Jim Jarmusch Turns 70

I celebrated Jim Jarmusch’s 70th birthday today by watching the one movie of his I hadn’t yet seen, The Limits of Control (2009). To my delight, it stars Isaach de Bankolé, whom I had coincidentally watched the previous evening in the somewhat less brilliant new film People You Hate at the Wedding. More on the film, Jarmusch’s tenth, in due course.

Can I just say that it’s a little incredible that Jarmusch shares a birthday with Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Malcolm McLaren, Daniel Johnston, and Conrad Veidt? If you can’t see him at the center of that Venn Diagram, I sure can.

Not liking the films of Jim Jarmusch is a tell that you’re dense, a cretin, a Neanderthal in a track suit. I see mixed critical reactions to his films online, by doofuses (some of them with bylines and presumably salaries) complaining that the films are slow, and “difficult to understand”. Is that where our culture is at now? It’s like complaining that water is wet. “I can’t drink this water! It’s wet!” It’s the nature of the thing, it’s its intentionally generated virtue, not a flaw. “40% of the chimps who responded found assembling these blocks too challenging.” Okay, good. Good to know. These are still some fuckin’ excellent blocks for the 60% of the populace who aren’t chimps.

By now you’ve somehow deduced that the reason I have seen every one of Jarmusch’s films is because I really love them. I have spent nearly 40 years loving them. Not for nothing did I head my post on “what was good and bad in American cinema in the ’80s” with a still from Stranger Than Paradise (1984). My best friend, a film student at the University of Bridgeport at the time, was like “You’ve GOT to see this movie!” and for once, a cultural product was not oversold to me. There is no way to adequately describe Jarmusch’s minimalist, deadpan, downbeat voice, so no amount of describing it can ruin it. In that one, his breakthrough (and only his second) feature, a pair of hip and goofy gamblers (John Lurie and Richard Edson, both of whom were primarily musicians) interact with Lurie’s cousin, a Hungarian immigrant played by Eszter Balint, also a musician. The two men are very much like a comedy team. Balint’s character derives a lot of comedy by incessantly playing Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” on a boom box, to the irritation of the two men. The first act is in Brooklyn, the second in Cleveland, the third in Florida, but wherever they are, despite the “change of scenery” everything is the same, monotonous, nothing doing. Hence, the ironic joke of the title. This “amazing wonderland” of America so celebrated in song and story is basically a depressing parking lot from sea to shining sea.

To me as a 21 year old, Jarmusch’s voice seemed to be a synthesis of everything cool: the existentialists, the Beats, jazz, punk, noir, Cassavetes. Today I would also compare him to artists like Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon (for pace), and even John and Yoko (for economy). Japanese culture has been a major influence on Jarmusch. I love that he grew up in Cuyohoga Falls, Ohio, which surely you know from those Chrissie Hynde lyrics. As a young person he loved everything from Roger Corman to Andy Warhol. He studied poetry with Kenneth Koch, was editor of The Columbia Review, and spent some time in Paris, before a stint at NYU film school where his mentor was none other than Nicholas Ray. While there, he spent a lot of time at the punk mecca CBGBs, where he interacted with musicians

Early on he was associated with the No Wave film movement, comprised of like minded no-nonsense auteurs who made masterpieces out of garbage on a shoe string. Two others of them were Tom DiCillo and Eric Mitchell, both of whom appeared in Jarmusch’s even grittier first film Permanent Vacation (1980) (which only recently became available on Criterion). Among other things, Mitchell directed the film Underground U.S.A. (1980), which featured my friend and early collaborator Tom Wright. DiCillo was cinematographer on Underground U.S.A., as well as Jarmusch’s first two features. (Another filmmaker associated with the No Wave is Bette Gordon, who I had the honor of interviewing in 2009).

After the success of Stranger Than Paradise, there was inevitable speculation about what Jamrusch would do next, and no doubt some skepticism that he could do anything. I mean where could you from there? What can you do after you’ve already done “nothing”? In the case of a real artist, the answer is everywhere. Jarmusch possessed a voice, not a gimmick. If you choose to interpret it as a one-joke idea, it happens to be a joke with a million potential variations. So he brings his voice to new terrain, usually familiar terrain, and turns it into terra incognita.

After Stranger Than Paradise came Down by Law (1986) a twist on prison break pictures set in the steamy precincts of New Orleans and the surring bayou, starring Lurie, Tom Waites, and Italian comedian and film-maker Roberto Benigni.

In 1989, Mystery Train, featuring three vignettes set around a Memphis hotel with none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins himself as the desk manager! Also, in the cast, Steve Buscemi, another No Wave artist, whose debut had been in Mitchell’s The Way It Is (1985) and was in DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion a decade later. Also Joe Strummer from the Clash, and downtown mainstay Tom Noonan.

