Jim Jarmusch has consistently refused to sway from his indie sensibility. Celebrate the films of this king of cool on SBS.
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1 May 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2017 - 11:05 AM

The Jim Jarmusch collection at SBS On Demand offers a timely opportunity to assess the career of this maverick American filmmaker.

While the commercial success of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 debut sex, lies, and videotape is usually described as the start of the US independent cinema boom, Jarmusch beat Soderbergh to the punch five years earlier with the release of his second feature, Stranger than Paradise. Filmed in black and white, starring musician John Lurie as a New Yorker visited by his Hungarian cousin, the deadpan drama-comedy won prizes at Cannes and Sundance film festivals and drew rave reviews and distribution around the globe.

While many of the darlings of the US independent scene that followed Stranger Than Paradise have made forays into big budget studio filmmaking - Soderbergh with Oceans Eleven and others, Richard Linklater with The Newton Boys and School of Rock, Darren Aronofsky with The Fountain – Jarmusch has not once deviated from his singular course.

His films, which might be described as singular examples of hipster minimalism, are characterized by their deadpan humour, long takes and mixture of American with European (and sometimes Asian and even African) cultural influences and references.

Now in his mid-50s, Jarmusch might be considered the spiritual heir of US independent godfather, John Cassavetes, in his determination to go his own way, but his droll, almost studied style has little in common with that late filmmaker's freewheeling exploration of emotions at the outer limits.

Too often overlooked is the way this former rock musician's hipsterism is drawn as much from musical as cinematic sources, his films saturated with cool soundtracks and music-related references and casting decisions. Witness the presence of Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie in Stranger, broken-voiced crooner Tom Waits in 1987's Down By Law, and R'n'B vaudevillian Screaming Jay Hawkins and punk rock hero Joe Strummer in 1989's Mystery Train. Note also Neil Young's guitar music score for 1995 Johnny Depp western Dead Man, and the scene of an elderly Italian mobster dancing to rappers Public Enemy in 1999's Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai.

No less than three of his “features” – Mystery Train about the musical legacy of Memphis, 1991 taxi stories compendium Night on Earth, and 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes - take the form of entirely or relatively discreet sections. Coffee actually began life as three short films made over seven years that formed the building blocks for this compendium of vignettes, several featuring rock musicians including Iggy Pop and Meg and Jack White of the White Stripes.

In August 1982, two years before Stranger was released and its director still an unknown, I interviewed Jarmusch in London in his role as vocalist and keyboardist of New York-based “no wave” rock band, The Del-Byzanteens. In a 2000 interview Jarmusch observed that "the aesthetics of that (New York avant-rock) scene really gave me the courage to make films; it was not about virtuosity, it was about expression."

That the group never took off, even on the cult level, has nothing to do with their musical worth and everything to do with their unmarketability, the fact they sounded like nothing else at the time (somewhere between German minimalists Can and the vocal sophistication of Pet Sounds' era Beach Boys).

Its members heavily committed to their creative work in other fields, the group was destined to fall apart. Bassist Phillipe Hagen was working as a graphic artist while guitarist Phil Kline wrote soundtracks for independent films and has since mounted conceptual sound sculptures around the globe. In the meantime lyricist Luc Sante has established a formidable literary reputation.

In the late 1970s while studying film at New York University Jarmusch came into the orbit of two revered filmmakers who would hugely influence him. The first was US veteran Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), who gave him work as a teaching assistant, the second Wim Wenders, for whom he worked as a production assistant on Lightning Over Water, the German director's documentary about Ray.

The Stranger Than Paradise I saw premiered at the London Film Festival circa 1983 was actually a short film Jarmusch had made using leftover film stock donated by Wenders's executive producer. The final two thirds of what would become the feature of the same title had yet to be filmed.

