Notebook Primer: Jim Jarmusch, Permanent Outsider

Surveying a keen chronicler of America, always eager to absorb people and spaces without preconceived notions.
Vikram Murthi

Misfits and Outlaws: Jim Jarmusch's Cinema of Outsiders is now showing on MUBI in many countries.

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

In Permanent Vacation (1980)—Jim Jarmusch’s underseen, undercooked, wholly unpolished first feature—Aloysius “Christopher” Parker (Chris Parker), a disaffected young drifter who recalls the ’50s Jazz-Age hipster and presages the ’90s slacker, wanders around a bombed-out Manhattan without an agenda. He dances in his apartment as his indifferent girlfriend smokes out the window. He talks to various strangers (or rather, they talk to him): a concessions attendant at a repertory house, a streetwise saxophone player, a disturbed man who believes he’s in a war zone. Eventually, he steals a car and uses the profits to board a steamer ship to Paris, content to roam as if he’s a tourist on a… well, you know.

It's almost beside the point that Permanent Vacation isn’t very good. It’s a student film, both literally and spiritually, and though the honchos at NYU who refused to award Jarmusch a degree when they saw it likely disapproved for specious reasons, it remains at best a curious document in light of Jarmusch’s later career. Many of the filmmaker’s abiding interests are on full display in this scrappy record of early-’80s New York, including a fascination with urban portraiture and eccentric personalities. Jarmusch also exhibits a genuine fondness for a certain lifestyle depicted in Permanent Vacation, that of a cultural sponge who soaks up spontaneous encounters and travel, who gets a thrill from playing a record or immersing themselves in literature from a different time, who can’t sit still even if they wanted to. Look past the film’s shoddy sound design and its groan-worthy dialogue and you’ll see a chronicle of an urban condition that the American economy once begrudgingly supported.

Permanent Vacation (1980).

Like many adolescents before and after him, Jarmusch used the arts to escape the confines of his sheltered Midwestern upbringing. He devoured B-movies and underground flicks, a healthy diet of classic literature and then-contemporary countercultural works by Burroughs and Kerouac, not to mention the rock ‘n’ roll from the radio and records that belonged to friends’ older brothers. Not only did art serve as communiqués from different eras and countries, but it was also a road map to an adventurous life beyond his hometown near Akron, Ohio. He would carry this cultural appetite first to Evanston, Illinois for a misbegotten year at Northwestern’s journalism school (he kept taking creative writing and history courses instead of his required classes) before transferring to Columbia University for a literature degree. During his final year there, he moved to Paris for ten months where he spent much of his time at the Cinémathèque Française watching art films he had only previously read about, including works by classic Japanese directors like Yasujirō Ozu, whose patient framing and self-imposed technical limitation would later influence his second feature Stranger Than Paradise.

Jarmusch’s early professional days carry the patina of legend. In his final year at NYU’s graduate film school, he worked as an assistant to Nicholas Ray and was on the set of his final film Lightning Over Water (1980), a documentary he co-directed with Wim Wenders about his dying days. Ray’s tutelage partially inspired Jarmusch to film Permanent Vacation for his final university project. A few years later, Wenders gave him 40 minutes of unused film stock from his feature The State of Things (1982) expecting Jarmusch to make a five-minute short while the young director was trying to raise money for another script. Instead, he made a 30-minute film in a single weekend with Lounge Lizards frontman John Lurie by deploying a single camera set-up for each shot so they could make their project with the limited amount of stock. This was the earliest incarnation of Stranger Than Paradise, about a surly New York bohemian whose life becomes disrupted when his Hungarian cousin comes to visit. It was screened as a standalone short film during a European festival tour in 1983, during which Jarmusch raised the money to complete a feature-length version.

Though his name is now synonymous with a certain strain of American independent film, Jarmusch’s connections to directors like Ray and Wenders, not to mention his ties to the late-’70s No Wave/punk scene as both musician and appreciator and studying under poets like David Shapiro and Kenneth Koch at Columbia, complicate convenient definitions. While generating Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Jarmusch insisted it was most important his film not associate itself with anything “aligned with some kind of fashion or some kind of trend” (meaning “new wave” at the time); despite featuring buzzworthy musicians like Lurie and Richard Edson, Stranger shares more ties with mid-century Euro and Japanese auteurs than anything coming from the States. The director’s stubborn insistence to follow the beat of his own drum provided him a spirit of independence, voluntarily rendering him a permanent outsider within a movement he arguably helped establish.


