Jim Jarmusch is one of the greatest legends of American independent cinema still living and working today, consistently writing and directing new projects for almost 40 years and maintaining the romanticism of “art for arts sake”, while constantly reinventing himself and averting the call of Hollywood that so many of his contemporaries answered. As British Producer Jeremy Thomas described him, he is “one of the great American independent film-makers” who is “the last of the line.”
In many ways, he is a modern Renaissance Man, or as his frequent musical collaborator, Jozef van Wissem, described him, a “cultural sponge” that does not discriminate in his inspirations. He has made road movies, crime/noir adventures, neo-Westerns, vampire dramas, zombie comedies, silent poetic masterpieces, rock docs and even blended the mafia crime thriller with the Japanese samurai film. He is an artist that sticks up for his work and vision, even if it means having its distribution and promotion buried by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.
With a shock of white hair and dressing mostly in black, he is an enigma at first glance, but when you take a step back and contemplate his background and filmography… Well, he’s even more of an enigma. His style is not one that can be pinned down so simply. In fact, in many ways he’s an artist of contradictions. He typifies the grungy, 1970s New York aesthetic though he grew up in Akron, Ohio; he’s an independent filmmaker working with indie film budgets while also casting some of the industry’s biggest and most talented stars; and though it’s tempting to pin him as an auteur, he rejects the premise entirely. However, that’s not to say his work lacks a stamp of ownership, because everything he has made is connected by a piece of thread that is strong and indicative of his own personal experiences and attitude.
As plot is secondary to his characters, their personality and goals represent his greatest consistency and strongest attribute of his films. His protagonists are typically wanderers and vagabonds living on the moral fringes of society, finding boredom in complacency and searching for peace and solace. Jarmusch likes to sit in the back seat of moving vehicles as they drive in search of this, showing us the often decrepit and bleak environment they survive in. His shots are often very long as he allows the characters to fluidly communicate with each other, letting the scene breath on its own without stylistic flourishes to interrupt.
And yet with such a precise method of acting to be expected, he sought to find and direct non-actors to fill his parts, collaborating with jazz musician John Lurie as you will see in our series, as well as the likes of Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, RZA, Neil Young, and even Selena Gomez in his most recent The Dead Don’t Die. This extra layer of difficulty adds a particular seriousness to his earlier films that dryly complement his humorous dialogue, like coffee with sweets.
But even when musicians aren’t present, he’s an artist with a firm hand on the pulse of the music scene, building soundtracks that are wild and ethereal. He’s been his own composer in more recent years, but still finds space to collaborate with full-time musicians such as Dutch lutenist Jozef van Wissem in Only Lovers Left Alive as well as country musician Sturgill Simpson in The Dead Don’t Die. In his interview with Jonathan Romney of The Guardian in 2014, Romney describes, “In his soundtrack choices, Jarmusch is deeply eclectic: Coffee and Cigarettes includes Iggy Pop, the Modern Jazz Quartet and a Mahler Lied performed by Janet Baker, while Broken Flowers was immensely influential in popularising Ethiopian jazz” to which Jarmusch adds, “One thing about commercial films is – doesn’t the music almost always really suck?”
So with this diverse repertoire, I gave myself the task of programming a retrospective of Jarmusch to celebrate his arrival at the Michigan Theater for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series to perform, along with his rock band SQÜRL, live musical accompaniment to the silent films of Man Ray. With this kind of series, it was impossible to choose just four films without any serious omissions, but it came down to STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, GIMME DANGER, and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Are they his four of his most “critically acclaimed” films? Not necessarily, but they are four brilliant and entertaining works of art nonetheless that rhyme with each other and explain the visionary journey of Jarmusch, as well as translate his own filmic language.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Voted the Best Picture of 1984 by the National Society of film critics, and his first major film, it’s the best and most obvious place to start when discussing his filmography. And on 35mm, we’ll see it exactly as Jarmusch intended, because within every imperfection and in every piece of grime on the filmstrip, these characters are given expression.
Stranger Than Paradise is the film that sets up the rules of his universe. The story is about two bored New York City hustlers, Willie and Eddie, that travel to Cleveland to pick-up Willie’s cousin Eva, before continuing their trip down to Florida. The narrative is told through sequences of long, uninterrupted takes, with cuts-to-black used only to transition to the next scene. Though still very new to the game and mostly unseen by mainstream audiences, he earned the attention of critics like Pauline Kael because of this, who praised this style: “those black-outs have something of the effect of Samuel Beckett’s pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently.”
In this film, we see Jarmusch’s vision of New York City as a cold, drab, black and white landscape, and yet, the cityscape is absent almost entirely from every frame. Instead the story is told in various cramped rooms such as Willie’s studio apartment where a fuzzy television set and a deck of cards are all he has to entertain himself.
Made with a budget of just $100,000, John Lurie, former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, and Hungarian singer Eszter Balint make up the cast as the lonesome trio of wanderers searching for meaning. It’s a journey we’ll see investigated again and again for decades, with open-ended conclusions that can be summed up with Eddie’s line, “You know, it’s funny… you come to someplace new, an’… and everything looks just the same.” .
