Last week, Jarmusch entered the most important week of his life, a week when the response to his film's premiere at the New York Film Festival would determine whether he would be mentioned in the same breath as Cinematic Biggies or whether he would be just another poseur relegated to the East Village dumpster. It was a week that would decide whether he would be able to work as a filmmaker full time, or whether he would go back to being a process server, poster hanger, free-lance film editor, and usher at the St. Mark's Theater.
And it was a week when, in a small way, American film could change course, when it could hold its head up with the best of the world's cinema and still remain, indelibly, American.
Early last week, Jarmusch stands in the hallway of a cable TV studio with Reid Rosefelt, who is handling the press for the film, and John Lurie, one of the stars, waiting to be interviewed for a program called "The New Tomorrow's Television Tonight." People ignore them like furniture. The paint on the walls is thick and stippled, like a tenement's. Rosefelt, a genial penguin of a publicist with a prominent nose and fringed helmet of hair, explains that the program has gotten better -- they have a critic who works for Us magazine.
"Us magazine," Jarmusch says. "Oh great, Reid. You're fired."
Jarmusch blends into the scene as much as a 31-year-old man with completely white hair can blend in. His gentleness is belied by the sinister hollows that frame his forehead and the arch of his brow. Tall and gaunt, he wears only black: black shirt, black trousers, black sneakers, black cotton sweater. He looks like a refugee from the B movies he loves so well.
"I only know two people who even have cable TV," Jarmusch says, watching the monitor.
"I did 30 interviews in Cannes alone," he says. "And 10 around Europe. And 10 here. So 50. It's really starting to depress me. Especially when they say, 'What's your next project?' It's like, 'Shut up. It's none of your business. What's your next interview?' "
Now it's Jarmusch's turn in the studio. The camera starts to roll. The interviewer from Us announces that "Stranger" should be "One of the offbeat hits of the festival."
"Now the movie's very stylistically inventive," he says. "It's in black and white . . ."
Lurie puts his finger to his temple, stares at the ceiling until the interviewer addresses him. "You're from Minneapolis," he says. Turning to Jarmusch, he says, "And you're from Ay-kron, Ohio," pronouncing it like the name of some distant planet.
"Akron, Ohio," Jarmusch corrects.
"I wasn't driven here by some career-oriented thing," Lurie says. "It was just belching the best place to hang out."
The pair seems bored, distant, two boys trapped in the back pew of church on a sunny Sunday morning. A clip from the movie shows a funny, deadpan colloquy about TV dinners between a Hungarian girl and a down-and-out New York hustler.
Jarmusch and Lurie come out of the studio; followed by the interviewer. "I didn't get to ask anything I wanted to," he apologizes. He suggests to Jarmusch that his film is "new wave."
"It's supposed to be anti-new wave," Jarmusch demurs.
"But it came across as new wave," the interviewer insists.
"We failed!" Jarmusch laughs.
Since its inception in 1963, the New York Film Festival has become, like the opening of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic and the museums, a centerpiece of New York's autumn social gala, a way for the rich and the artistic in America's cultural capital to renew their acquaintance after their summer.
The essence of the festival, though, is discovery. Jean-Luc Godard was introduced to an American audience here; so were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andrzej Wajda, Bernardo Bertolucci -- indeed, almost every great foreign director of the past two decades got his start with American audiences at the New York Film Festival. Among American directors, Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") got his start here, as did Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven"), as did Robert Benton ("Places in the Heart," "Kramer vs. Kramer").
Selection for the film festival roster (this year, 26 films) gives a film exposure to the national media -- a movie like "Heart Like a Wheel" wouldn't be available today on videotape if it weren't for its favorable reception last year.
After a press screening, many reporters will file stories solely on the basis of the press conference that follows; such free publicity, for a film shot for a little over $100,000 by an unknown director, with unknown stars, is everything. Most important among the reviews is the one in The New York Times. A good Times review ensures a film a full run in one of New York's art houses; boffo New York box office puts backbone into a skittish distributor, convincing him to release a film in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and elsewhere. A small film can survive a pan in the Times -- the Taviani brothers' "Night of the Shooting Stars" did just that -- but such instances are rare.
Jarmusch lives on Prince Street in the East Village, on the same street as the Mateo Grocery and Yee Hing Fat Enterprises, the San Gandolfo Society and the La Nueva Mini Market. On Tuesday, a pony-tailed reporter from Heavy Metal magazine scales the four flights of stairs to Jarmusch's apartment. Jarmusch's girlfriend and fellow NYU Film School product Sara Driver, the producer of "Stranger Than Paradise," is on the phone -- at the last minute, they have had to obtain rights to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," and the five-figure sum, in the context of "Stranger's" low budget, has given everyone involved a little last-minute acid stomach. The Heavy Metal reporter sits on an automobile seat perched on a steel crate while Jarmusch, squatting on the edge of a rocking chair, answers his questions.
The interviewer asks him about the unique style of the film: each scene is composed of a single shot (there is no editing within the scene), and the screen blacks out between scenes (like Samuel Beckett, whose mood pervades "Stranger Than Paradise," Jarmusch does as much with nothing as he does with something).
