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.”