Jim Jarmusch fans rejoice! Today heralds the arrival of Paterson, the brilliant new film from the visionary indie auteur, to UK screens. Over the course of his four-decade-spanning career, Jarmusch has carved out a cinematic niche all of his own: one defined by minimalist narrative devices, deadpan humour, flawless soundtracks, iconic loner protagonists and existential musing. “The key, I think, to Jim, is that he went grey when he was 15,” Tom Waits, musician and star of Jarmusch’s 1986 film Down By Law, once noted. “As a result, he always felt like an immigrant in the teenage world. He’s been an immigrant – a benign, fascinated foreigner – ever since. And all his films are about that.” Here, in celebration of Paterson’s release, we reflect on five of Jarmusch’s most unmissable films, from his first marvellously offbeat offering to his new transcendent masterpiece.
Permanent Vacation (1980)
While certain critics have recommended skipping over Jarmusch’s 1980 debut entirely, heading instead to his rightfully acclaimed breakthrough movie Stranger Than Paradise, there is much to be gleaned about the director from his first film, begun as a short for his NYU thesis and completed after he dropped out of college. At the centre of this quasi-autobiographical tale is teenage drifter Aloysius Parker (played by Chris Parker), who would later serve as the prototype for many of Jarmusch’s future outsider heroes. Over the film’s 75-minute duration, we follow the jazz-loving, Le Comte de Lautréamont-quoting hipster as he ambles around a derelict Manhattan, encountering a plethora of idiosyncratic characters along the way. Already many of the elements that would come to define Jarmusch’s esoteric oeuvre are in place: his fascination with urban decay, for example; his unhurried exploration of time and lyrical appreciation for life’s everyday absurdities; the episodic structuring comprised of individual vignettes deftly woven together. As Michael Wojtas writes in an article for The Quietus, “It’s the film where nearly every piece of Jarmusch’s aesthetic was developed, and possibly the best time capsule of punk-and-hepatitis Manhattan ever committed to celluloid”.
Dead Man (1995)
In his fifth feature film, Jarmusch makes a decisive break with many of his signature cinematic traits: the masterfully black-and-white American Western is set in the 19th century rather than the modern day, is not constructed episodically, and has only one storyline. It features a youthful Johnny Depp as William Blake, a timid and bespectacled accountant turned Old West gunslinger when a series of unfortunate events sees him shot in the chest and forced to seek refuge in the wilderness. There Blake encounters an Indian named Nobody – often viewed as one of the most fully realised Native American characters in contemporary cinema – who believes him to be the 18th-century poet (Jarmusch loves a literary allusion) and assumes the role of his guide. A hauntingly poetic and existential meditation on death, lightened by moments of deliciously mordant wit, Dead Man puts a brilliantly postmodern spin on the traditional myth of the American west, turning “the usual priorities of the western inside out to show us where we are today,” in the words of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Add to the equation an improvised guitar score by Neil Young and an ensemble that includes Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, and Robert Mitchum in his final role, and there’s little more you could ask for in a film.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Mob movie meets classic samurai film by way of 90s hip-hop culture (courtesy of another perfect score, this time by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) in this wonderfully surreal and soulful offering from Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker is flawless as the eponymous Ghost Dog, an extremely accomplished, self-taught samurai hitman who finds himself marked for death by the mafia. But because he lives in a shack on a roof, communicates only via carrier pigeon and has just one friend (a Haitian ice-cream man who speaks only French, while Ghost Dog speaks only English), they’ve certainly got their work cut out for them. A gently unfolding tale, Ghost Dog offers a poignant reflection on race, death and cultural cross-pollination, while giving plenty of breathing space to its gloriously quirky cast of characters in typically Jarmuschian fashion. Moreover, in terms of the director’s wider oeuvre, it is interesting to note that in its decidedly spiritual, solitary protagonist, we find “the key bridge between the hapless urban wanderers of the director’s earlier works and the imperturbable Zen heroes of Only Lovers Left Alive and The Limits of Control” – as observed by The Film Society.
Broken Flowers (2005)
A meeting of deadpan minds occurred when Jarmusch cast Bill Murray in his 2005 comedy-drama Broken Flowers, and as you might expect, cinematic magic ensues. Murray shines as the sardonic Don Johnson, a recently dumped, retired computer magnate who looks set to while away his days on his sofa until he receives an anonymous letter from an ex-lover informing him he has a 19-year-old son. Driven to action by his neighbour, a keen amateur detective, the ever-lethargic Johnson embarks on a roadtrip across America to discover the letter’s author. A series of minimalist vignettes follow suit as Johnson springs surprise visits upon his past girlfriends – among them Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange – and finds himself forced to reflect upon his present by the confrontation of his past. Funny and heart-warming, sly and dry, melancholic and contemplative, Broken Flowers is a film that will stick with you long after watching.
Jarmusch’s latest offering is one of his best yet. A superb Adam Driver is a bus driver named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, with his delightfully eccentric wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). The smitten and mutually supportive duo have fallen into a comfortable daily routine which sees Paterson driving buses, walking their dog – a hilariously po-faced English bulldog called Marvin – and stopping for a nightly drink in his local bar, all the while quietly observing the world around him and using this to craft modernist poems in his secret notebook; Laura meanwhile pursues her passion for cupcakes, country singing and DIY. What ensues is a perfect piece of poetry in its own right; a quiet yet stirring tribute to the weird and wonderful characters and occurrences that form the patchwork of everyday life. In what has proved a particularly bleak year, Paterson’s ameliorative tenderness and warmth will restore your faith in humanity.
Paterson is in UK cinemas from today.