Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If you like arthouse cinema – or even cinema which veers fashionably close to arthouse but which scratches the sides of the mainstream here and there – you probably run into Jim Jarmusch at some point, the man having more or less never released a film which wasn’t at least interestingly ambitious.

At the same time, getting a high-quality collection of his work can, depending on what market you’re in, be a pain. For instance, one of my favourite films of his is Dead Man, and – at least the last time I looked – you just couldn’t get a blu-ray of it in the UK.

After some poking about, however, I found Jim Jarmusch: the Complete Collection, a German release of all his movies from his debut, Permanent Vacation, to 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, on blu-ray (with the exception of Year of the Horse, which is provided on DVD). What I didn’t account for was the fact that the German blu-rays would not necessarily have the full range of subtitles on; sure, the actual original English-language soundtracks were all present and correct, but Jarmusch’s movies are often multi-lingual, and the absence of English subtitles for segments of non-English dialogue could sometimes be a problem.

On the whole, I think the set was still worth the money – for most of the movies, the subtitle issue is not too bad, especially if you understand a few scraps of German. And there’s few other ways to get a really complete overview of the man’s work.

Permanent Vacation

This entire production screams “student film” – in fact, Jarmusch shot it as his final year film school project, though the school hated it enough that they didn’t award him a degree for it. The squeaky-voiced Allie (Chris Parker) lounges around a sad, dirty apartment or mooches around New York City thinking his thoughts, eventually leaving on a ship for an uncertain destiny, and that’s sort of it.

It’s the type of thing where not much happens, but it doesn’t happen in a very characterful and distinctive way which really teases out Jarmusch’s view of the world. Allie’s routine of wandering around New York and stopping to see interesting, quirky things here and there feels like a precursor to such things as Ghost Dog and his Francophonic ice cream vendor buddy watching someone build a boat on a roof and wondering how he’s going to get the boat to the water, and Allie’s habit of wandering into and out of other people’s lives feels like Don Johnson’s past is supposed to have been like in Broken Flowers, and indeed that film is all about someone who’s lived life the way Allie does turning around and retracing his steps and coming to uncomfortable conclusions about the way he has affected (or failed to have any effect on) the lives of others.

If Permanent Vacation resembles anything, then, it’s kind of like the cinematic version of a notebook of ideas and motifs and concepts that Jarmusch has captured sketches of here but would develop more extensively later on – a sort of statement of intent, whereas the actual intentions displayed were better accomplished elsewhere. It’s worth it for the Jarmusch fans, but if you start your exploration of his work here you probably won’t feel very motivated to dig deeper.

Stranger Than Paradise

Willie (John Lurie, who also provides the jazz soundtrack) gets a phone call from his Aunt Lotte (Cecilla Stark) to tell him that his cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint), is coming over from Budapest to settle in Cleveland, Ohio. Eva was going to stay with Aunt Lotte for ten days, but Lotte has to go into hospital, so she prevails on Willie to put Eva up before Eva departs for Cleveland. A year later, Willie and his pal Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to take a break from their routine of scams and cons in order to go visit Cleveland and see how Eva is doing.

What follows in each of the film’s sections (each chapter preceded by an appropriate title card) is another almost plot-free affair like Permanent Vacation, given a little more structure and meat thanks to the chapter format and the more fleshed-out characters – they actually seem to have personalities and goals and character development this time. Willie, for instance, has integrated so deeply into America that he’s given himself a less Hungarian-sounding name, refuses to speak Hungarian even to his relatives, and generally doesn’t want anything to do with Eva or any of his other family members, but his buddy Eddie feels much more friendly. Eva, for her part, is bored to tears by the entire ordeal of having to sit around killing time in Willie’s apartment until her life can start up again.

Having all this context means that, even though we’re still treated with lots of shots of people strolling around in decaying, abandoned streets or lounging about in dingy apartments, it all seems a bit less oblique than in Permanent Vacation and there seems to be more depth to the whole thing, particularly as Willie and Eva gradually warm to each other. (What’s more, the road trip angle means that Jarmusch also gets to add “people sit in a car and are quiet” and “dingy roadside landmarks” to his repertoire of go-to shots.