The third picture from this period was Night on Earth (1991), the vignettes of which are all set in taxi cabs in five different cities Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. (But oddly not Tokyo. Wouldn’t you think he’d include Tokyo?) Among the cast for this once were Cassavetes’ partner Gena Rowlands, indie darling Winona Ryder, and Giancarlo Eposito and Rosie Perez, both known for their association with Jarmusch’s NYU schoolmate Spike Lee.

Also shot during these years was Coffee and Cigarettes, though it wasn’t completed or released until 2003. This one featured 11 vignettes of people kibitzing. shooting the shit, drinking coffee and smoking. It features Steven Wright (a Jarmusch match made in heaven), the immortal Taylor Mead, Joie and Cinque Lee (Spike’s siblings), Jarmusch regulars Steve Buscemi, Roberto Benigni, Tom Waites, Isaach De Bankolé, Iggy Pop, RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Alfred Molina, and major stars like Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Steve Coogan.

After this, Jarmusch entered a new phase, where his films, while remaining minimalist, became less “aimless”, they began to take the audiences on little (some times big) journeys or experiences, but in his same patented, deliberately paced, unhurried crawl. Bear with me now, I actually scribbled a bunch of notes on Dead Man (1995), for my in-progress book about westerns:

“…An existential western, a sort of mix of Beckett and spaghetti westerns, featuring all of Jarmusch’s trade mark deadpan scenes, black and white photography, and fadeouts. And a cool  soundtrack by Neil Young! It doesn’t seem to “mean” anything, except perhaps that America is violent and we all die. Jarmusch’s style lends itself well to the western. the feeling is like Keaton, as in his comedies you feel like you have gone back to the actual time period, thanks to careful mise en scene, and cinematography that evokes 19th photography. (we also think of Keaton because of Depp’s beautiful bone structure, impassive nature, and interesting hat).

Depp plays an accountant named William Blake (!) who comes to the Pacific Northwest town of Machine to take a job. The train ride takes forever. on the way the train’s fireman (Crispin Glover) warns him that all he will find there is his grave. Indeed, as soon as we get west, nearly all that we experience is death. The instant we’re there, every man on the train but Depp shoots buffalo out the train’s windows. As he gets off the train and walks through the town, all he sees are piles of animal bones, antlers, caskets. He passes an open blow job in progress. the recipient threatens to shoot him for looking. When he gets to the factory, the office manager (John Hurt) tells him the position’s already been filled, a point reinforced by the owner (Robert Mitchum, in his final film role). That night, Depp uses his last money to buy some whiskey. He hooks up with a girl who makes artificial flowers. They are caught in bed by her lover (Gabriel Byrne). He shoots the girl dead and Depp grabs her gun and shoots Byrne dead. Depp has been shot too, but he makes his escape through the window, steals a horse and goes.

It turns out Byrne was Mitchum’s son. Mitchum hires three killers to go after him. One, Lance Henrikson, is a psycho who is rumored to have killed and eaten his own parents. Another is a talkative, sort of annoying guy (Michael Wincott), who’s kind of likeable despite being a hired killer. And the third is a black kid of about fourteen (Eugene Byrd). They track Depp through the whole movie — that is until the other two annoy Henrikson. He kills them both, and in he film’s most memorable and appalling shot, he eats the talkative one. Meanwhile Depp encounters an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer, from Smoke Signals and Reservation Dogs), a man without a tribe, who thinks Blake is the real William Blake, and prepares him for death. (Is he just as mistaken about Depp being “dead” as he is about him being the real William Blake?).

Nobody drags the half-starved, losing-blood Blake through the wilderness. They encounter a bunch of people along the way. Depp ends up killing them all through various circumstances, a wide swath of death wherever he goes. Feels like Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood! At first, it’s by necessity. He reaches out to some men for food and they turn out to be Deliverance style wilderness rapists, played by Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop as a frontier transvestite! So he has to kill these guys when they are about to rape him. Later, he kills two twin sheriffs. It begins to be epidemic though when he kills a storeowner just for being an asshole, and another guy (Alfred Molina) just for being there. Nobody brings Depp all the way out to the ocean, and sends him for his “voyage home” on a special ceremonial canoe. As Depp drifts out, he sees Henrickson finally catch up with them. He and Nobody exchange shots, killing each other. Then Depp himself dies….”

For what’s it’s worth. (Speaking of canoes and Buster Keaton, you’ll find both in The Balloonatic, released 100 years ago, which I posted about earlier today!).