Stranger Than Paradise (1984).

A plethora of critical clichés follow Jarmusch around like a lovesick puppy. He gets tagged as a “minimalist” filmmaker even though his films, while frequently devoid of conventional dramatic action, aren’t especially sparse or minute in scope. Rather, he deals in ensemble casts and broad topographical representation; he might emphasize small moments but never at the expense of a larger theme. Similarly, Jarmusch’s films are falsely characterized as aloof or ironic despite the fact that he writes characters defined by the depth of their passions, no matter how detached they might seem. (Deploying irony as a dramatic device doesn’t necessarily mean embracing irony as a worldview, to state the obvious.)

Phrases like “urban cool” and “hipster” also recur in characterizations of the director, vague labels apparently considered gauche in some circles for reasons related to elitism and having famous friends. Not to give such spurious indictments more air than they deserve, but it’s ludicrous to leverage claims of superiority against someone as transparently grounded and sincere as Jarmusch, one of the few remaining members of a dying subculture whose coolness was partly determined by sharing art from all walks of life with anyone open enough to listen. Besides, genuinely hip people—the kind who came of age in downtown New York when downtown New York still meant something, who effortlessly mingled with generational luminaries without careerist intentions, who exhibit an inviting kind of self-confidence instead of an arrogant one—likely consider discussions of hipness, complete with insecure charges of condescension, to be vulgar and pointless. They’re correct to feel that way.

However, the cliché that actually does apply to Jarmusch is one he has tacitly endorsed: he adopts the eye of a keen foreigner while chronicling his home country. His first three films prominently feature foreign characters touring the country for the first time, but Jarmusch doesn’t lean on his cast to communicate his adopted non-native vision. He approaches America as an irreducible phenomenon from multiple vantage points—sometimes with distance, sometimes with wonder, always eager to absorb people and spaces without preconceived notions.

In Stranger Than Paradise, arguably still his most perfect film, Jarmusch defamiliarizes New York City, Cleveland, and Florida until they all look like different areas of the same bombed-out ghost town. The few times Jarmusch films Hungarian tourist Eva (Eszter Balint) outside in Manhattan (actually Hoboken, New Jersey), it looks like a barren wasteland. (The grainy black-and-white photography solidifies this effect.) She spends most of her time with Willie (Lurie), who begrudgingly shows her the American experience, which mostly (and not incorrectly) amounts to eating cheap TV dinners, smoking Chesterfields, and watching a lot of television inside his small apartment. But when Willie and his affable friend Eddie (Edson) catch up with Eva in the Midwest, it just looks like a different, albeit icier, wasteland. Even the outskirt beaches of Florida resemble an indefinite void. Tom DiCillo’s controlled lengthy shots (again, one camera setup per shot) project the aimless interiority of Jarmusch’s subjects onto the American landscape, rendering it vacant and unspecified. “You come to someplace new…and everything just looks the same,” Eddie perceptively remarks, grazing the self-awareness that lies outside his grasp.

Down by Law (1986).

Down by Law (1986) marks Jarmusch’s first collaboration with Wenders’s cinematographer Robby Müller; together, they lend a noir-like edge to New Orleans and the Bayou. The film’s opening montage, soundtracked by Tom Waits’s bluesy “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” captures the setting in a warm, dangerous light: a place ripe with opportunity as well as violence and corruption. Here, Jarmusch explicitly subverts a genre template for the first time (in this case, the prison break movie); he luxuriates in the conversations between convicts—incompetent pimp Jack (Lurie) and boozy disc jockey Zack (Waits), both of whom were framed for their crimes, and Italian tourist Bob (Roberto Benigni), who killed a man by accident—and eschews their escape entirely, focusing instead on their relationships with each other and their environment. While Jack and Zack devolve into petty infighting, Bob keeps his clashing compatriots together with his infectious spirit and running broken-English commentary. Benigni, a divisive performer on his best days, elevates his character from naïf to something less definable; his passionate, squirrelly personality stands in sharp contrast to his friends’ snarky exteriors without devolving into a quasi-magical figure. He’s just another idiosyncratic personality, like Lurie and Waits, given space to roam.

