The release of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, the splendid Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, which offers an ideal opportunity to revisit his career and to explore the early works of cinema’s rock ‘n’ roll creator of cool. As luck would have it, Jarmusch’s first six feature films have been restored and are available on Blu-Ray from 6th October.
Permanent Vacation (1980) feels like the Beat Generation have made a film in 1980, as we drift through our hero (in as far as he can be defined as such) Allie’s (Chris Parker) world, watching him (badly) spraying his name in graffiti on a wall and discovering that if he has a son he will name him Charlie Parker. Jazz is central to this film, most obviously through its soundtrack, which is largely diegetic, where the characters dance to records or encounter buskers with saxophones, but this is also reflected in its rhythmic changes in narrative. Although the film is scripted and structured it has a laid back air of jazz improvisation. The city, New York, is both real and surreal, derelict locales where the noise of planes and the confusion of an ex-army veteran(Richard Boes) sometimes give the impression that it’s at war, the use of sound enhancing the feeling of warfare so that the viewer too is drawn into the obviated world of surrealism amidst day–to-day living in Allie’s life, even when he has to visit his mother who is suffering from dementia in a frightening hospital room.
A super-low budgeted début that nevertheless contains a number of elements that would become quintessentially Jim Jarmusch in his later films. Music is fundamental in understanding the characters, defining their identity, where character motivation is occasionally secondary to their hip apparel and mannerisms, as well as the many elements of cultural absurdity that approaches Dadaism from the Beat Generation perspective. Permanent Vacation was created on 16mm for the distinctly modest budget of about $12,000. Whilst distribution was minimal it was a critical success and viewed by many, including Wim Wenders, who was suitably inspired to supply film stock (this time in glorious 35mm) for Jarmusch’s second feature, the higher budgeted (but still modestly independent)…
Down By Law (1986) was filmed by cinematographer Robby Müller, who would go on to shoot a number of films for Jarmusch, notably Mystery Train (1989), Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Here in Down By Law the cinematography is sharp and detailed black and white, often involving using camera movement to emphasise the Louisiana setting, be it drifting slowly through the swamps or using striking side tracking along the corridors of the state prison which places our characters in the context of their confined environment. Once again Jarmusch dispenses with complex plotting in his narrative and creates something altogether more engaging – and surprising. Our central character, Zack, played by Tom Waits, who also provides many of the songs on the soundtrack in his distinctively raspy voice, is a DJ who finds himself in a jail cell with pimp Jack (John Lurie). They have been set up for a crime they did not commit, something that new cell member, Italian Roberto (Roberto Benigni), also assures them is the case in terms of his own incarceration. Between the three of them they devise an audacious escape plan to leave the prison and return to the outside world. So at its heart Down By Law is a prison break movie but here the construction is different, with a long lead up for the two protagonists to actually get to prison and the late appearance of Roberto Benigni, in a role that is one of his comic highlights. In many ways Down By Law is a comedy for people who don’t normally like comedies, sleazy characters becoming our only identifiable protagonists, wrongly accused of crimes they didn’t commit whilst apparently exempt from the ones they did.
‘The train arrived… sixteen coaches long.’ And this time it, and the rest of the film, are in colour. This is a piece where the protagonists’ stories tangentially intertwine, a portmanteau picture which embodies diverse characterisation mixed with diverse story-lines all linked by their location, Memphis Tennessee. Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) are far from Yokohama and have many plans for their visit to Memphis: most notably to see Sun Studios and Gracelands. They will need to spend the night there, of course, and the only accommodation available seems to be Arcade Hotel, run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ night clerk and a bellboy (Cinqué Lee). It’s $22 a night and there isn’t even a television, but there is a radio where the DJ Tom Waits plays classic tracks throughout the night. Events in the three stories take place around the hotel but Waits narration between music tracks and an unexpected gunshot events pin these tales to moments in time. Whilst Mitsuko and Jun spend their night at the Arcade hotel so does Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), who needs a place to stay for the night, before she has to oversee the return her husband’s coffin back home to Italy, and she shares the room with the irate but impoverished Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), who is leaving Memphis to get away from her reprobate boyfriend Johnny (Joe Strummer). As coincidence would have it, Johnny and his pals, including the barber brother of Dee Dee Charlie (Steve Buscemi), also end up in the hotel for altogether more violent reasons. And who else is around? Could it be the ghost of the King himself, Elvis? Perhaps not… Mystery Train is one of the most carefully constructed but apparently so laid back and incidental of indie drama comedies.