I resisted seeing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) for years based on the misconception that it would be some kind of martial arts movie, as well as the firm proposition that I usually don’t care for Forest Whitaker. I finally watched it this week in the name of completion, and NOPE! I was delighted to experience Jarmusch’s idea of a Mafia gangster movie, featuring familiar characters like Henry Silva, Cliff Gorman, Frank Adonis, and our old friend Gene Ruffini from Theater for the New City. The gangsters are all out to put out a hit on rogue hit man Whitaker, who calls himself Ghost Dog and follows a Samurai Code. And it’s the best acting work I’ve seen him do, I’m guessing because Jarmusch reigned him in for the part. It also has Isaach de Bankolé and RZA from Wu Tang Clan. Gary Farmer returns as Nobody. It pairs nicely with Dead Man. Further it’s shot on the streets of Jersey City, where I used to live for about three years, which made me love it even more.

Then came a five year stretch without a Jarmusch movie, with the exception of Coffee and Cigarettes, which as we saw, was made up of little scenes he had shot previously. The reason for radio silence was that he was deeply affected by September 11. As I wrote here, I once lived in the shadow of those towers in Tribeca, and the place where I lived was at Tom Wright’s the guy I mentioned above who was in the Eric Mitchell film. And when I interviewed Bette Gordon? It was at her loft in Tribeca. The No Wave folks were largely based out of that nabe. Jarmusch had also just shot Ghost Dog in Jersey City, about a one minute PATH train ride from the World Trade Center. I think the event freaked people out in direct proportion to how close they felt to the place, and who or what they lost.

When he returned with Broken Flowers in 2005 he was in a reflective mood, and I no note that there was no death or jokey gunplay in this one either. Bill Murray plays an aging Lothario who gets an anonymous letter from one of his old lovers alluding to the fact that he has a child. So he makes a sort of grim, sad road trip all over the country to all of his old lovers to see if he can learn more. But when he gets to each house, he can’t bring himself to be direct and ask real questions, so he never learns the truth. It’s kind of like a pocket version of 8 1/2. It sounds like a drag, but it’s not without humor, thanks to Murray’s willingness to be the butt of jokes, and the gals who make them at his expense, here played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, and Chloë Sevigny. When I first saw this movie I was in the perfect frame of mind: drunk, lonely, miserable, alone, divorced, and overflowing with self-pity. Haha! The man talks to me. God, and I really really REALLY love the movie’s theme song “There Is An End”, performed by The Greenhornes with Holly Golightly.

Almost all of Jarmusch’s films are obsessed with the American landscape, both inner and outer. The Limits of Control (2009) is what it looks like when he does a “European” movie. Shot in Spain, with an international cast headed by Isaach de Bankolé, it’s all about an assassin whose instructions are given to him by a sort of tag team of contacts, each of whom sit next to him and spout philosophical ruminations about the nature of life and death before passing him a coded message. (Kind of like life. Also like Coffee and Cigarettes but with a modicum of a plot). In the end his target — hilariously — turns out to be Bill Murray as an asshole capitalist kingpin holed up in a fortress, who does everything to deserve being killed before Bankolé delivers his coup de grace. The hero of this movie is even more isolated than Depp in Dead Man or Whittaker in Ghost Dog.

Next came Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which is what it looks like when Jarmusch tells a love story. The lovers in this one are David Bowie-esque rock musician vampires named Adam and Eve and played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. It’s filmed against a backdrop of decaying, ruined Detroit, thus pioneering later horror films like Barbarian.

Jarmusch continued Ghost Dog‘s palpable New Jersey love in Paterson (2016) in which everybody’s muse Adam Driver plays a poet named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, and like an oddly high number of residents of that town writes poetry. Ginsberg grew up there. William Carlos Williams wrote a whole book length poem about it. But the fact that Paterson is a bus driver also evokes Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, which leads me for some reason to Lou Costello , to whom there there is a statue…in the middle of Paterson, the comedian’s home town. The fact that Paterson is a working stiff doesn’t diminish the importance of his poetry to him however. He write daily in notebooks, and eavesdrops on the passengers on his bus. It’s one of Jarmusch’s most minimalist stories — and yet somehow he manages to take us to the point of catastrophe, and then send us off with a note of hope and inspiration. It’s really a remarkable film and if I had to name a movie of Jarmusch’s that actually seems to articulate the arc of 9/11….(work-work-work-DESTRUCTION-recovery-back to work)…this is it

Lastly, we wrote about his most recent feature, The Dead Don’t Die (2019) quite a bit in this post about zombie movies. It would make a nice trilogy with Dead Man and Only Lovers Left Alive: ghosts, vampires and zombies.

At any rate, I have to go now, speaking of work-work-work. I have to do this in a few hours.