A Process of Meiosis
In Jim Jarmusch's work, friendships matter, both within the stories he tells and in the numerous well-known people he works with: those who appear in his films as more than mates and yet less than stars. If works from The Towering Inferno to Ocean's 11 offer star-studded, carat-gold celebrity, bringing together huge names who can jostle for attention on any marquee, Jarmusch no less seeks name-recognition but there is usually a cachet quite distinct from simple celebrity cinema. Obviously, he has cast enormously successful actors but this is usually long before or long after their biggest hits. When Johnny Depp took the leading role in Dead Man it was when he was the star of smaller-scale projects, Benny and Joon, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?; not the one who in the 2000s made fortunes from Fantastic Creatures and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Bill Murray was enormous when he made Ghostbusters in the eighties but it is as though he has reversed Depp's trajectory and become much better known for smaller works by independently minded filmmakers in films by Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson appearing for Jarmusch in the 2000s in Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control and The Dead Don't Die. Murray may still appear in films like Dumb and Dumber To and the newer Ghostbusters films, but his reputation now rests as much on The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the earlier Groundhog Day, while the numerous other films he has appeared in can seem just money-making exercises from a wry man who is surprised Hollywood is willing to throw money at him. Even working for Jarmusch on Broken Flowers, he only "agreed to do the film on the condition that he would not have to travel more than an hour from his home in Hudson Valley, New York." (Imdb) He has become a useful Jarmusch actor just as, in a different way, his co-star in The Dead Don't Die, Adam Driver, can exist in a parallel universe: the audience for Star Wars is unlikely to be the same as for Paterson, and Driver is the sort of independent actor Noah Baumbach can be drawn to while an advert for Burberry augments rather than counters Driver's reputation.
It is as if working for Jarmusch gives to actors a credibility within a given milieu that may be small but isn't insignificant, can even erode saccharine celebrity with the caustic soda of Jarmuschian irony. Whether working with stars from the US, internationally (Roberto Benigni, Beatrice Dalle, Isaac de Bankole, Tilda Swinton), or from the world of music (Tom Waits and Iggy Pop), Jarmusch has a sixth sense when it comes to a certain type of status: people who fit into his world while reflecting a wider one of indie credence. Occasionally an actor feels completely ill-equipped to exist within the Jarmuschian (Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive) but whatever one thinks of Jarmusch as a filmmaker, his ability to cast within the film, and to indicate a brand beyond it, has been impressive. While directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson seem much more deliberately to have created a brand for themselves, Jarmusch gives the impression that his career has come about through friendships that have little to do with creative ambition or purpose. As Geoff Andrew says, "...many of the performers, not to mention some of those paid hommage, are personal friends of Jarmusch, who prefers to write roles specifically for people he knows personally, and still describes his filmmaking as essentially 'amateur'" (Stranger than Paradise)
Our purpose here won't only be to try and understand how friendships work within and beyond the films, how it creates an understated celebrity culture, and also how Jarmusch differs from other filmmakers, directors who work with an ensemble of actors but whose oeuvre doesn't quite capture the fraternal. It will also be to explore understatement more broadly. Wes Anderson creates an ensemble with repeated appearances by Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody, just as Tarantino has often worked with Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, and Harvey Keitel. Tarantino and Anderson if in different ways are drawn to bring them into their worlds rather than allowing them to assume a liminal position between the world of the story and the world outside of it. Anderson's films may more obviously than Tarantino's invoke the animated, but Tarantino more ambitiously, and problematically, incorporates into his movie universe the real world, which is why Hitler can be invoked and killed in Inglourious Basterds and Sharon Tate named and yet survives in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If Anderson's films offer up an artificial world that can occasionally incorporate the actively animated (Fantastic Mr Fox; Isle of Dogs), Tarantino's are closer to strenuous egomaniac assertion. If history is written by the winners, then Hollywood has always had the money to play unfair with the past but few have done so with such audacity as Tarantino. Even a scene where Bruce Lee gets bested by his Anglo-Saxon central character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can feel like white American revisionism: that Tarantino wants to show good old American robustness can take out Asian pretension.