Down by Law (1986)
In Down by Law we see Jarmusch start to experiment with the rules of his universe. In this film, John Lurie returns to the cast alongside Tom Waits and Italian actor Roberto Benigni making his American cinema debut. Set in New Orleans, Jarmush throws his characters onto the dark, empty streets with Lurie playing a pimp named Jack, Waits a radio DJ named Zack thrown out by his girlfriend, and Benigni as Roberto, an Italian immigrant generally lost in American culture. Each living separate lives, until a turn of fate connects their paths and they are each set-up and sent to prison one night for crimes they didn’t quite commit.
Here, Jarmusch tests his audience, playing true to his form while altering it drastically. Where Stranger Than Paradise was a road movie, Down By Law is confined to a single jail cell for much of the narrative. And though the same fluid conversations drive the film forward, he ironically gives himself more space to inject stylistic decoration.
However, he is still no man of indulgence. When the film is tonally and narratively ready to move on, he does just that, but without the burden of planning a prison escape sequence. Instead, our heroes simply figure this out on their own and only the final result is witnessed. Without ever showing us how the escape was planned, Jarmusch wrote a page in the indie filmmaker handbook that would be used by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (a heist movie that leaves out the actual heist). Moreover, how he does this actually works because you can feel how he is more concerned to study these characters and investigate why they wander and how they’ll find peace: what seems to be an unattainable virtue of his universe.
Gimme Danger (2016)
With Gimme Danger, this series takes a simultaneous flash-forward and a flashback to the music and artists that inspired him. This rock doc tells the story of Iggy Pop and The Stooges who grew from playing houses and college parties in Ann Arbor to become one of the most legendary punk bands to tour the world.
In this documentary, we see that Iggy Pop is the real-life manifestation of the characters Jarmusch was drawn to early in his career. Iggy is Willie, Eddie, Eva, Zack, Jack and Roberto wrapped up all in one. He’s the real-life wanderer (or “The Passenger” if you will) on a search for significance, traveling from Ann Arbor to Detroit, to Chicago, to New York, to Los Angeles, to London, and everywhere in between.
The film is also important to Jarmusch’s career because he considers it more a fan-film than anything else. Having been given permission by Iggy to make a movie about The Stooges, something no other director can boast, it became a sincere passion project that he worked on for almost a decade.
And it’s also evident in this film that Jarmusch and Iggy are cut from the same cloth. They were both born into Midwestern counterculture and continued to stay within that lane for their entire lives, never compromising their vision or selling out to mainstream entertainment.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
And concluding the series is his 2014 film that meld’s every theme that came before it and continues to reverberate in the present. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the film is set in modern-day Detroit where a depressed vampire played by Tom Hiddleston contemplates the meaning of his eternal existence in a world that’s changing and deteriorating around him.
Jarmusch has described that he chose the location for the film because while growing up in Ohio, Detroit seemed “mythological”, like a “Paris of the Midwest”. Though only seen at night, in typical Jarmusch fashion, he actually explores the environment more than he explored New York or New Orleans or any other city his previous films are set in. Even if it is the tiring footage of deserted streets, run-down houses, and the decrepit Michigan Theatre that’s been turned into a parking garage, he does this with a sense of love and devotion to the beauty that still exists in the desolation. It’s in many ways the most realistic depiction of modern Detroit that’s ever been seen on film, and it’s striking in his repertoire because its this attitude that shows a completion in the journey that he began with Stranger Than Paradise, answering the questions many have had in his open-ended conclusions since then. Where narratives of those films saw his characters searching past the infinity of the blank screen, he elicits a comfort in Only Lovers Left Alive by creating a romance these characters have not only with each other but with the beauty in chaos, poetry and centuries of art. It is perhaps the comfort Jarmusch feels in his own life as he’s grown older.
Only Lovers Left Alive took 7 years to finance because as Jarmusch has said, “no one wanted to give us the money. It took years to put it together. It’s getting more and more difficult for films that are a little unusual, or not predictable, or don’t satisfy people’s expectations of something.” And this is precisely why this retrospective is important. Because we need to celebrate artists like Jarmusch that are thrilled to explore and try something new and take us on a decades-long, introspective journeys in the process.
But I don’t mean to make it sound like his journey as a filmmaker has concluded. As we saw in The Dead Don’t Die, this is far from the truth. His story has not concluded, it’s just evolving, and not a lot of filmmakers that have worked as long as he has can say the same. Perhaps the wandering heroes have finally found a piece of solace, but there is still meaning to be discovered and new problems to investigate in everyday life. As we saw in The Dead Don’t Die, he has become particularly concerned with climate change and our politically divided culutre.
And what do we have to look forward to? Well, if you found Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop take on Alexander Hamilton original and refreshing, be on the lookout for Jarmusch’s opera about Nikola Tesla.
Hope to see you at the Michigan!
Programming & Media Coordinator