Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise started a renaissance of American independent cinema. Jarmusch was born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in 1953. His mother was a film reviewer and she often left Jim at the local cinema to watch matinee double feature horror films. In his teen years, Jarmusch was attracted to beat culture and arthouse cinema.

Jarmusch attended Columbia University with the intention of becoming a poet and he became editor of the Columbia Review. He left New York for Paris where he spent his days at the Cinematheque Francaise immersing himself in the films of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and American director Sam Fuller. In 1976, he  returned to the states and was accepted into NYU's Tisch School of Film. His classmates included future peers Tom Dicillo, Spike Lee and Sara Driver.

During his final year at NYU, Jarmusch became assistant to famed director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) who was collaborating with German director Wim Wenders on the film Lightning Over Water. Jarmusch left NYU and assisted Wenders on the film The State Of Things. Wenders gave Jarmusch the leftover black & white film stock which Jarmusch used to complete a 30-minute movie that became Stranger Than Paradise.

Stranger Than Paradise is a deadpan, slow-moving comedy that recounts the journey of three disillusioned youths from New York to Florida.  Like many Jarmusch films, the characters are outsiders on the fringes of society.  I remember seeing the film when it came out and saying to a friend, "Nothing much happens but I can't get this movie out of my head."  This was common of Jarmusch's films.  He was once quoted as saying, "I'd rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China."  Paradise won the Camera d' Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Jarmusch's next film Down By Law featured Tom Waits, John Lurie & Roberto Benigni. The movie marked the first of five collaborations with cinematographer Robby Muller. Jarmusch's next two films--Mystery Train and Night On Earth--experimented with parallel narratives, multiple stories connected by theme rather than plot. One of Jarmusch's favorite devices is to have a foreigner speaking in a native tongue while others struggle to understand. We see this with Aunt Lotte in Stranger Than Paradise, Benigni in Down By Law, the East German cab driver in Night On Earth and the Haitian ice cream man in Ghost Dog. Tom Waits observed of Jarmusch: "Jim went gray when he was 15...As a result, he always felt like an immigrant...a benign, fascinated foreigner. All his films are about that."

Music is crucial to Jarmusch's storytelling. His films have a unique vibe, slightly out of tune with a heavy reliance on music to invoke tone. Whether it's John Lurie's discordant jazz for Down By Law, Neil Young's sonic guitarscape for Dead Man or Mulatu Astatke's Ethio-jazz rhythms for Broken Flowers, Jarmusch's soundtracks are always memorable. Jarmusch himself is a musician. He played guitar for the early 80's band The Del Byzanteens and he recently completed an album with Dutch composer Jozef Van Wissem. Jarmusch loves using musicians as actors in his films. These include Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, John Lurie, RZA, Jack & Meg White and Screaming Jay Hawkins.

Jarmusch is currently completing a romantic vampire film called Only Lovers Left Alive. He is also working on a documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges as well as an experimental opera about Nikola Tesla. Jarmusch is the founding member of the tongue-in-cheek 'semi-secret' society called the Sons of Lee Marvin. Members supposedly include Tom Waits, John Lurie, Iggy Pop, Josh Brolin, Neil Young and Nick Cave. The qualification for membership is that you possess a passing resemblance or plausibly look like a son of actor Lee Marvin. (5" x 7", black ink print)


  1. Nice likeness. Is the series going to be capped by an actual Lee Marvin?

    1. Lee Marvin is definitely in the works. Next up...Nick Cave.