Let us not concentrate too much on other directors, though their presence in this piece will help contextualise Jarmusch's approach, but Tarantino's resistance to Chinese influence (with the Chinese unhappy with the Bruce Lee scene and where Tarantino refused to cut) and his fictional simplification of an actual event between a stuntman and Lee, reflects the Tarantinoesque: the need to be top dog who takes no excrement from anyone. Jarmusch's sense of independence was always much quieter than that: "he has made a policy of keeping control of his own negatives" (Guardian) and while Tarantino has often worked with stars all the better to play up their exaggerated persona (Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Pitt and Di Caprio) or helped create hyperbolic personae (Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz), Jarmusch usually aims for meiosis: downplaying the stardom and suggesting more that everyone is involved in a communal event that happens to be a film: hence the 'amateur" aspect Andrew notes. It is this question of meiosis in its various form that we wish to explore, seeing the importance not only (though especially) of actors and how Jarmusch utilises them, but also his use of music, framing and narration to generate an ironic, understated, minimalist aesthetic. Jarmusch has accumulated over time a large body of work no matter the feeling that he is neither grifter nor grafter, neither ambitious nor hardworking. Perhaps this is all part of the image but big enough as the oeuvre happens to be, let us concentrate chiefly on five works: Down by Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog-Way of the Samurai, Broken Flowers and Limits of Control.
It is easy enough to see why critics can paradoxically exaggerate the minimalist dimension in Jarmusch's work, but while we wouldn't disagree with Michael Koresky's claims in a symposium, we might tone down the dismissal. "Jarmusch has widely been cited as a "minimalist," an easy, often ill-used tag for someone who is much more interested in the big picture." (Reverse Shot) We can look at that bigger picture while still observing the minimalist aspects of his films, especially if we reckon serialisation is vital to a minimalist aesthetic. As Sam Korman says, "historically, minimalism used repetition to challenge notions of linear time and rational space." (Frieze) Jarmusch may not push so far into creating spacial and temporal incoherence as Alain Resnais so famously did in Last Year at Marienbad, as even John Boorman would do in the Resnais-influenced Point Blank, but his serialisation often creates an ironic rather than incoherent relationship with the spatio-temporal. In Down by Law, the beginning of the film emphasises the location and its inertness through the tracking shots and their variations, the jump cuts and the music. Here the film starts on a fixed frame showing us the rear of a hearse before the camera pulls away and shows us in lengthy lateral shots the cemetery, and then the broader vicinity, as it passes through various Louisiana locations, offering sharp cuts from one place to another but giving the impression of a continuous movement through space. The angle may change from a level-eyed view to a low angle but for most of this montaged sequence we feel that Jarmusch hasn't used elaborate tracks but filmed from inside a car. It gives to the scene both a formalist dimension and a cinema povera insistence: that this is cinema that shows the generally impoverished Louisiana life with little money being suggested behind the camera as well.
That it was shot in black and white like all of Jarmusch's early features adds to the idea that the film was made on the cheap. This isn't the monumental black and white of The Last Picture Show, the melancholic beauty of The Elephant Man, or the deliberate harshness of Raging Bull. Jarmusch manages to make monochrome not a sign of aesthetic luxury in an age of colour, but a necessary means of cinematic survival: that his black and white appears to have less an aesthetic than a budgetry quality to it. This doesn't mean the film is poorly shot; it was after all his first collaboration with the great cinematographer Robby Muller, who was known for his work with Wim Wenders, and often in monochrome: in Summer in the City, Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road. But it shares with these three Wenders' films a simplicity of means, and gives to Jarmusch's work a subdued underpinning that makes us assume the director shares with his characters a lazy approach to life. When the film settles on John Lurie lying in bed with a lover we are offered three more or less fixed-frame shots: Lurie with his paramour in the sack; Lurie looking out the front door and seeing another woman sitting on a rocking chair on the porch, and then back to the lover as Lurie returns to the bed. Then the film cuts to a tracking shot moving in the reverse direction from the earlier montaged sequence before we have once again three fixed shots of Tom Waits in his apartment as his girlfriend lies under the covers. There is obviously deliberation here, that Jarmusch has absorbed the lessons of his masters, including Bresson and Ozu (see his Sight and Sound top ten from 2002), but Jarmusch also manages to indicate this isn't respectful homage. It is an awareness that great films have come out of ostensible simplicity and why shouldn't he try the same.
