The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Jim Jarmusch

Written by Tom Steward.

Photo from the article A film-maker whose output seems to exude the cloying exclusivity of a jazz sub-genre. A sense of humour so bone-dry you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a blight. And a contravention of the widely held truth that musicians should never be given the protagonistic reins of any project.

It is a completely eccentric and gratuitously bohemian process that governs the movies of Jim Jarmusch. Yet his methodology is a humane and unusually uplifting attempt to render the everyday. His stylised deadpan look seems contained within a monolith of Japanese art cinema and modernist theatre and yet also seems one of the better artistic conceptions of excruciating naturalism. Jarmusch employs an absurd realism happily devoid of the contrived social agendas that calcify much naturalist drama into an irretrievable clump. Scenes unravel with a painstaking tedium and drudgery. The characters are real, yes real, not realistic, not well-observed, but actually suffering through every motion, silence and verbal aberration along with an increasingly frustrated audience.

Yet, impossibly, there is no pain involved in screening a Jarmusch film. There’s no uncomfortable writhing in seats and contrived character anguish. They are light, melodic and fun. They’re not music videos, but they feel like great compilation tapes. They can be choppy, unbalanced and digressional but there is an ultimate satisfaction in the completion of a project undertaken with impeccable style and elegance.

Like many great artists (Haring, Lichtenstein etc.) Jarmusch subsists on a pattern of imagery rather than a pompous rendering of self through image. Immovable frames and one-dimensional compositions, imperfect black-and-white, fast-cutting juxtaposed with languorous non-narratives and pointed visual irony. His art speaks to no great scheme, never matures or addresses itself. It’s self-contained, you do have to develop a taste for it, but it doesn’t patronise you. It’s like a Ramones album in celluloid. It is self-explanatory, like all great works of art, and its inconsistencies are so finely tuned they won’t grate as in works of self-importance.

Stranger Than Paradise
Stranger Than Paradise
Jarmusch prefers musicians to actors as a rule, an unusual strategy that always seems to reap benefits for him. Tom Waits, John Lurie, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer and The White Stripes have all had key roles in his movies. Not only are they all remarkably competent (Waits and Lurie in particular prove themselves consummate leading men in Down By Law [1986]) but their photogenic, iconoclastic qualities beautifully compliment the posed ponderousness of Jarmusch’s compositions. Strangely, their musical personas don’t overshadow the roles but rather they are filmed so obliquely that they operate with a certain anonymity. Moreover there is no persona to conform to in a particularly neutral style of performance, with characters asked simply to perform a set of simple actions and erratic gestures. They lack goal-orientation or strong feelings and, rather than get immersed in their environment, simply perform a hapless naturalistic ballet in front of some sharply captured backdrops.

Jarmusch’s people have that bohemian trait of surviving purely on their own set-up and narrow circle of social engagement, their life processes set to a limit by their own aspirations. Nowhere is this more true than in Stranger Than Paradise (1983), Jarmusch’s breakthrough feature. A film where all the characters are neutered in their own reality, living out of TV-shaped holes, eating meals out of individually portioned plastic-formed boxes, embarking on road trips that freewheel through relatives’ living rooms, car interiors and sparse hotel rooms. The plot converges on a finale in which the main character is forced against his will to travel to Hungary thus severing him from his impeccably cool non-existence. Lotte, his Hungarian cousin, slots perfectly into his mode of uncomplicated lethargy in an America where absent-minded wandering can be the key to untaxed riches.

Down By Law
Down By Law
Jarmusch’s archetypal protagonist is the individualist misanthrope, the kind of person who prefers their small talk in a language they can’t speak, as in Ghost Dog (1999), or the convicts from Down by Law, who seek escape not from the repression of the penal system but from the forced communality of shared cells. Most of them are not maliciously offish but simply see social interaction as an absurd affront to their solipsism. In Down by Law, the conflation of Zak and Jack, one a pimp the other a DJ, both failed and betrayed by their women, in a prison cell leads only to violence and quiet resentment. The arrival of Bob (Roberto Benigni, the darker side of whose hysteria has only ever been explored in Jarmusch films) to the cell acts as a mediator, bringing communication and shared activity, notably in the escape plan. Their entente cordiale is completely contingent. As soon as they get lost in the thick Louisiana swampland, they each revert to their own monolithic routes, attempting to restore their pre-incarceration identities by mumbling through their own particular mantras; Jack’s late-night weather report, Zak’s tough-guy talk and Bob’s stories of his rabbit-killing mother. Jack and Zak part without even the shake of a hand. They know that they are blips on each other’s radars, they have forged nothing and they go in different directions just to be apart.

Perversely for a director who deals awkwardly with social interaction Jarmusch chose to make Night on Earth (1991) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2004), films that consist solely of duologues. In both the art of conversation is rendered impossible as each character guards their own self-image at every turn, refusing to acknowledge likeness or common ground. Take Tom Waits and Iggy Pop from Coffee and Cigarettes. Their own musical personality cults preclude any free exchange. In the eyes of the other, every comment is a slur upon their work and talents and everything said is shot through with professional jealousy and personal paranoia. People share the same spaces and the same addictions but can’t imagine themselves as sharing the same characteristics of the rest of the human race.

This auteurish account of the Jarmusch canon hasn’t thus far gone far towards tackling the later oddities of Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and Dead Man (1995). In some ways though, Ghost Dog is typical Jarmsuch, albeit more affected and disguised as a genre film. Dead Man, on the other hand, is a cruel, heartless anomaly in the world of a man whose greatest strength has always been his affability. The easy-going gruffness of the Jarmusch universe morphs into a mis-en-scene of sadism and random violence. The visual poetry of the Western landscape conceals a visceral spite and a soluble level of sociopathic feeling. It's the ultimate bad trip drugs film, vapid and visually incoherent. It seems all the latent stoner ethics of Jarmusch's hipster heroes have suddenly exploded through the surface without invitation. Rich, strange and ponderous, it is a masochistic experiment in viewer patience. Bombastic and hallucinatory, it has fallen out of the other side of this director's psyche.

Ghost Dog
Ghost Dog
Ghost Dog follows yet another quest for solitude and a negation of community. The codes and conventions particular to one tribe of people are indistinguishable from another. From self-mythologizing Italian gangsters to Afro-American rappers through native Americans and quasi-Japanese warriors, the same empty ceremony and pomp applies. Ghost Dog is Leon (1995) and Le Samurai (1967) without the superhuman chic. His big meaty paws grasp awkwardly at the sleek samurai sword, his dodgy eye and fat man's limp give him a worn, undignified look and his killings are overly theorised and clumsily executed. It demystifies the romantic assassin, revealing an odd recluse sat on a roof covered in pigeon shit. Jarmusch is no documentarist in waiting but he certainly strips away the pretence in a way that invokes some kind of perverse neo-realism. Yes, it suffers from stodgy symbolism and distempered surrealism, but it offers cold, hard truth where most like films can only perpetuate myth.

Jarmusch is some kind of riddle. I think of his films as utterly valid representations of life but I suppose they are also slacker fantasies of liberation through irrelevance. I daresay I use his films to feed my own aspirations of Greenwich Village subsistence. Apart from a few unforgivably gruesome sequences in Dead Man, Jarmusch is adamant not to assault the audience with either dogma or style, and if his over-indulgence in idiosyncrasies has you heading for the exits, you'd be a mean soul to bear a grudge. Ultimately, a quietly exceptional body of work emerges from the director. A vision of an America of abandoned locales, self-styled personas and consenting alienation realised as a precise art full of poignancy and leisure.

This article was published on July 26, 2005.

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