The Auteur Filmmaker: Jim Jarmusch

Monday, August 20, 2018

In today's post, I'm sharing another essay from my third and final year at university from a module I studied called 'American Independent Cinema'. My task was to compare the stylistic and narrative choices in Jarmusch's films Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law and discuss his position as an auteur filmmaker.

Previous studies in the field of American Independent Cinema has often discussed Jim Jarmusch as a director who goes against Hollywood cinema conventions and as someone who is persistent in avoiding traditional filmmaking. In Jim Jarmusch: Interviews, the controversial director said: “I’m a brat this way and I just wanta make movies exactly the way I want.” (Hertzberg, 2005) and claims that having artistic control is integral to his work (Levy, 1999). Jarmusch has a unique style of filmmaking, which can be seen in both Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law. I will discuss whether he can be discussed as an auteur filmmaker in both films, by analyzing his own signature approach to filmmaking.

Essentially, Jarmusch’s signature approach can be defined primarily by how his film style and narrative structure in both films differentiates from that of traditional Hollywood cinema. Stranger Than Paradise uses self-conscious artful minimalism by showing a combination of empty, deserted post-industrial landscapes and composing shots through long single takes. Typically, a Hollywood movie would consist of the complete opposite, such as colourful, perhaps dramatic locations and using a wide range of cuts, short takes and close-ups. The use of short takes and close-ups helps display a different range of emotions of characters and allows the audience to feel the different emotions. Contrastingly, Jarmusch purposely uses long takes and shots of his protagonists in order to distance the audience and let them make the decisions for themselves, witnessing the characters in the frame from an observational viewpoint, therefore making it more objective than that of the typical Hollywood style. The camera is often used as to “peer down on characters as if from the distant perspective of an uninvited visitor” (Belton, 1994).

Stranger than Paradise (1984) 

Similarly in Down By Law, Jarmusch uses a similar style of long takes, displaying a range of tracking shots of “wasteland” environments in the first section of the film, as well as enclosed spaces to frame the characters during the middle of the film. For example, Jack, Zack, and Roberto can be seen inside a confined jail cell thus “characters had a lack of space to express themselves physically” (Hillier, 2000). The only exception, in this case, would be when Zack And Jack have a quarrel, the protagonists do this to break the tension between them, however this is not resolved as after they continue to struggle to communicate between them, continuing the theme of miscommunication which Jarmusch commonly uses. This could also be applied to Stranger than Paradise when Eva and Willie are shown in his apartment, again in a location of small space, therefore forcing both the protagonists and the audience to focus on the dialogue or lack of it. The lack of space used in Jarmusch’s films is strategically used to draw attention to his use of minimal dialogue in the narrative of both films.

For example, in Stranger, Eva and Willie can be seen together often not making many conversations or struggling to communicate with one another and displaying inarticulation when speaking. This is also used again in the jail cell in Down between the three protagonists, the combination of lack of space and minimal dialogue creates a certain tension and claustrophobia in the film. This is unconventional filmmaking when compared to a Hollywood film because typically there would be no silences or gaps in dialogue in this scenario, suggesting that Jarmusch has made a controversial choice in his narrative, by not relying on dialogue to keep the story moving forward, but by focusing on the moments in between (Hertzberg, 2005). This can be seen as a recurring theme within Jarmusch’s films, of wanting to say to other people but leaving it too late. He states that silence is stronger than dialogue. It can be said that he has put “characters that don’t like each other stuck together” in order to create this tension, created from the sparse dialogue (Hertzberg, 2005). However, in both films, the Americans grow to like the foreigner but struggle to articulate it through stubbornness and ignorance of their different cultures. For example, Willie tells Eva that “she needs to dress like an American” which displays his struggle with accepting a foreigner into his life, and simultaneously his stubbornness to accept his own roots as a Hungarian. Jarmusch’s use of foreigners in both films will be discussed later.