At the beginning of Broken Flowers, Jarmusch again opens on a lateral track but this time the film is more pragmatic than deliberate. It follows the postman as she delivers letters to the central character's neighbour before delivering a key letter to our hero, Don Johnston, which will set the story in motion: Don receives a semi-anonymous note from a former girlfriend informing him he has a grown-up son. The film's visual pragmatism doesn't mean Jarmusch has got more conservative in his aesthetic as he has become older and better known. His films are sometimes more obscure and formally controlled (The Limits of Control); on other occasions more obvious and almost commercially targeted (The Dead Don't Die). It is more that the form constantly finds ways to accommodate the meiotic; that Jarmusch's first principle doesn't reside in a definitive minimalism but in what allows for understatement in its various manifestations. Whether it is the shot choices or the casting decisions, Jarmusch usually insists on undermining exaggeration, as though an independent aesthetic can counter the hyperbole of Hollywood.
Koresky reckons "his films luxuriate in set pieces, just perhaps not on an imposingly grand scale" (Reverse Shot). The 'perhaps' seems redundant, especially if we think of how Jarmusch avoids the dramatic even when it would seem necessary. In Down by Law, the three figures sharing a cell decide to escape and Jarmusch cuts to Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni's characters running through the prison sewers without any dramatisation of the action, nor any sense of the stench or the filth. Where there is a will there's a way, and the irony involved in such a phrasing here is that Jarmusch shows us neither much will nor way. They can escape so easily because they are in a Jarmusch film, a suspension of disbelief that is the opposite of the inflated. While Hollywood will go to great lengths to show the will and the way no matter how unbelievable, Jarmusch offers an elliptical resistance. The point of the big-budget is to make it dramatically believable not realistically plausible. If a Bond film can exaggerate its case with money to burn, why can't Jarmusch understate his and indicate to the viewer that they are watching a film that doesn't have money behind it. Simon Hattenstone notes: "He doesn't work with the studios, relying on grants and sponsorship from private companies (notably the Japanese electronics giant JVC)" (Guardian)
This method of financing allows Jarmusch to retain the Jarmuschian. Better to get money from people who know nothing about cinema than those that pretend to do so. When he did go a little more mainstream with Dead Man he inevitably fell out with Harvey Weinstein, nicknamed Harvey Scissorhands, who thought he knew better than Jarmusch how to make a Jarmusch film. "We had a problem because I sold him a finished film that was produced by my company, and then he wanted me to change it and I'd already signed a contract that he was distributing the film as is. He just bullied me, and I don't like bullies." (Guardian) Whatever Weinstein's almost uniquely negative qualities, the history of Hollywood producing, from Louis B. Mayer to Scott Rudin, is full of people telling others beneath them what to do and how to do it. It wouldn't be fair to say it is built into the Hollywood ethos but if the narratives are given to hyperbole then it is matched by those at the top who want to exaggerate their case. Looking into the career of Rudin, Tatiana Siegel speaks on one incident: "In a fit of fury, he allegedly smashed an Apple computer monitor on the assistant's hand. The screen shattered, leaving the young man bleeding and in need of immediate medical attention. One person in the office at the time described the incident as sounding like a car crash: a cacophonous collision of metal, glass and limb." (Hollywood Reporter) It is like a moment from a Coen brothers film (whose work Rudin produced), or any number of Hollywood movies that find dubiously innovative ways to show violence.