The act structure and chronological jump of a year between Eva leaving New York and Willie and Eddie heading to Cleveland is in part a consequence of the way the film was made – Jarmusch filmed the first act (covering Eva’s time in New York) on film stock donated to him by Wim Wenders, and after successful showings of the short version of the film was able to secure funding and support to finish it off. Jumping the timeline forward a year neatly accounts for small changes in the actors’ appearance and mild shifts in their portrayals of the character in question; they’re still recognisably the same people, but equally it’s obvious that they’ve had a year of hard road behind them.

The decision to have Willie and Eddie visit Cleveland in winter, with snow absolutely everywhere and the view over Lake Erie constituting this blank white void rather than anything genuinely scenic, is inspired. I don’t know whether it was deliberate on Jarmusch’s part or whether he was ambushed by the weather and adapted the script to make the best of it, but it adds this nice extra layer of awkwardness to the whole thing which heightens both the comedy and the tragedy of it.

What’s particularly interesting about this film as far as the development of Jarmusch’s style goes is the sequence of accidents and misunderstandings that come about at the end, leading to the film’s bitterly funny conclusion, which sow the seeds for similar comedies of errors that run through the entire vein of his filmography. (For instance, the conclusion of Broken Flowers is similarly predicated on bad assumptions on the part of the protagonist.)

Down By Law

Jarmusch partnered with Tom Waits for this one, which was an inspired choice – Waits was getting into his avant-blues auteur phase at this point in time, and provided Jarmusch with not only a couple of tonally perfect songs for the soundtrack (picked out of his then-current album, Rain Dogs) but also a compelling performance in front of the camera as Zack, a DJ from New Orleans who’s been tricked into incriminating himself and finds himself sharing a cell in jail with Jack the pimp (a returning John Lurie), who’s been framed for child molestation in a blatant setup, and Italian tourist Bob (Roberto Benigni), who’s been accused of manslaughter. Sparks fly between the trio at first, but eventually they set in motion an escape plan which sees them heading out into the Bayou.

Another black-and-white piece, we’re still solidly in arthouse mode here, though things kick off with much more excitement than the previous two movies; avoiding the slow start of those two, Jarmush kicks proceedings off with a few shots introducing the characters and some wonderfully executed shots of New Orleans as observed from a moving car before the action begins with a furious argument between Zack and Laurette (Ellen Barkin) forcing Zack out to the streets.

Much like Stranger Than Paradise, the film lives or dies based on whether it can convince you to be interested in the relationships between the characters and their extended conversations. Jarmusch coaxes a series of excellent performances from his cast, each actor really inhabiting their characters and making them their own and with the script (penned by Jarmusch) giving all of them distinctive and memorable voices. Benigni in particular offers a compelling turn as the irritatingly overfriendly Bob, which gives Waits and Lurie plenty of opportunity to respond with increasing exasperation to Bob’s blathering before eventually being won over by his playful nature.

At the same time, unlike Jarmusch’s previous work, the movie isn’t so much of a non-specific arthouse mood piece but is more of a genre item, standing as Jarmusch’s entry in the good old-fashioned prison escape canon. It never quite gets into film noir, but – perhaps inspired by its surroundings in the more memorable sections of New Orleans – it regularly flirts with it, and the actors are more than happy to roll with that (particularly Waits, whose early work kind of formed this 1970s singer-songwriter answer to noir in musical form) and there’s an actual fight scene at one point, which is more wild and exciting than anything in the previous two movies. That said, it distinguishes itself from many prison escape stories by not getting too worked up about the actual mechanics of the escape – one moment the trio are discussing the escape, the next minute they’re running away through the sewers, the next they’re being chased into the bayou by the guard dogs – along with Jarmusch’s visual wit. (For instance, the shack the trio hide out in out in the bayou ends up bearing more than a slight resemblance to their jail cell, except there’s more windows.)

