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As the opening credits for Night on Earth begin to roll, we are informed that the film is a Locus Solus Production. A curious name, no doubt unfamiliar to most people, but one that reveals a great deal about Jim Jarmusch’s sensibility—what might be called the “Jarmusch touch”: that inimitable blend of deadpan humor, off-the-wall shenanigans, and exquisitely crafted images. It turns out that Locus Solus is the title of a novel by the eccentric, early twentieth-century French writer Raymond Roussel, a book admired by the surrealists and, a generation later, by the American poet John Ashbery—to such an extent that Ashbery and fellow writer Harry Mathews founded a magazine in the late fifties called . . . Locus Solus.
Few people know that Jim Jarmusch started out as a poet and that as a student at Columbia he served as one of the editors of the undergraduate literary magazine, The Columbia Review. The primary influences on his early work were Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, and other poets of the New York School. Against the prevailing formalism and academic dryness of American poetry in the 1950s, various insurrections were taking place around the country: the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, and, most subversively of all, the gang in New York. A new aesthetic was born. Poetry was no longer perceived as a dull and ponderous quest for universal truth or literary perfection. It stopped taking itself seriously and learned to relax, to poke fun at itself, to delight in the ordinary pleasures of the world. The notion of high art was abandoned in favor of an approach marked by frequent shifts in tone, a penchant for wit and nonsense, discontinuity, and an embrace of popular culture in all its myriad forms. Suddenly, poems were filled with references to comic-strip characters and movie stars. It was a homegrown American phenomenon, yet paradoxically the sources of this transformation largely came from Europe, in particular France.
From the start of his life as a filmmaker, Jarmusch has adhered to the principles he learned from these poets. Although his style has continued to evolve over the years, one thing has been constant throughout: his films resemble no one else’s. Unlike most American directors, he has little interest in narrative per se (hence the so-called European flavor of his work), choosing instead to recount shaggy-dog stories filled with loopy asides, unpredictable digressions, and an intense focus on what is happening at a particular moment. Although his dialogue has an off-the-cuff, improvisational quality (in the manner of the New York School poets), it is in fact highly written, acutely sensitive to the nuances of spoken language, the work of a real writer. So much so that some of his most memorable characters are foreigners, struggling to master English. Roberto Benigni in Down by Law, for example, or Armin Mueller-Stahl in the New York episode of Night on Earth.
Which brings me to the subject at hand. Just twenty-three minutes long, the second episode of this five-part film is quintessential Jarmusch, one of the purest, most neatly executed examples of his philosophy of filmmaking. Nothing happens, or so little in the way things traditionally happen in stories that we can almost say there is no story. A man takes a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The end. But every moment of this hilarious, poignant, zany sketch is unforgettable.
The male characters in Jarmusch’s films tend to be laconic, withdrawn, sorrowful mumblers (Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, Tom Waits in Down by Law, Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), with an occasional live-wire motormouth charging in to dominate the action. No live wire is more alive, no motormouth is in higher gear than Giancarlo Esposito in the second part of Night on Earth. His performance is so energetic, so tightly sprung, one feels that his entire body might explode at any second. After a languid montage of introductory shots, detailing a number of inanimate objects around the city (a glowing pay phone, a graffiti-covered truck), there he is, standing in the middle of Times Square on a freezing winter night, an oddly dressed black man wearing a grotesque fur hat with dangling earflaps, desperately trying to flag down a cab. It’s a widely known fact of New York life that black men, even black men dressed in suits and ties, have great difficulty getting taxis to stop for them. Esposito shouts at each passing cab, frantically waves his arms, implores each one to stop, but his efforts appear to be doomed. Then, a miracle. A cab pulls up, but when Esposito announces that he wants to go to Brooklyn, the driver steps on the gas and speeds off. This is another widely known fact of New York life, and as a longtime resident of Brooklyn, I can vouch for its accuracy. Taxi drivers are reluctant to take passengers from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Growing more and more agitated, Esposito pulls a wad of money from his pocket and holds it up in the air, proving that his intentions are honest: he can pay; all he wants is to go home. After another cab ignores him, he calls out in frustration: “What, am I invisible, man?” Note the subtlety of the line. The word racism has not been mentioned, but how not to think of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the classic exploration of what it means to be a black man in America? Whether Jarmusch is making a conscious or unconscious reference to the book is unimportant. The words are delivered in a natural, even humorous, way—and yet they sting.
