Today’s topic: Jim Jarmusch and his slow reality. When you think about ‘cool’, what comes to mind? For me, Jim Jarmusch. The grey haired sixty year old director, who enjoys smoking cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and making movies about people and their place in the world. This is a man who doesn’t rush; he takes his time, for each film he chooses the location carefully. His movies may not be the most aesthetically beautiful since all of them run on a tight budget (he hates studios and releases everything independently), his plots may not be the most dynamic and surprising ones, but there is something about his movies; something that elevates them from being simple short stories. It’s his take on the passing of each day, of the earth spinning, of the sun setting. In his movies everything starts and everything ends. Jarmusch goes from point A to point B in order to finally come to point C and it’s all planned out too – it’s his method of observation that strikes us. His patience. That’s it.
In his acclaimed second feature that put him on the map of independent film directors and made of him a walking paradox, Stranger Than Paradise from 1984, Jarmusch ties three people together and by the end of the movie, he cuts those ties leaving them separated, going different ways. The movie consists of slow fade-ins and fade-outs. Everything is quiet, peaceful, slow, aside from the repeated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track – I Put a Spell on You – everything follows a certain rhythm. It’s a study of a quiet society, connected but at the same time more than disconnected. The characters are genuine assholes, loners and punks who drive around in search of something. This theme of the search of nothing (really) establishes who Jarmusch is as a director – more of a poet, a bird watcher who quietly sits in the bushes with his binoculars on, studying. For some it could be a painful, boring experience, and for others it may just be what they’ve been looking for all the time. That quiet roaming around, the slow laziness, the stressful silences.
Same thing happens in the next movie that won Jarmusch huge praise in the Cannes Festival, Down By Law from 1986. It’s a movie about innocence, escape, trouble and inner struggle. The story focuses on three prisoners in a New Orleans jail, who after being framed for crimes they did not commit (aside from the Italian prisoner), they escape into the Louisiana countryside. The three are – a pimp (John Lurie), a radio disk jockey (Tom Waits) and an Italian tourist (Roberto Begnini). This odd group of bozos are again, in search of something. They don’t know what it is. Jarmusch captures their anxiety, insecurity and anger by letting the actors improvise; what could have been a scripted piece of work turns into a quiet game of improvisation, lead by the skilled Begnini who makes the most out of his character. And that’s the point; Jarmusch dishes out these characters that seem on the outside to be empty, boring and silly but something carries them, something motivates them to move forward, not to give up. And right when we’re about to feel comfortable around these three, Jarmusch wraps up the whole thing; the three idiots go different ways. The tone of Down By Law is off-beat, a little unsettling, but isn’t that what makes life so fun? That’s Jarmusch for you.
After making the dizzy and sentimental Mystery Train in 1989, Jarmusch went back to subtle observation by directing Night on Earth (1991). For most people the idea of this particular project, that of following five taxi drivers in five different cities all over the world during the same night, may seem more than boring. What could happen? After all it’s simply a camera placed on the windshield and actors sitting and talking. Well, again with Jarmusch you never know. At first it looks like a school movie project, but then, the stories, the acting, the atmosphere all make it so much more. Here, the director studies people’s different behavior, backgrounds and attitude, connecting all five stories, painting a larger than life picture of humanity. We see acts of anger, happiness, betrayal, empathy and grief. Jarmusch makes us laugh until we cry. He presents us a society of beautifully ugly and disgustingly beautiful people sitting behind the steering wheel of a taxi.
In one of his most mature directing efforts, Dead Man starring a young Johnny Depp, Jarmusch challenges the Wild West. Don’t think of it as a guns blazing movie with tons of blood and action. Jarmusch, as I said, is a poet and here he pays tribute to such poetic directors like Tarkovsky, Ozu and Kaurismäki who prefer slow passing of time rather than fast paced action. It’s a psychedelic Western, twisted and surreal in every possible way, depicting man and nature as one single unit. It’s a postmodern take on the wilderness, on the savage land where men would square things off with the help of a duel. Everything ends in blood. Jarmusch knows it. We drift along William Blake, Johnny Depp’s character. He’s an accountant, a bizarre young man who’s always being stared at by others. He’s always picked on and laughed at. But is that his true self? His true nature? His true spirit? The camera pans slowly, as Blake, wounded, sits in a canoe drifting further away from land.
In my favorite movie of his, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch explores the gangster genre by creating a philosophical tale about the world of paradox. Who better than Jarmusch, right? It’s a study of the dirty streets of America, of the beautiful people we find, of the dangers we face every time we cross the street, of the stupid things we should never dare to think about. Ghost Dog, played by a great Forest Whitaker, is a paid assassin, a hitman working for the mafia. A black man raised in the streets of New Jersey. He kills for money but lives by a code. Everything follows a certain path, even a murderer. He’s a quiet, docile man, who like Jarmusch, observes others. The world that surrounds him defines him. A samurai. RZA’s soundtrack, Wu Tang’s gangster rap makes it even more poetic, more bizarre and strange. Everything seems like falling out of its assigned place and yet… everything is perfect.
And finally, Broken Flowers from 2005 is an exploration of love and loneliness. Bill Murray embarking on a cross-country journey to track down four of his former lovers after receiving an anonymous letter stating that he has a son. It is what it is. Jarmusch shapes a character so lonely, scarred by hypocrisy and grief that it seems as if we’re watching a documentary. Don Juan is looking for answers but he’s the last individual who would ever get them. Everything is hopeless, everything is broken. Nothing goes together. Don Juan roams around in his car, again, in search of what? Is he really looking for his son? Or is he really just trying to find a definition of himself?
Jarmusch is a quiet dog. An artist who always goes under the radar. There is no publicity for his movies. His trailers go unnoticed. His soundtracks make a couple of bucks and that’s it. But he doesn’t care. All his movies are arguments about who we are and the place we find ourselves in. Everything is slow. Because slow is beautiful.