Filmmaker Retrospective: The Independent Cinema of Jim Jarmusch

The moments between the moments. Most directors would be terrified of spending more than a couple of minutes there. Jim Jarmusch has made a career of it. He’s never been interested in making dramas or thrillers or any kind of genre movie for that matter, and in the process has fabricated his own genre: the deadpan black comedy.

Jim Jarmusch is a rare breed, one of the last of his kind, an auteur struggling to find the appropriate funding for his films, as it becomes increasingly difficult to make the kind of non-commercial observations he does with such cool insight.

Jarmusch has nearly always sought funding from abroad, and most of his features are co-productions with a European country. He is given the freedom a true cinema artist deserves: final cut. But his movies have never been box office champions; they are nearly always instant cult classics. And in the eyes of cinephiles, this is just fine.

His hair went white during his teenage years, and this adolescent shock may very well have contributed to his sense of feeling like a foreigner in his own land. After returning from a stint in Paris where he’d immersed himself in art cinema, his passion for literature began to merge with a genuine fondness for movies and the scope they offered. He has always been a poet, if not published, then certainly painting words, phrases … moments on the silver screen.

But as much as he is a huge literary enthusiast, Jarmusch’s movies are frequently infused with the tone, colour, and subtle nuances that come from a lover of music. The soundscapes within a Jarmusch film – from the rhythmic use of session percussion to the profundity of silence – are as important as the compositions. He has always worked with precise cinematographers, artists in their own right, and yet Jarmusch retains a distinct visual style.

In 1997 Jarmusch released a tribute piece to Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse, a documentary-cum-concert film titled Year of the Horse. Shot mostly on Super-8 and 16mm, the movie was a departure from the usual Jarmusch fare, but it retains his “underground” aesthetic. It is the only one of his features that he doesn’t own the negative, ‘tis the limit of his control (the project was a kind of gift to Neil Young).

One of Jarmusch’s key visual narrative traits is the almost always-static camera, the “deadpan” mise-en-scene. Characters will often walk in and out of frame; entire pieces of action will sometimes take place off-camera, only heard. The camera may not dolly, but the movement within the shot is always significant, or at the very least, notable for its subtlety.

It is often said that a foreigner, or someone unaccustomed to the “right” way to depict the people and their ways, will produce the best movies about a country or culture, resulting in a curiously insightful and unusually remarkable portrait.

Jim Jarmusch is the stranger in a strange land. It is strange because it is nearly always his own country, and yet, he captures an exploratory listlessness that you might associate with a tourist. And when he films in a foreign country, he imparts an idiosyncratic Americanism into his characters unlike anyone else.

Watching the brooding artistry within a Jarmusch movie is an acquired taste. There are many who find his style unengaging. Or maybe they simply don’t appreciate his penchant for irony, the tiny trials and tribulations.

But then, as Jim explains, “It’s great that the audience have their own different takes on what they have just seen, and don’t know all the answers. Often, I don’t know all the answers either.” In this way Jarmusch shares a similar predilection with another American master of irony, of the in-between and the underneath, David Lynch.

“The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events.”

James Jarmusch, the deadpan existentialist, the absurdist intellectual, the jazz rock dreamer, the white-haired muser with a mischievous gleam in his eye, the literary cinephile who makes books with pictures for adults who’ve lost their way.


1. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Stranger Than Paradise

Willie (John Lurie) is a nonchalant New Yorker. Eva (Ezstar Balint), his Hungarian cousin, comes to visit, but he’s reluctant to play host. She stays for ten days, while she waits for her aunt to get out of hospital. A year later Willie and his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to visit Eva in Cleveland where she’s staying with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark). After Willie and Eddie depart, they decide to bring Eva back to New York.

This was Jarmusch’s first full feature and the movie that cemented the stylised deadpan vibe that would become his signature (his first film was an hour-long thesis piece titled Permanent Vacation which established particular cinematic techniques, but not with any remarkable style).

Made for around one hundred grand, it won numerous awards, most notably the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. In 2002 it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry. The first of three features he would shot in monochrome, and the second film of Jarmusch’s to feature John Lurie, both as an actor and as film composer.