Down by Law ends with Bob beginning a new life with a kindly store owner named Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi, future wife of Benigni); he solidifies their instant connection by dancing with her to Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining” over breakfast. This note of optimism might be abrupt on paper, but it doesn’t feel remotely false in the context of the film, which promises slightly greener, though disparate, pastures for the three jailbirds: two forever on the drift and one in entrenched stability. The ending also carves a slightly softer path for Jarmusch, whose next film Mystery Train (1989)—the first of three higher-budgeted films to be financed by Japanese conglomerate (and inventor of the VHS recorder) JVC—assumes a more humanistic approach to his characters and especially the city of Memphis, which he and Müller film in color with a sense of historical wonder. 

Mystery Train (1989).

The ghost of Elvis haunts every frame of Mystery Train: Japanese couple Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) embark on a pilgrimage to tour the King’s homeland; the city’s Black population refer to Johnny (Joe Strummer) as Elvis despite his British heritage; a stranded Italian widow (Braschi) sees his specter in the dead of night after being scammed by the city dwellers during the day. The film’s three stories—all of which span the same 24 hours and are connected by scenes in the Arcade motel (where a portrait of Elvis hangs in each room) and the sound ofa single gunshot—embrace the city’s musical legacy, which Jarmusch views as a microcosm of American artistry. Though the characters’ paths don’t dovetail with each other like they do in Nashville (1975), they represent different refrains on the same potent theme of charting a fresh path in a world laden with legacy.

In Interview magazine around the time of Mystery Train’s release, Jarmusch claims that the homes of rock ‘n’ roll stars and celebrities will represent America’s cultural remains once the empire collapses, our version of the Roman ruins. However true that assumption might be, Jarmusch doesn’t buy into its implied fatalism. Mystery Train treats Memphis as a place worthy of pilgrimage and its musical history—not just Elvis, but also Sun Records mainstays like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis—as one worth celebrating, a distinctly national craft whose reach spans the globe. Jarmusch’s large ensemble imbues each of their characters with unassuming humanity, yet the film’s authorial eye binds them to a past worth keeping alive. Why else do we continue to tell the story of Robert Johnson and his fateful day at the crossroads?


Mystery Train (1989).

Long before the mainstreaming of allyship, faux- and genuine, into cultural discourse, Jarmusch set himself apart from other like-minded white directors by incorporating Black art and artists into his work. His cross-cultural ethos organically demanded he not only reject the marginalization of non-white cultures, but also assert that “white culture” derives from appropriation. (It’s impossible to be a pronounced fan of rock ‘n’ roll without grappling with these issues.) From Mystery Train onward, Black characters move through Jarmusch’s films without being fitted for an ill-fitting pedestal, or the aid of a patronizing spotlight.

The work of blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who figures into Jarmusch’s upbringing and his early films, serves as a convenient example of his liberal worldview. As a young man, Jarmusch heard his song “I Put a Spell On You” on Ohio radio and felt spiritually connected to the music, saying it was like his theme song. He later prominently featured the song in Stranger Than Paradise, personally compensated Hawkins after realizing the licensing money went to his record label instead of the man himself, and eventually cast him as the owner of the Arcade Hotel in Mystery Train. (Hawkins stated that Jarmusch is one of only three white men who has ever helped him.) Similarly, bell hooks once cited the scene in Mystery Train when Jun and Mitsuko are delighted to hear a Black man thank them in Japanese as one that “challenges our perceptions of blackness by engaging in a process of defamiliarization.” (“Way before Tarantino was dabbling in ‘cool’ images of blackness,” she continues, “Jarmusch had shown in Down by Law and other work that it was possible for a white-guy filmmaker to do progressive work around race and representation.”) A testament to the powers of moving outside of your experience, Jarmusch exhibits an ineffable comfort in his films with cultures and philosophies far from his own.

