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Filmmaker Retrospective: The Independent Cinema of Jim Jarmusch

28 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Bryn Tilly

6. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

ghost dog

An African-American hit man, known only as Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker), lives alone and studies the book Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. His only friends are his homing pigeons, the local ice-cream seller Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), and a little girl Pearline (Camille Wimbush). Ghost Dog falls foul of the Mob, including the gangster, Louie (John Tourney), who once saved his life. Will the ancient Samurai code alter his fate?

Jarmusch shot it in Jersey City, but he deliberately avoided naming the location of his genre-mélange. Car license plates are fictionalised, “The Industrial State” and “The Highway State”, and no one mentions anything specific. Instead the movie is filled with symbolism, especially the use of cartoons playing in the background of scenes as visual metaphors. The entire movie appears to be a riff on the 1967 French cult classic Le Samourai, another utterly “cool” take on the plight of the lone assassin. Ghost Dog was, in many ways, Jarmusch’s most accessible movie to date.

Jarmuschian Moment: Smoking a cigarette behind a building Louie is confronted by Ghost Dog who, whilst holding a gun to his head, demands to know what is going on. Another mobster arrives to assassinate Louie, but is shot numerous times by Ghost Dog. Louie informs Ghost Dog of the gravity of the situation. Ghost Dog wants to know if the other hitman is dead, “Well, I don’t think he’s getting any older,” Louie tells him after nudging the body with his foot.

 

7. Coffee And Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee And Cigarettes (2003)

An anthology of the series of short films Jarmusch made over a twenty-year period. The most famous being the award-winning “Somewhere in California”, which featured Tom Waits and Iggy Pop musing in a diner booth, while others include “Cousins”, with Cate Blanchett playing dual roles, “Cousins?” with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, “Twins” with sister and brother Joie and Cinque Lee and Steve Buscemi as a waiter, and the oldest, “Strange To Meet You”, from 1986 and originally titled, simply, Coffee and Cigarettes, with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright conversing over … smoking and drinking caffeine.

These ten vignettes featuring introverted, extroverted, egocentric, and plain eccentric characters discussing, and frequently disagreeing about, the small ironies of life, picking apart the finer, or in many cases, looser threads in the tapestry of life, are some of Jarmusch’s most astute observations, yet remain pure whimsy. How life’s sins and virtues, fascinations and predilections can seem so bemusing.

Jarmuschian Moment: Tom Waits makes the absurdist rationale behind giving up smoking: “The beauty of quitting is, now that I’ve quit, I can have one, ’cause I’ve quit.”

 

8. Broken Flowers (2005)

Broken Flowers

A letter arrives for Don Johnston (Bill Murray) that states he has a teenage son. It’s from a former lover. He’s had quite a few of those in his lifetime; a real Don Juan. His neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), assists Don by providing him with five contenders for the mother and author of the letter. Don sets off to visit these women, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, all of them likely to cause him grief of some description.

Based loosely on the mythology of “Don Juan”, the movie – originally titled Dead Flowers – is dedicated to French director Jean Eustache (who died in 1981), another maverick filmmaker who enjoyed making short films. Jarmusch wrote the Don Johnston character specifically for Bill Murray. It shares an amusing link to Jarmusch’s next movie, as both feature a female character who says little and spends much of her screen time stark naked.

Jarmuschian Moment: Don arrives at the doorstep of brunette Penny (Tilda Swinton), who stares at him. “Donny,” she exhales, “So what the fuck do you want, Donny?” “Oh, I thought I’d just drop by, just checking in,” he answers matter-of-factly.

 

9. The Limits of Control (2009)

The Limits of Control (2009)

A lone man (Isaach De Bankolé), unnamed (along with the rest of the cast), embarks on a cryptic job after receiving instructions from a Creole (Alex Descas). He travels to Madrid, and then on to Seville, and finally to Almeria and into the desert where his mission will be completed. Along the way he encounters numerous people who, in their own way, lend themselves to the theory that the universe has no centre and no edges, and that reality is merely arbitrary. And then there’s the nude statuesque woman in the transparent raincoat.

Jarmusch returns to the elusive, drifting, rambling, roving, meandering, philosophical wilderness of his very early work, much to the chagrin of the younger generation out of tune with his immaculate stylistics (aided by Wong Kar-wai regular, cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle) and deadpan sensibilities. This is a mood piece, plain and simple. Use your imagination because sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.

Jarmuschian Moment: The lone man is staring out into the vast city at night from the balcony. He turns to see the nude woman slide into the hotel pool and slowly breaststroke toward the lone man. She rests her chin on the pool edge, gazing briefly up at him through her black spectacles. He gazes back. She turns and swims away, turning to give the man a glimpse of her nakedness beneath the rippling water.

 

10. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Only Lovers Left Alive

In the rundown suburb of Brush Park, Detroit a depressed musician, Adam (Tom Huddelston), lives alone in a dilapidated multi-storey home recording on outdated equipment and contemplating suicide. He is a vampire. His long-distance wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton) senses his desperation and travels from Tangiers to be with him, to perpetuate their centuries-old bond, for she too is a vampire. Then Eve’s obnoxious kid sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and disrupts everything forcing the two lovers to flee to Tangiers.

Is this a horror movie from Jarmusch? Not quite. More of a satirical take on anti-contemporary society, that just happens to have vampires as its lead characters. A riff on the romantic drama, a spin on the horror comedy, and a very sly stab at history and Creationism, these are all elements that have been part and parcel with Jarmusch’s own upbringing, both in and out of film. Strangely this is one of Jarmusch’s most endearing stories.

Jarmuschian Moment: Adam and Eve are forced to dispose of Ian (Anton Yelchin)’s body in an abandoned factory, by dumping him in a pit of toxic waste. The flesh immediately begins to disintegrate. “Well, that was certainly visual,” remarks Eve.

Author Bio: Bryn Tilly is a seasoned film critic and cinephile based in Sydney, Australia. With a geek love of genre movies, especially horror, science fiction, and all things with a noir edge, he is the editor of http://cultprojections.com. Please feel free to subscribe, or simply Like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CultProjections). Additionally, you can check out his “nightmare movie” review archive at http://www.horrorphile.net.

 

 

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