A moment later, salvation comes in the person of Armin Mueller-Stahl, a neophyte cabbie who has just started working that night. With a kind and open expression on his face, he addresses Esposito in an unmistakable foreign accent: “Come in, sir.” It is a magnificent turn. From invisible man, Esposito has suddenly been transformed into a gentleman. The irony being, of course, that the person who has spoken to him in this way is ignorant of the rules. No American would use the word sir. It has taken a know-nothing immigrant to humanize and give dignity to our unfortunate traveler.
Then the fun begins. As the two make their way to “Brookland,” the journey is marked by a steady stream of comic mishaps and verbal misunderstandings. To start with, Mueller-Stahl has no idea how to drive a car with an automatic transmission. Using both feet, he alternately presses down the gas pedal and the brake, lurching forward at a ridiculously slow pace. Esposito is so miffed he threatens to get out and find another cab, but the sad-sack Mueller-Stahl begs him to stay. “You are my most best customer. It is very, very important to me.” Esposito relents, but only on the condition that they switch places and he do the driving. When Mueller-Stahl protests that it isn’t allowed, Esposito bluntly declares: “Yeah, it’s allowed. This is New York.”
So there we are, the two of them sitting side by side on the front seat, a former clown from East Germany by the name of Helmut and a black man from Brooklyn named YoYo, sporting nearly identical hats on their heads. From this simplest of setups, Jarmusch spins out a series of gags and inane comments worthy of Laurel and Hardy at their best, and whenever there is a lull in the conversation, we see the cab floating through a spectral New York, accompanied by Tom Waits’s impressive and evocative score. Just when we have settled in for what promises to be an entertaining ride, however, a third character appears, and all hell breaks loose. There goes Rosie Perez striding down a street in Lower Manhattan, decked out in a black miniskirt and a bright orange jacket. She happens to be YoYo’s sister-in-law, Angela, and he is beside himself with irritation at seeing her out alone. In one of the finest visual moments of the film, YoYo stops the car and rushes to the corner to cut off Angela. The point of view remains with Helmut, in the taxi—a long shot of the two Brooklynites arguing in the street—and then the camera cuts to a close-up of Helmut, grinning in fascination at the ferocity of the quarrel.
YoYo wrestles a struggling Angela into the back of the cab, and when he takes off again, the tone of the sequence abruptly shifts. No more odd-couple banter from the two men in front: a war has broken out between YoYo and Angela, an infantile shouting match that ranks as one of the silliest, funniest, most rambunctious exchanges in all of Jarmusch’s work. Rosie Perez doesn’t merely yell or scream—she shrieks, and in such a high-pitched, nasalized, barely human register that one’s first impulse is to cover one’s ears. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Nearly every word that comes from her mouth is fuck. And when it isn’t fuck, it’s asshole. Interspersed with such choice tidbits as: “You’re wearing your ass on your head.” Or, noticing the nearly identical hats worn by the two men: “What is this, the fuckin’ Rocky and Bullwinkle show?” Not to speak of: shut up, shut up, shut up.
Nevertheless, Helmut is smitten with Angela and finds her beautiful. When he plays her a little song on his two clown recorders, she finally laughs. And then, almost magically, there is a brief pause as the taxi crosses the Brooklyn Bridge. An awed hush at the beauty of everything around them. And then the fight starts again. YoYo complains that Angela is like a Chihuahua, always gnawing at his ankles. Angela replies that she’ll take a big fucking bite out of his big fucking ass, and Helmut smiles and mutters to himself, “Nice family,” as if he really meant it.
Inevitably, the ride comes to an end. After receiving a final Fuck you! from Angela, YoYo stays behind and does his best to instruct Helmut on how to steer himself back to Manhattan. By way of response, Helmut sticks a red clown nose on his face. The cab takes off, lurching forward in its old brake-and-pedal two-step, and when it comes to the first intersection, it turns left instead of right. Helmut is alone, lost in an unfamiliar world. “Learn some English,” he tells himself. Dark streets, sudden bursts of light, the noise of sirens in the distance, but for the first time the car is no longer jerking along. It appears that Helmut has overcome the problem of the automatic transmission. The cab is gliding through the night now, an endless night on earth, and as Helmut removes the clown nose, the expression on his face is one of fear and anxiety. He drives past a traffic accident and a number of police cars. A moment later, he whispers to himself: “New York . . . New York.”
And so ends Jim Jarmusch’s little poem about the city he loves.
Paul Auster is the author of The New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions, and many other novels, as well as the screenplay of Smoke. His most recent works are the novel Travels in the Scriptorium and the film The Inner Life of Martin Frost, which he wrote and directed.