Down by Law (1986)

From analyzing some of these elements of his filmmaking, it could be said that Jarmusch’s signature approach lies in minimalism and realism. Jarmusch said the use of pauses is more important than dialogue, which is true in life (Hertzberg, 2005) suggesting he is influenced by reality more than the dramatization of reality in his films, something that Hollywood cinema would typically not do. These “films are like life, they are not a structured dramatic story but a collection of events to interpret” - a quote from one of Jim Jarmusch’s interviews which describes both Stranger and Down accurately in terms of Jarmusch’s signature narrative structure. In both films, episodic incident replaces drama, an approach commonly used by Jarmusch.

The narrative structure is made up of minimal dialogue and long pauses in between but additionally of minimal details that make the story progress forward. Another strong example would be the scene when Bruno enters the jail cell. Initially, he tries to make conversation, introduce himself, make some jokes and socialize with his cellmates, but both Jack and Zack are reluctant to respond thus making the silence stiff and filling the atmosphere with dead air - which the audience can feel too. This scene can be compared to the scene in Stranger when Willie and Eddie are in the apartment alone together, having a beer. Eva has just left Willie and has spoken to Eddie on her departure confessing she did not like a gift from Willie. Both protagonists want to say something but they cannot, and it is this silence that speaks more than words, similar to Down, where the silence between the characters creates more tension than dialogue would. This dramatization is replaced by dead moments such as the ones mentioned previously where Jarmusch focuses on unspoken minutiae of human gesture and body language, allowing the audience to focus on the characters and to imagine what the characters are thinking.

Jarmusch has used three main protagonists in both films, consisting of two “deadbeat”, idlers from America, and one foreigner as an ‘antihero’ archetype. More specifically, the foreigner enters the story as a central character but does not hold conventional heroic attributes. This can be seen in both Eva from Stranger and Bruno from Down. Eva stems from Hungary and Bruno from Italy thus giving the film an estranged perspective as “foreign eyes taking in odd comers of the US” (Lyons, 1994). Prior to Eva’s arrival in New York, Willie would have continued with his everyday mundane life, however, Eva’s character is what motivates Willie to venture out of his comfort zone. Similarly in Down, until Bruno’s arrival, both characters Jack and Zack may have remained in a state of miscommunication and silence. Both Bruno and Eva bring motivation in both characters lives, as Bruno helps the Americans escape prison whilst Eva motivates Willie and Eddie to metaphorically, or subconsciously, escape their lives in New York. Whether it is a coincidence that Eddie and Willie both decide to go and find Eva two years later after they win gambling at poker, Jarmusch has purposely done this to avoid Hollywood conventions where normally, the latter would need to be explained psychologically. Having characters motivate and move the story forward is not conventionally used in Hollywood films, where normally an event or disaster etc. would propel the story forward and motivate the characters.

In Stranger, Eva is coming from Hungary, expecting the US to embody the American Dream she has been often told about, however, Jarmusch displays it in the opposite way to Hollywood’s perfect idea of America. Whilst in the US, she sees New York, Cleveland, and Florida but displays a sense of dissatisfaction yet acute awareness by saying “you come to someplace new, and everything just looks the same”. This can be seen in both films where Jarmusch uses negative space as a backdrop for his characters, such as the urban streets of New York in Stranger, large airport runways, a gloomy beach - which appears not much more appealing than the windy, bleak, snowy Lake Erie scene from which they fled in Cleveland. Eva’s perception of the US as a foreigner is essentially the eyes of the story and how Jarmusch displays the US to the audience.

The protagonists seem to end up as aimless and confused as they were in beginning with just as little understanding of each other as before. The sameness is thus accentuated through lighting, filtration, and composition of shots. In both films, noticeably the use of filming in black & white enables Jarmusch to eliminate any unnecessary information or colour that was not necessary to both stories, allowing him to keep the focus on the protagonists and emphasizing the negative spaces. For example, of the jail cells, forests and derelict buildings in Down and the dusty streets of New York and the open roads during their travels between Cleveland and Florida in Stranger. When Eva points out that everything looks the same, Jarmusch succeeds in ensuring everything really does look the same, through similar shots of similar-looking areas of America and drawing attention to derelict areas. Eventually, the audience begins to see America through Eva’s eyes as each new place still resembles the last and they all blend into one.