As well as acting, John Lurie also once again provides most of the soundtrack work, presenting a series of saxophone free jazz pieces which perfectly hit the tone of the film and also sit nicely next to Tom Waits’ songs. Jarmusch doesn’t pass up the chance to bring in some of Waits’ singing either, which helps make him the star of the show; whilst this wasn’t Waits’ first acting gig, it was perhaps the first movie where he played a lead role, and between his contributions and Jarmusch taking his own craft to the next level this might be the first movie in this set which is genuinely excellent, rather than being quite interesting. Hey, if you’re going to finally find your voice as a director, there’s few better voices out there than Tom Waits’.

Mystery Train

This is a bit of a step backwards and a bit of a step forwards compared to Down By Law – on the one hand, Jarmusch once again doesn’t really bother with an overarching plot, but on the other hand it’s more of an anthology of three short films each set in the city of Memphis, with a few characters and incidents weaving their way between each of them – in particular, all the stories at some point wind their way through a run-down hotel (where Cinqué Lee plays the bellhop and none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins himself is the night clerk). In other words, it’s doing the whole Pulp Fiction thing some five years before Tarantino did it.

The first segment is Far From Yokohama, in which Mitsuko (Yûki Kudô) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) – two hip kids in love with each other and in love with 1950s rock and roll – arrive in Memphis as part of a trip across the States. Mitsuko thinks Elvis is just the best, but Jun’s more keen on Carl Perkins, and neither are particularly impressed with the official tour of Sun Studios, but maybe each of them will find some insight into their connection to this place and each other once they have a chance to stop off at Screamin’ Jay’s hotel and take some weight off their feet.

The downside of getting a German copy of this is that, whilst the original English soundtrack is retained, they don’t provide English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue between Mitsuko and Jun. As it turned out, this isn’t the disaster that it might be; although Jarmusch’s films can often be glibly summarised as shots of people in a room talking to each other, the artistry is found in the way those shots are composed and the way the people talk to each other. I found that, with the German subtitles turned on, I could pretty much follow what was going on with the duo from context, even when they get into fairly esoteric subjects like Mitsuko’s belief in an occult connection between Elvis, the Buddha, Madonna and the Statue of Liberty.

The second story is A Ghost, in which Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) is trying to arrange to get her dead husband’s body flown home to Rome and having to kill time in Memphis until her flight goes. It seems like half the people she meets in Memphis are out to con her (including Sy Richardson, in a fantastic cameo where he plays a newsvendor who’s a master of the hard sell), and a run-in with a creep in a diner with a story about the ghost of Elvis (played by none other than the ultimate portrayer of creeps himself, Tom Noonan) is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Luisa realises she needs to get off the streets and keep her head down for the night, and ends up sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), who needs a room for the night after leaving her boyfriend.

On the whole, the point of this subject mostly seems to be about ripping off the facade of Memphis and showing the town’s ugly side, after the pilgrimage of the first segment – even the ghost story about Elvis Luisa hears during the day ends up being written off as an overplayed local legend – though it also sets up a cameo of Stephen Jones as an uncannily spot-on ghost of Elvis.

In the last segment, Lost In Space, Joe Strummer plays Johnny, AKA Elvis, a local musician, who’s gone out and gotten drunk as fuck after being dumped by Dee Dee. Eventually, his friends Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and Dee Dee’s brother Charlie the Barber (Steve Buscemi), who’s under the impression that Johnny and Charlie have gotten married instead of splitting up, are called to take Johnny home, but on the way back Johnny spontaneously robs a liquor store and shoots the clerk because he’s drunk as fuck and doesn’t care. Hiding out at the hotel, the trio discover unexpected things about each other – Charlie finds out about Dee Dee leaving Johnny, Johnny realises just how miserably drunk he can get, and Will expresses his profound dislike of the TV show Lost In Space.

