the evening in Helsinki — where else? — with a drunken cabful of Aki Kaurismaki regulars making hilarious efforts to top each other’s tragic chronicles of Scandinavian gloom.
At which point we seem light years away from Stranger Than Paradise. the comic masterpiece ofdeadpan boho manners that made Jarmusch an overnight star on the arthouse scene in 1984. But the Akron-born writer-producer-director’s movies. from first to last. work by looking in on the personality quirks and conversational foibles of their various characters. outsiders by geographical displacement — like Stranger’s Hungarian waif. the Italian Beningni in the prison escape caper Down By Law. the Japanese tourists in Mystery Train, inept East German cabbie Armin Mueller-Stahl in the new film — or by attitude (cf. the highly individual performances from the likes ofJohn Lurie. Tom Waits. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Rosie Pere that run throughout the Jarmusch canon). Slightly distanced. Jarmusch’s films don’t tell you how to respond to them. nor do they moralise at you. Really. they’re about the people in them. and although Night On Earth’s neon-swept colour cinematography and unobtrusive camerawork shows the stylistic approach growing more conventional down the years. Jarmusch’s contention that the small detail is just as telling as the grandiose thematic gesture often leads to the rather wrong-headed critical response that his work is merely shallow.
‘Yeah. the characters in my films are the essential thing.’ agrees the former musician who scraped up a mere $12000 to make the apprentice feature Permanent Vacation in 1980 and has hardly looked back since. ‘The initial idea I have is always about the characters and then the storyline is something that’s woven around them. In Night On Earth I was interested in the way a cab puts you into an intimate situation with. someone you’re not looking at directly! and whom you’re never likely to meet again. It’s one of those mundane situations we’re all very familiar with yet don’t apply any
significance to. One of those situations where you don’t have anything invested in a relationship with this other person so your personality traits tend to slip out and affect
the course of the conversation that follows.‘
‘Basically, I wanted to get out of America and see some of my pals, so I dug out this briefsketch I’d done while we were making Down By Law and turned it into the story with Beatrice and Isaach. who’re both very
good friends ofmine. Then I thought. “Hey.
I like this taxi thing!” and wrote one for Benigni, another one for the Finns. one about New York and another for LA. all within the space ofabout five days. Instead of writing the script and then casting it. I sort ofwork backwards compared to the usual process because I often make movies with actors who’re friends and so I have the person already in my head while I’m writing the characters.’
Although he describes this writing method as ‘unprofessional or maybe anti-professional.’ Jarmusch’s approach in
Night On Earth took a slightly different tack.
Rather than calling on muso buddies like John Lurie, Tom Waits or Joe Strummer to grace the screen with their distinctive presences, the LA part was actually rewritten after a request from Winona Ryder herselfthat she be in one of his films
‘My movies aren’t about style, they aren’t about fashion, they’re about people and relationships.’
and a chance meeting with Gena Rowlands at a film festival which resulted in her agreeing to play alongside the young star. ‘There was a moment.’ Jarmusch rather sheepishly admits. ‘when I went into a daydream during a take just thinking, “that’s Gena Rowlands! She’s in my movie!” but I try to approach every actor the same no matter what their experience. My way of working is to find a way of collaborating between me and that particular person. It doesn’t matter if it’s Robert de Niro or my plumber.‘
JIM J ARMUSCHFEATIIRE
rmin ue er- tah n on 0 Such words might seem crass coming from someone else. but from the evidence of an hour-long interview Jarmusch seems like one ofthe most down-to-earth and unaffected moviemakers you could wish to meet, possibly because he never really expected to end up a globe-trotting auteur
and all-round arbiter ofcinematic
grooviness. ‘Yeah. I‘m surprised to be here, but if it ended tomorrow that’d be OK,’ he
reﬂects in the truly un-phased manner so typical of his characters.
‘I‘d just wait for the next thing that life was waiting to throw at me because I’ve had a lot ofjobs in my time. I’ve been a member of the United Aircraft and Sheet Metal Workers Union. I’ve operated a hydraulic drill on a production line. I’ve been a welder’s apprentice and worked in a steel foundry. I’ve been a landscape guy and a moving man. Ijust feel incredibly lucky that for the last eight years my life hasn’t been dictated to by the hours ofwage-labour. That‘s an incredible freedom to me because I know the other side of the experience. And it‘s probably why it bugs me so much when people lay the “terminally hip” thing on me . . .
Night On Earth opens at Edinburgh Cameo on Friday 7August and (i F Ton Sunday 9 August.
The List 31 July— 13 August I9927