Friday, January 29, 2010

Favorites of My Favorites #9 -- Jim Jarmusch

My dad has been known to say, “There are really only two different types of people:  complicators and simplifiers.”  By his statement, I’m sure you can guess which of the two groups he’s in.

In filmmaking, it’s fairly easy to be a complicator.  The emotions emanating from the actors in a scene aren’t quite working, add music.  The film’s moving a little slow, add some fancy camera move or editing trick.  Not every single person watching your movie takes away the same thing, add another scene so there’s no longer anything left unsaid.   

Simplying in film is much like deconstructing, keep taking away elements until you’re left with just the bare essentials.  I would say that most filmmakers are complicators, even some of the guys I really love (Wong Kar-Wai, Godard, Leos Carax, and De Palma, to name but a few.)  But, there’s also a small group of simplifiers.  In this group, I would place, among others, Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, some Dardenne brothers, and Jim Jarmusch. 

I like almost everything about Jarmusch.  To me, he’s the Thelonious Monk of filmmaking.  His rhythms are very unique, but off and angular like Monk’s piano playing.  Along with David Gordon Green and Terrence Malick, he’s as close to a poet as anyone we’ve ever had in American film.  He’s finely attuned to the way that words sound and cuts them and his images in a way that’s less prose-like than it is abstract and atonal.

His work with all his cameramen is staggering.  But, I have to single out his collaboration with Robby Muller (particularly Dead Man and Down by Law) as one of my favorite in the history of the medium.  Muller also did incredible work with Wim Wenders (Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, and Paris, Texas.)

I love his musician collaborations, too.  I think with these unconventional composers (John Lurie, Tom Waits, Neil Young, RZA, and Boris), he’s been able to accomplish some of the most interesting scores of the last twenty-five years.

Jarmusch takes his time, both with the pacing of his films and, it seems, the pace of his filmmaking.  Since he emerged in 1980, he’s only made ten features and one documentary.  As I look around and see my life and our movies seemingly getting louder and faster every year, I take great comfort in knowing that Jarmusch is out there, Zen-like, trying to do it all in a very simple way.

JIM JARMUSCH (in preferential order)
1.  Stranger Than Paradise
2.  Dead Man
3.  Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
4.  Down By Law
5.  Mystery Train
6.  Permanent Vacation
7.  Night on Earth
8.  Broken Flowers
9.  The Limits of Control
10.  Coffee and Cigarettes

Never seen:
Year of the Horse


  1. I love Jarmusch too. He's sometimes uneven, but he's always interesting. Here's my ranking:

    1. Dead Man
    2. Down By Law
    3. Mystery Train
    4. Ghost Dog
    5. Night On Earth
    6. Stranger Than Paradise
    7. Broken Flowers
    8. Coffee and Cigarettes
    9. The Limits of Control

  2. Thanks, Ed! Totally with you on the love for Jarmusch. And great having your list, too.

  3. Jarmusch is also one of my faves and I have fond memories of discovering DOWN BY LAW in the 1980s and then checking out every new film of his when it came out. I always look forward to one of his films. It's very cool the relationship that he has with the Criterion Collection. They seem to be gradually releasing special editions of all of his films. I guess it doesn't hurt that Jarmusch owns all of his films outright. Anyways, my faves of his are:

    1. Down by Law
    2. Dead Man
    3. Night on Earth
    4. Stranger Than Paradise
    5. Mystery Train
    6. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
    7. Broken Flowers
    8. Coffee and Cigarettes

  4. JD, thanks so much for the comments and list! Funny you mention that about Criterion. I just watched that documentary on STRANGER THAN PARADISE this afternoon on its Criterion DVD, and it was pretty fantastic. Any other Criterion special features of Jarmusch's that you'd particularly recommend?

    Thanks again!

  5. I wasn't a fan of Jarmusch's last film, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, which was rather listless, but like you Jeffrey, and the others here I value his canon.

    I would agree with your #1 placement.

