Saturday, November 24, 2007

Views of Strange Lands from Windshields: Jarmusch on DVD

In Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise we light upon the confluence of many streams of poetic cinema, of numerous currents of the NYC underground of the period (already on its last legs), and of drifting strangers discarding the signifiers of their varied homelands both geographical and psychological. I retain a deep love for this “indie” landmark in part because while it’s so very about something, it evokes its themes, ideas and emotions with such a light touch, such singular, rigorous formal grace, and such emphasis on languid humour and the pure pleasures of unfiltered –and uncut– human behaviour.

Stranger Than Paradise is concerned with self-determination. Right off the bat, Willie (John Lurie) is heard demanding his Hungarian aunt speak to him in English and not call him Bela, his given name. We see Willie’s visiting Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) tour “The New World” of New York while playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on her tape recorder, in effect projecting her prized artifact of America back into America streets. We see Eddie (Richard Edson) struggle with his role as the supremely pushy Willie’s sidekick. Without having to actively do a whole lot, these characters, buoyed by the ease, playfulness and individuality of the actors, become tremendously well fleshed out. Like J. Hoberman wrote in his original Village Voice review, “half the fun in Jarmusch’s leisurely paced film is just watching those palookas breathe.”

But it was Jarmusch’s self-determination that was also announcing itself. His cinematic influences can be seen in every unbroken scene –Ozu, Dryer, Warhol and Antonioni, not to mention
The Honeymooners, are all evident precursors– yet his style as developed here exudes a very particular vision of the world. Jarmusch’s individuality is something explored in depth in Criterion’s new Stranger Than Paradise two-disc set, which contains smart essays, the German documentary Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch, and, most excitingly, Jarmusch’s relatively little-seen 1980 feature debut Permanent Vacation.

Permanent Vacation opens with NYC crowds undulating in slow motion juxtaposed with nearly abandoned streets and, eventually, a series of varied empty living spaces. “I’ve known all kinds of people,” protagonist Allie (Chris Parker) tells us, “and to me those people are like a series of rooms.” The newness dies, a creeping dread emerges, and then its time to split. Allie, with his floppy pompadour and endearingly pretentious air of cultivated outsiderness, spends much of the film wandering between people, rooms and empty lots, pontificating on his inability to settle. The filmic space is a frontier bridging the real world and one malleable to the characters’ fantasies, and in this sense it’s really a coming-of-age film. This goes for Jarmusch as much as Allie: the young writer/director is already honing his minimalist, episodic sensibilities, and his special interest in the interchangability of the foreign and familiar.

Along with
Stranger Than Paradise, Criterion has also released Jarmusch’s 1991 film Night on Earth, the ambitious portmanteau Jarmusch initially wanted to title L.A. New York Paris Rome Helsinki, a tell-it-like-it-is rundown of the film’s travelogue. Each episode is set in one of the above cities, each more or less confined to a taxi cab. Though he professes to not be of an analytical mindset, Jarmusch in fact describes the idea of the film perfectly in a short Belgian TV interview included here: he states that he was interested in the freedom of the fleeting intimacy with a complete stranger one finds while taking a cab, as well as the ostensible insignificance of a taxi ride, the point of which is usually to get from one place to another. An artist isn’t always the most accurate representative of his work, but I don’t think I could come up with a better summation of what Night on Earth is about than what Jarmusch himself describes.

The events depicted in
Night on Earth are unassuming even by Jarmusch standards –a talent agent offers a cabbie a job; a passenger takes control of the steering wheel when its clear the newly immigrated cabbie can’t drive automatic– yet at less than a half-hour each they provide rich portraits and conviviality. Re-teaming after Down By Law (1986), Jarmusch gets another career-best performance from Robert Benigni, who rambles on about fucking pumpkins and livestock of all things; he gets a marvelous camaraderie going between a double recorder-sporting ex-clown Armin Mueller-Stahl and an impossibly enthusiastic Giancarlo Esposito; he summons up a genuinely quirky and deeply sad story from the late, great Finnish actor Matti Pellonpåå in the film’s final, melancholy dawn; and he wrangles a highly memorable, Mingus-inspired score from Tom Waits. Any one moment here can seem slight, yet Night on Earth amounts to fare more than the sum of its deeply charming parts.

Repeating the terrific supplement found on their
Down By Law release, the highlight of Criterion’s disc is easily the audio-only Jarmusch Q&A, where he responds to questions emailed in from fans the world over. His comments are fun, insightful, anecdotal, alive with attitude and full of homage for his esteemed colleagues. By the time you get through Night on Earth and all its supplementary material you’ll likely feel as though you’ve passed a long night yourself, but one that leaves you satisfied, alert to simple beauty and a little bit in love with people and the world.  

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