Drift, like the sort of drift that whisks Johnny Depp along a Native American river to the afterlife (Dead Man, 1995), is the chief abstract quality that lends the films of Jim Jarmusch their poetic power.
One wafts through a Jarmusch film never quite sure what end-goal he has in mind—if he has one at all. It’s a calculated and it’s a composed drift, one that’s easy and pleasurable to get caught up in—especially when one sees his films back to back, one after the other, misremembering whether this scene came from that film. Consuming these films in such a fashion, as I did recently at the Metrograph in New York City (a retrospective occasioned by the release of his latest film, the zombie-comedy The Dead Don’t Die), reveals that Jarmusch’s master stroke is his disregard for the logic of plot mechanics (a key move for drifter filmmakers) in favor of serene gusts or currents that wind their way around hard, unmoving objects: Lower East Side tenements, burger joints on La Brea Ave., white settler racism, the false notion of a universe with a center and edges, a battle-axe Hungarian aunt who reminds a cool guy of his un-cool motherland. The bliss of a Jarmusch film is the way he lets his taxi-drivers, bus-drivers, and train-riders carry you along in their drift, which picks up epiphanies and insights and poetic snatches as it blows along.
The films are caught up in a drift that’s specifically American. But it is not a self-absorbed, boorish America that thinks we’re the best nation on earth, damn everyone else. Rather, it’s the America of a wanderer who always remembers our sordid history, our violent nature, our constantly mind-blowing mélange of cultures, our love of crossroads. Jarmuschian drift is one with the territory from which it flows. It’s all about delighting in unpretentious motion-picture still-lifes, incredible arrangements of knick-knacks and objects that flash across the screen for only a couple of seconds. Take note of the clutter inside Corky’s Night on Earth cab (Corky—what a name—she could be the sister of a snub-nosed Howard Hawks reporter): broken sun-glasses, a deep-cut cover of “Summertime Blues” on a cassette player, scribbled notes smudged by the ashes of cigarettes, the unforgettable scent of a 1991 car with cheap upholstery.
Most of all, the Jarmusch drift is the drift of an encyclopedic mind, that of a wicked-smart elder that never sounds like he’s talking down to you. He’s a down Beat poet making original, non-resigned works in a postmodern hellscape where Irony and a hip distance reign supreme. He’s constantly remembering the resonances of a rich, vibrant, tingling past that’s never dead and that always comes alive in his activating mind. He’s nourished by his own obsessive linkups between the great artists who came before him (Warhol, Altman) and those who emerged with him (Kaurismäki, Lee). The rough goal: to breathe weird life into New York, into each new work, into the now.
2. STRANGER THAN PARADISE
After Permanent Vacation’s first steps, Stranger Than Paradise (1984; shot entirely in single long takes separated by black leader) set the drifter’s tone for the rest of the Jarmusch oeuvre. Its story has something to do with a card-sharking cool guy named Willie who likes to pout like Belmondo who likes to pout like Bogart (John Lurie), and it has something to do with his young cousin named Eva, in from Hungary (Eszter Balint), and it has something to do with the cool guy’s best friend named Eddie (Richard Edson) who’s got a crush on the cousin and tries to impress her by telling her he’s been to Cleveland (he hasn’t). But this offbeat take on the NYC film isn’t concerned with resolving any of the barely-sketched-out conflict between the three, and is more concerned with scoring poetic points viz. a collection of small, private moments in which a true America is glimpsed. Andy Warhol rears his film head into Paradise with the fantastically bare wall of Willie’s Lower East Side bedroom, where the only decoration is a nudie photo above his bed, the space so comically yet defiantly monotonous, a hub of opportunities. It abounds in great humor that spills out from crevices and tight corners. Part of Paradise kids the postmodern Breathless type that Belmondo played so well—those dopes of men who act like every scrunch of their face, every purse of their lips, every drive down a freeway is being secretly filmed by a macho action director, maybe Wild Bill Wellman.
In a sly, gutsy move, almost this entire NYC film is interiors. There’s none of the expected cruising along streets. The only hint of place is established by a shot of Eva walking past a diner on Newark Street (in Hoboken, New Jersey!) as she listens to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Got a Spell On You” on her tape-radio. She unabashedly loves American tunes and toons, given her patient interest in a Saturday-morning TV showing of the Fleischer Brothers’s Bimbo’s Initiation (1931). But Willie couldn’t give less of a damn about these two American landmarks. He sleeps through the Fleischer toon, and he constantly gripes about Eva playing that stupid screamin’ song over and over again, and would she turn it off. This prompts Eva to respond in one of the Jarmusch oeuvre’s most hauntingly unforgettable triumphs of a line: “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and he’s a wild man, so bug off.” Each word builds up a sublime, slangy lyricism—a lyricism enough to fire up the imagination of any American immigrant who remembers where they came from, but who is also endlessly curious about where they’re at and where they’re going. Eva: this girl gets it.