Even in Jarmusch’s spottier efforts, he tries to lend a certain amount of grace and humor to his diverse cast without reducing them to subjects in a Bennetton commercial. In the five vignettes that comprise Night on Earth (1991)—featuring five cab rides during the same hour across different cities (Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki)—Jarmusch attempts to capture the heart of each urban landscape while allowing the personalities in each fragment to come alive with invariably mixed results. He engages in some affectionate caricaturing, mainly of urban character (Los Angeles is a tacky land of Hollywood excess, New Yorkers are loud and boisterous, et cetera), and the segments vary widely in quality (the fourth story featuring Benigni-as-driver rambling a sexually graphic confession to an ill priest is nigh unwatchable). Nevertheless, the grace notes in the film—Gena Rowlands tenderly gazing at a young Winona Ryder; Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez, more or less reprising their roles from Do The Right Thing, warmly teaching an East German immigrant the ways of being a cab driver; recurring Aki Kaurismäki collaborators closing out the film with a game of tragedy one-upmanship—indicate Jarmusch’s heart is in the right place, even when it leads him into too-precious territory.

Dead Man (1995).

The postmodern western Dead Man (1995) makes up considerably for Night on Earth’s mild stereotyping through its humble, respectful depiction of Native peoples, primarily through the character of Nobody (Gary Farmer). A child of two opposing tribes, Nobody must shepherd meek accountant and “stupid fucking white man” William Blake (Johnny Depp), whom he decides is the reincarnation of the famous poet, to the spirit world after he suffers a fatal gunshot wound. Throughout the film, Jarmusch inverts western mythology from within, characterizing America not as a land of opportunity or rebirth but as a barren desert of violence and spiritual death whose potential salvation depends not on the white men who violently seized the reins of power but on the so-called savages we’ve made “foreign” through mass slaughter. Industrialist John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final film role) and cannibalistic, necrophilic bounty hunter Cole Wilson (Lance Henrikson) embody the profit-crazed violence of America across the centuries, but Müller’s ashen monochrome photography bakes an evergreen amorality into each frame.

A passive protagonist who stands in sharp contrast to the dynamic heroes that litter the genre, Depp’s Blake absorbs external stimuli in a haze of blood loss and panic; his reluctant transformation into a famed killer could only occur amidst a physical/psychic death spiral. Moreover, Blake’s quasi-comic relationship with Nobody depends on circular misunderstandings; they only begin to understand each other as Blake starts to fade. Neil Young’s guitar score, which he improvised over a rough cut of the film—a technique broadly inspired by Eric Clapton’s score for Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1984)—infuses the film with an eerie psychedelia, climaxing with Dead Man’s beautiful, terrifying final moments when the film itself feels like it’s expiring. A self-conscious deviation from Jarmusch’s previous panoramically hopeful features, Dead Man’s poor box office receipts and at-best mixed critical notices gave it a real-time film maudit reputation. A handful of discerning critics—Jonathan Rosenbaum in particular, who dubbed it a masterpiece acid western and eventually wrote the book on it—eventually sparked a gradual reappraisal. 

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).

Jarmusch’s most conventional crowd-pleaser, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), features Forest Whitaker as the eponymous, terminally cool hitman who follows the teachings of Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a guide to being a samurai warrior. Though Ghost Dog is in the employ of the New Jersey mafia, Jarmusch purposefully paints the Italian gangsters with a broad brush, depicting them as sub-Sopranos caricatures with a penchant for Public Enemy and cartoons like Felix the Cat. (Jarmusch insists the cartoons the mobsters watch are not meant to reflect their cartoonishness, but it’s impossible to ignore that the men are from goombah central casting.) Meanwhile, Whitaker lends a serene sensitivity to Ghost Dog, a neighborhood fixture who commands respect not solely by his violent reputation but also his principled, calm demeanor. Similarly, his friends—Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), a French-speaking ice cream salesman, and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a bookish little girl, both Black—are defined by their benevolence and intellectual curiosity. Jarmusch doesn’t tokenize these characteristics; they’re merely shades of believable characterizations.

