By Jeffrey Overstreet
One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?
The name Jim Jarmusch was all I needed to see. My browse through Blockbuster Video ended there, and I carried a DVD of The Limits of Control home.
I wasn’t disappointed. Jarmusch served up all of the eccentricity, surprise, and delight I’ve come to expect from him. And yet, the movie left me with a familiar pang of distress.
I keep waiting to find a Jarmusch movie that will help me introduce friends to the peculiar joys of his work. I’ve been recommending his films since I first saw Down By Law, his second feature. Its inspired combination of actors—John Lurie, Tom Waits, and the Italian comedian and filmmaker Roberto Benigni—developed such memorable chemistry, and found such uniquely funny moments, that I watch it again and again. There’s nothing else like it.
Working backward and forward from there, I discovered many other unusual treasures. Broken Flowers, with its endearing lead performance by Bill Murray, may be his most accessible film. But its pace, melancholy tone, and lack of resolution left many moviegoers cold.
Talking to friends and acquaintances who have sampled Jarmusch’s work, I’ve heard several explanations for their disapproval. “I just don’t get it.” “Movies like this just make me feel stupid.” “Nothing happens.” “It’s just so self-indulgent.” “It’s pretentious. Like the director is playing a joke on the audience.” “These are movies for film-school grad students, but not for audiences.”
But I don’t find Jarmusch’s films self-indulgent. Nor do I think they require any advanced film education. I think the secret to appreciating Jarmusch’s work is, in fact, to work backwards. To borrow a phrase from Yoda, moviegoers need to “unlearn what they’ve learned.”
We’ve been conditioned by Hollywood’s formulaic products to expect constant activity and the addictive suspense of “What will happen next?” Jarmusch doesn’t work by following recipes for familiar meals. His films are more like chemistry experiments in which he patiently stirs ingredients together, in various combinations, just to see what will happen. Or, to put it another way, where most movies follow the patterns of pop songs or rock anthems, Jarmusch is jazz.
Watching a Jarmusch film, it helps to stop caring much about the plot. Some of his movies—Down by Law and Broken Flowers, for example—do have a conventional narrative framework, but the plots provide only an episodic rhythm. He takes each scene as an opportunity to explore possibilities. So it also helps to drop the expectation of suspense and action. Don’t go in looking for romance or horror. Forget about glamour. Don’t focus on finding the solution to a mystery. Jarmusch’s films recall a description of jazz offered by the playwright Françoise Sagan: “Jazz is an intensified feeling of nonchalance.”
So what’s left? What can happen when storytelling is no longer central?
As it turns out, a lot.
By his patient gaze, Jarmusch has given me a greater appreciation of actors’ faces.
Observe the gallery of faces among the taxi drivers and passengers of Night on Earth; the exquisite hangdog melancholy of Forrest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai; or Bill Murray’s “Why me?” exasperation in Broken Flowers. Jarmusch seems to choose actors not for their popularity, but for the singularity of their personality and idiosyncrasies.
Jarmusch has also helped me pay more attention to the things that characters say, and the way that the actors say them. In several of his films, the pleasure comes from peculiar tensions in the conversations.
There’s a roughly textured music to the interplay of the three voices in Down By Law. John Lurie plays a pimp who is arrested and forced to share a jail cell with a temperamental disk jockey, played by Tom Waits. The film’s first half-hour develops a kind of discomforting dullness as they bark at one another and sulk in their bunks. But then, the hyperactive Roberto Benigni is tossed into the same cell. Suddenly—chemistry! Lurie’s deep, resonant voice plays with Tom Waits’ gravelly growl and Benigni’s clownish hysteria mingle like a spontaneous concert of bass guitar, saxophone, and muted trumpet.
Coffee and Cigarettes is a playful tour of unlikely conversations charged by the potent mix of caffeine and nicotine. Famous “players” are thrown together in juxtapositions that seem almost arbitrary. Tom Waits meets Iggy Pop. Alfred Molina meets Steve Coogan. The perpetual-headache expression of deadpan comedian Steven Wright is quite a contrast to the giddy grin of Roberto Benigni as they discuss a dentist’s appointment. Cate Blanchett has an unnerving argument with...Cate Blanchett. In each meeting, elements of coffee-drinking and smoking—packs of cigarettes, drifting puffs of smoke, ceramic mugs, spoons, cream, sugar cubes, etc.—are dealt like cards from a deck, and a game is played out.
We’re watching the chemist throw out the recipe book for the sake of sheer play. What will happen when he combines these strange pairings? Will they spark? Smoke? Curdle? Do they blend?
Jarmusch has also helped me enjoy how movies look. From the stark, black-and-white simplicity of Stranger Than Paradise, to the bleak Western landscapes of Dead Man, to the beautifully moody shadows of Ghost Dog, each film is a world of its own. His soundtrack selections are impeccable. In my opinion, only Quentin Tarantino has a better ear for effective marriages of image and popular music.
The samurai at the center of Ghost Dog offers this maxim: “In the words of the ancients, matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”
That sums up Jarmusch’s style perfectly. His Zen minimalism has taught me to appreciate aesthetic details—the small things—so that I’m now drawn to attentive, observant filmmakers who use the screen the way a painter uses a canvas. And it has helped me see familiar movies through new eyes.
He’s like a jazz musician undercover, disguised as a rock star. He draws moviegoers in with certain elements of cool, then surprises them by confounding and sometimes frustrating their expectations. He slows his audience down, seeking to free them from the urgency of conventional, narrative cinema. By inviting us to ponder his experiments, he’s restoring the joy and surprise that can only come from spontaneous play.
And who in their right mind ever wanted to outgrow play?
[In Part Two, tomorrow, we’ll take a look at The Limits of Control.]