When The Dead Don’t Die opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jim Jarmusch’s comedy about a zombie apocalypse in the fictitious town of Centerville was met with a generally warm albeit not a wildly enthusiastic first round of reviews. The premiere was, as Manohla Dargis noted in the New York Times, the first time Jarmusch had “properly seen the movie and asked if he enjoyed it, he said why, yes, he had: ‘I thought it was funny and dark, ridiculous, and a little bit beautiful.’”
Dead pits three hapless police officers (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny) against a ragtag army of the undead (a slew of Jarmusch regulars including Iggy Pop and Tom Waits), and in the run-up to its theatrical release in a couple of weeks, Boston’s Brattle Theatre is screening a greatest hits sampler through Thursday and New York’s Metrograph is presenting a full-blown retrospective through June 13. “One marvels at the persistence of vision over these past thirty-five years, our premier poet of inertia jumping between genres and continents while refining a distinctive style unmistakably his own,” writes Sean Burns, previewing the Brattle series for WBUR. “It’s a dryly literate, rockabilly beatnik sensibility slowed down to a quarter speed, positively swimming in silences. Stumble upon one part way through and you can tell you’re watching a Jim Jarmusch movie within thirty seconds.”
Fully intending to be a poet, Jarmusch arrived in New York in the early 1970s from Ohio by way of Chicago. After a ten-month stint in Paris as a driver for an art gallery, where he spent most of his nights at the Cinémathèque française, he returned to study at NYU, where he became an assistant to Nicholas Ray, performed at clubs with a series of ad hoc bands, and began work on his first feature. In an essay for Cinergie, Maria Teresa Soldani places Permanent Vacation (1980) within the context of the No Wave scene that, from the mid-1970s through the early ’80s, channeled the desperate energy of a city in the throes of its deepest crisis into an amalgam of music, performance, and no-budget films.
The breakthrough came four years after Permanent Vacation, when Stranger Than Paradise won the Camera d’Or in 1984, Cannes’s award for the best first feature. “As modest and self-contained as it is rich and distinctive, Jarmusch’s remarkable synthesis crossed film-school cinephilia with downtown club culture,” wrote J. Hoberman in 2007. Jarmusch followed Stranger with a breakthrough of an entirely different sort—he left New York. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni are an unlikely comedic trio of prisoners who break out of a Louisiana jail in Down by Law (1986). “New Orleans and its surroundings pass in review, from left to right, etched in crystalline black and white by Robby Müller’s camera,” wrote Luc Sante in 2012, and the film marked the launch of a remarkable collaboration between Jarmusch and the late cinematographer. Sante notes that after the breakout that we never see, “scenes unfold amid semitropical architecture and in the bayous; you hear Cajun accents and Irma Thomas singing, but for all the flavor of filé gumbo, the actual setting is no more Louisiana than the setting of Macao is Macao. Down by Law takes place in the land of the imagination, in the province of the movies.”
Writing about Mystery Train (1989), a triptych of stories set in Memphis, “the mythic birthplace of American popular music,” Dennis Lim observed in 2010 that it “caps a trilogy that presents America as a strange land full of strangers.” Jarmusch’s scope widened even further in Night on Earth (1991), a collection of five nocturnal scenes set in taxis rolling through Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. With Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch “took a hairpin turn into the land of genre experiment,” wrote Ashley Clark for the BFI in 2015. “It’s arguably his most haunting and poetic work to date, and further notable for its sensitivity and genuine interest in exploring Native American culture.” As Amy Taubin put it last year, Dead Man is a “visionary, rather than revisionist, western.”
The soundtrack for Dead Man was famously—and incredibly—improvised by Neil Young, and the following year, Jarmusch followed Young and his band Crazy Horse on a tour to shoot the documentary Year of the Horse (1997). “Shot on Super 8 and 16 mm film as well as Hi-8 video, Year of the Horse boasts a low-fi look to match the snap crackle crunch of the music,” wrote Eric Hynes for Reverse Shot in 2005. The snap crackles and crunches even harder in RZA’s soundtrack for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), starring Forest Whitaker as a hitman who lives by an ancient code. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott suggested that “the best way to appreciate this fascinating but uneven film may be to resist it, to watch it unfold in the persistent, persistently thwarted expectation that it will erupt into the hip-hop Mafia shoot-'em-up it stubbornly refuses to be.”
Following Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), another collection of two-handed vignettes—like Night on Earth, but in black and white and substituting cabs for cafés—Jarmusch teamed up for the first time with Bill Murray on Broken Flowers (2005), a melancholic tour of an aging Don Juan’s former lives and loves. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it Jarmusch’s “most enjoyable, accessible work for some time, perhaps his most emotionally generous film.”
The Limits of Control (2009) stars Isaach de Bankolé as an assassin on assignment in Spain, and talking to Jarmusch for the New York Times, Dennis Lim noted that the film “harks back to the existential crime films that enjoyed a golden age in the late ’60s with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï and John Boorman’s Point Blank. Mr. Jarmusch summed up his intentions with typical dry perversity: ‘I always wanted to make an action film with no action, or a film with suspense but no drama.’” Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), an even deeper dive into genre with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska as vampires, “is less about matters of blood and its acquisition than what it takes for love and romance to survive over centuries,” wrote the Austin Chronicle’s Margorie Baumgarten.
Paterson (2016) marked Jarmusch’s first collaboration with Adam Driver, who plays a poet inspired by the life and work of William Carlos Williams. “It is a meticulously composed movie, shot beautifully by Frederick Elmes,” wrote Glenn Kenny for RogerEbert.com, and “a movie that actually grows more enigmatic on a second viewing.” When Paterson screened along with Gimme Danger (2016), Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges at the New York Film Festival, NYFF director Kent Jones engaged the director in a conversation about his inspirations and boundless and endlessly fruitful cinephilia.
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