All of the America of Paradise looks askew but fantastically the same, un-changing (the point, also, of Robert Frank’s kinetic 1958 photography book The Americans). Eva says, “It’s kind of a drag here, Willie,” when they cruise down Southern freeways, which is rhymed with what Eddie says about the Florida plains: “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything just looks the same.” These two lines serve as dead give-aways for Jarmusch’s major flaw, if you want to call it that: an accurate rendering of place (does he really get to the heart of Memphis race relations? hip-hop? the overworked Night on Earth cities of NYC-Paris-Rome?). But to chide him for his Mystery Train inaccuracies is akin to chiding Robert Altman for failing to have any of his Nashville songs stamped with a Grand Ole Opry Seal of Approval. Jarmusch prefers to work from the people he knows and loves through the process of filming, also the poems and the paintings and the movies and the all-over-the-place music that gives his films their out-of-place, out-of-time feel. His films spring from the people he knows and the art he consumes, first and foremost; any logic can come after, and if it does, it’s strictly a by product to the main event.
The ending of Paradise—so matter-of-fact, such an arbitrary end, such a magnificent peter-out—cleverly conceals its grand metaphor about how true American culture prefers to burrow itself into the ground and pop up, unannounced and unexpected, in the most random places. Willie is accidentally on the plane to Hungary (where his sullenness will catch on), Eva decides to stay in Florida at the last second (where her passion will be eventually be reciprocated and rewarded), and Eddie will just keep hanging out, going in whatever direction the wind blows. In Jarmusch, a Hungarian can become obsessed with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—who can be a hotel owner in Memphis—where Rufus Thomas can casually have a conversation with a Japanese couple in a train station—who can be in town to pay homage to the one true King (Elvis)—and (years later) the Japanese man can travel to Paterson, New Jersey where he’ll encourage a down bus-driver that “sometimes, an empty page will present most possibilities,”... The linkups never end, the art and love and weirdness keeps a-goin’, the drift doesn’t die.
Closely linked to Drift are two other big Jarmusch items: Repetition (the films pace back and forth between the poles of monotony and funk, the type of soul-nourishing funk found on 2 A.M AM radio when you happen upon James Brown’s 9-minute live version of “Mother Popcorn”) and Allusion (a cloud of never-esoteric references hang over each film like Bruno Ganz’s angel—the peak is 1999’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai).
An example from the Allusion camp: There’s a long take filmed from the back seat of a Stranger than Paradise sedan whose lineage can be traced back to Joseph Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) down through Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). In the 1950 film, robberies are committed by a sadistic Bonnie-and-Clyde couple in real time. In the 1960 film, the same energy of a crime-riddled high is there, but the crimes are not; instead it’s been replaced by an aching, all-too-real romanticism (the piano player has lost his wife, and he’s just starting to fall in love again). By the time the shot reaches Jarmusch, there’s not even the love element. With each trip down the tributary, the long-take’s point in the first place—i.e., to contain Sadism, Violence, Action within real time, a bit of real life sneaks into a Hollywood crime caper—gets strongly misread, and the scene gets closer and closer to actual, mundane reality: out-of-work drifters who need to pep up their daily interactions with the excitement they see in the movies they love. However, with each new tribute, there always lingers a memory of the excitement, the B-film pulse that inspired the long-take.
Truffaut’s hip-to-now scene features a disgusting conversation amongst two chauvinist goons who gab on and on about how women are always asking for “it,” and why do they wear such tight stockings and short skirts, and they need to be treated like morning-papers: read once and done. The men are sized up silently and with snarky comments by Marie Dubois’s waitress (with whom the piano player has fallen in love). Truffaut’s camera clearly takes up her physical and psychic perspective. There’s a very real threat of violence against women in the scene, but it’s not an explicit one; Dubois's exasperation, which she defuses with a hearty laugh, constantly bubbles underneath a surface that, temperamentally, looks like the Lewis long-take, if not literally. (Truffaut peppers the scene with cuts, even though it has the psychological smooth continuity of a long-take.) Shoot the Piano Player skitters about in a too-relatable zone of the everyday: a woman has to deal with the shit that men usually keep jangling around in their thick skulls all day.
In the Jarmusch, even this zone is erased, and all that’s left is a wacky interaction with many Truffautian pulses, not one of them remotely violent. It’s just Eddie and Willie asking a guy on the street, “What’s the way to Cleveland?” The guy, thinking he’s being put on, begs Eddie and Willie to leave him alone. He doesn't have time for what he thinks is a wise-ass act, and anyway he’s got to get going. He wants them to lay off him; he works at a factory. Eddie, concerned, says to Willie, “Lay off him, man. He works at a factory.” In this dry shot, Jarmusch has managed to distill the nervous, shivering energy in between the shots of Truffaut’s masterpiece. It’s as close to being non-narrative as you can get while still bearing a plot. (Not until 2009’s wildly under-appreciated The Limits of Control would these limits be comparably pushed.)
