Jim Jarmusch smoking a cigarette
Stories & Ideas

Thu 19 Jan 2017

Jim Jarmusch: A celebration of cinematic eccentricity

Film Pop culture Retrospective
Nick Bugeja
Nick Bugeja

Writer & Editor

For over 35 years, the cinema of Jim Jarmusch has disrupted the monotony of Hollywood blockbusters.

Jarmusch is one of the premier independent filmmakers of contemporary cinema. In an era defined by Hollywood studio control, Jarmusch has been integral in disrupting the monotonous stream of blockbuster and mega-budget films, operating on the independent scene since his 1980 debut film, Permanent Vacation. For the past 36 years, Jarmusch, unlike other independent directors, has never been tempted by a potential foray into mainstream cinema. Instead, he has remained steadfastly loyal to independent filmmaking, ensuring that his unique style is as potent as ever. As he says, "I prefer to be sub-cultural rather than mass-cultural. I’m not interested in hitting the vein of the mainstream".

Ultimately, Jarmusch’s films embody the best of independent cinema. Made on low-budgets, with austere running times and characterised by experimentation, unwavering directorial focus, and quirky human encounters, every Jarmusch film is an immersive experience. His films, in some part, prove what is so special about cinema.

Jarmusch doesn’t like to do things conventionally. He finds fascination in the subversion and amalgamation of worn-out tropes, trite narrative structure and familiar generic conventions. This is evident in Ghost Dog, a film that is hard to encapsulate in words, because of its eclectic use of genre.

Even in providing a synopsis of the film does its distinctiveness manifest itself. Ghost Dog is centred on an African-American hitman for the Italian mafia, known only as Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker in a criminally underrated role). In carrying out his assassination duties, he adheres to the code of the Samurai, spending his private time reading and meditating. When he goes to assassinate a gangster who is having an affair with the daughter of mafia don Vargo (Henry Silva), problems arise. While Ghost Dog successfully assassinates the unfaithful gangster, the daughter witnesses it. The mafia are concerned enough by this to order Ghost Dog’s murder. Amid this ordinary life of distrust and bloodiness, Ghost Dog forms a meaningful relationship with a young girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), based on their mutual love of literature.

The blending of the mafia film and the samurai film was an inspired choice made by Jarmusch. Namely, it highlighted both the similarities and notable differences of the two genres. Although both genres are steeped in violence and ideals of masculine honour, Ghost Dog foremost exposes the marked divergences in tone of the two genres. The mafia film is defined by old European men in back-rooms making definitive plans for the future –saturated in distrust and anger; while the samurai film is usually anchored by one solitary, mysterious figure whose dedication to spiritual and physical perfection is unparalleled. Even on a more basic level, it is refreshing to see the coalescence of these two genres, as opposed to a re-tread of the great 20th century mafia films, and the Japanese samurai films of the 50s and 60s.

Ghost Dog’s innovative nature reflects Jarmusch’s knowledge of cinema – he wouldn’t have been so confident and able to mix these genres without it. The complexity of the make-up of this film can only be reaffirmed by the fact that many consider Ghost Dog to be a homage to Melville’s Le Samourai. A main point of similarity between the films is the characterisation of Ghost Dog and Jef Costello alike. Both wear white gloves when undertaking assignments, keep birds as pets, and are silent, introspective characters that are unremitting in adhering to their respective rituals.

Le Samourai is a film that landed right in the middle of the French New Wave. Directors like Melville, Cabrol, Godard and Truffaut departed from traditional storytelling methods in favour of visual communicative techniques, symbolism, and innovations in the use of camera. There are echoes of these characteristics in Ghost Dog, but Jarmusch’s second feature film, Stranger Than Paradise, is a strong evocation of the period. The narrative is a slim one: Willie’s (John Lurie) cousin, Eva (Eszter Ballint) comes to stay with him, and they hang around almost purposelessly with Willie’s friend, Eddie (Richard Edson). After Eva becomes disinterested with them she leaves for Cleveland, only for Willie and Eddie to go and visit her. In absence of an all-encompassing narrative, Jarmusch relies on his technical prowess and chemistry between the three main cast members to keep us engaged.

Stranger Than Paradise was made on a $100,000 budget, and filmed entirely in black-and-white. The visual aesthetic of the film is almost identical to films like The Cousins and Breathless, as the characters wear fedoras and bourgeois jackets, smoke cigarettes and sit around in claustrophobic, modestly-arranged rooms. The characters are draped equally in deadpan as they are in grainy black-and-white – rarely emoting and invariably maintaining an awkward self-seriousness. Rather than replicate the kind of relational dynamics seen during the French New Wave, Jarmusch exaggerates them in order to add his own signature to Stranger than Paradise. He is most assuredly a director who prides himself on his own idiosyncrasies. I imagine it would be close to unbearable for Jarmusch to forge Jean-Luc Godard’s signature instead of adding his own.

Stranger Than Paradise is not just notable for its evocation of the French New Wave, but also for those who perform in the main roles. John Lurie, who played Willie, is a professional jazz musician, and Richard Edson (Eddie) is the former drummer for the band Sonic Youth. This represented the first time Jarmusch would have musicians in main roles, and it started a trend in his films that would become a hallmark of his auteurism. In fact, his next film, Down By Law, would feature singer-songwriter Tom Waits in the lead role.

Of all the musicians that Jarmusch would use in his films, none came as well-recognised as Iggy Pop, lead singer of the Stooges. Much to the delight of audiences, Iggy Pop appeared as a cross-dressing fur trader in Dead Man. In some sense, the appearance of musicians and lead singers in Jarmusch films is linked to his unbridled desire to play with, mix up, and rearrange conventions and expectations. To use performers from another artistic medium to feature in film is, for Jarmusch, a disruption to the ordinary way of doing things. It melds the two mediums, thereby making a powerful statement about the nature of talent and artistic expression.

Moreover, Jarmusch’s equal love for music is widely known. He’s been in many bands over the years, and it has been said that the way he ‘makes his films is kind of like a musician. He has music in his head when he’s writing a script’. Consequently, his use of musicians can also be considered as an expression of his respect of them and their work, evidenced by doco Gimme Danger and his ongoing use of musicians as actors.

Jarmusch has a supreme understanding of film history and of the workings of film. Importantly, he is able to seamlessly integrate this into his own works, which benefit enormously from his knowledge and idiosyncratic application. Jarmusch is a significant filmmaker in a generation replete with accomplished directors, a gem that shines just that little bit more than the other gems.

– Nick Bugeja