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Jim Jarmusch: Behind the Shades

Before you check out 'Only Lovers Left Alive,' here's a quick look back at the Pope of Cool's filmography

April 11, 2014 1:30 PM ET
Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Loners and outcasts have no greater cinematic patron saint than Jim Jarmusch, the fiercely independent writer-director who's spent over three decades chronicling urban fringe-dwellers, road trippers, rockabilly tourists, Zen hitmen and, now, vampires. The 60-year-old filmmaker's latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, centers on a centuries-old couple (played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) who like their Type O served neat, though its a far cry from the recent wave of vampire chic; it's really a languorous romance in which two lovers struggle with immortality-engendered ennui. It may be Jarmusch's first foray into horror films, and it's set in Detroit rather than his adopted hometown of New York City. But Lovers is the latest addition to a career devoted a existential quests and a fondness for characters in search of companionship and community. 

The Beginning
Jarmusch has claimed kinship with outsiders from an early age, admitting in a 1984 Film Comment interview that while growing up in Akron, Ohio, he admitted that "[in high school] everyone was forming social groups and none of them seemed to have anything to do with me. So, I was pretty much outside of things." Manhattan offered a more nurturing laboratory for his left-of-center sensibilities, so the former Buckeye-state resident transferred to Columbia University and then, later, New York University's filmmaking program. he arrived just in time to surf the late-1970s Lower East Side's ragged, punk-rock counterculture attitude, but he quickly established a singular philosophical approach: wry, unruly, ruminative, melancholy and – most important of all – cooler than cool. Forget New Wave or No Wave; despite collaborating with a number of downtown movers and shakers, he was his own one-man wave.

After establishing that idiosyncratic mode with a first feature, Permanent Vacation, (a cult hit in Europe that never received a theatrical release stateside), Jarmusch would make a splash with his nominal debut: 1984's Stranger than Paradise. The second of his three collaborations with actor/musician/iconoclast John Lurie, Paradise boasts virtually no plot – it simply observes as two go-nowhere guys travel from New York to Cleveland to see a cousin who's visiting from Hungary. Yet thanks to its abundance of assured hepcat poise and laid-back humor, Jarmusch's low-budget, black-and-white film almost instantly made him a marquee-name maverick in the burgeoning American-independent film scene. 

 Tilda Swinton Lives by Night

All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go
Stranger Than Paradise's success and style would set the stage for his next three films: Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991). The first of these extends Stranger's monochromatic, sitcom-by-Samuel-Beckett sensibility, pairing Lurie with singer-songwriter Tom Waits and a pre-Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni as convicts stuck in a Louisiana jail. Incapable of speaking much English, Benigni's fish-out-of-water Italian is a prototypical Jarmusch figure: He's a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner detached from his surroundings and those around him via numerous cultural barriers. 

The same goes for Mystery Train's Japanese sightseers, Italian widow and sad-sack liquor-store robbers (which includes the Clash's Joe Strummer); they all seem to be lounging in the perpetual limbo of Memphis, both physically and momentum-wise. The last of this loose trilogy, Night on Earth, extends the other films' free-floating sense of alienation to a global level, straining together five different stories in five different cities — L.A., New York City, Paris, Rome and Helsinki— that all take place in taxi cabs. His characters might succeed in locating a home and partners, but such personal "victories" often seem transitory at best. It's as if the best anyone can hope for is a fleeting bit of connection with a kindred spirit, even if that spirit is the ghost of Elvis Aaron Presley.

Fellow Travelers
Where do you go once you've perfected a signature hip, hangdog comedy template? You turn inward. Dead Man, Jarmusch's 1995 "psychedelic Western," narrows its focus from band of outsiders to a lone figure — a nebbish accountant played by Johnny Depp — who travels through a bizarre frontier landscape in which he doesn't fit. Wounded by a bullet, the numbers-cruncher pairs up with a wandering Native American (his name: Nobody) who helps the visitor to his destination(s). A historical commentary that's both hauntingly ambiguous and doggedly unconventional, Dead Man was a turning point toward the elusive and the symbolic. Jarmusch's signature blend of bewildering loneliness and deadpan humor remained, but there was a now a spiritual bent that suggested the filmmaker was broadening his horizons substantially.

The Zen genre-bending was taken to further extremes with 1999's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, an ahead-of-its-time mixture of a movie that synthesized film noir, French crime dramas, Asian martial-arts action sagas, and hip-hop into the story of a professional assassin played by Forest Whitaker. For Jarmusch, both of these movies weren't just the next logical steps in a career that's increasingly seen him drawn to the past (historical, cinematic) and his personal preoccupations; they were breakthroughs that found him moving toward abstract, expressionistic means of conveying his worldview. He was no longer just the guy the who trafficked in too-cool-for-school tales of slow-motion drifting. Jarmusch was dipping his toe into the mystic.

A 2003 collection of old and new shorts titled Coffee and Cigarettes (featuring the White Stripes bantering about Tesla coils and, in the anthology's high point, a vignette featuring the Wu Tang Clan's RZA, GZA and Bill Murray) and 2005's dry road movie Broken Flowers both felt like amusing asides. Then came 2009's minimalist The Limits of Control, which charts a hit man (French actor Isaach De Bankolé) on a dreamlike, Point Blank-ish mission. Information is doled out on a strict, need-to-know basis, and sometimes not even then. The European art-house style that had informed all of Jarmusch's work had fully taken over, yet the spiritual-seeker vibe of Dead Man and Ghost Dog remained. It ends with a camera tilting sideways — a nice metaphor for Jarmusch's knack for upending expectations about the kind of movies he would (or should) make.

Which brings us to Only Lovers Left Alive, which somehow manages to channel his characteristic love of hanging out, upend horror-movie clichés and expand on Jarmusch's mid-career decision to mine malaise for inner-vision spiritual material all at the same time. The song is in a different key, but otherwise, it reamins the same. These vampires might go for the jugular of Down By Law's low-rate hustlers or The Limit of Control's cryptic killer-for-hire. Or they might all sit down, talk about Jean Genet's novels, share a hot cup of Joe and smoke, and try to connect. They're all strangers in one paradise or another.

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