Jarmuschian Moment: Eddie, Eva, and Willie are walking along the beach. Eddie and Eva stop, Willie passes them, stops, stares at them, as if to say “Yeah, what?” they stare back as if to say, “Yeah, whatever.” Willie swaggers on, Eddie smiles at Eva, and they follow Willie out of shot.


2. Down By Law (1986)

down by law

Zack (Tom Waits), a disc jockey, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, are arrested for crimes they were framed in. A third cellmate joins them, Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an eccentric Italian, arrested for manslaughter. The three men, utterly different in temperament and personality, become fugitives in the Louisiana wilderness.

Now working with a cool million, Jarmusch used master lensman Robbie Müller (Paris, Texas, To Live and Die in L.A.). While Lurie provided the score, Waits provided a bunch of songs. The movie seems very comfortable with its cult appeal, especially Ellen Barkin’s opening tantrum … then Roberto enters this “sad and beautiful world,” and a perfect quiet storm collides.

Jarmuschian Moment: In the jail cell during a game of poker Roberto seizes the moment by encouraging Jack and Zack to sing along repeatedly with him, “I scream, you scream, we all scream, for ice-cream!”


3. Mystery Train (1989)


One the same night in Memphis, a Japanese couple on a blues pilgrimage, a mournful Italian woman, and an English troublemaker and his companions, all find themselves at the Arcade Hotel, spending a night.

A triptych – three stories – that overlap, in that the all occur roughly in the same time (a gunshot that is heard in two of the stories, and seen in the third, is the linking element), and that all concern foreigners. It is Jarmusch’s quiet tribute to rhythm and blues, to nighttime, to an elusive place that feels very familiar to everyone. A lush, cool palette, courtesy of Robbie Müller, and an egocentric cast provide Jarmusch with one of his most affectionate, dreamy comedies.

Jarmuschian Moment: While the night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) is updating the hotel accommodation book, the bellboy (Cinque Lee) puts on a pair of dark sunglasses and waits for the Night Clerk to turn around and respond. He doesn’t.


4. Night On Earth (1991)


Five cabs. Five cities. Five stories. One night in The City of Angels, The Big Apple, The City of Light, Roma, and Helsinki. These are tales of sin, woe, opportunity, confession, and connection, brimming with character, fueled by black comedy. A Hollywood agent, a street urchin, a blind beauty, a priest, and some drunken industrial workers … and a motley crew of cabbies make up the roll call.

Jarmusch is fond of his anthologies. Apparently penning this one in just over a week with specific actors in mind for the entire cast. Tom Waits was on board again to provide the music, and Lynch favourite Frederick Elmes was the cinematographer. Certainly this is one of Winona Ryder’s career highlights. It is also notable for the final story, a very deliberate nod to one of Jarmuch’s few stylistic contemporaries, and a close friend, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki.

Jarmuschian Moment: The opening montage sequence of the first story, set in Los Angeles, depicting a sun-bleached, hazy sprawl of kitsch nothingness, finally arriving at the face of Corky (Ryder) driving, smoking, and blowing a big Hubba Bubba bubble.


5. Dead Man (1995)


William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Ohio, arrives at the frontier town of Machine only to find his promised job already filled. A former prostitute, Thel (Mili Avital) takes him back to her room, but her lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), surprises them, and a mortally wounded Blake finds himself traveling through the wilderness on an increasingly strange journey.

Described as a “psychedelic Western” by Jarmusch, it happens to be one of the very few movies that depict Native Americans in an honest and remarkably authentic light. It was Jarmusch’s most expensive movie to date, and is regarded by many as his masterpiece. It is at once his most violent movie, his most sensual movie, his most surreal movie, his most spiritual, and, arguably, his most original movie.

Jarmuschian Moment: The three frontier killers (Lance Henrikson, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) are waiting for Mr. Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final screen performance) to give them their bounty job. Dickinson strides into his office, and straight up to a massive stuffed bear in the corner, and describes the situation whilst facing the dead animal.