Shawn Levy, "Postcards from Mars"


In Sight & Sound, 10:4 (April 2000), pp. 22-24.

Nothing could be more American than being an outsider -- except, maybe, hating outsiders. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants who banded together to slaughter a native people who were themselves hostile to aliens; who imported a race as slave labour and fought a ghastly internecine war over the right to keep up the practice; who became a superpower through bloody conflicts on remote continents and the scapegoating of an Other during a prolonged non-shooting war.

And yet, perversely, obstinately, we identify ourselves with external origins via grotesque hyphenates (I'm an Italo-Irish-Hebrew-American, myself); our celebrations of St Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo and Hanukkah are more vigorous than those in Dublin, Mexico City or Tel Aviv; our biggest cities have their Little Italies and their Chinatowns; our national fast food, the hamburger, is named for a German city and the runner-up in popularity, the pizza, is Italian. We are, in short, a mess of mixed bloodlines and contradictory impulses, simultaneously revelling in our genetic distinctions and suspicious of them.

Surprisingly few of our major film-makers, however, have bothered to chew over this oddity of our national character, D. W. Griffith and Howard Hawks, to name a pair of well-bred WASPs, espied the ethnic and racial minorities around the margins of the culture and were frankly discomfited by them. Modern directors such as Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Barry Levinson have worked from inside the perspective of individual groups disenfranchised by the majority but haven't, generally, considered them as dynamic parts of the greater whole.

Only two American directors have dealt openly and repeatedly with questions of ethnic, racial and religious heterogeneity, assimilation and mistrust: the great classicist John Ford and the postmodern groove master Jim Jarmusch -- and if you can name a stranger pair of kindred spirits, then you could make a living as an ecumenical matchmaker on the West Bank. For Ford, America was truly the proverbial melting pot of Swedish, German, Irish, Mexican, black, and, yes, native blood; he recognised and perhaps shared the inherent suspicions of and biases against aliens in the American character, but he seemed, too, to respect the unique traditions cultural minorities brought into the whole. He made one great film about bigotry (The Searchers) but then tried to apologise, after a fashion, in his late career with a series of lesser works celebrating (though he'd despise the thought) diversity: Sergeant Rutledge, Cheyenne Autumn, 7 Women.

Jarmusch, on the other hand, has been explicitly fascinated since his first major release Stranger than Paradise (1984) with the notion of America not as melting pot but as salad bowl -- a collection of independent and distinct ingredients, endemic, imported and idiosyncratically hybrid. Far less determined than Ford to see America's ideals and manifest destiny fulfilled, Jarmusch has the late-20th-century ironist's taste for irreconcilables juxtaposed. Travel in his films is less a means to an end than a process in and of itself; speech in languages other than English isn't always translated with subtitles; beginnings and ends seem arbitrary (indeed, they don't always come at the beginning and end); regular Americans seem just as odd and ill suited to their surroundings as aliens.

Jarmusch's first five mature features deal explicitly with immigrants -- the troika of Hungarians in Stranger than Paradise; the Italian jailbird (and his lover) in Down by Law (1986), a pair of Elvis-seeking Japanese hajis, an Italian widow and a British hothead in Mystery Train (1989); the taxis filled with out-of-towners and out-of-sorts-ers in Night on Earth (1991); a displaced eastern city slicker and a Native American educated in England in Dead Man (1995). (For clarity, let's leave out discussion of his quasi-autobiographical student film Permanent Vacation, 1980, though its story of a young man's adventures in the big, bohemian city incorporates themes and images of tourism and escape; also, let's skip his one feature-length work of non-fiction Year of the Horse, 1997, even though it is explicitly about a foreigner -- Canadian rocker Neil Young.)


UNALIENATED ALIENS

In his new film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Jarmusch shifts the thematic focus of his lens just slightly to consider not people living in a land other than that of their birth (though there is one of those) but people whose adherence to subcultures -- hi-hop, the Mafia and the code of the samurai, principally -- marks them as alien to the American mainstream. In this vision, as much a deconstruction of the mob film as Dead Man is of the Western, gangsters sing along with Public Enemy instead of Dean Martin, black hitmen study Yukio Mishima instead of Malcolm X, and a taciturn American can be best friends with a garrulous Haitian even though neither speaks a lick of the other's language.

Ghost Dog is decidedly darker than Jarmusch's earliest works and utterly sincere, possessed of a dignified sadness rather than the slightly rueful irony of his youth. (He was 31 and still playing in a punk rock band when Stranger than Paradise debuted.) The director retains his respect and affection for his characters, but treats them more tenderly now, perhaps because he can sense the mortality he shares with them. In this light, his fondness for aliens is, touchingly, a form of altruism: we shall pass this way but once, he seems to be telling us, and all that jazz.

