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The Films Of Jim Jarmusch: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 17, 2012 at 11:09AM

There's no one in independent film quite like Jim Jarmusch, one of American cinema's most idiosyncratic filmmakers. Born to Episcopalian parents in Ohio in 1953, the director fell in love with B-movie double bills his mother left him in as a child, and fell into counter-culture arthouse movies in his teens. The director studied Journalism at Northwestern before dropping out and studying literature at Columbia, moving to Paris for ten months and then returning and applying to the film school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where he worked under legendary "Rebel Without A Cause" director Nicholas Ray, who encouraged the filmmaker's unique, particular approach.
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Dead Man
"Dead Man" (1995)
A spiritual psychedelic anti-Western to end all anti-Westerns, many argue that “Dead Man” is Jarmusch’s masterpiece, and it’s a claim hard to argue. Featuring a lonely and ominous reverb-soaked guitar-noise soundtrack by Neil Young and utterly breathtaking black and white cinematography by the great Robby Mueller (known for his work with Wim Wenders), the atmospheres and aesthetics of “Dead Man” are top notch, helping shape a tenor that is sinister, solemn and elegiac. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, an bookish accountant who travels to an inhospitable, end-of-the-line frontier town to claim a job, and finds himself on the run after he inadvertently kills a man in self defense. With a bounty on his head, Blake runs into the excommunicated Indian named “Nobody” who mistakes him for the famous poet, all the while seemingly presciently aware of his fate and then taking him on a journey that prepares him for entrance into the spiritual world. Featuring an outstanding cast of character actors -- Gary Farmer as Nobody with appearances by Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, Cripsin Glover, John Hurt and more -- the film is idiosyncratically rich and textured through almost every cinematic element known to man. Called “the best movie of the end of the 20th century” by pop culture essayist Greil Marcus, its evaluation has long since been reappraised, but even folks like Roger Ebert were short-sightedly confounded by the film during its day. Their loss. Drenched in an unnerving sense of looming death and emptiness, the haunting “Dead Man,” also manages to be oddly sardonic and melancholy with its reconciled acceptance of the inevitable. An unforgettable post-modern classic. [A+]

Ghost Dog
"Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai" (1999)
Reverberating with the rhythms of an original score by the RZA, Jarmusch’s hip hop genre experiment stars Forest Whitaker, decidedly playing against type as the title character. The moody, introspective Ghost Dog, once rescued by a sympathetic mob boss, now honors his retainer as organized crime’s most inscrutable hitman. A complete stylistic right turn, “Ghost Dog” owes its inspirations to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, as Whitaker’s taciturn bear of a hero is entirely a man out of time. Not only are his traditions and beliefs outdated, many of them based on the ancient Japanese tome The Hagakure, but he’s a hoodie-cloaked Luddite, camping out on rooftops, sending messages via carrier pigeons. Most amusingly, Jarmusch emphasizes the bleeding together of traditions: Ghost Dog openly heists cars with fairly sophisticated technology, while the elderly Italian gangsters rap along to Flava Flav. Despite the deadpan amusement of Henry Silva lecturing colleagues in regards to ancient civilizations, “Ghost Dog” also works as a straightforward genre exercise, with a number of slick shootout sequences emphasizing stealth and secrecy over overt violence, with almost no backing music. But the entire film would fall apart were it not for the nakedly human turn by Whitaker, who bestows his shadowy countenance with an easy smile and a delicate touch that makes it simple to see how he’d befriend a young girl and an overzealous non-English speaking ice cream man (a charming Isaach De Bankolé) in the midst of his bloodletting. [A]

Coffee And Cigarettes
"Coffee And Cigarettes" (2003)
The now verboten (at least in the Big Apple) indoor smoking found in Jarmusch’s 17-years-in-the-making feature, composed of eleven short films unified by the common theme of conversation shared in tandem with coffee and cancer stick huffing, suggests perhaps that time stands still in the otherworldly environs of “Coffee And Cigarettes.” It’s a world where Bill Murray can serve GZA and RZA, who prefer herbal tea to straight caffeine, and one where Steve Coogan can tap into a well-practiced celebrity jerkwad persona only to be shown up by a kindly, earnest, and unassuming Alfred Molina. There’s a prevailing era of cool here with icons and respected craftsmen (among them Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Steven Wright, Jack and Meg White, and many more) rubbing shoulders without making a big thing out of it, but maybe the navel-gazing that comes with that is detrimental to the overall product. Some conversations pop while others are still-born. A curio, to be certain but not a major contribution in Jarsmuch’s filmography, nor one that sees the director move forward in any considerable way. [B]

This article is related to: Jim Jarmusch, Features, The Essentials


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