An Introduction to Jim Jarmusch

Written January 2015
Within three consecutive days, I watched three of Jim Jarmusch’s most essential films: Down By Law, Mystery Train, and Stranger Than Paradise. The interesting part is that I always knew I would be a Jarmusch fan; the surprising part is that I felt and feel immensely, immeasurably connected to his films and him as a filmmaker. I related to each of Jarmusch’s films on every plane: from the filmmaking side -- the look, the feel, the characters and stories that I dream and strive to create or represent -- and from the side of the audience -- the experiences, the settings, the characters, down to the smallest one-liners.

As the son of immigrants, Jarmusch grew up in the American Midwest, an aspect that is clearly evident in his representation of places. Stranger Than Paradise (more like Strangers In Paradise) was Jarmusch’s breakout film and -- above all -- showcases the reality of the American landscape and of travel, including familial relations between immigrants. Aside from the setting focus, the dynamic between Willie, Eddie, and Eva is reminiscent of Band of Outsiders. But as a complement (and compliment) to such places, Jarmusch and cinematographer Tom DiCillo employ that trademark black-and-white photography which is anger-inducing and immaculate even when Jarmusch decides to later include color in his film, Mystery Train. In spite of this constantly beautiful cinematography, Jarmusch’s characters are, without hesitation, the main focus of each film and frame. They are characters which we are so quick to fall for, despite their leading flaws. That characterization aids deadpan humor (a personal favorite) as the primary entertainment elements.
Mystery Train also presents the realities of travel, shown through three varying tourist scenarios in which the people change but the location does not. This foray into color cinematography was tightly controlled and ultimately not in vain. Here, the details -- pieces of clothing, specific locations, and music -- become their own characters. Jarmusch has particular influences for each act, and there are only very small connections between each, unlike Stranger Than Paradise. Mystery Train is also an excuse for Jarmusch to create roles for each of his friends and frequent collaborators, the diversity of which only strengthens the film and hints to Jarmusch’s breadth and quality of filmmaking.
Down By Law has become my favorite of Jarmusch’s films, if not just for Tom Waits’ radio voice (which he reprises in Mystery Train). The admirable thing about Jarmusch is that his films are consistently poetic without isolating their audiences; Down By Law is undeniably the most poetic of all, as told through dialogue, frames, and tunes -- just within the first few minutes. Despite failed intentions for Down By Law and Mystery Train to be part of a Southern blues trilogy, Jarmusch offers satisfying segmentation and connection both between acts and across individual films. Roberto Benigni is perfection in his introductory American role.
With that said, Jarmusch’s humor, characters, and focus on geography as central to his stories are only the beginning. The influences of and influences from Jarmusch are simultaneously immediate and difficult to discern, which is likely an indication of the magnitude of the influence itself. His early films as trailblazers in independent cinema remain original in comparison to even their most original successors (Mystery Train brings the more recent, more brash Pulp Fiction to mind). Jarmusch is an auteur because he is consistent, authentic, and excels in every aspect that a good film should be made of. The general mood of each film is created with the help of blues songs as links and odes to pop culture; the pacing is slow but deliberate, and therefore rarely distracting. The “not for tourists” version of stories, and portraits of American cities in their most truthful, unglamourous form, are rare in cinema but a signature of Jarmusch’s perspective. With this, it is only logical that heis able to elevate the ordinary, seemingly small moments in life that are, in actuality, the most essential.
His films can now be added to the very few which I consider comfort films, and despite considerations of immediately rewatching these three films, I will continue onto more of Jarmusch’s work (up next: Night On Earth, Dead Man, Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes, Only Lovers Left  Alive).


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