There are moments in Jarmusch's work where we believe he has been 'infected by Hollywood', that his meiotic aesthetic has succumbed to the excess of the commercial. Ghost Dog may be a hitman film but that doesn't necessitate a high body count, especially when directed by someone who knows how to use ellipsis, as Down by Law shows. Yet in the film there are numerous killings, as though Jarmusch had obliviously been absorbing the need for higher body counts in nineties films, even if part of that influence had come from Asian cinema. Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs owed a great debt to Ringo Lam's City on Fire and Tarantino would often talk up the greatness of John Woo. "John Woo released "The Killer," a milestone of Hong Kong cinema that reinvented action movies and introduced the world to a new way of rendering violence," (Indiewire) Greg Cwik says, noting Tarantino's admiration for the work. A clever moment in Ghost Dog shows Jarmusch going further back for his Asian influence. Not only of course in the opening voice-over as Forest Whitaker's title character reads from Hagakure, nor even the book that passes between various characters, Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, but for the specifics of violent wit. Here near the end of the film, Ghost Dog takes out one of the mafia henchmen by hiding in the basement, undoing a pipe that leads up to the bathroom sink, and fires a bullet into the head of the mafia man as he looks down the sink hole. As Michael Richardson says, "one of the most audacious scenes, in which Ghost Dog kills Sonny Valerio by disconnecting the outflow pipe from his sink and shooting him through the exposed channel, is even lifted directly from [Seijun Suzuki's 1967 film] Branded to Kill." ('The Phantom of Communication')
It is a clever scene and a decent homage but should it be in a Jarmusch film? Bert Cardullo would say, while writing on Broken Flowers, "certainly Jarmusch has the makings of a cinematic poet, in the verbal as well as the visual sense (if not the physical one, as his films have always de-emphasized action per se); but if he continues down his present path, pretty soon he'll have only the habit and that's when Hollywood will finally have him." Yet Broken Flowers was made in 2005; Jarmusch had already long before that in Ghost Dog clearly shown the tics of mainstream moviemaking, no matter if some of those tics could be traced as far back as sixties Asian film. However independent the films Tarantino had spawned may have appeared from Two Days in the Valley to Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead they smacked of cinematic complacency, an attitude towards violence that was more attitude than violence, as opposed to rougher or gentler works like Kids, Trees Lounge and Slacker, which didn't seem to be attending to a perceived audience, but were searching out the intricacy of intimacy, the confusion of entangled feeling.
The stylistically mainstream that would occasionally show up was potentially a problem given the importance of irony in Jarmusch's work. Partly what distinguished him from many seventies filmmakers was a low-key acceptance of the post-modern as the self-conscious and self-reflexive. Thus Jarmusch's films aren't 'about' the situations he films but they are 'about' the awareness of these situations as filmed events. When early in Ghost Dog, three of the heavies are quizzing another gangster Louis over the titular character, Louis refers to the carrier pigeon that Ghost Dog uses to send messages, "passenger pigeon's been extinct since 1914", the half-deaf gangster yells, as the film plays on the post-Tarantino irrelevance within menace, the ability to play up suspense (Louis is clearly frightened) while interrupting it with humour. It doesn't weaken the tension but it often delays the violence, and though nobody is killed in this particular scene, the menace and humour are intertwined in a way that emphasises the reflexive.
Yet it appears a little different from the Jarmusch of Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, where the self-reflexive is present but hasn't passed through the generically populist and the audience appeasing. In other words, while in Down by Law Jarmusch is well aware of the tropes he uses and wants us to be aware of them as well, this takes the form of understatement rather than overstatement. Whether it is the breakout (since all prisoners inevitably try and escape), the police framing someone, or the forlorn women in the middle of nowhere who is happy to seek love from a hardened criminal, Jarmusch takes the tropes and makes us aware of them without exaggerating their characteristics. The breakout is all but ignored as action; the entrapment is simple, quiet, and horrific as a little girl lies in the bed as we may wonder what abuses she has been victim to, while Lurie's Jack looks on, distraught, terrified by the arrest but also not a little by the girl's broken innocence. And after they've escaped, the others push Benigni in going first into a cafe in the middle of nowhere and waiting outside while he takes forever before coming out. They end up going over to the cafe themselves and as they look through the window, Benigni is enjoying dinner with a woman who shares the same language: Italian. Benigni's been the most naive of the three of them, the only one who isn't constantly wary, and yet he is also the one who allows them to escape and who finds the woman of his dreams. The film is happy to be self-aware but its awareness needn't mean that the film becomes crude, cynical or devoid of a world: the film makes the most of its New Orleans and Louisiana bayous. These are not film-sets to frame ironic action, but locations that absorb the characters, making them small within the frame as they are incompetent in the milieu. You never feel they have the measure of their environment even if this doesn't lead to any great danger; again part of Jarmusch's understatement.