    1. Stranger Than Paradise
    2. Mystery Train
    3. Night on Earth
    4. Down By Law
    5. Dead Man
    6. Ghost Dog
    7. Broken Flowers
    8. Coffee and Cigarettes

  6. Sam, so great to see you here! I did struggle a little with THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, but it might be one I have to re-visit over time. So many elements I love were there -- Christopher Doyle, the crime genre, a little of THE LIMEY, a little of LE SAMOURAI, and a wonderful score. It just didn't grab me like I was hoping.

    Thanks again for the list and comments!

  7. Great lists everyone. Here's what mine would look like:

    1. Stranger Than Paradise
    2. Ghost Dog
    3. Dead Man
    4. Down By Law
    5. The Limits of Control
    6. Night on Earth
    7. Mystery Train
    8. Broken Flowers

  8. Hey Kevin, great to see you here! Thanks so much for sharing your list. Up next for me I think are AMREEKA, YOU, THE LIVING, THE WEDDING PARTY, and Lynch's DUMBLAND.

  9. I have a lot of Jarmusch to get to. My favorite remains Dead Man, though, which is a film that gets better with each viewing.

  10. Dave, I love DEAD MAN, too! I look forward to hearing how the other Jarmusch films treat you. I really like things about every one of them.

  11. Jeffrey,
    Great post. Jarmusch really has been the true independent. I did my final undergraduate paper basically comparing and contrasting his style and business sense versus the "indie" filmmakers at the current time, particularly of the rise of Tarantino and Rodriquez but also the mumblecore movement that was cropping up at the time. It's just amazing to really delve into what the term "independent" means in the industry and also how filmmakers have lived out that term.

    I remember watching Down by Law for the first time and just blown away by its simple outer layer and all the context I began to understand on repeat viewings. After getting into Jarmusch, totally changed my prejudice on what kind of films I wanted to see. Before I wanted flashy and loud alternative perspectives and I mellowed out after Down by Law.

    My Top 5
    1. Down by Law
    2. Stranger Than Paradise
    3. Ghost Dog
    4. Mystery Train
    5. Coffee and Cigarettes

    (Not actually a fan of Dead Man - too mellow!)

  12. Hey, Andrew, great post from you!

    I actually feel remiss that I didn't mention the fact that Jarmusch, unlike most filmmakers, still owns the negatives to each of his films. I couldn't agree with you more, he's an independent, about as head-strong and unwilling to conform as anyone out there.

    It's interesting for me to hear that he's actually responsible for shifting the kind of films you wanted to see. For me, that person was Godard. But I've always thought one film, one experience, could do that for someone.

    Thanks again for the excellent thoughts!

  13. Jeffrey Goodman: As far as extras on Jarmusch's Criterion DVDs, the one I always enjoy which he has done a couple of times are the Q&A sessions where he answers questions emailed into Criterion's website by fans. I just like hearing Jarmusch talk. He's very knowledgeable and has a real dry sense of humor that I dig.

  14. JD, I haven't seen those extras yet but that sounds like something right up my alley! I'll seek 'em out. I saw Jarmusch in person twice, once for an L.A. screening of GHOST DOG and then for COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. He's definitely one of my favorite people to listen to, a real cinephile and very funny, too. Thanks so much for the heads-up on these!

  15. If you dig Jarmusch you should really check it out his scenes in BLUE IN THE FACE, a largely improvised film shot with some of the actors from SMOKE. At any rate, Jarmusch does a whole bit where he talks about quitting smoking and segues into the depiction of smoking in movies which is very funny!

  16. JD, yeah that's a great cameo by him! I saw it when it first came out, ('95?, '96?), but haven't seen it since. I might have to re-visit. I remember really liking it, particularly Jarmusch's part, when I first saw it.

    By the way, I saw your post on THE ENDLESS SUMMER this morning. It's a film I've actually never seen, but your great piece definitely makes me want to change that.

  17. Jeffrey Goodman:

    Thanks! Yeah, I love that surfing film and its sequel is pretty good as well. There is something so simple yet direct about it as well as just plain entertaining.