There is, quite simply, no director like Jim Jarmusch. He was one of a selection of filmmakers, who made his mark on the cinematic landscape during the thriving US indie scene between the 70s & 90s. However, whereas many other distinguished directors from that period went on to form part of Hollywood’s eternally beating heart, Jarmusch forever remained determinedly fixed to his independent roots. He crafted a succession of fantastic films, each of them daring to defy convention and embodying the sprit of individuality.
Looking at the work of Jarmusch now, it almost feels natural to apply the characteristics of auteur theory, but it would be wrong – not least because the director himself is notably dismissive of such philosophy. Instead, it is best to look upon Jarmusch’s eclectic filmography as poetry in motion, with the director using various styles and cinematic techniques to express his own feelings and ideas. From the metaphorically magnificent Permanent Vacation, to the broodingly brilliant Only Lovers Left Alive, each one of Jarmusch’s films is driven by the unique vision of an extraordinary man, who realizes that film can be used to do so much more than simply tell a story.
Now, in the same year that Jarmusch has released what is perhaps his most accomplished film to date, the BFI are presenting us with a complete retrospect of the director’s work, combined with a selection of films that Jarmusch himself holds close to his heart. For anyone not familiar with him, this is a fantastic opportunity to discover the brilliance of this illustrious filmmaker. For those who are, what better excuse could you have for reacquainting yourself with this dazzlingly diverse director? Don’t worry if you haven’t time to see them all though. Here at Culturefly, in order to help you along, we’ve comprised a list of the 5 films we believe are fundamental to Jarmusch’s career thus far, from his first hypnotically experimental film, to his latest.
Permanent Vacation (1980) – 9th & 12th September
Many people would be inclined to recommend Jarmusch’s highly influential second film Stanger Than Paradise as the place to start when reflecting on his work, but it would be callous to disregard the film he founded his career upon. Journeying in to the heart of New York’s dingy underbelly through the eyes of disaffected adolescent Allie (played with naturalism by Chris Parker), this character-driven tale of alienation pinpoints Jarmusch’s keen aptitude for experimenting with the cinematic form. John Lurie’s superb saxophone score is meticulously mixed with Tom DiCillo & James Lebovitz’ starkly baron tableau, crafting an alternative vision of the Big Apple that, though instilled with vibrancy and culture, reveals itself to be a lonely ghost town at its core.
Down By Law (1986) – 12th to 28th September
Despite the great films he has made since Down By Law, many fans still consider this third feature of his to be his finest. As you would expect, the narrative, which concerns the exploits of three criminals who end up sharing a prison cell together and plot to escape, is fairly inconsequential, merely acting as a tool to help Jarmusch tell a larger story. Dispensing with the usual jailbreak conventions, the director focuses his attention wholly on the three men at the film’s centre – played by John Laurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni – and how their interactions slowly allow for their characters to develop. Though emotively fused, Jarmusch peppers his script with trademark wit, and utilizes Robert Müllers exemplary cinematography skills to commanding effect, making this study of men doing time feel… well… timeless.
Dead Man (1995) – 14th & 24th September
One of the most mesmerizing aspects of each Jarmusch film is his extraordinary use of music, and no film epitomizes how much of an integral role it plays within his ideas as Dead Man. The thundering strums of Neil Young’s guitar at once both conform to and subvert from the Western genre, rooting this story of one man’s journey across the American Frontier to its setting, while bathing it with a postmodernist tone that corresponds to its unconventional (and far more positive) depictions of Native Americans. Audaciously challenging the conventions set down by various classic John Ford westerns, Jarmusch crafts a “psychedelic Western” (as he calls it), that’s further enhanced by a host of flawless performances and powerfully provocative visuals.
Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1996) – 14th & 27th September
As Dead Man surely proved, Jim Jarmusch was quite adept at successfully rebelling against the conformities of a genre. Ghost Dog is another, if not more perfect example of the director’s assured hand for subversion. Here he amalgamates the characteristics of a Mafia thriller with the narrative style of the classic Samurai films to tell the story of the eponymous hitman ‘Ghost Dog’ (a tender yet tough Forest Whitaker), who is forced to do battle with Italian Mafioso’s after they decide to have him terminated. Jarmusch has lots of fun exaggerating the personalities of the Italian gangsters, while exploring ideas of friendship, professionalism and loyalty through his central character. The result is a film that’s as meaningful as it is entertaining, and is probably Jarmusch’s most accessible film to date.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – 4th & 7th October
All of the amazing elements, styles and techniques Jim Jarmusch has acquired and employed over the years seamlessly and sensationally fuse together in his latest and, dare we say it, best film to date. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film brimming with ideas. The central characters – two ancient vampires – are expertly used as a way of reflecting on the human races’ various achievements, while Yorick Le Saux’ haunting photography of a starkly baron modern day Detroit shows just how much modern society has failed. Integrated in to this is a fascinating meditation of everlasting love, sumptuously scored by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. Like every other film noted in this list, Only Lovers Left Alive will live in your memory long after you have seen it.