In this sense, Dead Man (often seen as Jarmusch's best film) is aesthetically somewhere between Down by Law, which was made in 1986 and Ghost Dog made in 1999, and came out in 1995. Made in black and white but distributed by Miramax, with a music score improvised by Neil Young, it also had a cast of actors that expanded far beyond Jarmusch's usual limits (no matter Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands and Armin Muller Stahl in Night on Earth). Here we have Robert Mitchum, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, and Gabriel Byrne, and the film feels both austere and commercial, a work that insists on its hermetic qualities while also yearning for a broader acknowledgement. The latter is there in the humour it seeks and the absurdity it promotes, as though within Jarmusch's need for meiosis a sense of exaggeration wants to become apparent. This can best be epitomised in the suit Depp initially wears. It is a multi-coloured costume in a monochrome film, capturing the absurdity of Depp's attire as he gets off the train and finds himself in a frontier town where fussiness looks out of place. While he walks through the primitive main street he passes a man receiving a blow job from a kneeling hooker, and the man aims a gun at Depp's character, William Blake, when Depp stops and watches for a moment in shock. Everybody else is dressed for the environment; Depp is attired for a civilisation that is already established.
While most actors in Jarmusch's work bring to the role clothes that are consistent with their broader persona offscreen, Depp is a 'prop' actor in his interest in costumes that make him exist very much in a movie world. Whether it is Benny and Joon, Edward Scissorhands, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp brings to films a habilimental hyperbole usually missing from Jarmusch's work. The costumes are rarely a dimension of mise en scene even if they are clothes the characters themselves are proud of wearing. Whether it is the winklepicker shoes that Waits' girlfriend throws out of the window in Down by Law, the various shiny suits Isaach de Bankole wears in Limits of Control, or the central character's wife's preoccupation with dots and stripes in Paterson, clothes aren't irrelevant to Jarmusch's films, but they don't usually function as the do in a Wes Anderson or a Tim Burton movie. They usually remain within the context of a broader aesthetic understatement. In Dead Man, the early moments are full of overstatement, from the prostitute blowing a client, to Robert Mitchum's factory owner pulling out a shotgun, while in its last stages it offers understatement as it moves towards a resigned acceptance of death: the shot William Blake becoming a dead man not even walking but one who lies in a canoe as it drifts off along the river. Yet though the film is finally consistent with Jarmusch's litotes, there is also the scene where Depp is shot after trying to protect his lover and the bullet kills her instantly but wounds him also, and the US marshal whose face is squashed like a character in a low-grade horror film. Asked about this latter moment, Jarmusch said "I was definitely conscious that it was somewhat out of style in relation to my previous films, and maybe this film, too, but I left it in. It's stylistically over the top." (Cineaste) Jarmusch is right to say it is not in the style of his earlier work, but it has become a dimension of a number of his more recent films, and surely not for the better leading to his worst work, The Dead Don't Die. After all, as Jarmusch says, "...style is very important...It's what Martin Scorsese says differentiates all film-makers. Style is the important identifier of someone's personal expression." (Guardian)
However, this doesn't indicate that Jarmusch has sold out, that Hollywood has consumed him as critics once feared. If we agree that Only Lovers Left Alive and The Dead Can't Die are Jarmusch's worst films, they were preceded by Limits of Control and Paterson respectively not only perhaps two of his best but also two of his most meiotic. Dead Man is in many ways a very fine film but it shows like Ghost Dog a filmmaker in two minds towards exaggeration and understatement, towards a hint of audience gratification and a need to retain the enigmatic; to make films that remain a mystery to the very man who makes them. "I'm for the mystery of life" (Guardian) Jarmusch insists, and at his best, in his work too. Dead Man is a mixture of the mysterious and the obvious, and while in some filmmakers' work this can be their very style as they veer between the enigma of their characters and the directness of their form (Aki Kaurismaki perhaps a prime example), Jarmusch's work loses its distinctiveness when it offers the too categorical. When in Dead Man, Mitchum hires three top gunmen to go and find Depp dead or alive, at one moment Mitchum yells at them to shut up. The film cuts to John Hurt, his long-suffering, long-serving assistant, with a startled expression on his face. Earlier in the film though when Depp insists he wants to speak to Mitchum, Hurt is amused by the idea, well aware that Mitchum will force him out of the office at gunpoint. A raised voice is surely nothing next to Mitchum's gun-toting but it works for the comedic touch even if it counters both character and style. It seems unlikely that Hurt would react like this and the reaction shot is the sort of Hollywood intrusion that underscores moments that are already clear enough.