No guns and no girls in Paradise, but still cinema.
4. ON MUSIC
Music binds together all the lives of Jarmusch’s foreigners. Songs from Public Enemy, Elvis Presley, and flamenco guitarists have the capability to patch over the gravest cultural differences. Listening to the Jarmusch films’ soundtracks is key to their drift. They take you places you didn’t expect. Broken Flowers (2005) is a knockout drag, a drab series of Robert Frank postcards across America set to Mulatu Astatke’s “Yegelle Tezata,” an Ethiopian jazz classic that becomes a jaded Don Juan’s theme to his endless road-trip. You wish RZA’s repetitive “Flying Birds” instrumental would extend to eternity. I see Paterson at the Metrograph with one of my best friends in the world, and as soon as it’s over, we feel a manic urge to write, to respond to the sights around us, to record our lives. The first gesture: we trade music. My friend gives me “Ceiling Gazing” by Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle to listen to on my subway ride home, and I give her the love theme from Spartacus (1960) as interpreted by Yusef Lateef and his oboe drenched in mystery. As Demy saw, we speak in song.
5. ON TWO 2010s MASTERPIECES
Jarmusch has gotten to the heart of the past decade’s dramatic spatial and mental reconfigurations with two molecular masterworks: The Limits of Control (2009) and Paterson (2016). The former, which time will only confirm as one of Jarmusch’s best films, burrows deep within its genre in ways that we’re still struggling to understand ten years later. In fact, calling Limits an espionage film, a riff on a spy caper, or a Melville pastiche seems as paltry to its project as calling Moby-Dick a whale thriller.
This report on the state of art in the 21st century centers on a nameless hit man (Isaach de Bankolé) who cruises around Spain picking up bits of wisdom from other nameless agents, who are typecast like characters in a digital Boschian tapestry: Tilda Swinton’s Lady from Shanghai-loving actress, Gael García Bernal’s Mexican aficionado of guitars, Paz de la Huerta as one of Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s nudes come to near-camp life.
The Bankolé drifter is lost in the ultimate film about a film. It has long stretches of aggravating Zen nothingness that will provoke as many wows as sighs, featuring endless insights about the purpose of not just films in the post-postmodern era, but also art, history, the sciences, the look and bend of time itself, and how all of these are inexorably connected. The clear jumping-off point, movie-wise, is John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), in which a tense, ungiving Lee Marvin makes his way through only the most freakishly futurist L.A. interiors in order to get back the $93,000 that he lost in a botched heist. Jarmusch's slant-rhyme remake is an abstraction of a crime film that was already an abstraction of crime films. The point is to go far deep into a genre so as to uncover its sinister mechanics: the distrust of all images and impressions (all is surface), the smoothness of gestures and actions that gain clarity and tranquility as they repeat and repeat, the Pynchonesque feeling that “if there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”1
If Point Blank was the 1960s abstracted from within the moment, within the thick of it all, then Limits of Control is the 2010s abstracted from without, a 2009 premonition for how our classical perception of art, reality, bohemianism would become permanently distorted in an age when the memory of a beloved becomes their Slumber-filtered headshot on Insta (“Sometimes,” Bernal says, “the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected”).
Many of the paranoid energies of Limits of Control dissipate in what, to me, is Jarmusch’s finest hour, Paterson. It’s a week in the life of a Paterson bus driver (Adam Driver) named Paterson, who writes a private book of poems and who lives in Paterson and who loves Paterson, a public book of poems by William Carlos Williams. Jarmusch is generous—some would say too generous—about his vision of an America where any stranger has the capability to flourish as a poet. It's a vision and a hope for the world that is precious, rare—who am I to kill it?
Here, the Paradise drift has slowed to the pace of a bike stroll, and there are hardly any of the sophisticated references and furious linkups of Ghost Dog and Limits of Control; it has a purity and brightness on par with Stranger than Paradise and Dead Man. What abounds are moments and memories that are being constantly thought up and forgotten at the same time: a 12-year-old twin girl writes a poem about water falls (with a space in the middle). Paterson and his crazy-ambitious, country-music-loving, cupcake-baking girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) spend a night at a musky cinema where they still play old black-and-white films from the 1930s, and all kinds of random people have somehow (1) heard about it, and (2) left their Netflix cribs to check it out. Paterson's friend is about to shoot himself at the local bar because he feels the manic throb of unrequited love, a sensation that can make you feel more than you ever thought capable of feeling. The friend's ache is expressed by a sentiment that bypasses screaming banality to land in the zone of simple profundity: “Without love, what reason is there for anything?”
What poets do should not be a mystic’s mystery, Jarmusch is saying. Poetry should be a habit of life as natural as breathing. Paterson is the drift film par excellence, a movie that picks up whatever daily detritus happens to come along its path. It sees the world as stray lines waiting to be shaped into soft blocks of verse, if only for the length of a breath.