Reading through his biography, it's tempting (and perhaps not altogether incorrect) to surmise that Jarmusch comes to his love of unalienated aliens for purely personal reasons. With his high-punk wardrobe and trademark shock of white hair, he stands out even in his adopted hometown of New York City. Jarmusch hails initially from Akron, Ohio, a small industrial city so well known for its production of rubber it was long considered a likely target for Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War. (Maybe this is why it was, in the 70s, a noted hotbed of both underground rock -- Devo, The Cramps -- and despair: at least one notorious survey listed the town as America's suicide capital.)

By his late teens jarmusch was attending Manhattan's Columbia University and taking a semester in Paris, where he haunted the Cinemathèque Francaise. He then pursued a graduate degree in film-making at New York University, during which time he worked as an assistant to Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders on their collaboration Lightning over Water. As his graduation project he used some leftover film stock Wenders gave him to make a short film called The New World -- which would evolve into the first chapter of Stranger than Paradise.

After nearly two decades of increasingly tedious and familiar American independent films, it's hard to recall just what a thunderclap Stranger felt like in 1984. Shot in a creamy black and white, populated almost entirely by non-actors and first-time actors, sketchy in its narrative, frightfully deadpan in its jokes, it was the sort of movie that changed the way other movies looked -- and which no other movie dared to imitate. Spare, comic, droll and, somehow, heartfelt, it answered only to its own sense of rhythm and technique; it was so unignorably idiosyncratic it won both the Caméra d'or for best first feature at Cannes and the National Society of Film Critics' award for best picture.

With the very first frames of Stranger, Jarmusch immersed his audience in what would become recognisable as obsessive images and themes: an immigrant arrives in the United States and encounters not the Statue of Liberty but taxiing aeroplanes and a run-down neighbourhood of walk-up apartments. Much of what followed would become equally familiar as Jarmusch continued to release films: the themes of immigration, road trips and wry hopefulness; the reliance on non-actors (especially such musician friends as John Lurie, Tom Waits, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer and Iggy Pop); the little webs of coincidence that passed as plotting; the eye for emptiness and post-industrial waste that made the cityscapes of New York, Cleveland, Memphis, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Helsinki look scarily alike.

BLANK GENERATION

Most idiosyncratically, Stranger introduced Jarmusch's chief cinematographic tic: the little black spaces between the scenes that punctuate and give rhythmic shape to all his films. No American film-maker of the talking-picture era has made such hay of the interstices that film affords. jarmusch's movies characteristically slip in and out of consciousness -- and not always at times that coincide with important (or, for that matter, trivial) moments in the plot. In all his films he gives the screen over to scenes of utter blankness -- characters reading, sitting, staring, walking, playing solitaire, listening to music. Yet at the same time vitally important material sometimes goes missing: the jailbreak in Down by Law, for instance, or the Hungarian girl's decision not to return to Budapest at the end of Stranger. In each case the plot hangs crucially in the balance of a moment Jarmusch has chosen not to render visually.

If on the one hand this is a sly way of making do with low budgets, it's also a critique of cinematic literalness. Nobody, it could be argued, makes movies so bald-facedly as Jarmusch, yet he demonstrates time and again that one needn't show -- or have your characters discuss -- everything that happens in order to convey to the audience that it has occurred. This above all marked Stranger as the work of an artist with a singular grasp of his medium. And over the course of the three features that followed, Jarmusch continued to explore the themes and tics introduced in that groundbreaking work.

In Down by Law there were, once again, three travellers, two more or less native (Waits and Lurie) and an immigrant (Roberto Benigni) whose presence catalyses and liberates his comrades. Like Stranger, it had a three-part structure (events leading up to jail; jail; events after escape) and a penchant for strangely low-brow yet highly conceptual comedy. Mystery Train was another three-parter, with a brief coda, about what happens one night in a cheap Memphis hotel. A formal experiment in simultaneity, it mixed the most American of signifiers -- Elvis Presley -- with, in turn, a couple from Yokohama who've journeyed to see Graceland and Sun Studios; a Roman widow visited by the ghost of the King; and an English yobbo (Strummer) whom everyone calls Elvis because of his retro hairstyle. The stories are united by a gunshot and a passing train, but the real unifying element is the increasing corporeality of Elvis, from spoor to vision to in-the-flesh imitator, of a kind. Like Stranger, Mystery Train begins and ends with images of locomotion -- quite literally in this case, as trains are the chief means of transportation. And it's as much a valentine to the allure of the American way of pop culture as it is a cheeky bit of structural legerdemain without terribly much resonating significance. (It, too, went over big at Cannes.)

In 1991 Jarmusch finally hit the far limits of the form he had devised. Night on Earth is the story of five taxi-cab rides taken simultaneously in five different cities in Europe and North America. In each story the driver and passengers interact in ways that change one or the other's view of his or her self: sins are confessed; a terrible wound is revealed; a woman discovers the finite charm of her supposedly infinitely alluring world; another woman reveals that her apparent disability is in fact a potent weapon; and, in the slightest and most ironic episode, an immigrant cab driver in New York City is so ill suited to his job he allows a passenger to drive, through which process both men discover their shared humanity.