There are numerous scenes like this in a film that at the same time seeks in its monochrome images, its plaintive and wondrously insistent Neil Young soundtrack, in Depp's increasingly attractive yet fatigued face, a melancholy that the style often intrudes upon. If Jonathan Rosenbaum could "regard [thefilm] as his most impressive achievement to date" (Cineaste), it seems to us more stylistically compromised than Down by Law and later works like Limits of Control and Paterson assuming we see style as vital to a filmmaker's work and that style in Jarmusch is meiotic.
In The Limits of Control, one way of looking at it is to imagine a Bond film that removes all exaggeration and categorical meaning; to imagine a hit man movie that insists the reasons for the hit remain vague. Xan Brooks quotes the famous Hitchcock dictum: "Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. But Jarmusch's films seem expressly designed to test that maxim, turn it upside down." (Guardian) Jarmusch himself has said "I realized a couple of years ago that I get lost sometimes watching films because my mind drifts away" (Reflex) and never is this more deliberately evident as a stylstic gesture than in The Limits of Control. The film is constantly attending to the edge of its narrative rather than its dead centre, giving time and attention to anything from how the central character likes his coffee (two espressos in two separate cups) to the architecture he passes through in Madrid and Seville. If in Bond films, the locations are both exotic and irrelevant, there as tourist-brochure opulence and ignored as a place with specific smells, sounds and sights, Jarmusch reverses this by making the locales immersive and the story incomprehensible. While we usually expect 007 to get his orders from M, and his technological instructions from Q in categorical plot exposition, here at the beginning of The Limits of Control, Isaach de Bankole looks wise but none the wiser: "he who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery" one of the men, Alex Descas (the other Jean-Francois Stevenin), says, while the three of them talk at an airport. This is the Jarmuschian equivalent of M telling Bond that a madman wants to nuke the world and explaining in detail how they must put a stop to it as Bond then goes off and sees Q, who will give him the necessary means to help combat the super-villain. Jarmusch plays halfway between Godard and Rivette. The pleonastic use of various languages brings Godard's Le Mepris to mind and the reality of what happens when you have an international cast and crew that slows everything down due to linguistic differences. Wouldn't the same be the case in international espionage too, but a detail no Bond movie will spend more than a moment entertaining?
Stevenin appeared in both Godard and Rivette films but one might think especially of Rivette's Stevenin-starring Le Pont du Nord, with its 'complot', the sort of story that is conspiratorial and subterranean and which never quite makes it into the arena of comprehension. The very nature of the material demands the meiotic because the story cannot quite rise to the surface and generate the clear tension in a Bond film. When at the end of Limits of Control, Bankole bumps off Bill Murray's uber-villain, Murray's is a cameo appearance that emphasises the vagueness of the events. It looks like he has wandered in off another set rather than appearing integrally part of the story. While a Bond villain relishes the role as the chief perpetrator of the plot, Murray seems to be as bemused as everyone else as to what is going on.
As in much of his work, throughout The Limits of Control, Jarmusch decompresses his narrative, finding ways to retreat from the momentum of the story to find the dawdling detail. It might be Bankole shining his shoes on an automatic shoe-shine machine at the airport, sitting at cafes or walking the streets of Madrid, exercising in his room or visiting galleries. "For me", Jarmusch says in the film's pressbook, "if something moves me, I get flooded with it. So the idea was that he looks at everything in the way he looks at paintings. The way he watches the nude girl swimming in a pool. There's a scene where there are pears on a plate, and I wanted that to look like a painting. The way he compares the Tower of Gold to a postcard. Even the moving landscapes, when he is travelling by train." It isn't that Jarmusch creates painterly images, though sometimes he does; more that he creates the contemplative space that resembles the time we give to paintings in a gallery.
There has of course been much talk around the movement of the film image and the difficulty this gives to reflection, indebted to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, but rather than seeing it is an absolute issue between movement and stillness, between cinema's capacity for contemplation or its impossibility one can think of how films in general, and Jarmusch's films in particular, facilitate or obstruct its possibility. The closer we feel Jarmusch happens to be to the former over the latter, the more Jarmuschian the film is, the more it is true to its own sensibility. When his films become exaggerated or crude, it isn't that these are a priori problems in a work, though they may be, but they are problems in a Jarmusch film. One may not care for the Coen brothers, or for Sam Raimi, but to ask them to be more nuanced would be making a category error; to ask it of Jarmusch seems not unfair.