Night on Earth (1991) offers further evolution of the multiple character, multiple narrative portmanteau plotting where the segmentation of the anthology is more defined but still contains over-riding links and themes. Here the link lies with the main protagonist from each story being a taxi driver. Night on Earth doesn’t link its stories in the same way as Mystery Train but instead it depicts cabbies’ stories in five different locales, all in the same night but at different times across the globe. L.A. wannabee mechanic Corky (Winona Ryder) takes Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands) to her Beverley Hills location. She’s not shy about expressing her opinions and has a sharp wit, which makes Victoria think she would be ideal in a film role she desperately needs an actress for. Who wouldn’t want to be a star? In New York YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) is finding it difficult to get a ride to Harlem because racist cabbies won’t take the fare, but he eventually finds one in the form of Helmut Grokenberger (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is a total clown. That is, his driving skills are non existent and, yes, he really was a clown. So YoYo ends up driving himself home, with YoYo as passenger. Drivers have troubles from all sorts of abuse in Paris as Ivory Coast cabby (Isaach De Bankolé) takes more than his fair share of abuse from racist diplomats and even a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) whose situation he doesn’t understand any more than anyone seems to understand his. In Rome Gino (Roberto Benigni) picks up a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and takes the opportunity to make a hilarious confession concerning his sexual episodes with vegetables and sheep, to the priest who initially appears ill at ease, but later reveals himself to be genuinely ill. And finally in Helsinki Mika (Matti Pellonpää who was the manager in Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), which also featured Jim Jarmusch as a car salesman) picks up three passengers, one of whom has lost his job. Night on Earth (1991) is a thoroughly enjoyable portmanteau film, at times moving (Helsinki), at times funny (New York and Rome) and also thought-provoking (France).
So after slacker indie films, offbeat anthologies and a prison movie, Jarmusch tackled the Western genre with Dead Man (1995). Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels by train to the town of Machine to commence employment with industry boss John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) but is greeted with a host of problems on his arrival. Firstly, his job has been given to someone else, despite assurances in his letter of appointment. Worse, having helped and become briefly attached to Thel Russell (Mili Avital), who sells paper roses but is really trying to escape prostitution, he shoots her former lover, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne). Charlie is killed, but not before Charlie shoots and kills his paramour, the bullet flying straight through her body and entering William’s heart. The injured William manages to escape into the wilderness and is saved by native Indian Exaybachay (Gary Farmer), aka ‘Nobody’. The pair embark upon a journey of discovery and recovery across a beautiful but harsh landscape. Nobody’s English education has led him to believe that William Blake is actually the long dead poet of the same name that he learned about abroad. And John Dickinson wants retribution for the death of his son, so he hires three brutal assassins.
Existential western in glorious black and white cinematography, Dead Man is another Jarmusch reinterpretation of an established genre but with additional elements that make it something altogether different. Think Peckinpah with philosophy and poetry, as Jarmusch links themes that are, at times, as violently explicit as The Wild Bunch (1968), but also laid back and dispassionate, and with another dry vein of humour running through the narrative as we follow the journey of this (mainly) innocent man on the run. A score by Neil Young mixes multiple reverb, echo and distortion to compelling effect. (Jarmusch’s next film would be Year of the Horse (1997), following Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 1996 tour.)
The Jim Jarmusch Collection is an essential purchase if you are seeking high definition versions of the director’s first six films. For those who crave more, further Jarmusch can be enjoyed in his other films; hip ensemble pieces like The Limits of Control (2009), Broken Flowers (2005) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) as well as the further genre and music hip re-imaginations such as the Jidaigeki/gangster/assassin film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and the art cool multi-national vampire romance [A HREF=’http://www.kamera.co.uk/article.php/1538 ‘] Only Lovers Left Alive(2013)[/A]. Obligatory viewing, daddy-o. We don’t often insist but…