The Travelers Guide to Jim Jarmusch

Permanent Vacation
Permanent Vacation: Jarmusch's first feature, Permanent Vacation, almost wasn't one. Originally born as the director's NYU thesis short, the film became Jarmusch's debut when he dropped out of school and then expanded it to 77 minutes. Recently reissued by Criterion on the Stranger than Paradise DVD, Permanent Vacation is a poetically rendered and sparsely populated ode to a late 20th century urban bohemia, a time in which culture was creative while our cities crumbled. Writes Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot, "The movie's puffed-up melancholia and unabashed love affair with being a hip, unattached, good-looking young guy is winningly straight up. It's enamored with the simple acts of turning on a record player, going to a repertory house, or walking around the city and seeing some crazy shit—enamored enough to make a movie out of all that stuff." And while Permanent Vacation is a time capsule to the Gotham bohemia of the time, the writer Luc Sante saw instead in the film's downtown cool something almost timeless: "Permanent Vacation… drew its style from the Italian neorealists and presented an archetype of questing youth that harks back all the way to the early 19th century romantics. In the face of a dominant posteverything cynicism, it sought poetry and transcendence and romance, even if it could acknowledge such things only with a deadpan stare that superficially looked like indifference."
Stranger than Paradise
Stranger than Paradise: With Permanent Vacation little seen outside of the downtown New York film scene, Jarmusch's 1984 feature Stranger than Paradise is often considered his proper debut, winning, even, the Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or, given to the best first-time film. The film began as a half-hour short, shot with the film stock left over from the shooting of Wim Wenders' feature The State of Things. During filming, Jarmusch came up with the idea of two additional chapters, and after some more fundraising he finished what is a seminal film in the American Independent movement. Comprised of 67 single-shot scenes separated by moments of black leader, the film tells the story of Willie, a Hungarian émigré played by John Lurie and his NYC pal Eddie, played by drummer and actor Richard Edson, whose uneventful lives are disrupted when Willie's young cousin Eva (the Squat Theater's Eszter Balint) visits on her way to Cleveland. The best description of the movie comes from the director himself, who said, "When shooting the film, someone outside the production asked me what kind of film we were making. I wanted to tell them that it was a "semi-neorealist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the 1950s American television show The Honeymooners." Village Voice critic J. Hoberman also picked up on the film's minimalist take on sketch comedy, calling it "a Kabuki sitcom" and "an amalgram of Damon Runyon and Piet Mondrian that's a triumph of low-budget stylization."
Down by Law
Down by Law: Jim Jarmusch described his next movie, Down by Law, as a "neo-Beat noir comedy." Shooting once more in black and white (this time, by the great Robby Müller, known for his work with Wim Wenders), Down by Law again features three central figures: a pimp (John Lurie), a DJ (Tom Waits) and what has become the quintessential Jarmusch character, the genial cultural outsider––an Italian tourist played by Roberto Benigni. The film is set entirely in Louisiana, and Lurie follows these characters through the streets, bars, and swamplands of America's most exotic region, combining deadpan humor with a prison-break storyline right out of a '50s programmer. Although the film shared with Stranger than Paradise a refusal to overdramatize, it was much lighter in tone. "I am tired of the cinema of despair and existential angst," Jarmusch said at the time. "I'm interested in comedy in a new kind of context. Not just sight gags. Not just linguistic jokes. But humor based on small details, things from daily life that are funny."
Mystery Train
Mystery Train: For his fourth feature, Jarmusch moved a few miles north and set three vignettes inside and around a Memphis hotel. Here Jarmusch explored further his interest in unconventional film structures. Whereas Stranger than Paradise was composed of three discrete but connected sections, Mystery Train consisted of three stories featuring different characters––this time, almost entirely foreigners––that occurred simultaneously but were told one after the other. Linking them all is the hotel managed by Screamin' Jay Hawkins – an environment that casts a magical spell. The film is Jarmusch's first shot in color––again, by Robby Müller––and in its luminous nighttime cinematography it is an ode to Americana, recording studios, music, the night, and the poetic art that is inspired by all of these things. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "Jarmusch believes in an American landscape that existed before urban sprawl, before the sanitary sterility of the fast-food strips on the highways leading into town. His movies show us saloons where everybody knows each other, diners where the short-order cook is in charge, and vistas across railroad tracks to a hotel where transients are not only welcome, they are understood…. The best thing about Mystery Train is that it takes you to an America you feel you ought to be able to find for yourself, if you only knew where to look."
Night on Earth
Night on Earth: Jarmusch's interest in short-form storytelling and international characters reached a kind of apotheosis in Night on Earth, a movie that consists of five cab rides, each filmed with different characters in cities––Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Paris and Helsinki––across the world. The cast includes newcomers to the Jarmusch universe (Winona Ryder, Beatrice Dalle, and Rosie Perez) with actors who will reappear in his films like Isaach De Bankolé, Giancarlo Esposito and Roberto Benigni. Like Mystery Train, the stories unfold sequentially, with each one unfolding as night falls across the globe.  In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called the film "exceptionally funny… his most effervescent work to date," and wrote, "With this, his fourth commercially released feature, Mr. Jarmusch again demonstrates his mastery of comedy of the oblique. He seems to see his characters through a telescope, while attending to their talk with some kind of long-range listening device. Everything that is seen and heard is vivid and particular, but decidedly foreign. Meanings are elusive. Themes can be supplied by others."
