Jim Jarmusch


By Juan A. Su��rez

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS

Copyright © 2007 Juan A. Su��rez
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07443-1


Chapter One

A Stranger Here Myself

Jim Jarmusch stands in recent film history very much as one of his own characters: an endearing eccentric slightly at odds with his surroundings whose presence is at once self-effacing and subtly pervasive. His output has been relatively small-nine feature films and a handful of shorts produced since 1979-and yet he is one of the most influential filmmakers to emerge in the United States in the last three decades. His early films, Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986), drew considerable attention to the independent cinema at a time when the high-concept, action-packed blockbuster was already the dominant Hollywood product. In contrast, Jarmusch followed on the steps of the art cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and made formally spare, slow-moving films concerned with intimacy, the exploration of character, and the reformulation of the classical narrative molds. Always working on the margins of the industry, he has managed to remain visible and to maintain a steady rhythm of production. His independence has set an example for many of his contemporaries as well as for a younger generation of independents. On different occasions, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Sant have acknowledged the catalytic role of Stranger than Paradise on their own careers. Jarmusch's minimalism, wry humor, and blank affect have also had an impact among recent directors such as Tom DiCillo (who photographed Jarmusch's first two films), Hal Hartley, Sofia Coppola, and Richard Linklater, and these qualities are also shared by the contemporary auteurs Aki Kaurism��ki, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang. Jarmusch has helped to demonstrate the viability of independent cinema and has decisively contributed to shaping one of its dominant styles.

Yet despite his influence and visibility, Jarmusch has been relatively neglected by scholars and academics. Most critical assessments of his work have taken the form of occasional reviews and essays, usually prompted by the films' premieres. Scholarly studies have been scarce and have most often appeared in languages other than English-Italian and German leading the way. This is hardly surprising, since Jarmusch's work has always been better received in Europe and the Far East than in the United States. And it is also fitting: his films are largely about displacement, cross-cultural communication, and exile, he has often described himself as an estranged American, and he has come to rely increasingly on European and Japanese funding. Of the handful of books devoted to his work, only two have been published in English. One is a collection of interviews with the filmmaker edited by the Swedish scholar Ludvig Hetzberg; the other is Jonathan Rosenbaum's monograph on Dead Man. In addition, Jarmusch is given a prominent place in recent books on independent filmmaking by John Pierson, Geoff Andrew, Emanuel Levy, Geoff King, and Jim Hillier, and a discussion of his work as an example of oppositional cinema closes the latest edition of Robin Wood's Hollywood, from Vietnam to Reagan. More extensive treatments can be found in books by the Italian critic Umberto Mosca and by the Spanish critic Breixo Viejo and in the excellent collection of essays edited by Rolf Aurich and Stefan Reinecke. As a whole, this writing tends to be more descriptive than analytical; it perceptively characterizes Jarmusch's style, themes, and trajectory and studies most of his cinematic influences but does not map the connections between his films and the larger cultural context to which they belong.

This larger context is the modernism of the second half of the twentieth century: a second wave of modernism and modernity, also called postmodernity to differentiate it from the earlier one, defined by the ubiquity of television, the beginnings of the cybernetic revolution, and the increasing importance of new social identities. It was a time of intense cultural revisionism, when hegemonic stories and worldviews were called into question, when minority perspectives erupted into public debate, and when the boundaries between high art and low culture turned progressively blurry, to the point of nearly complete disappearance. Many of these developments had antecedents in early twentieth-century modernism, but they gained speed and centrality in the years of the cold war and especially during the 1960s. Jarmusch is a late inheritor of this cultural climate. Like many of the most significant artists of his generation-such figures as Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman-he appears engaged in a reevaluation of experimental culture in an era of increased corporate control over the public channels of expression, but also of considerable street-level agency and creativity. Responsive, like many of his contemporaries, to the expressiveness of popular culture, his work implicitly rejects the elitism of some modalities of high modernism and fuses the experimental modernist repertoire with street styles-punk, new wave club culture, and hip-hop-with the purpose of giving the vanguard social impact and reach and the popular further critical awareness and sophistication.