Taken together, this is explicitly presented as a set of slice-of-life travellers’ stories; Mitsuko even points out a sign for Chaucer Street in the first segment, which should clue us in that we’re dealing with an Elvis-centric version of the Canterbury Tales here. Motifs like the hotel, the lonesome wail of the night train, a playing of the song Blue Moon on the radio (the DJ being voiced by Tom Waits in a little callback to Down By Law) and a gunshot in the morning underscore the point that all these stories occur right at the same place and at the same time, but for the most part they run in parallel to each other with only very occasional crossover – Dee Dee and Johnny have broken up before Lost In Space kicks off, Luisa and Dee Dee overheard Mitsuko and Jun having sex but don’t meaningfully interact with them, and Mitsuko and Jun themselves never really end up becoming aware of any of the characters from the other stories (though Will and Charlie both have brief cameos in Far From Yokohama). Whilst some might find this dissatisfying, I kind of like how this captures a sense of how many different people’s lives and stories end up stacked on top of each other in any particular location.

Night On Earth

This is one where I really did have to buy it separately from the set to get a version with different subtitles; Night On Earth is a collection of five vignettes set in five different cities – Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki – and they are sufficiently dialogue-focused that if you don’t speak French, Italian and Finnish you won’t understand most of the film.

Each vignette presents a taxi journey and encapsulates the brief encounters between the taxi drivers and their passengers, as well as seeking to capture the particular zeitgeist of the city in question. Each taxi journey starts simultaneously, but thanks to the time zone differences the LA one begins at sunset and the Helsinki one ends at sunrise. It’s a simple concept which allows Jarmusch to amass a select group of actors and really have them get their teeth into their roles over the twenty minutes or so each of them has on camera. (In fact, the choices of location partly came down to which actors Jarmusch wanted to cast.)

Since each vignette is entirely separate and, due to the geographic separation of them, cannot possibly cross over, Jarmusch frees himself from having to present any common thread (beyond the common taxi journey motif), and even more so than Mystery Train you can see this as a collection of short films rather than a single unitary piece if you liked. Still, they’re each pretty fun short films. You have Winona Ryder as driver Corky blowing the mind of elite Hollywood casting agent Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands), who point blank cannot believe that there are people out there who don’t want to be movie stars; you have Giancarlo Esposito playing a streetwise New Yorker teaching third-rate driver Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) a thing or two about New York. In Paris, an Ivorian driver (Isaach De Bankolé) is bullied by some asshole passengers and then tries to understand the perspective of a blind passenger (Béatrice Dalle), in Rome a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) is shocked when his driver (Roberto Benigni) decides to use the trip to make some impromptu confessions, and in Helsinki Mika (Matti Pellonpää) tells three very drunk passengers the saddest story they have ever heard.

On the plus side, the film frequently showcases Jarmusch’s ability to shift tone from wryly comedic to melancholic at the drop of a hat (see in particular, the sense of sheer confusion and of being utterly lost that comes over Helmut as his passenger leaves him). On the other hand, some of the vignettes feel like they drag themselves out a little too long, whilst others could do with a bit more running time to let them breathe, Jarmusch holding himself a little too closely to a 20ish-minutes-per-episode format which isn’t helpful. I also think that including five journeys in the film may be one or two too many – whilst the film is never exactly repetitive, the basic conceit begins to get wearing when we see it reiterated every twenty minutes or so. On the whole, more successful as something to dip into rather than sitting through it all the way through.

Dead Man

Cleveland accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) takes a long train journey to the Old West to take up a job at a metalworks in the town of Machine. The foundry owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final film role), already hired someone else for the role and slings Blake out on his ear; Blake has a drink. meets Thel the flower seller (Mili Avital), beds her, and then ends up in a confrontation between her and her ex-suitor, Dickinson’s youngest son Charles (Gabriel Byrne). Things get heated, Charles shoots Thel and Blake, Blake shoots Charles dead in turn and escapes on the back of Charles’ horse, mortally wounded.

As Dickinson marshalls all the forces at his command to track Blake down, including hiring a feared trio of bounty hunters – old hand Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), young prodigy Johnny “The Kid Pickett” (Eugene Byrd), and amoral cannibal Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) – Blake encounters Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native American outcast. Captured in his youth by Europeans and given a partial education before returning home, Nobody has become distanced from tribal culture as a result of his experiences. (“Nobody” is his way of translating the term Exaybachay – “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing” – which he was dubbed with on his return.) As part of getting some book-learnin’, Nobody came across the poems of William Blake – and when Blake stumbles across him, he decides that the 18th Century poet has become reincarnated as a killer of white men.