This can also be compared to the scene in Down when the three protagonists have escaped from jail and encounter a small building to sleep for the night. Instantly the audience can see that where they have arrived looks uncannily similar to that of their previous jail cell, which is then pointed out by Jack who says “man, this is a little too familiar”. This tells us that especially in these two films by Jarmusch, his motive is not necessary to take them from A to Z in a conventional Hollywood style, but instead have the characters go full circle, ending up in a similar situation to where the film commenced. This reinforces Jarmusch’s narrative structure which does not rely on achieving a goal or resolving a problem but instead, taking a more realistic approach and having the characters repeat the same cycle.

Furthermore, this can be argued again in both film's denouements. Stranger sees the three protagonists, separated, heading in different directions. Eva unexpectedly stays in Florida, Willie ends up on a plane to Hungary and Eddie is left alone with the car, who we assume will head back home to New York to his life. In Down, Bruno ends up back with his wife at his home whilst Jack And Zack head separate ways, shown in the frame, one taking the road to the left and the other to the right of the frame. In both films, Jarmusch makes it evident that the “future is not important, but it is what is happening in the present that is” (Murphy, 2007). By leaving both films open-ended with no inclination as to where the characters will find themselves next or what will happen, it is purposely done for the audience to use their own imagination on what could follow. Jarmusch says he is “against the formula” and is “for simplicity and the unexpected” which could explain his unconventional approach to both film’s endings and their lack of dramatisation.

Perhaps traditional Hollywood would have explained everything to us, and left things on a dramatic note, however Jarmusch has preferred in both films to end matters unknowingly, leaving the audience to wonder. However, again, they have gone full circle because they have not necessarily come out of the film as better people. They began as lowlifes, going about their mundane lives with no real purpose which applies to Eddie and Willie in Stranger and committing aimless acts of crime like Jack and Zack in Down, and have ended up in the same way upon the climax of the film thus finding themselves back where they began. It would appear in both films that only people to seem unperplexed or phased are the foreigners who either, like Bruno, end up back home with his wife or like Eva, back at the motel, perhaps contemplating her next venture.

A common thread in Jarmusch’s narrative structure is having a contrast between the foreigners and native Americans which adds an element of wit and comedy to both films. Jarmusch emphasizes the inarticulation between the characters, the misunderstanding between the cultures and the struggle for the foreigners to fit in. For example, when Bruno arrives in the same cell as Zack and Jack, he takes out his notebook and reels off some jokes he has learned in English and says “not enough room to swing a cat”. Of course, this gains no reaction from either unamused character but adds an element of deadpan, ironic, and faintly absurdist humor to the narrative (Andrew, 1999). Similarly in Stranger, Eva wants to vacuum the floor which Willie says is too formal to describe it. He says the correct term is “I wanna choke the alligator” so Eva responds with “I’m choking the alligator right now”. Willie chuckles, which could be unexpected from the audience as primarily, Willie comes across as a cold, stubborn character. Eva succeeds in making him laugh, even if only a little, which breaks the tension in the film but emphasizes Willie’s struggle to abstain from being his rigid self. Again, comparing, Bruno tells Zack and Jack another rhyming joke he had learned “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream”. The other characters all begin to chant the rhyme in unison. This scene comes as unexpected as formerly the three are playing cards in silence therefore again the foreigner can be seen as comic relief in Jarmusch’s narrative.

In conclusion, Jarmusch can be discussed as an auteur filmmaker of his time. From analyzing several aspects of his style choices and elements of his narrative structure that set him apart from other directors, it can be said he has his own signature approach. He uses original yet realistic narrative choices such as characters that struggle to communicate, foreigners trying to speak another language, and adding an element of comic relief to both films and putting characters together that don’t get along. Typically in Hollywood cinema, this would be unheard of however Jarmusch has made unconventional choices to create movies that are not dramatized, but emphasizing the simplicity of life where miscommunication and misunderstanding happens and where things go left unsaid and so on. Similarly, his film style differentiates as it displays America in a gritty fashion through low-key lighting and long takes, of unflattering locations of America, to put emphasis on the film's protagonists and fewer aesthetics.