These contextual considerations, which will be fully developed in the pages that follow, are important to situate my own approach to authorship. In his classic formulation, Michel Foucault regards the figure of the author as a rhetorical tool to recover an individual from a body of texts and thus to impose the coherence of a creative personality over the dispersal and chaos of history. My own approach runs in the contrary direction. I will work to recover a plurality of forces, styles, and ideologies from Jarmusch's corpus and will thus open this corpus up to the play of historical contingency. In the pages that follow, Jarmusch's films will be inserted within a network of aesthetic influences that include minimalism, the New York pop vanguard of the late 1970s, punk, structural film, the postwar art cinemas, rock 'n' roll, Beat literature and art, classic street photography, Hollywood genre film, European surrealism, and hip-hop, among others. But these films will also be read against such historical developments as the atomization of the counterculture, the rise of individualistic styles of popular consumption (in part prompted by home video and the Walkman), the development of the independent film industry, and the political conservatism of the times. By reading Jarmusch's work against its context, I do not mean to reduce the author to a mechanical symptom of the era, a sort of by-product of the culture's dialogue with itself. The creator does have a real, if limited, autonomy. In another influential formulation, Roland Barthes compares the author to a medieval scriptor: a copyist, whose modern version would be the collage artist, endowed with a degree of freedom but always bound by the codes and possibilities of his or her own cultural horizon (Barthes, "Death" 51-52). The author is, to revert to Ferdinand de Saussure's terms, a form of parole in the language of history, a particular performance of the available cultural archive. In this respect, Jarmusch's texts will not be read as completely autonomous performances (that is, the emanation of a free-floating imagination) nor as passive reflections of the times but as selective actualizations of historically situated possibilities.

In addition to reading Jarmusch against his time, this book will explore what makes his films distinctive. In part, this is their ambiguous portrayal of human interaction as plagued by mistiming and miscommunication, cantankerousness and spite, but also containing moments of genuine care and mutuality. The positive moments are short-lived, however, and the feelings that give rise to them are seldom verbalized, so characters tend to remain enclosed in inexpressible loneliness. This does not make them necessarily tragic; they submit to their circumstances without putting up much resistance, and this passivity makes them by turns absurd, comic, and vulnerable, but, at the same time, curiously resilient. These characters are only partly known: their circumstances and motivations are incompletely rendered, so spectators may have the feeling of "dropping in on" them, to borrow Jarmusch's expression, without ever feeling in full command of their stories or completely understanding their lives (Hetzberg 199). In this way of remaining at a distance there is a degree of epistemological modesty: what can be known about the world and about others, these films suggest, is always a small portion of the total. Even more singular than characters and themes is the style of the films. Rather than present conflict-driven action, they are most often static, based on nondramatic situations. They work in a cumulative way, by means of repetitions that signal small increments and subtle modulations within a given film, and even from film to film, since self-reference is common, and performers and even characters migrate across titles. The formal self-consciousness of the films fosters detachment, but their plots and atmospheric qualities encourage immersion in their fictional world. They are realistic and invested in quotidian detail but also rigorously stylized; they present a world that is immediately recognizable but also fantastic and intertextual, with characters and situations drawn from preexisting stories, films, and songs. But above all, they are intensely visual and aural. They run on timing, on peculiarities of behavior and circumstance, and on the actors' delivery and nuance. Much of what is enjoyable about them has to do with the performers' physiognomies, voices, and eccentric use of language. Jarmusch's work demands a type of criticism as attentive to totalities-character, plot, genre, and ideological statement-as to the fleeting effect of gags, gestures, and details; a criticism capable of adhering to the skin of the film-the temporal unfolding of the image-without losing sight of the more abstract issues that the texts involve.

Jarmusch's films have a political dimension that is important to unpack. They are illustrative of a postmodern politics that downplays the centrality of class and nation and highlights instead temporary social locations-it has been widely noted that they often focus on transients and immigrants-and tangential identifications that often go against the grain of birth-given nationality and ethnicity. They are centrally concerned with situations, actions, and locales that rarely find their way into conventional texts because they lack clear signification or obvious dramatic value. But in this lack of explicit value lies their interest: since they are neglected by dominant regimes of spectacle and narrative, they contain registers of behavior and affect that remain to be explored. In this respect, Jarmusch's films may be aligned with one of the main projects of twentieth-century experimental culture, a project at once aesthetic and political that consists in venturing into the margins of experience to enlarge the scope of representation and the available repertoire of concepts and sensibilities. Writing in the 1940s, the American novelist James Agee called this project an inquiry into "the unimagined existence"-pockets of meaning and emotion not yet represented in the cultural imaginary (Agee xiv-xv). Agee located these pockets of difference on the social and cultural margins-among tenant farmers, amateur and folk artists, children, and in isolated moments in Hollywood films. Jarmusch finds "the unimagined existence" in a subliminal level of the quotidian: in unstructured intervals crossed by impulses and actions that are detectable yet diffuse. It is this realm they seek to explore, respecting all forms of opacity and irreducibility in the process.

