Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 400: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

This isn’t New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature film (that would be 1980’s Permanent Vacation), but already there’s a strong sense of what would be his signature style during the 1980s, the deadpan delivery, single shot long takes, the grungy (yet oddly beautiful) black-and-white cinematography of these interchangeable American locales. The opening shots see Eszter Balint’s youthful Eva wandering the streets of what looks like New Jersey from the street signs, though she eventually finds her way to stay with her cousin in Brooklyn (John Lurie). She’s from Hungary and her cousin was too, where he was Bela, but now goes by Willie and is trying hard to put the immigrant identity behind him. His friend Eddie (Richard Edson) stops by and the film… well, “gets going” doesn’t seem quite right, but all the characters are now in place. Ultimately it’s not about what they do (they hang out, they get on the road to Cleveland, they mooch about some more), but about this sense of America as a place where identity can be subsumed. Willie’s aunt tries desperately to cling to the old ways and refuses to speak English to him, but there’s little that identifies her home as different from anywhere else the trio go; even Florida has the same sense of gloomy dereliction at the end. It’s a film in which the characters move around a lot but ultimately don’t seem to do anything.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the extras is a West German documentary, Kino ’84: The Making of Jim Jarmusch (1984, dir. Martina Müller), which catches up with him during the making of Stranger Than Paradise after it seems his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation had gained him something of a profile in that country, and so features interviews with that latter film’s star Chris Parker, as well as his DP Tom DiCillo — whose lack of interest in continuing in this job prompts Jarmusch to suggest some cinematographers he’d like to work with (including the one he did). There are also shorter bits with Lurie, Edson and Balint, as well as the brief appearance of Sara Driver. It’s good to see how Jarmusch was working back then.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Tom DiCillo; Starring John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.

Criterion Sunday 42: Fishing with John (1991)

The Criterion Collection certainly throws up some oddities from time to time (who will ever forget — or forgive — Armageddon?) but Fishing with John is one of the odder entries, being the six episodes of a TV series made by John Lurie (hence the ‘creator’ rather than ‘director’ credit) and screened originally in 1991. It’s nominally a fishing show, in the sense that he takes a bunch of (male) celebrities out on the water in various places attempting to catch fish, but tonally it feels more of a piece with Twin Peaks or the offbeat deadpan stylings of early Jim Jarmusch (in whose films Lurie occasionally popped up, and who is his guest in the first episode). Things proceed in a laidback manner, as the two men travel to their fishing boat, or eat in cafes and drink in bars, and fall to chatting. Indeed, they tend to have very little success at the actual fishing. The conversations have a roundabout, somewhat surreal quality, but the most overt humour comes from the (extremely unreliable) narration, taking an omniscient viewpoint in the style of such shows, but undercutting it with deadpan drollery. In a sense, nothing much happens, but the journey is pleasantly diverting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Creator [Director] John Lurie; Cinematographers Michael Alan Spiller, Tom Krueger, James Nares and Steven Torton; Starring John Lurie, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch; Length 147 minutes (in six episodes of c24 minutes each).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

Jarmusch’s style is particularly well-suited to these characters, because he’s never really been interested in plot so much as in atmospherics. Here the lack of momentum in the narrative is perfectly suited to characters for whom time is largely meaningless, a constant miasma of experiences that all blend into one another, even over centuries. They occasionally reminisce about the past, casually mentioning classical composers or feuds from the 16th century, and indeed one of their compatriots is Christopher Marlowe (a wizened John Hurt), which at least allows for some amusing Shakespeare gags.

There’s a constant undercurrent of deadpan black comedy that threads through their encounters, Eve with Marlowe, then Adam with the excitable wannabe Ian (Anton Yelchin), who helps him out with his artistic pursuits by sourcing vintage instruments and the like. Ian, like all the other non-vampires in the film, is a “zombie”, the term Adam and Eve condescendingly use to refer to mere mortals. They really are the ultimate hipsters: living a life of devotion to their art, citizens of the world recycling local influences and avoiding the corruptions of global capital (Detroit and Tangier are both places of largely forgotten and crumbling grandeur, and when Eve is booking a flight she is keen to avoid London at all costs), ultimately desirous of nothing so much as cult respect. Near the end, Adam encounters a performance by Yasmine Hamdan in a Tangier bar, and is told by Eve that “she’ll be famous one day” to which he snidely replies “I hope not! She’s too good to be famous.”

Music is a key to Jarmusch’s work, especially in this film. Given the essential stasis in the narrative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the film stops to take in various musical performances, but integrating these is part of its method, whether Hamdan in Tangier, or psychedelic spacerock band White Hills in a Detroit club. Adam is a man after Jarmusch’s own heart, and indeed Jarmusch and his band Sqürl have provided a lot of the sonic textures for Adam’s artistic experimentation. Eve meanwhile is obsessed by literature, and when she travels books are all that she carries; we see her running her hand over their tactile pages as she packs them. Their seriousness is contrasted with Eve’s inane LA-based younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Once you get into its slowly laconic rhythm, there’s a lot to like about the film. Tilda Swinton remains refreshingly disarming on screen and perfectly cast as this otherwordly being (harking back in spirit to Orlando), while Tom Hiddleston is a compelling presence, effortlessly assuming the pose of a debauched, self-serious artist. If everyone here just seems to be marking time, they certainly do it with style.

Only Lovers Left Alive film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014.