It’s ironic that filmmaker Jim Jarmusch first came to prominence in the 1980s. At a time when nearly every piece of entertainment was informed by enormity, loudness and surface flash, Jarmusch resolutely followed the beat of his own drum.
Jarmusch drew inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s penchant for long, slow takes, Jean-Luc Godard’s alloy of vérité raggedness and detached artistry, jazz music’s open-ended obliqueness, and the unimpeachable cool of vintage rock ’n’ roll. He interjected that confluence of elements with undeniable originality and connected deeply with a die-hard cult of fans, filmmakers and critics in the process.
The veteran writer/director has eased himself into the mainstream over the last two decades, partly by rebuilding shopworn film genres on his own terms. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is, on its face, an action movie, and 2014’s Only Lovers Left Alive dons the dark gothic threads of a horror flick. But they’re still Jim Jarmusch movies, populated by misfits on journeys of self-discovery who drift through a dreamlike, seemingly random world. And Jarmusch’s stylistic calling cards—stretches of beautiful silence, sometimes leisurely pacing and a loving use of music—have remained consistent in the decades since.
The Grand Illusion is screening Jarmusch’s first half-dozen features throughout November. All but one (Dead Man) will be presented on analog film stock; Permanent Vacation screens on 16mm, while the remainder will be presented in 35mm. It’s a golden opportunity for cinephiles and the curious alike to follow the man’s early development into one of modern cinema’s most influential figures. Below is a rundown of the Grand Illusion’s Jim Jarmusch roster.
Stranger than Paradise (Nov. 2–5, Nov. 7)
The GI’s series begins with Jarmusch’s revelatory 1984 second feature, a wonderfully odd and subtle buddy comedy of sorts in which a visiting Hungarian teenager (Ezster Balint) joins her aimless older cousin (John Lurie) and his close pal Eddie (Richard Edson) on a road odyssey that runs from New York to Florida. It’s a refinement of many of the themes Jarmusch introduced in his 1981 feature debut, Permanent Vacation: In direct contrast to their usually quiet demeanors, all three of the Jarmusch-ian main characters in Stranger than Paradise are on a spiritual and physical journey.
Down by Law (Nov. 2–5, Nov. 7)
The word “masterpiece” gets tossed around with numbing frequency, but Jarmusch’s third full-length film, released in 1986, merits that lofty label. It’s a wry, dry comedy in which a ragtag trio of inmates—an unemployed DJ (Tom Waits), a low-rent pimp (John Lurie) and a hyperactive Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni)—break out of a Louisiana prison and attempt to make their way to freedom. Jarmusch combines film noir, Beat-poetry starkness, Italian neo-realist visual beauty (Robby Muller’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography definitely evokes Fellini) and off-the-cuff humor to perfection.
Permanent Vacation (Nov. 3, Nov. 6)
The Grand Illusion’s decision not to program this retrospective chronologically is a wise one, especially for Jarmusch newbies. Jarmusch’s 1981 feature debut follows a wet-behind-the-ears 20-something kid (Chris Parker) as he wanders through the urban wasteland of New York and tries to sort some meaning out of his directionless existence. It’s a fascinating signpost for the writer/director’s aesthetic development, rough edges and all, which makes it a richer view once you’ve got some of Jarmusch’s more widely lauded gems under your belt.
Night on Earth (Nov. 9–13, Nov. 15)
To date, Jim Jarmusch has written and directed three feature-length anthologies. Night on Earth zeroes in on six different cab rides in six different cities across the globe. This 1991 film almost feels like Jarmusch’s answer to critics who previously dismissed his output as remote and cooler-than-thou. It represents some of the most openly sentimental work he’s ever done, while still retaining his wry wit and questioning existential storytelling sense. There’s a terrific cast (Gena Rowlands, Wynona Ryder and Giancarlo Esposito among them) bolstering the segments, too.
Mystery Train (Nov. 9–13, Nov. 15)
One of the hallmarks of Jim Jarmusch’s canon is his fondness for—and canny use of—music. This 1989 anthology threads together several disparate characters visiting and/or trapped in Memphis, Tenn., where the spirit of Elvis Presley hovers over everyone and everything like so much blue-suede fog. Several musicians including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Clash’s Joe Strummer and the voice of Tom Waits (whose offscreen presence represents a sorta-reprise of his role in Down by Law) acquit themselves well as actors, and Jarmusch connects his characters with engaging fluidity.
Dead Man (Nov. 16–21):
Jarmusch’s existential 1995 western tells the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), a humble accountant who ends up on the lam after killing the son of the town’s industry baron in a lover’s quarrel. As befits Jarmusch, the escape also becomes a quest for spiritual peace and purpose. Even if you’re hard-pressed to overlook the elephant in the room that is Depp’s recent personal life, Dead Man remains one of Jarmusch’s best movies. Its dreamlike pacing, surreal atmosphere, terrific supporting cast, evocative Neil Young score and still-breathtaking Robby Muller cinematography combine to generate one of the best visual evocations of a dark fairy tale you’ll ever see.
The Grand Illusion Cinema’s Jim Jarmusch series begins Nov. 2. Tickets and more info here.