In a business filled with cookie-cutter directors, independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is a Swiss Army knife. Mystery Train, shot in Memphis and featuring the ghost of Elvis Presley, is the latest in a series of quirky, surreal, sometimes boring and frequently hilarious film noir comedies from a director who wants us to behold, as one of his characters puts it, a “sad and beautiful world.” Jarmusch’s films are as experimental and distinctive in the world of cinema as, say, the novels of Philip K. Dick are in science fiction.
The films Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986) and Mystery Train, which is currently rolling out across the country, were cast, written and directed by Jarmusch, who insists on creative control. That means shoestring financing (Mystery Train was made for a modest $ 2.8 million) and seat-of-the-pants ingenuity. Jarmusch does not owe his soul to any company store. “I object strongly to businessmen telling me how to make a film,” he says. “The business side is there to serve the film. I don’t make films so that business can exist.”
Little wonder, then, that the major studios steer clear of him. Jarmusch’s films contain no formulaic romances, car chases or superstar casting to shore up their box-office appeal. Using a minimalist style that charges the mundane with meaning, he plays with concepts like synchronicity that are not often found in Cineplex fodder. He says simply, “There are an unlimited number of perspectives. I find optimism in that.”
That attitude has made Jarmusch a cult figure, especially in Europe and Japan; moreover, his critical reputation continues to swell. Vincent Canby of the New York Times hailed Jarmusch as the “most adventurous and arresting filmmaker to surface in the American cinema in this decade.”
Mystery Train is a formally designed three-act film that follows the overlapping activities of people staying in a grungy Memphis hotel called the Arcade. Teenage Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) check out the Sun Records studios where Presley recorded, an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) is visited by the King’s ghost, and a hood nicknamed Elvis (Joe Strummer) and two pals (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) hole up in the Arcade after a liquor-store shooting. It is a world in which the hotel clerk, played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, ponders such cosmic factoids as “At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would have weighed 648 pounds.” The subtly drawn stories of this alluring combination of characters are stacked like three strange dreams in one night’s restless sleep.
At thirty-six, Jarmusch looks like a character in one of his own celluloid reveries. Lanky and muscular, he rarely smiles but has a disarmingly deep laugh. His head is crowned with a shock of white hair swept up as if he were on his way to a pompadour-off with Buster Poindexter. In fact, he comes by his locks genetically. His mother’s and uncle’s hair went white at age fourteen, just as Jim’s did. Still, the effect gives him the haunted aura of a man who has just seen a ghost.
For the record, he never has. But Jarmusch says he did spot a UFO once. “When I was a kid, I saw a thing traveling in the sky that stopped and moved a bit,” he says. “It was a little brighter than a star but about that intensity and size. It stopped. Then it moved a little bit. Then it went … pffffftt … straight out of sight. That weren’t no airplane. That weren’t no swamp gas.” He definitely believes we are not alone. “How could we think we are the center of the universe?” he asks. “I think if aliens study Earth, to them it is probably like somebody’s science-fair project, and they probably got a D on it.”
Jarmusch grew up in Akron; he was the middle child of a father who worked for the B.F. Goodrich Company and a mother who wrote movie reviews for the Akron Beacon Journal. Jarmusch’s own life followed a less traditional course. His jobs were many and varied. “I worked on assembly lines,” he says. “I have been a moving man. I’ve worked in hotels. I’ve been a waiter. I was a cab driver briefly in Chicago. I loaded things onto trucks. I was a member of a sheet-metal and aircraft-workers union. Once I had a job working [as an orderly’s helper] in a Cook County mental hospital.”
After earning a BA in English literature from Columbia University, Jarmusch moved on to New York University’s film school. He never finished; instead, he used his tuition money to help finance his first film, Permanent Vacation, shot in ten days for $10,000. Making exactly the kind of movies he wants to has occupied his time ever since. Consequently, this outlaw-entrepreneur is still a distance from becoming rich. Jarmusch and his girlfriend, Sara Driver, live in New York City’s Bowery district. He fits right in. “I am near Little Italy and Chinatown,” he says. “There are also Hasidic Jews and Puerto Ricans. I just like that mix.” He’s only been mugged once, and then it was by eight junkies in the subway.
Jarmusch insists that he’s surprised when fans recognize him and request an autograph, and he always thinks, “Hey, who do you think I am? I’m buying records in a line, just like you.” He reads Eastern philosophy and says he likes to hang out with friends in bars.
Spielberg he ain’t, and definitely doesn’t want to be. “I have real problems with Spielberg’s films,” Jarmusch says, pointing to a prime example of what he believes is wrong with American cinema. “I don’t want to just slag the guy personally, but to me he makes Walt Disney films. I think it is really reprehensible that he takes for granted that everybody’s white, everybody’s middle class and everybody has the same aspirations. And that’s the way America is. Or he goes out and makes a film that my friends and I call Colored People. That’s like ‘Yaz, massah, I’s gwine fishin’.’ That kind of thing. At the same time, as a craftsman, he’s really amazing. But in terms of content, I think you have to be aware of what you are leading the audience to believe.”
Jarmusch is a dedicated student of all manner of foreign films. He admits to never having seen Gone With the Wind but is intimately familiar with the works of Japanese directors like Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai). As far as Americans go, he admires outsiders such as Spike Lee, the late John Cassavetes and Nicholas Ray (he studied with Ray at NYU’s film school and worked as his teaching assistant).
But Jarmusch is quick to argue that he is more than a celluloid addict. “I find it disturbing that a lot of people who work in films get their inspiration only from cinema and not from, say, literature or music or painting or theater or architecture or the design of a motorcycle,” he says. “Just listening in a bus station is more valuable than watching mainstream films.”