It might be useful to conclude by saying what these features are without reducing the claim to a taxonomy, nor insisting that all Jarmusch films ought to have them to seem like a film directed by the independent filmmaker. It is more likely that the presence of a tonal detail that better belongs to a Tarantino, a Burton, or a Coen bros film will reveal failure rather than the absence of a general aesthetic, which is almost always present. Nevertheless, we might expect from a Jarmusch film that characters hang out together (Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers) deal with cultural incomprehension (Down by Law, Limits of Control, Ghost Dog, Dead Man), observe deliberately but not schematically their environment (The Limits of Control, Paterson, Stranger than Paradise), and possess behavioural peculiarities (Ghost Dog, Paterson, Limits of Control, Broken Flowers). Often Jarmusch's characters are protecting themselves against something (Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog, The Limits of Control) and this can seem to be useful or detrimental to their ego. In Broken Flowers, we might believe that the central character has spent his life too self-protectively while in Ghost Dog we sense that the protagonist's wariness of others is the sensible response to a childhood of beatings and bullying. Sometimes the humming egoism of a character appears justified (The Limits of Control), often not Tom Waits and John Lurie's characters in Down By Law could do with a bit of growing up as they wrestle like a couple of kids twice in the film.
Formally, on occasion the camera's movement is pronounced; often its fixity evident. It can move frequently and laterally as in Down by Law, or feel much more static and geometrical, evident in Paterson. But one frequently senses a space between the action and its representation, a space usually missing in films that want us to concentrate on the story. Jarmusch asks us to focus on the narrative but not quite to ignore that it has a form in its telling. This can give to the film a feeling sometimes of the perfunctory or the arbitrary, as if Jarmusch can't quite be bothered to create variety in the shots, or can't quite keep his mind on the story he tells. But closer inspection usually reveals a formal preoccupation that counters the need merely to let the images tell the tale, as we noticed in looking at the beginning of Down By Law, or if we think about the shot choices in The Limits of Control, where Jarmusch constantly appears to be looking for ways to film less the story than the environment the character finds himself in. If the mystery for us as viewers is the story that is narrated cryptically, the mystery for Bankole's character is Madrid and Seville as he wanders through these cities that are unfamiliar to him. It makes sense that Jarmusch's breakthrough film was called Stranger than Paradise: his films generally show characters who are themselves strange or in strange circumstances or situations, and Jarmusch's filming often reflects one or the other. Sometimes, the style mirrors the idiosyncratic and habitual nature of character (Broken Flowers, Paterson), sometimes the unusualness of place (Night on Earth, The Limits of Control, Dead Man).
The soundtrack is often present in Jarmusch's films, and rarely as cue music dictating the action but more as a score that makes us think about how to feel about the film rather than the narrative. If in common parlance film music tells us what to think, the best way to describe Jarmusch's usage is that it tells us how to take the film, the appropriate disposition towards it. Whether it is Young's jarring, jangling work for Dead Man, the abrasively enigmatic Boris soundtrack for The Limits of Control, or the gentle, drifting use of Mulatu Astatke in Broken Flowers, Jarmusch uses music to ask us to ponder over the film we are watching, not to get lost in the story we are following. It is part of the director's self-reflexivity. Contrasting Jarmusch's soundtracks with other films of the eighties, Ryan Gilbey reckons, "music wasn't there to shift units; it lived in the fibres of the celluloid." (Guardian) This is at odds with the norm: as Randy Thome says of film composers: "everything is raw material, and so that the music that you do for this scene is very likely to be ripped out of that scene and used in another scene where you didn't intend it to be used at all." (Soundscape) If Jarmusch often works with musicians as actors then they also have agency on the soundtrack. None more so than Neil Young on Dead Man: "Neil asked me to give him a list of places where I wanted music, and he used that as a kind of map, but he was really focused on the film, so the score kind of became his emotional reaction to the movie." (Cineaste) In Down by Law, the song we hear at the beginning of the film is by Tom Waits, who of course also appears in the film as one of the three leading characters. But this isn't the 'same' Tom Waits: the soundtrack and the character are distinct even as the film contains a very strong sense of Waits' presence because of this dual function as musician and actor. While it is common enough to have an actor singing in the film, providing the music as they perform a character (like Bette Midler in The Rose or Barbara Streisand in The Jazz Singer), in Down By Law, Waits' character is a DJ not a musician; that he is the sort of guy who would play Tom Waits on his radio show gives us a sense of the sort of irony and distance Jarmusch seeks to employ.