The apartment is as spare as the film. On the wall is a 45 with "I JUS LUV DAT JIMBO" inscribed on the jacket, and a fortune cookie maxim that reads, "Men, like bullets, go farthest when they are smoothest." There are videotapes and reels of film stacked neatly around the apartment, and a scroll of projection screen hangs from the ceiling.
"I think the black spaces really are a contradiction," Jarmusch says. His answer is punctuated by loud brays of approbation from Heavy Metal. "Formally they form a separation."
"But as the film progresses, they become interconnected instead of separated."
Jim Jarmusch had his unhappy childhood in Akron, where his father worked for Goodyear and his mother, before her marriage, was the film critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal. "Everyone I knew in Akron wanted to leave," Jarmusch remembers. "The only beautiful thing about growing up in Akron was the Blimp. You'd be taking a walk and you'd see the Blimp go by. Maybe twice a week you'd see the Blimp. I love the Blimp, it's so beautiful."
Jarmusch left Akron for Northwestern's prestigious journalism school, but something about the formulas of news writing rankled him, and after a semester he was at Columbia, studying literature with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro, two of the prefects (along with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara) of the "New York School" of poets. Four years later he went downtown to New York University. Living downtown, Jarmusch surfed in the swirling tides of new wave rock 'n' roll, playing with a band called the Del-Byzanteens. "At that time everyone in New York had a band," Jarmusch recalls. "The idea was that you didn't have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise, and that influenced a lot of filmmakers."
Jarmusch's other profound influence at the time was director Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause"); Jarmusch became his assistant. "He said, 'If you want to make a film, you can make a film. Don't let anyone tell you it's impossible or that you have to have so much money.' And New York filmmaker Amos Poe said, 'Yeah, yeah, you can make a film, too.' "
NYU still hasn't awarded Jarmusch a diploma; he used his last semester's tuition money to make "Permanent Vacation," an 80-minute color feature that won a couple of international prizes. Jarmusch followed that with what was then called "Stranger Than Paradise" but is now called "The New World," a 30-minute black-and-white short made with film donated by "Paris, Texas" director Wim Wenders about a Hungarian girl, Eva who comes to America and stays for a time with her cousin Willie, a two-bit grifter. It was on the strength of that first 30 minutes that Jarmusch was able to interest German producer Otto Grokenberger and German television, who together provided the backing for what is now "Stranger Than Paradise," a triptych that continues the story, first when Willie and his pal Eddie visit Eva in Cleveland, then when they travel together to Florida.
"Stranger Than Paradise" is as peculiarly American as "The Honeymooners," but it's shot in an eclectic, ingenious style that Jarmusch says draws on sources as diverse as the Japanese director Ozu, Italian neo-realism, the French Nouvelle Vague, the new German cinema of Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog, and American B movies and horror flicks. If Godard is, in his own words, an American filmmaker living in exile, then Jarmusch is an American filmmaker living in exile in his own country.
"I'm an American," Jarmusch says. "And while I feel that my film formally is very un-American, it's about America, and the characters are very American. I think that's sort of what 'Stranger Than Paradise' is about, that America is different than other places and there are different ways of thinking about America. I hope this film is a sort of bridge between being American but also having influences, especially formally, from world cinema, non-American cinema."
"Stranger" opened to spirited acclaim at Cannes: the audience applauded in the middle of the screening, and it won the Camera d'Or prize for best first feature film. And it was after Cannes, and particularly after an equally enthusiastic reception in Los Angeles, that Jarmusch began to get scripts and two offers to go to Hollywood. One script was sent with a cover letter that read, "It's a little like 'Risky Business,' but after the rewrite it'll be more like 'The Graduate.' " Both offers were teen sex comedies. "I asked one of these guys who had sent me this script and was offering me like $100,000 to direct the film why he had sent it to me, and he said, 'I didn't see your film, but I heard it was a real funny comedy.' . . . I don't want to direct 'Porky's V.'
"It's all based on how many times your name was mentioned in Variety," says Jarmusch. "It's like Sam Fuller said: 'Hollywood is run by a bunch of guys who previously owned underwear factories.' All they know is the production line, the product and the revenues, and that's as far as they think."
Jarmusch arrives at Alice Tully Hall for the Wednesday morning press screening and, trailing Rosefelt, strides up to the projection booth. In Toronto, the projectionists had cued the reel changes so that some of the trademark black-outs of "Stranger" were lost.
"Which print is this?" Jarmusch asks, worried. "Is this the second print that was done just for the press screening?"
Outside, Jarmusch tells Rosefelt that he wants to cancel his interview with a student magazine at Columbia.
"I just feel that it's draining. I don't know if it's good publicity to do too many interviews. Everywhere you look . . ."Rosefelt changes the subject. "Did you see The Village Voice?"
That morning, Jarmusch's film had gotten a rave from Jim Hoberman ("It's very funny, and it's pure movie.").
"You're in The Village Voice?" asks a girl with spiked red hair and a bright hand-painted sweatshirt.
"He's famous now," Rosefelt says, grinning.
