There are several independent filmmakers i’ve come to admire over the years, and near the top of that list is Jim Jarmusch. He has released ten films to date, with number eleven due out next month, which is why I thought I would profile him now.
He came on the scene in 1980 with a film called Permanent Vacation, the only one of his films I haven’t seen. I really must order it from Amazon. I first became aware of him in 1984 when he released Stranger Than Paradise, to much critical acclaim. The film recounts the odd journey of three disillusioned youths from New York to Cleveland to Florida; the film broke many conventions of traditional Hollywood moviemaking, and to this day is still considered a landmark work in modern independent film. Quirky and moody, shot in black and white, it created the trademark Jarmusch style that permeates most of his films.
He followed that one two years later with Down By Law, a tale of three convicts, all wrongly convicted, who break out of a New Orleans jail and take it on the lam. That film starred a good friend of his, the musician Tom Waits, who proved that music wasn’t his only talent. The film also features the irrepressible Roberto Benigni, and the always wonderful Ellen Barkin.
Next up was 1989’s Mystery Train, more black and white strangeness, this time featuring three different stories. The first story, “Far From Yokohama”, is the best of the three. It features a teenage couple from Yokohama, Japan travelling across America and making pilgrimage to Memphis. The girl is obsessed with Elvis Presley, and even, in one scene “deduces” that Elvis was the basis for Madonna and the Statue of Liberty. Their story follows their holiday, including an exhaustive trip to Sun Records. Their story also features a cameo by legend Rufus Thomas as an old man in a train station. The film also stars Steve Buscemi and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
In 1991 Jarmusch came out with one of my two favorites, Night On Earth. A very clever film that tells the story of five different taxi rides taking place at the same time in five different cities. Brilliant casting in this one, with Winona Ryder, Rosie Perez, Gena Rowlands and Roberto Benigni. The Benigni taxi ride takes place at midnight in Rome and is so hysterically funny I almost wet myself the first time I saw it.
1995 saw the release of what many consider to be his best film, Dead Man, a film set in the American West in the 19th century starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer that has been called a Western movie, an “acid western,” an “anti-Western,” and a “post-Western” by various critics. The film has been hailed as one of the few films made by a Caucasian that presents an authentic Native American culture and character, and Jarmusch stands by it as such. Again in black and white, with a score written and performed by Neil Young. A very strong and engaging film.
Following artistic success and critical acclaim in the American independent film community, he achieved mainstream renown with his far-East philosophical crime film shot in Jersey City, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring Forest Whitaker as a young inner-city man who has found purpose for his life by unyieldingly conforming it to Hagakure, an 18th-century philosophy text and training manual for samurai, becoming, as directed, a terrifyingly deadly hit-man for a local mob boss to whom he may owe a debt, and who then betrays him. A good film, but not as well received by critics as his previous efforts.
In 2004 he released what is possibly the final version of Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of short film vignettes the first of which had been shot for and aired on Saturday Night Live in 1986, featuring actor-filmmaker Roberto Benigni and comedian Steven Wright, followed three years later by Coffee and Cigarettes: Memphis Version with actors Steve Buscemi and Joie and Cinque Lee, then Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California in 1993 with musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. The film was eventually released to selected theaters consisting of 11 installments featuring, among others, Jack and Meg of The White Stripes, Cate Blanchett, RZA, GZA, Bill Murray, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina.
In 2005 he released Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray as a man who receives a mysterious letter informing him he has a son he never knew of. He sets out on a journey to visit the only three women who could have been the mother, given the age the boy is supposed to be. A good film, a bit more mainstream than any of Jarmusch’s previous works.
That brings us to The Limits Of Control, due out next month. The film will star Isaach de Bankolé and be set in Spain. It’s a crime drama about a hit man, and that’s all i’ve been able to find out, but that’s the way I like it. Jarmusch films are like presents to be unwrapped when you receive them.