These are some of the ways that Jarmusch creates the Jarmuschian generating a style that is both his own and isn't remotely 'original'. Jarmusch draws too much on predecessors generically and formally for that. He knows that when he makes a western he cannot be unaware of numerous westerns that have come before him, from Acid westerns to Spaghetti westerns, from revisionist takes on the genre to the anti-western. "Nothing is original. There are a limited number of stories to tell. But there is an unlimited number of ways to tell those same stories. I am more interested in forms" ('Philosophy and Genre Politics Behind the Acid Western Film of Jim Jarmusch') Thus the same will be the case when Jarmusch makes a gangster film (Ghost Dog), a hitman outing (The Limits of Control) or a road movie (Broken Flowers).
Yet Jarmusch should know that the question of originality is a relative one: Reed Martin took a lawsuit out against Jarmusch for Broken Flowers: "It is absolutely the same type of character; a taciturn man of few words who is ostensibly childless, who goes on a road trip to find out what his life would have been like had he stayed with the women who he neglected." (NPR) Reed lost the case but it gives a legal context to Jarmusch's remark how does a filmmaker create a work that isn't so indebted to others that a lawyer may come calling? Even if Jarmusch's script coincided with Martin's, the aesthetic development would have likely been very different.
Part of Jarmusch's originality, such as it is, rests, as we have noted, on the disposition we have towards the material rather than the story Jarmusch expects us to follow. To get too engaged in the story the director tells would be an error of judgement and this is partly why he uses ellipsis, irony and detachment. We can't get worked up over the jailbirds' escape in Down by Law because Jarmusch doesn't give us the components of the tension. He doesn't build up the possibilities of the escape, all the things that might go wrong, and the risks involved. Unlike such a marvellous examination of an escape in all its intricate detail like Le trou or even Escape from Alcatraz, Jarmusch underdetermines the drama all the better to overdetermine the viewer's disposition. It is the same in The Limits of Control since we cannot follow easily what is happening, we instead share the character's aloof approach to event.
This doesn't make Jarmusch's work Brechtian, nor does it make it post-modern, but by making clear it owes little to the distanciation devices of either (whether for political or for consumerist reasons, whether to make the public aware of the art they are succumbing to, or aware of the exhaustion of consumer products that can only be tweaked cleverly), Jarmusch leaves us a little bemused as to his purpose. We might say that he wants to create Jarmuschians, a small band of folk who get the references, know the actors are often playing if not versions of themselves then versions of how Jarmusch sees them, and are aware that a film is a construct that makes them adopt an attitude towards the material. Many a filmmaker will insist that they are just telling a story, and plenty others will insist that they want to convey a message, but in Jarmusch's work it is as though the message is the medium if we see the medium as the dispositional, as the construction of a sensibility that never allows a person's goals to be more important than their attitude towards them. When Jarmusch allows scenes better found in a Tarantino film, or a Raimi work, he fails his own test: he is no longer a Jarmuschian and the meiotic disappears. The rest of the time, which is most of the time, the director conveys an ironic tenderness that makes the work if not original, whatever that might mean, at least singular. Yet we might wonder, in conclusion, and by way of returning to some early remarks, how Jarmusch's work would play if it weren't for the well-known faces who appear in his films and give it an irony that might on occasion be close to bad faith. Few filmmakers give a greater sense of resistance to celebrity culture, and yet there is no doubt that Jarmusch has often worked with people who are famous; and that this feeds into the characterisation. This isn't to condemn Jarmusch, but it is to muse over what independence of mind and cinema look like, and how while the casting of stars can often lead to a weakening vision; Jarmusch's casting of celebrities has indeed affirmed his.
© Tony McKibbin