Ice Cream

Ice Cream

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.

Jim-Jarmusch
The man of cool.

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.

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Driving around.

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.

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Hopeless bozos.

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.

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Roberto Begnini in the ‘Rome’ segment of Night on Earth.

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.

Dead Man (1995)
Poetic Criminal

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.

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The art of humanity. The assassin.

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?

Broken-Flowers
Who am I?

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.

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Coffee and Jarmusch.

 

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Double Standards

Double Standards

Today’s topic: dual personality. Every once in awhile we come across the concept of having multiple personalities, especially in cinema with movies like Fight ClubEnemy or even with the character of Smeagol in The Lord of The Rings franchise. However, the subject matter is often understood and categorized as a kind of sickness, a mental disorder, which of course gives the writers an interesting idea to develop quirky plots and mind bending storylines. That’s why today I want to write about the 1982 gem of a comedy Tootsie. It’s a movie that has shaped the genre of comedy and managed to touch some serious subjects like the role of women in today’s society, the way we look at women in the film and TV industry, and what it feels like to live in someone else’s skin. It’s a movie that, in my opinion, is still ahead of its time, and that’s why I want to go deep and see why.

For those who don’t know, Michael Dorsey (played by an incredible, post-Graduate-post-Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman) is a New York actor. He loves acting and he loves the smell of the theatre. What’s wrong with him? He’s a perfectionist, or what we call today, an asshole. Nobody wants him because he just doesn’t fit anywhere. Michael drives everybody mad. He teaches a few of his friends and students some basics for the perfect “Michael acting”. That’s when at a party, he learns of a soap opera part that pays good money but with only one problem – it’s a female character. Who, cares. He goes for it. Meet Dorothy Michaels, a tough woman who can literally act her ass off in front of the cameras. What should have been a short term job becomes the only job Michael has. It’s a great job, maybe too great. And that’s when the real questions come into play. It’s when this acting job becomes a real journey, an eye-opening experience.

It gets scary when you can't tell the difference.
It gets scary when you can’t tell the difference.

The character of Dorothy Michaels is strong, loud, and when it comes to facing someone or something, Dorothy always comes out as the winner. That’s why Michael gets the part in the first place; he creates a masculine character, that aside from making us laugh to tears, makes us reflect on the current idea and perception of the woman we had in the 80s and probably still have today. It’s that masculinity, that grit that makes the show’s director change his mind and make an offer to Michael, because he sees what he rarely sees in a woman. A woman is supposed to be delicate, sweet, sensitive. Dorothy is a whole other animal. She’s a predator. Michael creates the ideal of what he considers to be a great person. Outside the Dorothy costume, he’s still an asshole that always begs his friends for money and advice, forgets about his date, doesn’t pay attention to his flatmate in need, and well, is a huge egomaniac. But with Dorothy he becomes someone else. He enters a new world, a world where he can start a whole new story and get to live it. As Dorothy he makes new friends, and especially with a fellow actress and castmate, Julie. Julie brings out a feeling that Michael had forgotten about; the feeling when you fall in love with someone. For real. But, as Dorothy he cannot show it. So now, the new skin becomes a trap that makes it impossible for Michael to demonstrate who he really is.

Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.
Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.

Maybe, it’s for the better. Because only as Dorothy is he capable of forming a true friendship, a real meaningful bond, one where two people got each other’s back no matter what situation comes up. It’s love that isn’t love. It’s not about having those discussions and arguments couples have, it’s something different. Something that Michael has never tasted before. The days go by, and Michael feels less and less comfortable as his own self: he tries a dress at his girlfriend’s place, he pays more attention to the amount of hair he shaves everyday than the amount of food he consumes, he watches his hips and ankles, he comments on other women’s appearance and overall, starts thinking like a woman. Perhaps it’s the frustration and anger against a world that has never appreciated him for who he is as a man, as a male actor, or perhaps it’s the wish of the inner child to finally get to live the life he always wanted to live: the one of a famous, respected, well paid soap opera star. Maybe that’s the real dream that Michael has always chased. Or maybe not. Soon the fans overwhelm him and his life, the publicity makes him lose track of the real objective and gets in the way of his feelings toward Julie, and after a while he realizes that he’s not living the life that was given to him as Michael. Being Dorothy Michaels was supposed to be a short term job, that would help him get back on his feet and direct the play he always wanted to. The love for Julie is by now, too strong to hide.

A not so perfect kiss.
A not so perfect kiss.

We get to see what it feels like to live two separate lives: it’s fun and it gives a lot of satisfaction but we, as humans, can’t deal with it for too long. Maybe some do. But Michael can’t. Life as Dorothy proves to be exhausting and it’s more of an educational adventure: Michael understands that you need other people to feel fulfilled, you need to give to receive, and a love that’s mutual and feels real does exist. It’s no fairy tale. It’s real life. There are important values in life, and sure, there’s more than the usual nights spent in front of the TV with a couple of beers and an over worked script on your lap. Now Michael has to learn to be Dorothy Michaels without actually being her, is that possible?

Tootsie’s one of a kind, so yeah. It is.

An adventure that keeps on going.
An adventure that keeps on going.