Ghost Dog represents one of the final peaks of ’90s pop cultural cross-pollination. Jarmusch pays explicit homage to international crime films Le Samouraï (1967) and Branded to Kill (1967), but the film is littered with various subtle and explicit citations to 20th-century cultural objects across cinema and literature. RZA’s score and soundtrack, the Wu-Tang Clan leader’s first foray into film production, also lends a contemporary edge to Ghost Dog, paving a way toward the future instead of being mired in nostalgia. Unlike many of its cinematic peers, however, Ghost Dog doesn’t seem self-conscious about its references, despite assertions made by Jarmusch’s detractors. Cultural detritus isn’t unpacked at length à la Tarantino, and Jarmusch doesn’t incorporate allusions to flatter audiences. Rather, Ghost Dog primarily concerns itself with the price of loyalty in a world defined by self-interest, and how it’s an act of courage to share oneself amidst a violent social order. In the film’s most touching moment, Pearline tells Ghost Dog she hasn’t yet read all of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), but she plans to finish it. Ghost Dog, averting her gaze, kindly mutters, “You’ve got time.”


Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).

Ghost Dog also features the first self-referential moment in the Jarmusch filmography: Gary Framer briefly reprises his role as Nobody from Dead Man and repeats his unofficial catchphrase: “Stupid fucking white man.” It’s a notable scene insofar as it explicitly treats his oeuvre like a continuum where characters and ideas are in constant conversation with each other. There had been thematic overlap prior to Farmer’s cheeky cameo, of course, but previously the most overt connection between Jarmusch’s films were his recurring on- and off-screen collaborators, which indicates strong working relationships between the director and his ensemble, as well as the traces of a personal artistic world.

The ’00s was the decade when Jarmusch’s cult image—developed not only through his films but also his choice acting roles; the music videos he directed for artists like Talking Heads, Big Audio Dynamite, and Tom Waits; and key appearances on shows like Fishing with John (1991) and Space Ghost Coast to Coast (1994-1999)—garnered wider popularity, which helped expand his artistic collective. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), an eleven-part anthology film inspired by and including three shorts Jarmusch directed between 1986 and 1993, is a largely comedic snapshot of various Jarmusch associates, both new and old. Each segment features two parties trying to bridge a divide on a relatively low-stakes issue over, yes, coffee and cigarettes. Iggy Pop tries to bond with Tom Waits, who becomes defensive over conversational misunderstandings. Cate Blanchett plays both herself and an embittered cousin who needles her about her fame. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan have an awkward meeting about their shared heritage. RZA and GZA give questionable health advice to Bill Murray.

Coffee and Cigarettes settles into a low-key groove that entertains at its best and drags at its worst; quality might vary, but no sequence is so bad or boring to be especially dire. Some thematic connections can be made between segments, though they are best described here by Jack White who, in his vignette, mentions that inventor Nikola Tesla “perceived the Earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance.” Jarmusch previously embraced this idea of collective resonance in his career, but he has made it more overt in his work from the last two decades. 

Broken Flowers (2005).

Broken Flowers (2005), a critical and commercial comeback of sorts for the director, takes this theme and filters it through the journey of Don Johnston, an aging Don Juan played by Bill Murray in his second post-Lost in Translation (2003) dramatic role, who reunites with old girlfriends to confirm if he has a son. The disparate women that Don meets during his investigation all lead very different lives, but because they share the good and bad memories of Don’s company, they inevitably vibrate on the same frequency. Jarmusch allows his actors (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton) to fill out their characters’ personalities, but the script keeps their inner lives just vague enough for both Don and the audience to project whatever details or emotional backstories they want onto them. Their ambiguities neatly fit with Don’s past relationships with them, which were always more physical than emotional.

However, Don’s trip across the country rarely compels on its own merits, and as much as the actresses bring their own individuality to the characters, the four women he meets are visually defined by their most eccentric and quirky attributes. Jarmusch leans on pregnant silences and mournful stares to communicate meaning, but they only add a sleepiness to the film that was barely present in his previous works. Only at the very end, when the film briefly shifts into a more urgent tone, does it attempt to become something more than an uncharacteristically generic existential yawn.

