Jim Jarmusch is one of the more innovative independent film makers in America. His films are distinctive for their minimal style (including frequent use of stationary cameras) and quirky storytelling. Jarmusch writes and directs all of his films and is particularly adept at presenting aspects of America through the eyes of an outsider, once stating that he views America 'through a foreigner's eyes'. He has reaped all sorts of critical acclaim while remaining a staunch independent. In 1989, Vincent Canby of the New York Times called him the most adventurous and arresting film maker to surface in the American cinema in this decade. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader declared;
Investing most of his energy in character rather than story, he returns repeatedly to looking at the same thing in different ways - or at different things the same way.
- 'Acid Western', The Chicago Reader, June 1996.
Roger Ebert has noted that:
Jarmusch is not a satirist. He is a romantic, who sees America as a foreigner might - as a strange, haunting country where the urban landscapes are painted by Edward Hopper and the all-night blues stations provide a soundtrack for a life.
- Mystery Train, Chicago Sun-Times, 26 January, 1990.
Fellow film-makers such as Spike Lee and Kevin Smith have also credited him as an influence and inspiration.
He has not been without detractors, however. As AO Scott has noted,
Mr Jarmusch is an acquired taste, and a lot of people seem to find him unpalatable... For each viewer who revels in the artistry of his slow, disjunctive scenes, his carefully composed frames and his penchant for symbolism, there is another who sees only artiness.
- 'Ghost Dog: Passions of Emptiness in an Essay on Brutality', New York Times, 3 March, 2000
Others have faulted him for obscurity and cheekily subtle humour. Many critics have attacked the slow pacing of his films as 'stultifyingly dull1' and an example of a 'chronic lack of energy2'. And quite a few critics have noted that Quentin Tarantino possesses the same penchant for references and puzzle-like structures, but with more distinctive editing, faster pacing and greater success3. Finally, Jarmusch's depiction of America seems to appeal far more to European audiences, while being mostly ignored in America itself.
Jim Jarmusch was born in 1953 and lived in Akron, Ohio until the age of 17. He attended Northwestern University's Journalism School for a year before transferring to Columbia University, from where he graduated in 1975 with a BA in English. He subsequently was accepted to NYU's Tisch Film School without any prior film experience. He studied there for four years before dropping out when his thesis project was not accepted. He also attended the Cinémathèque Française. Before he made a name for himself in film, he worked as a production assistant for Wim Wenders. He also has worked as a factory welder, a hydraulic drill-gun operator, and a moving man. He was also involved in the punk scene of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He now lives in New York's Lower East Side.
Jarmusch's first film, Permanent Vacation (1980), was the film that was rejected as his thesis, allegedly because of its 'excessive' length of 80 minutes. Shot on a shoestring budget of $10,000, it presented a few days in the life of an aimless slacker. It fared poorly in the US, but it managed to receive a small cult following in Europe. His next film, Stranger than Paradise, started life as a short filmed on 40 minutes of donated film stock. Jarmusch managed to get an amazing 30 minutes of film out of that and decided to expand it to a regular film in three parts. With the support of a German producer who later played the part of a cabbie in Night on Earth, Jarmusch spun out a tale of two New York Bohemians and a cousin from Budapest and their experiences in a weird vision of America. It received the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1985 and Best Picture from the America's National Society of Film Critics. Down By Law (1986) was Jarmusch's third film. It presented a story of two Louisiana lowlifes (Tom Waits and John Lurie) and an Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) stuck in a corrupt jail. It revisited the theme of Stranger, where American lowlifes are transformed through the influence of a foreigner, but it added a more madcap comic edge. With their quirky characters and basic budgets, these films defined the 'indie film' stereotype we all know today.
In 1989, Jarmusch took a new direction and began experimenting with alternate modes of story-telling. Mystery Train presented three interlocking stories unfolding in a 24-hour period around a seedy Memphis hotel. The three stories are presented sequentially, but are obviously meant to be occurring in the same time and place. The first story relates the experiences of a young Japanese couple who have come to Memphis on a Rock 'n' Roll pilgrimage to the home of Elvis and Carl Perkins. They tour a few studios, get into a fight, and make up to each other. The second story is about an Italian women passing through Memphis. She hears a spooky Elvis ghost story from a stranger in a diner and eventually shares a hotel room for the night with a woman named DeeDee. DeeDee has broken up with her English boyfriend and is planning on leaving town in the morning without saying goodbye to her brother Charlie. The English boyfriend Johnny is the central figure of the third tale. His girlfriend has just dumped him and he's also lost his job. He winds up drinking and getting involved in a botched crime with his brother-in-law Charlie and another friend before holing up in the hotel until the heat dies down.
