Every now and then, when people start saying “Indie is dead”, there comes a filmmaker, who contradicts them and redefines the course of cinema – both mainstream and parallel. John Cassavetes had ridiculed the American mainstream cinema and its incessant thriving on extravagance with his Shadows (1959). Cut to the 1980’s when gangsters were ruling Hollywood. Enter Jim Jarmusch with the short film Stranger Than Paradise (1982) which humiliated Hollywood with its normal characters and simple situations. Independent cinema was never...
Every now and then, when people start saying “Indie is dead”, there comes a filmmaker, who contradicts them and redefines the course of cinema – both mainstream and parallel. John Cassavetes had ridiculed the American mainstream cinema and its incessant thriving on extravagance with his Shadows (1959) and went on to become one of the pioneers of American underground cinema. Cut to the 1980’s when gangsters were ruling Hollywood. Enter Jim Jarmusch with the short film Stranger Than Paradise (1982) which humiliated Hollywood with its normal characters and simple situations. Independent cinema was never the same again.
One can easily note that Jarmusch makes films about people. He films their lives, how they are inevitably interconnected, how their lives get impacted due to others’ all the time and how characters interchange characteristics and opinions all through their lives. What Alejandro González Iñárritu does with the most extravagant and devastating of situations, Jarmusch does using the most banal of happenings, most of them as simple as coffee table conversations and cab rides. Like Godard and Cassavetes, Jarmusch films life’s most normal moments that usually occur in between events. What the mainstream considers implicit and skips with an ellipsis, Jarmusch considers central and interesting. Indeed, his theory that the most fascinating things arise out of the most mundane events proves bang on when one watches even one of his films. The apathetic characters, their interaction (sometimes, the lack of it) and their idiosyncrasies concoct a truly riveting picture of human life.
Jarmusch puts forth his ideas right from his first film Permanent Vacation (1980) which follows the life of
Aloysious Parker, a youth without a grip on life. He has lost his father and has an institutionalized mother. Afraid of being sucked into the quagmire of everyday struggle and a textbook life, he does everything in order create an atmosphere of restlessness that mirrors his own inner emotions. This is effectively put forth in the first scene where he starts an impromptu dance in the middle of a serious conversation He interacts with various kinds of people (including a Parisian lad just like him) on his way and hears the most bizarre yet fascinating stories. Possibly the only "self-indulgent" film by Jarmusch, Permanent Vacation still resonates for its handling of a theme most popular among the youth of that time – the quest for meaning of life. Jarmusch's style shows its roots with its long takes and minimal speech placed over pedestrian events.
Jarmusch’s characters come as stark contrast to the ones that occur in conventional scripts. The latter are first provided a major objective that they achieve at the end of the film. The characters are then expanded and given minor objectives that they complete within each scene or sequence in order to achieve the major one. Jarmusch’s characters, on the other hand, do not possess permanent or long term objectives. They set out on of-the-moment objectives and act on impulses that may or may not be justified by their milieu. They live life as if it were not under their control. This unpredictability is another ingredient that makes Jarmuschian so unique and off the beaten track.
Stranger Than Paradise was extended into a full length film of the same name in 1984 and followed the American way of living of a young man from Hungary, his American friend and his teenage cousin who has just arrived from Hungary. The three of them spend some time in Florida where they lose all their money in a dog race and gain it back in another. Any other director would have made the race and its denouement as the central event driving the lives of the three. But Jarmusch keeps the race off screen and thrives on the petty talk and arguments of the friends with long, single shot scenes. In another similar scene at a cinema hall, the camera focuses on the characters’ faces as they watch an action film, instead of the screen. Amazingly, these usually-hidden images feel more absorbing than their driving events themselves and one feels the immediate power of the mundane that Jarmusch captures effectively.