An eccentric conclusion? Perhaps – but Blake’s story has already had curious parallels with his namesake’s work, and further parallels develop as the movie progresses. With the bounty hunters on their trail, Nobody leads Blake through the wilderness in search of a symbolically fitting death.

For what he dubbed a “psychedelic Western”, Jarmusch was conscious of the shitty hand dealt to Native Americans and First Nations characters by past Westerns, and tried his best to properly research and portray the indigenous characters included here. First Nations actors were hired to play the characters in question, distinctions between tribes are noted with as much accuracy and possible, and Jarmusch worked with Michelle Thrush (one of the actors and a First Nations activist) to include conversations in the Cree, Makah and Blackfoot languages. These parts are not subtitled or otherwise translated so as to provide a little something specifically for the understanding of those who speak those languages. A significant scene also takes place at an impressive Makah settlement, which stands as a powerful rebuke to the idea that Native Americans all lived in tents and didn’t erect any long-standing structures.

The character of Nobody is obviously important to this, and benefits from a nuanced background – as well as having been captured and partly educated by Europeans in his youth, he was something of an outcast even before that due to being a child of a disapproved union between members of different tribes. He is not a “typical” or archetypal example of an average member of one of the local tribes, but someone out of place wherever he goes – racially disqualified from membership in white society, and alienated from Native American society by not fitting into the tribal system and by experiences which have alienated him from them. Whilst his story there does revolve around guiding William Blake through the land, he hardly carries himself as being subservient to William Blake – if anything, Blake follows Nobody’s lead because he’s getting increasingly groggy and delirious with blood loss, so the whole journey is more about Nobody having a charitable impulse to give Blake a decent send-off than Blake trying to accomplish anything himself. (Nobody and other indigenous characters aren’t the sole source of mysticism in the story either – in particular, at the start of the film Blake has a conversation with the engineer of the train he’s riding to Machine (Crispin Glover), who tries to talk to a baffled Blake about the very last scene in the film and who warns him that the train is going to Hell.)

Obviously, I’m not placed to give Dead Man’s handling of indigenous characters any sort of endorsement – that’ll be for Native American and First Nation audience members to judge – but there’s nothing so obviously cliched that it jumps right out at me as being problematic, which puts this ahead of the pack as far as Westerns go.

The film is presented in black and white, which on the one hand means Jarmusch foregoes the opportunity to use colour to hype up the “psychedelic” side of the equation but on the other hand helps to place it as borrowing the motifs and aesthetic of classic Westerns and repurposing them. The visuals include pastiches of William Blake paintings alongside some rather deft little touches – for instance, a shot of a comet passing through the night sky above the town of Machine seems deliberately fake-looking, with the sky above the town being a false backdrop, which emphasises the nature of the town as a place of artifice constructed by people (with one of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” at its hub). Blake’s journey into death is essentially a passage deeper and deeper into the wilderness, passing away from the things people have built in life and succumbing to an extinction which is the one aspect of nature we have not and may never drive away.

Particular props have to be given to the soundtrack, provided by Neil Young. Improvised on guitar and organ by Young as he watched extracts from the film, it sonically ranges from minimalistic alternative country to grumbling avant-garde country-industrial stuff – sort of like a cowboy take on the Eraserhead soundtrack, particularly apt for the scenes in the Dickinson foundry.

Against this backdrop, great performances are turned in by all concerned, with Depp giving a fun performance as a meek and ordinary man whose personality starts to crumble under the pressure of his impending death and the string of acts of violence he witnesses and commits. There’s some great little cameos too, with John Hurt standing out as Dickinson’s slimy office manager and Alfred Molina being engagingly slimy as a racist bullshit artist and merchant.

Oh, and like South Park says every arthouse Western must include a scene of gay cowboys eating pudding, and this is no exception, the roles this time being played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jared Harris.

2 thoughts on “Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 2 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 3 – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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