At the press conference, the usual: what sequence was the film shot in? Are you Hungarian? What's your next film? Was it supposed to be funny? Why do the actors wear hats?
"I think the hats were just to make us look as stupid as possible," Lurie says.
"They worked," adds Jarmusch.
Was the mention of 'Tokyo Story' in the film a deliberate allusion to Ozu?
"No no, it's the name of a racehorse."
"In the TV dinner scene, who's that behind the curtain?"
"The Wizard of Oz is behind the curtain," Jarmusch says, testily.
In the lobby, Jarmusch talks to a bearded actor. "I came in for the last one and a half reels," the actor says.
"I wish you had seen the whole thing," Jarmusch says.
"I thought it was a funny press conference," Rosefelt says.
The news Thursday is that David Ansen at Newsweek liked the movie. Time may do something. "Entertainment Tonight" wants to interview Jarmusch. The Times is said to be bumping its piece on Jarmusch from Friday to next Sunday's Arts and Leisure section – a good sign, although there is no word from the scrupulously taciturn Vincent Canby.
That night, Jarmusch rambles across SoHo to a gallery called La Placa, where Rammellzee, a rap singer and graffiti artist who has a sparkling cameo in "Stranger" is debuting a one-man show, "Nine Cases of Assassination, by the Magistrate."
"I'm going to be on Entertainment Tonight!" Jarmusch exults. He dances down Canal Street singing the show's theme. "Da-di-da-duh-duh DAAAAAAAAH!"
Inside, a packed SoHo coterie decked in thrift-shop chic breathes air that seems to have been pumped in from the nearby Holland Tunnel. Rammellzee stands among them, wearing a coonskin cap, with sunglasses propped on it, over a sheik's headgear, a leotard shirt, and a checked jacket with two handkerchiefs stuffed in the pocket.
"Asteroids," says one admirer of Zee's graffiti art. "It's like that moment you come in from the atmosphere. I can't get that image out of my head."
"Like the Godhead had spilled over," agrees another.
"I am not so convinced by Rammellzee," says Otto Grokenberger. "His last show vass -- "
"Better," Jarmusch agrees. "But he's a genius. When you talk to him . . . he's the kind of guy you could talk to for 20 minutes and your whole life could change. If you could understand him."
Jarmusch spends much of the party talking to his lawyer, Jim Stark. Throughout the festival, Jarmusch has been doing business: settling the rights controversy with Screamin' Jay Hawkins' record company; signing a deal memorandum with the Goldwyn Company, which will distribute the film; figuring out what to do with the camera he won at Cannes, which was shipped to the United States with several thousand dollars' worth of parts missing. Earlier, he had spent most of the day arguing with the lab that processed the print for the press screening -- it was printed on the wrong film stock and matted improperly. "Just mud," Jarmusch says. "Just disgusting."
On the way home, Jarmusch runs into the two drummers of the Del-Byzanteens, who say they've heard good things about his movie. "Yeah, it's got good word of mouth," Jarmusch says. "Word of mouth. Sounds like a disease."
At the "Entertainment Tonight" offices in the Gulf and Western building, Reid Rosefelt shows Jarmusch a copy of David Ansen's rave.
"Nice, very nice," Jarmusch says.
"I feel that things are going well. I hope it's not too much," Rosefelt worries. "You know, it's only a little black and white movie. I don't want people to be disappointed."
The pair are led into a room that is naked but for a camera and light, two chairs, and a monitor. Jarmusch is asked a battery of questions about the Film Festival and what it will do for his film commercially -- questions that don't interest him. When Jarmusch is bored, he gets Midwest-flat; his performance, replayed on the monitor, drones like an idling engine.
"What do you say, 'I hate the festival, it's for snobs'?" Jarmusch complains to Rosefelt in the elevator afterward. "It's like a commercial for the festival: 'The product is good.' "
"That bare room is missing something," Rosefelt says. They look at each other.
"Da-di-da-duh-duh DAAAAAAAA!" they sing in unison, boogieing out of the elevator.
The opening night party of the New York Film Festival takes place on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The women wear last year's backless dresses and the men, although it's black tie, wear just black.
Style points that are lost on Jim Jarmusch, who always wears all black. Who arrives and is greeted by Jeff Lipsky of the Goldwyn Company, who bears the early edition of Saturday's Times which, on Page 14, has Canby's review of "Stranger Than Paradise." The review leads:
"Jim Jarmusch's 'Stranger Than Paradise' looks as if it had been left on the windowsill too long . . . its images appear to have been aged by the sun and by general neglect until they've faded into a uniform shade of grey."
The lab! Wrong stock, wrong matte -- and Canby picked it up! Just mud! Just disgusting! O lost!
"I'll talk to Vincent and get him to see another print," Rosefelt says quietly. "I'll call Larry Van Gelder. There's things I can do."
Jarmusch is depressed. He doesn't seem to realize that Canby has gone on to say this is "one of the most original, wonderfully oddball, independent American films to turn up at the Lincoln Center festival in years." Or that such a blurb ensures success. That his little film, begun with extra film that Wim Wenders gave him to play with, could gross two, or three or even $5 million. That a star, his star, is born.