None of these characters actually encounter each other in the film; they are only linked through more subtle connections, for example the Elvis song 'Blue Moon' on the radio, the sound of a gunshot, or the emotional damage of a broken relationship. While this synopsis may make it sound too clever or dispassionate, it is a rather interesting work. Many critics loved it, and it received the Artistic Contribution Prize at Cannes.
Jarmusch continued these experiments with the release of Night on Earth in 1992. As in Mystery Train, he presented connected parallel stories in sequence. The film contains five different vignettes that take place simultaneously in cabs in five different cities at night. In the first sequence, a spunky female cab driver (Winona Ryder) in LA picks up an agent at the airport as night begins to fall. The agent suggests she becomes a Hollywood star but the offer is refused. From there it moves east to New York, where a black passenger is sure his East German driver will never make it to Brooklyn without his help. In Paris, an African cab driver becomes fascinated with a beautiful blind female passenger. In Rome, a hyper ballistic cab driver played by Roberto Benigni, races through Rome while making strange sexual confessions to his priestly passenger. Finally, we end up in Helsinki where a driver and passenger share sad tales as dawn breaks on another cold winter day.
There are no messages presented, and there are no real connections between the stories. Instead, it's more a study of character and human relations. While more ambitious in scope and filming, it was written in only eight days. As a result, it seems a little less polished than its predecessor.
His next film, Dead Man, marked another change in narrative direction for Jarmusch. Instead of presenting multiple narratives, here he deconstructs formulaic genres and reconstructs them with new ingredients to fashion a new take on an old genre and this film is probably one of the most unusual Westerns ever made. At the start of the film, Cleveland accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels westward to the outpost town of Machine for a promised job. Unfortunately, his luck sours when he gets there. Unemployed, penniless, and alone, he finds himself on the run for murder. On the lam4, he joins up with an Indian named 'Nobody' who had been abducted from his tribe and who is convinced that Blake is really his namesake (the Romantic poet William Blake), who has returned to avenge the crimes of the White Man against the Indians.
He cultivates Blake into an outlaw whose reputation grows as he kills more of the bounty hunters sent after him. Despite the bloodshed, this film does not exult in violence; indeed, every violent act is somewhat cartoonish and absurd. Filmed in black and white with an atmospheric score by Neil Young, the film has been seen more as a two-hour meditation of the history and myths of the American West. Unfortunately, many critics savagely panned it when it was first released in 1995, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and acclaim in recent years, even making several lists of top films of the century.
These experiments in deconstruction continued with the release of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai five years later. This film presents the story of Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a black hit man who lives by the samurai code of the Hagakure and acts as a retainer to a Mafioso who saved his life a few years earlier. Ghost Dog's life is a fusion of seeming contradictions: he lives in New York, but in seclusion on a rooftop; he uses modern weaponry, but can be contacted only by carrier pigeon; he claims that a Haitian ice cream vendor is his best friend, but neither can understand a word each other says. Codes of honour are central to the film, whether it is the samurai code of Ghost Dog, the mafia code of honour and revenge, or the darker sensibilities of gangster rap. When one of Ghost Dog's contract killings goes awry, it sets up a chain of events that leads to a violent collision between these codes. Like the European powers in World War I, the characters are forced into courses of action they cannot avoid. The film thus serves as an interesting examination of race, codes, crime, and urbanity. For the film's dreamlike hip-hop score, Jarmusch recruited rapper RZA, whose Wu-Tang Clan also combines similar Eastern and Western concepts. In 1990, Jarmusch stated that it was his ambition to create a cinematic language influenced by both the world cinema of Europe and Japan, and Hollywood. As he described it:
I'm interested in finding a bridge between these... I'd like to embrace both sides without negating one or the other.
Current Biography Yearbook 1990.
This seems to be the film that achieved that vision.
Other Appearances and Work
With his distinctive white bushy hair and raspy voice, Jarmusch has also had cameos in various independent films. In Leningrad Cowboys Go America, he played a New York used car dealer. In Straight to Hell, he was the feared boss of some hapless contract killers. In Blue in the Face, he played Bob. He also has appeared on his friend John Lurie's 'Fishing with John' series, where he questioned the morality of fishing for sharks with a handgun...
Jarmusch has also produced a series of shorts titled Coffee and Cigarettes, the third of which won the Palme D'Or for Short Films at Cannes in 1993. These were basically filmed conversations between two people as they smoked cigarettes and drank coffee (a somewhat similar concept to My Dinner with Andre). The first one starred Roberto Begnini and Steven Wright. The second one included Steve Buscemi. The third was a conversation between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. In addition, Jarmusch also has directed a concert video for Neil Young and music videos for Neil Young, Talking Heads, Big Audio Dynamite, and Tom Waits.