That he could take the first third of what would become a feature and screen it as a stand-alone says much about Jarmusch's attitude towards conventional notions of plotting and drama. In my 1982 interview he recalled that he and the other group members “were watching some of these Hitchcock films the other day, saying 'these are entirely plot motivated'. Nick Ray's films are entirely character motivated, and I think we are trying to get away from the obvious plot and more towards an emotional type of thing.” He was referring to his music. He might as well have been talking about his films.

Explore the SBS on Demand collection of Jim Jarmusch films, which includes:

 

Stranger than Paradise

Eva has come from Budapest to live with her Aunt Lotte in Cleveland. Much to her cousin, Willie's surprise, she stops off at his apartment in New York for ten days while her aunt is recovering from surgery. Willie is a seedy young guy living in a seedy part of New York City and he's not keen on the idea of baby-sitting his young cousin. Eva is stuck in Willie's apartment with nothing to do except watch television with Willie and smoke.

Due to complete boredom they decide to take a road-trip to visit their aunt in the wastelands of Cleveland.

Awards: Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985.

 

Night On Earth

A collection of five stories involving five different cab drivers in different cities around the world. In Los Angeles, a talent agent for the movies discovers her cab driver would be perfect to cast, but the cabbie is reluctant to give up her solid cab driver's career. In New York, an immigrant cab driver is continually lost in a city and culture he doesn't understand. In Paris, a blind girl takes a ride with a cab driver from the Ivory Coast and they talk about life and blindness.

A gregarious cabbie in Rome picks up an ailing man and virtually talks him to death; and in Helsinki, an industrial worker gets laid off and he and his compatriots discuss the bleakness and unfairness of love, life and death.

Cast: Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Roberto Benigni, Rosie Perez and Beatrice Dalle.

Awards: Winner of the Best Cinematography Award at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards.

 

Down By Law

A DJ, a pimp and an Italian tourist are arrested on the same night in New Orleans and thrown in to a cell together. The trio manages to break out of jail and find themselves hopelessly lost in the Louisiana Bayou. After days of fighting and squabbling, they chance upon a small café run by another recent immigrant from Italy.

One of them immediately falls in love with the beautiful Italian and wants to stay on.

Cast: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi and Ellen Barkin.

Awards: Nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.

 

Mystery Train

Three separate stories take place in a rundown Memphis hotel in the director's tribute to The King. A Japanese couple arrive on a pilgrimage to Elvis' hometown of Memphis, an Italian woman accompanying her dead husband receives messages from the King, while an ex-pat Englishman loses his job and his wife in the same day. One night in Memphis, the heart and soul of America, these three sets of parallel lives intersect at the seedy Arcade hotel manned by the legendary Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Taking its title from one of Elvis' own tunes, Mystery Train exemplifies director Jim Jarmusch's obsession with American popular culture and music.

Cast: Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee and Rick Aviles.

Awards: Winner of Best Artistic Contribution prize at Cannes in 1989; nominated for the Golden Palm Award.

 

Dead Man

The story of a young man's journey, both physically and spiritually, into very unfamiliar terrain. William Blake travels to the extreme western frontiers of America in the second half of the 19th century. Lost and badly wounded, he encounters a very odd, Native American, named "Nobody," who believes Blake is actually the dead English poet of the same name.

Nobody helps to lead Blake through situations that are in turn comical and violent. Contrary to his nature, circumstances transform Blake into a hunted outlaw, a killer, and a man whose physical existence is slowly slipping away.

Thrown into a world that is cruel and chaotic, his eyes are opened to the fragility that defines the realm of the living.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne and Robert Mitchum.

Awards: Winner of the Screen International Award at the 1996 European Film Awards and the NYFCC Award for Best Cinematography at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in 1996.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

Set against the romantic desolation of Detroit and Tangiers, an underground musician, Adam, deeply depressed by the direction of human activities, reunites with his resilient and enigmatic lover, Eve. Their love story has already endured several centuries at least, but their debauched idyll is soon disrupted by her wild and uncontrollable younger sister, Ava. Can these wise but fragile outsiders continue to survive as the modern world collapses around them? 

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, and Mia Wasikowska

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