Another intriguing aspect of Jarmusch’s style is that he loves characters that exist outside the framework of the social world. He takes up people who are outcast, outlawed and totally alien to the environment they are living in. They appear usually as foreigners, convicts and disoriented individuals. These characters seem to be anomalies in the society and their high reactivity towards their amicable yet strange world churns out the most amusing moments. These marginal characters are often filmed along the edges of the frame highlighting that they are out-of-place yet always in the picture. Although Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation had put that into execution, it was Down By Law (1986) that would take it one step further.
Down By Law follows the life of three convicts who have been framed for all the wrong reasons. They plan a simple escape technique and succeed. But what is more difficult is finding civilization after they have broken out. Typical Jarmuschian characters, they don’t seem to have any aim in life. They live for the moment and leave it to time to decide their future course. Roberto Benigni has an uncanny ability to induce energy into any kind of situations and he tops himself in this film. Again, Jarmusch keeps the escape off screen and makes the characters take the podium. Down By Law is beautifully shot in black and white by Jarmusch regular Robby Müller and out of this seemingly bland monochrome arises a stream of energy that couples itself with the amusing journey of the trio and provides such a colour to the film that no colour film could have provided.
Mystery Train (1989) would take the idea to the extreme as Jarmusch follows the lives of three sets of people staying in adjacent rooms in a hotel in Memphis - A pair of Japanese teenagers who have come to see their music idols’ starting places, a naïve Italian lady who is forced to share a room with a loquacious woman after her flight is delayed, and three natives who have committed a crime out of control. These three situations are visibly so disparate if not for Jarmusch who starts his game of connecting the dots. He places a talkative character and a totally opposite one in each set and once again reminds us of the universality of emotions and dependence of lives. To top this, he places the soul of the city, Elvis Presley, in all their lives as they reflect upon their opinions on the legend.
Jarmusch would expand his integration of world culture in Night on Earth (1991) that documents the lives of five taxi drivers for a period of half an hour each spanning 5 different nations, languages, mentalities and emotions. With each episode lasting hardly twenty five minutes, Jarmusch examines how life offers different choices based on trivial interactions and how distinct yet similar each of their lives are. Once again, Jarmusch employs people out of the ordinary – foreigners, physically challenged, mentally challenged and the seemingly normal. He shatters our prejudices and questions the notions of sympathy and happiness using the tritest conversations. Almost the whole of the film is inside vehicles but the film never once feels claustrophobic or overly long.
It is not only in the characters that Jarmusch captures the spirit of the era, but also in the settings and locales where he places his quirky characters. Almost all of his films are shot in shot in warm little towns in the USA and the quiet neighbourhood is invariably captured by a tracking shot, perhaps his favorite, which reveals the shops, houses, people and atmosphere of the area instantly. Additionally, Jarmusch uses the mellowest of sounds in his soundtrack prominently featuring R&B, jazz and rap that typifies the locales and age in which the film is made. Needless to say, these sounds blend with the deliberately paced imagery to produce the apt atmosphere for the characters to develop.
The tracking shot features strikingly in Jarmusch’s next and most popular film Dead Man (1995) that employs all of Jarmusch’s themes but transcends into a whole new dimension and takes metaphysical meanings. Johnny Depp plays William Blake who has come into a weird little town called Machine and soon gets outlawed for murder. He meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), another pariah who seems to believe that Depp is indeed the reincarnated version of the late English poet and gets him out of the limbo that he is stuck in, the one between the hell called Machine where bigoted “philistines" chase foreigners away and the heaven called death. Although set in a remote time and age, Dead Man’s characters still have all the characteristics as those of other Jarmusch’s. Both Blake and Nobody are outcast characters that meet up to produce engrossing results. They do not know what each other is saying but still entertain each other.
