rather than Jarmusch the auteur. Permanent Vacation is an unsteady debut, and easily the weakest film in this collection. Its loose plot concerns Allie (Chris Parker), a young man adrift in the run down alleyways of New York City. Along his way he discusses life with a series of fellow sleepwalkers and outsiders, despite the fact nobody in the film ever really seems to hear each other or make any real kind of connection. It’s an icy, occasionally intriguing film, but one also dotted with some questionable acting performances. While it’s far from Jarmusch’s best work, and lacks the wit and perceptiveness he would quickly develop, it’s good to see it included in the collection. Permanent Vacation features many of the traits that would evolve into the Jarmusch style, and for fans of his work it’s intriguing to see them in their early, much less refined form.

Released just four years after Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise feels like the work of an already vastly more confident filmmaker. The long takes and dedramatised narrative of Jarmusch’s debut are back, but here they’ve crystalised into something stylish and even adventurous. Consisting entirely of short scenes shot in one take, Stranger Than Paradise feels like a film assembled from fragments of real life rather than something created in the artificial environment of a film set. The story follows a trio of three characters struggling to find a meaningful existence in early-eighties America. The first of the three is Willie (played by long term Jarmusch collaborator, John Lurie), a Lower East Side hipster keen to bury his European roots. When his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) comes to stay for ten days, Willie is initially irritated by the intrusion into his regular routine. However, it soon becomes apparent that this routine consists of nothing more than hours spent watching television in a barren apartment. The third member of the trio is Eddie (Richard Edson), a good natured but simple New Yorker who becomes smitten with Eva, but lacks the personality to really charm her. The trio set out on a badly planned road trip of America, first to Cleveland, then Florida, though somehow never manage to see anything along the way. No matter where our characters go they’re forever locked into the same cycles and same behaviour, represented here by the near identical rooms the characters repeatedly find themselves in.

Stranger Than Paradise is a film with an acute eye for the smaller details of life. Lengthy takes force you to really study these characters; taking in their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. If all of this makes the film sound like a miserable rumination on wasted time and empty lives, then it’s also worth stating that Stranger Than Paradise is a sharply observed film filled with moments of genuinely funny deadpan comedy. Revisiting the film it’s also impressive to see how the crew turned their miniscule budget to the story’s advantage. The austere, washed out cinematography and claustrophobic sets here become a further extension of the character’s empty lives. Perhaps the visual highlight of the film being the scenes set in Cleveland, rendered here almost entirely in shades of white. Stranger Than Paradise is a film fully deserving of its reputation as an indie cinema classic and the first sign of Jarmusch as a unique voice in American film.

Down By Law takes us into a sleazy twilight world, where junkies and pimps prowl trash-filled streets that feel strangely empty even when inhabited. Within this world we meet our second trio of characters, though this time a more colourful trio than we encountered in Stranger Than Paradise. Zack (played by Tom Waits at perhaps the height of his creative career) is a washed up radio DJ with a life in tatters. With little left to lose he accepts a ‘quick’ job from a local small-time criminal, but bad luck continues to plague him and he finds himself becoming the newest inmate of a Louisiana jail. His cellmate is Jack (John Lurie), a pimp with a grossly inflated sense of his own street smarts, as evidenced by his current predicament. The two share more than similar names. Both have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, and both share the same sullen personality. These similarities mean the pair spends much of the film clashing and bickering, though gradually a grudging friendship develops that neither of them wishes to acknowledge. They’re eventually joined in their cell by Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an Italian tourist who feels like he’s stepped out of another film. Whereas Jack and Zack are self-pitying and withdrawn, Roberto is exuberant and almost overflowing with energy. Down By Law succeeds because of the chemistry between these three performers, with Benigni in particular adding a great deal of unpredictability and life to the character’s exchanges. It’s also a film filled with surprising shifts in direction and setting. What begins as a noir-tinged tale of doomed men becomes a three man comic play set in a cramped jail cell, and finally a story of swampland survival. Down By Law is simultaneously all of these things and none of these things at once, and it’s this curious collision of elements that makes the film so intriguing. For me though the unquestioned star of the film is cinematographer Robby Müller, whose elegantly composed black and white photography makes Down By Law an exceptionally beautiful film. Down By Law is the film that established the traits of Jarmusch the brand; a distinctly laidback collision of character types and genres that add up to a unique and satisfying whole.

