Arthouse comedy-drama, 1984, rated R, 89 minutes, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
“I’d rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China,” writer-director Jim Jarmusch once said in an interview. A Walt Whitman of the silver screen, Jarmusch has told the fragmented stories of ne’er-do-wells, immigrants, and outlaws in his nearly 40 years of independent filmmaking. The poignancy of his art is rooted in the unexpected — and very American — poetry of the mundane. In front of Jarmusch’s lens, a minute of silence between two characters can convey more than any dialogue.
In advance of the director’s new zombie comedy-thriller The Dead Don’t Die, which hits theaters nationwide on June 14, the Violet Crown plays four vintage Jarmusch movies on four consecutive Wednesdays in May as part of its Auteurs Film Series. The opener on Wednesday, May 8, is Jarmusch’s breakout film Stranger than Paradise (1984), which cemented his minimalist style and penchant for laconic dialogue, along with his keen eye for the dystopian beauty of post-industrial American cities. That’s followed by Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), and Dead Man (1995).
“It feels to me, when I watch one of his films, that it’s like a little man dancing around in his head who just decides one day: We’re gonna make a movie. Those films don’t feel forced. They feel like they just bled out of him,” said Violet Crown general manager, Peter Grendle. Grendle helped conceive the series after seeing the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die and realizing that several of its ensemble cast (Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits) had roles in these four previous films by Jarmusch.
Jarmusch was a director’s director from the get-go. Straight out of New York University film school, he shot Stranger than Paradise on leftover film stock gifted to him by director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984). Wenders had the extra film from making a documentary (Lightning over Water, 1980) about filmmaker Nicholas Ray (Rebel without a Cause, 1955), for whom Jarmusch worked as a personal assistant.
Jarmusch’s web of influences didn’t end there: He had also studied poetry with Kenneth Koch as an undergrad at Columbia University, where he palled around with writer Luc Sante (Low Life, 1991), who would become the foremost chronicler of New York’s gritty underworld past.
As students, Sante and Jarmusch loved the New York School of poets, the group of 1950s and ’60s writers that included Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, who celebrated the revelations buried in quotidian life. (These poets were in turn inspired by avant-garde contemporaries such as painter Larry Rivers and composer John Cage.) In the three acts of the black-and-white film Stranger than Paradise, this grab bag of influences is put into a blender. What comes out is the meandering, absurdist sense of humor that has become Jarmusch’s signature.
The loose narrative of Stranger concerns Willie (John Lurie), whose teenage cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) comes from Hungary to stay with him in New York City for 10 days. Eva eventually leads Willie and his fellow racetrack gambler friend Eddie (Richard Edson) to take a road trip in a borrowed 1965 Dodge Coronet, first to Cleveland, and then to Florida, as the odd trio explores the seedy byways and backwaters of America. The fish-out-of-water characters never seem to know exactly where they are. “Does Cleveland look a little like, uh, Budapest?” Eddie asks Willie as they pass a Russian Orthodox cathedral. In another road scene, the two speculate about whether they are in Ohio or Pennsylvania. “I think we’re still in Pennsylvania,” says Willie, swigging a beer in the passenger seat. Jarmusch, with clever sleight of hand, tells us he’s probably right only by lingering on a shot of the Rolling Rock label.
Jarmusch is a master of leaving certain details undone, which intensifies his sometimes inscrutable scenes. In her review of Stranger, The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael praised its brash austerity, noting the long takes and tableau-like framing of crumbling buildings in New York City, the drab fringes of Cleveland, and the desolate Florida beaches. “The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail,” Kael wrote. She compared the interstitial blackout frames that divide the movie’s scenes to playwright Samuel Beckett’s eloquent pauses.Jarmusch said in an interview, “This feeling, of what there is between everything else, is also very important to me, it’s not just a question of the black sections, but about how the dialogue is written. My favorite moment in Stranger than Paradise is that ending of the first part, where the two guys sit in the room drinking beer. You know that Eddie wants to say something to Willie about the fact that Eva has left, you can sense it, but he doesn’t say anything — and I think this sense that he wants to say something is stronger than if he had actually said something.”
Stranger also establishes Jarmusch’s unmistakably American vernacular as equal parts visual and sonic. The dingy outskirts of Cleveland are set to Lurie’s soundtrack “Car Cleveland,” a creeping, Cage-like string orchestration that amplifies the anything-can-happen tension of the journey. “I Put a Spell on You,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ commanding, howling answer to an unruly lover, recurs in the movie as Eva plays the song over and over on her portable tape player. “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and he’s a wild man, so bug off,” she tells her cousin in a thick Hungarian accent when he criticizes her taste in music. The song is emblematic of the hold she has over Willie and Eddie, and of her — and Jarmusch’s — embrace of 20th-century American culture at its grittiest and most raw.
Jarmusch uses this travelogue to explore ideas of both connection and disconnection, as well as intimations of mortality. And in Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Dead Man, he continues to use the trope of the wayfaring stranger for similar purposes. His characters break out of jail (Down by Law), make a pilgrimage from Japan to Graceland (Mystery Train), and flee after killing a man (Dead Man), all the while quoting poetry and playing music (Whitman and Robert Frost in Down by Law; Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Hawkins in Mystery Train; and William Blake in Dead Man).
A deadpan quote from the surrealist poet and painter Henri Michaux opens Dead Man, the 1995 black-and-white Western co-starring Johnny Depp and Santa Fe resident Gary Farmer as the archetypal white man and Indian. “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man,” Michaux’s quote reads. In Jarmusch’s films, the audience gets the idea that the characters are neither dead nor alive. They journey through some illogical underworld, a place where the absurd makes perfect sense.
Stranger than Paradise plays at Violet Crown at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, followed by Down by Law (May 15), Mystery Train (May 22), and Dead Man (May 29). ◀