It's a virtuosic film and a maddening one at the same time, filled with comic and empathetic high points yet lacquered with an overall sense of purposelessness. In a sense, everyone in the film is an equal -- passengers and drivers alike are like aliens in their own hometowns -- so the immigrant theme, while inescapable, doesn't carry the same weight or poignancy it bore in Jarmusch's other films. It's also the first film in which he seems to have dissipated his restless inventiveness by doing things he'd done before. Too closely imitating the interstitial passages in which clocks set to the time zones of the five cities spin backwards to the minute when all the stories begin, Jarmusch seems to be running in place on a treadmill.

A PLAUSIBLE WITNESS

Perhaps not coincidentally, the period after Night on Earth was the longest to date that Jarmusch would go without releasing a feature -- four years. When he re-emerged, it was with a film astonishing in its strangeness, originality, wit, craft, energy and refiguring of his essential fetishes. Dead Man is a Western John Ford wouldn't recognise, yet one which thoroughly honours and reinvents some of the great poetry Ford forged in his own depictions of the American past. It's a damning revision of the great theme of manifest destiny -- the presumptive fate of the white race to conquer and settle the North American continent. And it's a gorgeous film celebrating the raw beauty of the land, the beneficent wisdom of its natives, and the visceral gratification of plain storytelling.

The journey to the West is undertaken by the whitest of white men, a ghostly Johnny Depp playing a Cleveland accountant named William Blake who possesses none of the skills by which the wilderness or its feral inhabitants (native or immigrant) might be tamed. Fleeing from the town of Machine, a ghastly final outpost of colonial industry, Blake is protected and preserved by Nobody, a hulking Native American of mixed blood and European education (played with enormous good humour by Gary Farmer). Together -- and sometimes apart -- the two journey through a surreal landscape to a seacoast village where Nobody sends Blake towards a final destination where all men are aliens and natives both.

The film isn't a complete break with Jarmusch's earlier praxis: there's the theme of the immigrant and the aboriginal, the theme of restless travel and cyclical return, the sumptuous black-and-white cinematography, the mordant japery, the celebrity cameos (including, God bless him, Robert Mitchum in his very last role), the soundtrack that churns like fugal chamber music (but is actually Neil Young playing a solo electric guitar with piercing eeriness). But it opened up his possibilities as a film-maker in ways even an ardent fan couldn't have foreseen. Its structure is fluent and open-ended. It embraces its genre (it has a genre) and its lead character. Its narrative takes place in comprehensible and unified space-time and it comes to a full-stop ending. Sure, it's weird and post-hip and, at least in some of its technique, terribly arch: it's a Jim Jarmusch picture, after all. But it's a bracing leap away from the early films -- not so much a repudiation of their innovations and concerns as an application of them, as if by another artist digging around for fresh inspiration, to new material.

So, too, does Ghost Dog feel a new tack, with its obeisance to at least some of the laws of action films, its generally straight-ahead narration, and even the physique of its leading man Forest Whitaker, who uniquely among Jarmusch protagonists looks as though he's eaten at least once during the last month. And there are important resemblances to other films of its genre. Whitaker, always a disarming presence, makes for a thoroughly plausible and particularly menacing hitman (à la Get Carter, Point Blank or The Limey), brandishing his pistols like swords and all but silent save for voiceovers in which he reads from a 17th-century philosophy of the samurai; the gangsters who hire and then pursue him are delicious gargoyles save for the one (Louie, played by dog-faced John Tormey) to whom the hitman owes allegiance; the killings (killings in a Jarmusch film!) are beautifully staged (in particular the one that involves plumbing).

PLAYING FOR KEEPS

But there are elements here unique in the annals of mob stories. The key Jarmuschian ellipsis that impels the plot, for instance, isn't, as usual, a lacuna of space-time but rather a jarringly disparate account of a crucial event in the lives of the hitman and his mob master: whereas both men recall that the gangster rescued Ghost Dog from a racially charged and potentially lethal beating, Louie remembers that he killed the attackers because they pointed a gun at him, while Ghost Dog (who was, we must remember, dazed from the thrashing) thought he was the target of the pistol. It's an explicit invocation of Rashomon, yes, and one of several in the film, but the disharmony of the accounts is particularly shimmery because Ghost Dog's entire life of subservience to Louie is based on what might very well be a complete misapprehension -- one with, finally, irreversible results.

As in Jarmusch's early works, the outsider in Ghost Dog is recompensed for his alienness with suspicion, mistrust, persecution, nullification. But where the first films were steeped in a playful irony that made their knavish conclusions equivalent to pushing a kind of existential reset button, Ghost Dog, like Dead Man, is a game played vitally and for keeps. Jarmusch still loves his aliens, but as he nears middle age he seems less inclined to indulge their strangeness with whimsical, noncommittal plotting. His New World is coming to look more and more like the Old one -- a place where the only way to reinvent or redefine yourself is to leave. Throuble is, he's starting to tell us, all the good places to start fresh are full up.

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