Akron/The Cin��math��que/Lightning over Water

If Jarmusch has often been regarded as the main exponent of independent cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, this is largely due to the success of his second feature, Stranger than Paradise. Its critical acceptance and visibility suggested that the independent cinema had finally made it. Finished in early 1984, Stranger was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival and won a Palm d'Or for best feature. A few months later, it was enthusiastically received at the New York Film Festival and was voted best movie of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. Stranger than Paradise was not the only independent U.S. production to be distinguished at Cannes during those years. John Hanson and Rob Nilsson's Northern Lights and Robert Young's Alambrista! (a.k.a. The Illegal) had also received awards in 1978 and 1979, respectively, but such recognition had not translated into wide distribution or substantial returns. It was different with Jarmusch's film. In addition to being a hit among critics, it was a financial windfall of sorts. Made for about $110,000 at a time when the average cost of a commercial feature was $14 million, the film was picked up for distribution by the Samuel Goldwyn Company and ended up grossing $2.4 million domestically. Its international run was even more successful. In Europe and Japan it had long runs in art houses and even prompted the enthusiasm of a consecrated figure like Akira Kurosawa, who praised the film's editing and hypnotic pace. This success took everyone by surprise, Jarmusch included. A year after the premiere of the film, he still confessed his bewilderment: "I thought that formally and structurally the film would keep audiences at a distance and it would become a cult film in Europe and there'd be little interest in America" (Bugbee 47; see also Hetzberg 36).

There were good reasons to be surprised. Success had never entered Jarmusch's calculations. He deliberately cultivated obscurity and aesthetic marginality, making films under minimal conditions with a reduced group of friends associated with the mixture of avant-garde, pop, performance art, and club culture that developed in downtown New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Suddenly, the exposure of Stranger than Paradise thrust him into the center of the "independent cinema," a rather confusing, if convenient, label for one of the most characteristic developments in 1980s film culture. But what exactly was "independent cinema"? Who was Jarmusch? And how did the two converge?

Jarmusch was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1953, to a suburban, middleclass family. The home of Goodyear and the capital of the rubber industry, Akron was an important industrial center. Jarmusch would later describe it as an ethnically homogeneous, fairly boring working-class city with little cultural stimulus, and yet there must have been pockets of resistance in the region. When Jarmusch was a child, nearby Cleveland was one of the main boxes of resonance for rock 'n' roll in the northeast thanks to the radio shows of DJ Alan Freed. During his youth, Jarmusch read voraciously and apprenticed with a commercial photographer. He absorbed some alternative culture from other kids-a friend's brother who was into Frank Zappa, the Beat writers, and underground comics-and from the Friday-night screenings at Akron's only art house, which combined soft porn, art films, and occasional underground shorts. By the time Jarmusch started making films in New York, however, the region had developed an underground scene. By the late 1970s Akron was one of the hubs of punk and new wave music, home to the indie label Clone Records and to a number of cult acts-the techno-bizarro Devo, the punk band the Cramps, and lesser-known bands like Rubber City Rebels, Dead Boys, and Teacher's Pet. Cleveland was the hometown of the band Pere Ubu and of another American independent, Harvey Pekar, the comic-book writer best known for his American Splendor series, made in collaboration with Robert Crumb and Gary Dumm. At the risk of reading too much into origins, it is suggestive that cars-the main outlet for Goodyear products-radio DJs, rock 'n' roll, and the deindustrialized Rust Belt would feature prominently in Jarmusch's films.

After high school, Jarmusch moved to Chicago to study journalism at Northwestern University but transferred to Columbia at the end of the first year. At Columbia, he studied English and American literature-the poet Kenneth Koch was one of his teachers-and tried his hand at writing, as he later put it, "short, structural narrative pieces, like short stories but very short and minimalized" (Hetzberg 23). He went to Paris during his senior year, initially for a semester, but ended up staying for ten months. He worked as a truck driver making deliveries for an art gallery and frequented the Cin��matheque. At this mythic venue he discovered the European and Japanese art cinema, the classic work of Americans such as Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, together with Indian, African, and Middle-Eastern films. The Paris Cin��matheque was in many ways a film archive gone amok. At the time, it was still run by its founder, Henri Langlois, who had been a mentor to the nouvelle vague filmmakers and had shaped several generations of Parisian cinephiles. Langlois's programs were completely eccentric. He frequently showed foreign films without subtitles, or in subtitles other than French, and he threw together, in any given evening, titles from completely different traditions, genres, and periods. This way of dislocating film history proved quite generative. As it had happened to the directors of the French New Wave twenty years earlier, Langlois's anarchic programs awakened Jarmusch to the possibilities of the medium. They may account for the enormously varied influences on his work and may also explain the multigeneric quality of his films. One might easily draw a line connecting the evenings at the Cin��matheque to Jarmusch's characterization of Stranger than Paradise as an amalgam of influences and styles: "a semi-neorealist black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern-European director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the 1950s American show The Honeymooners" (Hetzberg 21).

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Jim Jarmuschby Juan A. Su��rez Copyright © 2007 by Juan A. Su��rez. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.