Though Permanent Vacation was shot in colour, its somewhat flat 16mm footage never particularly stood out. On the other hand, Mystery Train’s vibrant palette, shot again by cinematographer Robby Müller, feels like we’re seeing Jarmusch fully embracing colour and its possibilities for the first time. Mystery Train immerses us in a Memphis assembled from beautifully arranged sources of colour – from pools of soft pink light to faded pastel green walls – that clash and compliment each other throughout the film. The plot is split between three short stories, each depicting the misadventures of an outsider to the city. Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) are a teenage couple from Japan who have arrived in town to take in the rock and roll themed tourist sites. They’re also a pair of contrasts, with Jun’s stoic mannerisms the perfect counterpoint to Mitsuko’s boundless enthusiasm. Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) is an Italian woman who is stranded in the city overnight, and in search of sanctuary from the nocturnal creeps roaming the streets. Finally, ‘Elvis’ or Johnny (Joe Strummer) is an Englishman living in Memphis who, much to his perpetual annoyance, has a vague resemblance to the city’s most famous star. When Johnny begins drunkenly waving a pistol around a dead-end bar, his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) arrives to try and keep him out of trouble. Like travellers taking refuge from a storm in an old tale, the whole cast finds themselves sheltering from the night in the same hotel. In this case, a decrepit place run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who steals just about every scene he’s in. Like many Jarmusch films, Mystery Train is a comedy of missed opportunities with an underlying core of sadness that draws most of its humour from the characters themselves. However, Mystery Train also succeeds in portraying this cast of outsiders and eccentrics with affection and warmth, as well as managing to pinpoint what is uniquely humorous about each of them. Finally, worth mentioning is the excellent soundtrack, which takes full advantage of the story’s Memphis setting and becomes one of the film’s strongest features. Mystery Train is a perceptive, funny and beautifully shot film, and one of this collection’s major highlights.

Night On Earth continues the episodic storytelling of Mystery Train, though with less consistency than the film it followed. In both Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, Jarmusch revealed his interest in locking together characters in a confined space and seeing what happens next. In particular, Jarmusch has repeatedly shown himself to be drawn to stories where characters who would usually pass each other in the street unnoticed are forced to engage with each other in conversation. Night On Earth builds an entire film around this concept, specifically upon the brief relationships formed between taxi drivers and their passengers. While part of the film sees us return to the familiar surroundings of New York, this is also a distinctly global story, with chapters set in Los Angeles, Rome, Helsinki and Paris. We visit each of these cities exclusively at night, allowing for some atmospheric nocturnal cinematography lit by neon glare and passing car lights. Criss-crossing the world also gave Jarmusch the opportunity to work with a much more international cast than had been seen in his work previously. As a result, Night On Earth’s impressively diverse list of talent boasts the likes of Gena Rowlands, Beatrice Dalle, Matti Pellonpää and a returning Roberto Benigni among its names. The film is essentially a short story collection based around the theme of brief conversations between strangers. This open ended structure and lack of an overarching narrative allows Jarmusch to explore a wonderful mix of tones and subject matter, from the crude to the profound. However, these stories are also of notably uneven quality, with a few of the character interactions feeling more underdeveloped than others. When the scriptwriting and performances do click though, as in the chemistry seen in the film’s New York section, they’re magic. Night On Earth is a peculiar narrative experiment that doesn’t quite stand up alongside Jarmusch’s finest work, but its global scope and impressive cast mean it’s well worth investing time in regardless.

Jarmusch’s psychedelic western Dead Man serves as a fitting end to the collection, as for many this film remains his unsurpassed masterpiece. The story offers a sinister depiction of the western frontier, where violence seems to be an almost inevitable method of communication. Unlike the active heroes of classical western films, the distinctly unheroic characters of Dead Man passively drift through the chaos around them, as if in a permanent state of bewildered confusion. The most important of these characters is William Blake (Johnny Depp), an awkward accountant who arrives in the town of Machine seeking work. Inevitably, it isn’t long before Blake has blood on his hands, leading local industrialist John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) to set three bounty hunters on his tail. Seemingly one of the few characters in the film who doesn’t wish Blake harm is ‘Nobody’ (Gary Farmer), a talkative Native American who believes Blake is the reincarnation of the English poet and artist of the same name. One of Dead Man’s great strengths lies in the wealth of disturbing and colourful characters that populate its world. This is greatly aided by the film’s impressive array of cameos, which includes memorable performances from the likes of John Hurt, Lance Henriksen, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Crispin Glover. The film also deserves praise for its unsettling and otherworldly tone, which can feel almost dreamlike when combined with the film’s tendency to fade in and out of darkness. One of the most important contributions to the film’s atmosphere is the semi-improvised soundtrack by Neil Young, which develops into a character in its own right. Young’s raw and sometimes abrasive soundtrack is as grand and as wild as the landscapes of the film, though it can also sometimes overwhelm scenes rather than compliment them. Factors such as the film’s distinctive soundtrack and its ponderous pacing have meant Dead Man has always been a much more divisive film than his earlier comedies. Certainly upon revisiting the film it is hard to shake the feeling that there are occasional scenes that could have been trimmed. However, I would also argue it stands out as Jarmusch’s most fascinating work, and as one of the most unique depictions of the Wild West ever put on screen. Dead Man is an unusual and sometimes beautiful experience; a film too strange and too unique to be classified as just another deconstruction of the genre.

The collection is relatively low on special features, though there are some intriguing finds among what is here. The best of these is an amateurish and presumably extremely rare documentary about Jarmusch’s first two films, which offers insight into the cast and crew who worked on them. The strongest feature of the collection though is the picture quality of the restored films. Among them, the evocative black and white photography of Down By Law and the vivid colour palette of Mystery Train stand out as the set’s clear highlights. Though obviously a much lower budget affair, it’s also good to see Stranger Than Paradise looking as clear as it does here, especially for those whose first encounters with the film would have been on VHS-quality copies. This collection is an excellent introduction to the work of Jim Jarmusch that highlights not only his distinct cinematic style, but also the surprising breadth of his work.