A sword-wielding hitman who follows the Samurai code. A happily-married bus driver and poet. A depressed vampire musician. A nameless, cryptic criminal. A withdrawn libertine looking for lost love. Tom Waits. Iggy Pop. Cate Blanchett. Steven Wright. RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. This disparate mix of colorful characters and celebrity cameos at first appears wildly eclectic, yet it is their differences that bring them together. Violence and serenity, the extraordinary and the understated, pop culture and cult appeal — this is the cinema of Jim Jarmusch.
It’s impossible to put Jarmusch in a box. He bristles when called an “indie filmmaker.” To him, all cinema is equal, whether mainstream or niche. His work often straddles the two, a loose style that makes sense for a filmmaker both raised and shunned by the film industry’s conventional institutions. Denied his degree by NYU’s masters program for his plotless thesis, Jarmusch entered the landscape of cinema as an outsider, branded a rule breaker and a failure. Rather than conform to industry expectations, he doubled down and found success and recognition creating eclectic, freeform works such as Stranger Than Paradise (1984).
Jarmusch’s early films, shoestring-budget affairs that eschew narrative in favor of melodic character exploration, are crucial in understanding his beginnings as a kind of amateur enthusiast. But his most interesting works are those made in the midst of rising cult status, featuring avant-garde performers who found their voice reflected in Jarmusch’s spirit. While his reputation has only strengthened with time, he still finds himself on the fringe of traditional cinema, his unique visions intact.
People unfamiliar with Jarmusch’s talent might assume a film named Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) to be a tonal mess. Surely a movie that combines gangster iconography, Mafia bosses, swordplay, the teachings of the Hagakure, and the French New Wave classic Le Samouraï (1967), all played to the rhythm of hip-hop beats composed by RZA, would be an unmitigated disaster. Curiously, the strength of Ghost Dog stems from its unconventional collage. Like a musician sampling different genres, Jarmusch deftly entwined concepts from across the globe into an bewitching patchwork quilt.
Critiques of Jarmusch’s work often invoke the word “European,” as if to deem him an immigrant to American cinema. His friend and frequent collaborator Tom Waits thinks of him as a “fascinated foreigner.” Ironically, it’s his outsider perspective that has put him more in touch with the soul of America than anything Hollywood has produced in the past 20 years. Ghost Dog, amid all its flourishes, expresses Jarmusch’s deep interest in the social history of the U.S., from the African-American experience to the loss of Native American land.
Transcending culture and style are just a few of Jarmusch’s talents as a filmmaker, matched only by the likes of Tarantino and Soderbergh. But few of his contemporaries can say they’ve transcended time, too, as he did with Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Simply a series of vignettes featuring the titular activities, this amusing oddity exemplifies Jarmusch’s refusal to take cinema too seriously. Just as the film drifts along at its own unhurried pace, so did Jarmusch take a laissez-faire attitude in assembling it over its 17-year production (the opening was made as an SNL skit in 1986).
“It’s not going to solve any great philosophical mysteries… If you get a few laughs out of it, I’ll be happy,” Jarmusch said of the film at its premiere. Ever humble, he may not be giving the film its due credit. However skin-deep he considers the quirky discussions between, for example, British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan or musicians Jack and Meg White, there is something to be said for how they examine, even eulogize, the mundane. In Jarmusch’s cinema, the blissful lulls in life are just as valuable as the thrills.
Naturally, this perspective leads to many deadpan performances, none quite so flawless as Bill Murray’s in Broken Flowers (2005). The actor delivers a heartfelt turn as an aging Don Juan who embarks on an odyssey to track down former flames after receiving an anonymous letter telling him he has a son. Simultaneously humorous and affecting, Jarmusch injects genuine feeling into a piece that could have easily been stilted. Received warmly by general audiences, the movie is dubbed his most accessible, however it still played well for film enthusiasts — it won Jarmusch critical acclaim and the Grand Prix at Cannes.
As with any risk-taking artist, missteps are never far away. Jarmusch’s next work, The Limits of Control (2009), faced a devastating avalanche of criticism. And quite fairly; by any metric it’s a monotonous exercise in minimalism. The esteemed Roger Ebert slammed it with a half-star review, noting that, although it contains all the trappings of a narrative film — a camera, locations, actors — they fail to synthesize into one. Jarmusch had reached the limits of his own control, losing sight of the fact that empathic characters are the lifeblood of his best work.
It’s hard to ignore the thematic resonance of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) to Jarmusch’s own career. A mournful tone pervades this story of a centuries-old vampire and recluse who yearns for musical inspiration in our modern world of quick rewards. Jarmusch, soon after being shunned by critics (usually his proudest supporters) in the wake of his previous film, poured his soul, his passions — and perhaps his frustrations — into this next work. Self-reflection is often tied to the most provoking art, and in this case that holds true. Staggeringly beautiful, poetic, and haunting, it’s a true pinnacle in his filmography.
Keen-eyed fans have noted the plethora of artistic inspirations on display in brief shots and the backgrounds of the story’s locales. Icons from Bach to Basquiat and Keaton to Kafka populate the walls of our hermit Adam’s space. In packing her bag, his lover Eve includes Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. “Originality is non-existent,” famously wrote Jarmusch in MovieMaker magazine. “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
Obsessed by art in all its variety, Jarmusch has a keen passion evident to observers of his work: music. In his rock-star appearance, his pop-infused soundtracks, even his sense of pace and editing rhythm, it’s clear Jarmusch is someone to whom music truly matters. His documentary on The Stooges, Gimme Danger (2016), charts their rise to fame and is an overt but no less nuanced tribute to the art form. Its decade-long gestation period, prompted at the behest of frontman Iggy Pop, speaks to the effort and care put into its production.
One may assume from Jarmusch’s output and outlook that he’s more of an imitator than a creator, more at home remixing the musings and motifs of his idols than contributing a new perspective on the human condition. One would be wrong, and no greater summary of his ability to fluently explore the soul exists than Paterson (2016). The brilliant Adam Driver headlines as Paterson, a quiet bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. This peculiar namesake is our first clue to the universal theme at play: the poetic details of everyday life.
For one week, we simply observe Paterson’s daily routine. He wakes up, always before his wife Laura, dresses, always in the same clothes, and drives, always the same routes. What others would call boredom is to Paterson’s contentment. Few disturbances to his peace arise, but when they do he meets them with acceptance, not aggravation, making sense of the world through short-form poetry. Scored by the tranquil ambience of Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, the film triumphs as a relatable meditation on both the act of aspiration and the charms of circumstance.
Like Paterson, it seems Jarmusch is content with his place. While endlessly innovating with every new film, he has made no attempts to transition from the periphery. His upcoming June release, a zombie comedy titled The Dead Don’t Die (2019), appears simultaneously a step in a new direction and a comfortable affirmation of his voice. And excitingly so, for it’s at the limits where the most fascinating art resides. Over the past two decades Jarmusch has given us the unexpected, the emotional, the soulful, and the eccentric. Never predictable, he is an American enigma — one whom, hopefully, shall remain unsolved.
Tom Lawson is a first year cinema and photo major with front row tickets to The Dead Don’t Die. You can reach them at email@example.com.