The Limits of Control (2009).

Ironically, Jarmusch’s next film The Limits of Control (2009) was widely criticized for its glacial pace, lack of action, and impenetrable style, and yet it’s the most fascinating outlier in his filmography since Dead Man. An exercise in slow cinema techniques within a broad genre framework, The Limits of Control follows an assassin, credited as Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), who travels to Spain on an unspecified mission. He meets various unnamed associates who cryptically speak to him before giving him coded messages in matchboxes. Though it culminates with a vague broadside against the Bush administration, with Murray returning to the Jarmusch ensemble to play a Dick Cheney-esque figure, Limits works best when it basks in its Spanish setting and production design. Unlike Broken Flowers, which incorporates too much character and incident, Limits of Control jettisons plot concerns entirely and privileges mood over all else.The film functions like an experiment in stripping away narrative, a borderline-provocation to American financiers who have disturbed Jarmusch for years with their focus-grouped attitudes. 

Jarmusch’s dialogue retains a heady metaphysical quality regarding music, the fickleness of perception, and the changing face of bohemia. He also incorporates a few nods to his previous work—how Lone Man eats his messages after reading them, much like Ghost Dog does with his carrier pigeon missives—and he again spotlights the concept of resonance in a monologue about wood instruments, which are able to vibrate even when they’re not being played. Jarmusch’s persistent optimism in art’s capacity to reflect the beauty of its environment is also on display, evidenced by the Lone Man’s repeated visits to Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum to stare at different paintings. In turn, we are invited to take part in his spectatorship while we engage with our own. 


Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

John Hurt makes a brief appearance in The Limits of Control as one of the Lone Man’s many associates. In his scene, he looks on at some fashionable young people, which inspires him to unpack the origins of the word “bohemian” and pass mild judgment on the youths: “My grandfather was Bohemian. You know, in the Prague sense. I strongly doubt that he would have had any bloody sympathy for those kinds of bohemians.” Yet, he also admits that these types of kids are often “the true artists.”

Hurt also appears as an aging Christopher Marlowe in Jarmusch’s nocturnal romance Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which charts the existential crisis of a vampire rock ‘n’ roller, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who has lived for centuries and looks upon the state of the modern world with utter contempt. An analog fetishist who cherishes his reclusiveness and releases music anonymously, he despairs over the self-destructive philistine behavior of the mortals, whom he calls “zombies.” He finally wants to depart the mortal realm, having seen it turn into a digital wasteland that rejects science and art. 

It's difficult not to read some of this as Jarmusch indulging in some “Get off my lawn!”-style kvetching that’s part and parcel with being an aging bohemian. Jarmusch had struggled for seven years to get Only Lovers financed and bemoaned the state of the film industry during his Cannes press conference. (“It’s getting more and more difficult for films that are a little unusual, or not predictable, or don't satisfy people's expectations of something,” as he put it.) Having seen the film and music industry rapidly change throughout the decades, and more idiosyncratic voices become marginalized by algorithmic attitudes, it’s understandable that Jarmusch would channel some of that frustration into his work. Though he mostly focuses that anger into the character of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a millennial vampire from LA with a reckless, laissez-faire attitude towards culture and people, he also balances it out through Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s longtime partner, who recognizes his despondency and encourages him to abandon his self-obsession. Such a potent reminder can be read autobiographically, and also as a genuine rebuke to nostalgists broaching reactionary territory.

Paterson (2016).

A celebration of hobbyists and lifelong amateur artists, Paterson (2016) arguably features Jarmusch at his gentlest and most supportive. The story of a bus driver who writes poetry in his spare time (Adam Driver), Paterson chronicles a middle-class routine and how artmaking can spring from overheard conversations, coincidental imagery, and mundane objects. Jarmusch flirts with conventional narrative techniques—a canine “antagonist,” a potential shootout in a bar, generic foreshadowing that culminates in anticlimaxes—but he mostly savors the commonplace amidst a diverse community, which he, again, refuses to marginalize or artificially exalt. Paterson’s reverence for poets like William Carlos Williams and Ron Padgett (who penned Paterson’s poems in the film) is as unpretentious as its characters.