Similar themes and style is carried onto his next film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) that follows the life of a modern samurai/hit man Ghost Dog played by Forest Whitaker. He reads ancient Japanese text and lives by the samurai code of honour. He speaks sparsely and his only friends seem to be the little girl with whom he discusses books and the Haitian ice-cream vendor Raymond who can only speak French. Ghost Dog may first seem like an atypical Jarmusch film for it is more narrative-driven than any of his previous films. But Ghost Dog himself is very much like his predecessors created by Jarmusch. He too is a man without a worry for the future who lives for the moment, for the book says so. Like Nobody and Blake of Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Raymond do not understand each other a bit, but still are the best of friends and lick their ice creams over one way conversations.
Interestingly, his most trashed film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) forms the central point of exhibition of most of Jarmusch’s themes. Made from discrete pieces of shorts that Jarmusch had made as early as 1986, Coffee and Cigarettes comes as a collection of vignettes each involving not more than three people over a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. The black coffee is accompanied with the white cigarettes placed on the alternating black and white pattern on the tablecloths. These adversarial colours are woven together with the gray of the cinematography. Similar to the colours, these seemingly contrasting and independent people’s lives seem connected and influenced forever by the petty conversations over the coffee table that they indulge in.
Consider the sweeping first segment of the film called “Strange to meet you” where Roberto Benigni meets Steven Wright. Wright tells Benigni that he has to rush as he has an appointment with a dentist. But he does not want to go. Benigni tells him that he has got a toothache and he can go instead. So Wright gives him the address and Benigni hurries off informing Wright that he has an appointment with a dentist and has to rush. And that’s it – two lives have interchanged just like that! Not only within segments, but even across segments, Jarmusch ties his theory of interconnected lives and questions the episodic nature of the film.
Jarmusch arguably reaches the peak of his creative prowess in Broken Flowers (2005). Bill Murray (magnificently) plays Don Johnston (with a‘t’!), a quintessential Jarmuschian character with total passivity to the world around. He lives life for the sake of living and his wife jilts him for the same. One great day, he receives a letter from supposedly one of his old flames about his son that he never knew about. He does not care, but upon a nudge from his nosey spy/neighbour, he goes on a trip to find out who had sent the mail, but only as a perfunctory activity. Nothing much happens but at the end of the film he feels an urge to find out the identity of his true son. Jarmusch does the unthinkable here by pushing the inert Jarmuschian character into the clockwork of the daily world and providing him a direction in life. The camera fades to black as the hitherto impassive Johnston shows traces of emotional fatigue.
Some may consider it a running gag that Jarmusch loves, but most of his films have some kind of strange entity running through them like a mysterious train. Dead Man had the tobacco gag, Mystery Train had Elvis Presley and the number 22, Broken Flowers had the Don Johnston confusion and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai had the cartoons. In Coffee and Cigarettes many character across various segments utter the same line to our amusement. “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance” they say and that is exactly what Jarmusch emphasizes. Not only do the characters seem connected by the strange statement, but the earth itself seems to conduct their thoughts and acts, stressing on the continuous interaction of lives and characters, independent of geography.
Fascinatingly, this kind of integrating thread that Jarmusch weaves runs across multiple films and even more bafflingly, in his life itself. For instance, the heavily accented Benigni in Down by Law tells his cell mates that he had killed a man with a number 8 snooker ball and we see the equally crazy Benigni with the same accent in Night on Earth where he is using a number 8 snooker ball as the head of the gear of his vehicle! Broken Flowers has Bill Murray asking for only coffee whereas the same Murray had played the coffee addict in Coffee and Cigarettes. The Elvis PresleyMystery Train mystery carries over form into Coffee and Cigarettes. And the Nobody character from Dead Man appears in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai too.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) bear one such remarkable relationship between them. Both films deal with men, assassins to be precise, who live the life of samurais, but in cities. They are loners and adhere to the moral code defined by the book of samurai. When Melville approached Alain Delon for the lead role, he found out that Delon was immensely into Japanese culture and had his bedroom decorated with antiques related to Samurai Culture. Similarly, when Jarmusch approached Forest Whitaker for the role, he discovered that Whitaker was very much interested in the Eastern culture and martial arts! Now that’s what I call interconnected lives!