Dead Man
Dead Man: Unlike his five previous features, in Dead Man there was no episodic construction, no multiple storylines, and no exploration of contemporary subcultures. Dead Man was Jarmusch's try at the ultimate American genre picture: the Western.  However, in the director's hands the film is less a tale of frontier heroism or law-of-the-land justice and more an existential meditation on death and dying. In Dead Man, Johnny Depp plays William Blake, a man arriving in town by train for a new job. The job dematerializes, however, and, after several odd encounters, Blake is shot in the chest. With blood slowly seeping from his wound, Blake meets Nobody, a Native American who escorts him to the coast where he finally passes away. With a ragged, improvised electric guitar score by Neil Young, evocative black-and-white photography by Müller, and a searching, poetic grappling with timeless metaphysical issues, Dead Man was, for critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the ultimate "acid Western," the culmination of a line of movies ranging from Monte Hellman's The Shootist and Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie. He wrote, "Yet in some ways Dead Man goes beyond all of them in formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda—a view at once clear-eyed and visionary, exalted and laconic, moral and unsentimental, witty and beautiful, frightening and placid. Turning the usual priorities of the western inside out to show us where we are today, Dead Man is as exciting and as important as any new American movie I've seen in the 90s."
Year of the Horse
Year of the Horse: "Proudly filmed in 8mm," declared the opening credits of Jarmusch's first documentary, 1996's Year of the Horse, a concert film featuring his friend Neil Young and Young's band Crazy Horse. Blown up to 35mm, the celluloid grained out as Crazy Horse marshaled their infamous mid-tempo stomp underneath Young's coruscating solos. Jarmusch employed interview footage from 1976 and 1986 as well as from the '96 tour, and, in covering one song, "Like a Hurricane," he flashed back to a performance shot a decade earlier, giving the film not only the raw immediacy of a rock concert but also capturing the haunting affects of time gone by.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: Reviewing Ghost Dog for the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott described the film as "drenched in blood and saturated in ambiguity." One of the director's most fascinating and soulful films, Ghost Dog finds Jarmusch playing once more with genre—in this case, the hitman movie. Or is he is playing with the tropes of the classic samurai film? If so, the world of the samurai is of a particular post-punk variant. Forrest Whitaker's world-weary hitman hews to the Japanese code of the samurai which is not only referenced in the on-screen quotes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo's book of sayings, Hagakure, but also in the samples found in RZA's soundtrack. Ghost Dog co-stars Isaach De Bankolé, making his second appearance in a Jarmusch film, as a Haitian ice cream seller who is the hitman's best friend. In a typical Jarmusch touch, De Bankolé's character speaks no English while Whitaker's speaks no French. Still, in a movie about honor and codes of conduct governed by social orders and tradition, theirs is the friendship that endures.
Coffee and Cigarettes
Coffee and Cigarettes: Many of Jarmusch's films have been constructed episodically. And all play with the notion of time, often dwelling within the moments most films hurriedly edit past. These twin strategies mark Coffee and Cigarettes, a film that took 18 years to make and that is made up of eleven separate episodes. Jarmusch made the movie casually, writing the individual scripts quickly and then shooting when the right actors were available. While some of the episodes feature characters with clear-cut goals, others simply celebrate moments of non-time. Explaining one, in which Isaach De Bankolé and Alex Descas meet in a café but neither can remember why they are meeting, Jarmusch says, "Isaach thinks Alex called him to tell him something, and he insists he had nothing to say. And that's the only thing they talk about! I don't know, life goes so fast, it does seem like you have to have a reason to be in a café or something now. But maybe that's why I'm very slow as a filmmaker, because I have to have time to get some input, time that's not assigned for any reason."
Broken Flowers
Broken Flowers: When its characters hopped the turnpike from run-down New York to snowy, busted-down Cleveland, Stranger than Paradise became a gloriously ramshackle road movie, expertly exploiting all of the poetic and melancholic possibilities of the genre. In Broken Flowers, which stars Bill Murray and features actresses such as Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange in supporting roles, Jarmusch revisits the genre but this time America has morphed into a bland, same-seeming collection of suburbs and nice homes that are devoid of the spiritual richness of the earlier film's bohemian neighborhoods. This is finally the Jarmusch movie that takes place after urban sprawl. Taking his rental car onto the turnpike with a mix tape of Mulatu Astatke's Ethiopian jazz as his soundtrack, Murray plays a wealthy software designer and aging ladies man, Don Johnston, who is compelled to revisit his old girlfriends after receiving an anonymous letter telling him that he has a son who has gone on a search for him. Of course, as in most spiritual road movies, the trip is about the journey, not the destination. Wrote David Edelstein in Slate, "Jarmusch and Murray… have made a deadpan movie that quivers with feeling. Broken Flowers is Jarmusch's most conventionally entertaining film, but it's still visually rigorous, swimming in pregnant silences, and un-filled-in in a way that's tantalizing. The movie is a haunted meditation on solipsism that's full of extraneous life, that hints at a world elsewhere."
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