However, The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Jarmusch’s zombie film, features the director at his angriest, treating the undead as stand-ins for consumerist, tech-addicted automatons who only want to add more bodies to their way of life. The film suffers from a forced sense of humor (Jarmusch’s deadpan and references feel most affected here), seeming air-quotes around every zombie trope, and a dreadful meta conceit, but there’s a respectable honesty to its rage and despair that feels like a direct response to contemporary life. While the two primary rural officers (Bill Murray and Adam Driver) respond to the rise of the undead with complete disaffection, it’s their female colleague (Chloë Sevigny) who goes mad by the horror around her and the town’s general indifference to it. In the end, almost no one gets out alive except those who have consciously rejected society. The fungi have sprouted too soon (also a foreboding sign in Only Lovers) and the culturally conscious, out-of-town hipsters have been slaughtered. “What a fucked-up world,” Tom Waits’s hermit character growls in voiceover.


While promoting Broken Flowers, Jarmusch admitted he was sick of the word “independent,” arguing that it comes with its own set of baggage. At the same time, he also claims that anyone “who makes a film that is the film they want to make, and it is not defined by marketing analysis or a commercial enterprise, is independent.”All too aware of the tension between charged industry expectations and the need to create within a commercial infrastructure, Jarmusch soldiers on. He has the ability to make a Saint Laurent-sponsored short film and a music video for Cat Power, both released in the last two years, that incorporate his own style and don’t feel like work-for-hire, sellout jobs. Jarmusch has been described as “the last of a generation” for decades now, and while that might have once been an overstatement, now it just feels like a fact. What remains is the potent image of the perpetual tourist who makes friends everywhere he goes, leaving an impact wherever he travels.

Stranger Than Paradise (1984).


1. Arrington, Carl. “Jim Jarmusch: Film’s Avant-Guardian.” Rolling Stone, March 22, 1990.

2. Bowen Peter. “‘The Violence in the Film is Simply a Reflection of the History of Human Beings’: Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch and Actor Forest Whitaker on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” Filmmaker, Winter, 2000.

3. Cohen, Scott. “Strangers In Paradise.” Spin, December, 1989.

4. Gelder, Lawrence Van. “‘Stranger Than Paradise’: Its Story Could Be A Movie.” The New York Times, October 21, 1984.

5. Hattenstone, Simon. “A Talk on the Wild Side.” Guardian, November 13, 2004.

6. Hertzberg, Ludvig. Jim Jarmusch: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

7. Hirschberg, Lynn. “The Last of the Indies.” The New York Times Magazine, July 31, 2005.

8. hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 2008.

9. Jarmusch, Ann. “The Jarmusch Clan.” The Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1996.

10. Jarmusch, Jim. “My Golden Rules.” MovieMaker Magazine, January 22, 2004.

11. Jarmusch, Jim. “Two Or Three Things About Yasujiro Ozu.” Artforum, October, 2003.

12. Johnston, Ian. “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, rock ‘n’ roll’s real deal.” Louder Than War, July 7, 1989.

13. McKenna, Kristina. “Dead Man Talking.” The Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1996.

14. Pinkerton, Nick. “Permanent Vacation.” Reverse Shot, August 1, 2005.

15. Pulver, Andrew. “Cannes 2013: Only Lovers Left Alive a seven year trek says Jim Jarmusch.” Guardian, May 25, 2013.

16. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Acid Western.” Chicago Reader, June 27, 1996.

17. Simon, Alex. “Jim Jarmusch: Ghost Story.” Venice Magazine, March, 2000.

18. Schoemer, Karen. “On The Lower East Side With: Jim Jarmusch; Film as Life, and Vice Versa.” The New York Times, April 30, 1992.

19. Triantafyllidis, Nik, director. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me. Astra Show Vision and Sound/Ideefixe Productions, 2001. 1 hr., 42 min.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


ColumnsJim JarmuschNotebook PrimerLong ReadsNow Showing
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.