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Past Article

"You have to listen to the film."
By Nina Rehfeld
November 4, 2002 - 9:07 AM PST

"I've seen a lot of weird, strange things in my life"

It'd be tough to underestimate the impact Stranger Than Paradise had back in 1984 on a whole generation of future independent filmmakers. "You watch Stranger, you think, 'I could really make a movie,'" Kevin Smith has said. "First thing, the camera doesn't move. Jarmusch sets things up and things happen. If I'm going to make a movie, I'm going to do it just like this and add dialogue."

Stranger wasn't Jarmusch's first film, though. Back in 1979, prodded by Nicholas Ray and Amos Poe, Jarmusch, who'd studied literature with the likes of poets David Shapiro and Kenneth Koch, who'd been hanging out at the Mudd Club and singing in a band called the Del Byzanteens, began work on Permanent Vacation (1980), a film about a guy who, as he put it, "doesn't really have any ambitions or responsibilities." The film floated around the European art circuit for a while, catching the eye of Wim Wenders.

The following year, Jarmusch began working on a script he'd shoot on a single weekend in February 1982. He spent $8000 on that first 30-minute version of Stranger. It picked up a few awards in Europe, so Jarmusch was able to round up the budget for the feature-length version, a grand total of $100,000. And off he went to Cannes, where he won the Camera d'Or (Wenders won the Palme d'Or that year for Paris, Texas).

"Here was someone I knew, someone who went to the same school that I did, who now had a hit film," Spike Lee once told Moviemaker Magazine. "I worked in the equipment room as a TA and I had checked equipment out to him, and here was someone who had an international hit. To me, that was when it first became doable. I owe a great deal to Jim Jarmusch. He showed me and everyone at NYU that we could do this."

On its first release, Stranger pulled in $2.5 million from North America. A modest sum, really, but pretty amazing when measured, as the industry tends to do, by "cost to gross." And it went on to become a perennial art house hit around the world.

More impressive is that Jim Jarmusch has stuck to his guns. Hollywood came calling back in the 80s, naturally, but Jarmusch, a self-described "control freak," has remained stubbornly independent. Except for the opening sequence, Down by Law (1986), also shot in black and white, retains the static camera of Stranger. But the characters are livelier (it's still probably Roberto Benigni's best role) and Jarmusch himself has said it's his most entertaining film.

Mystery Train (1989) is Jarmusch's first film shot in color and his first experiment with time; Rashomon-like, to pull out the old cliché, the same story is told three times from three different points of view. Night on Earth (1991) is another formalistic experiment, dropping in on various taxi drivers on various spots of the globe in a single night.

In his 1996 review of Dead Man, Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film "as important as any new American movie I've seen in the 90s." Important enough to him to write a book about it, too. When 2000 rolled around, many critics included Dead Man on their best-of-the-decade lists. It was quite a departure for Jarmusch. A genre film, a Western; a period piece whose haunted pace is set by Neil Young's score. There was a certain sense natural progression, then, when Jarmusch's next film would be a portrait of Young and his band, Year of the Horse (1997).

Even Rosenbaum, clearly a fan, admitted that Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) "may be a failure." He immediately added in his review, though: "But if it is, it's such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn't care to swap it for even three or four modest successes."

Since Stranger, Jarmusch had been releasing films at a pretty steady clip: One every two years. But 2001 came and went without a new Jim Jarmusch film. We haven't seen a feature this year, either. Then, in Cannes, where Nina Rehfeld talked to him, Jarmusch showed up for the premiere of Ten Minutes Older, a compilation film in the tradition of, say, Lumiere and Company (1995). A batch of directors is given a rigid set of formal limitations and the producers cross their fingers in the hopes that they'll come up with something interesting, maybe even marketable.

For Lumiere, the idea was to give 40 directors 52 seconds each and a vintage late 19th century camera, the sort the Lumiere Brothers would have used. Some of the same directors on that project took up the challenge for Ten Minutes Older, too. In this case, 15 directors have been given exactly ten minutes each to do something on the theme of time. The first collection, The Trumpet, was the one shown at Cannes and features contributions from Aki Kaurismaki, Victor Eríce, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Spike Lee, Chen Kaige, and of course, Jim Jarmusch. The Cello includes works by Bernardo Bertolucci, Mike Figgis, Jiri Menzel, István Szabó, Claire Denis, Volker Schlöndorff, Michael Radford and Jean-Luc Godard, who chose to make his entry a collection of ten one-minute films.

Quite a mixed bag, which the reviews have reflected right back. But praise for Jarmusch's short film is all but universal. His segment, Int. Trailer. Night, is a real-time look at an actress (played by Chloë Sevigny) taking a break in her trailer on a film set.

Int. Trailer. Night

Did you go back to your own experience for this?

Not personally. I never get a trailer. I would never have any time to spend waiting in one. But for friends of mine, actors and actresses, I'm certainly aware of their down time. Making a film is mostly waiting. Sitting around, waiting, waiting, waiting.

What was it like taking ten minutes and filling it with a film?

It was fun for me because I really like limitations. I like restrictions. I like the idea a lot of ten minutes being a kind of oblique strategy, of saying here, you must make a film not only ten minutes, but exactly ten minutes. Jay Rabinowitz, the editor, and I were very happy that it was ten minutes to the frame.

Tarkovsky said, "A film director is a sculpture of time." Do you agree?

Well, any movie is related obviously to time, the way music is. The two forms are very similar. You have a kind of flow, a rhythm -- the piece has its own time. So you're creating time when you make a film or a piece of music. Certainly any film is about time in some sense, and especially a narrative film, a story. So it's already kind of inherent in the form, you know? Can I smoke?

Of course.

Of course, it's France, you can smoke anywhere.

I thought you quit smoking in Blue in the Face.

The movies are just, you know: It's not true. Everything is made up.

Did you run into financial problems after Ghost Dog?

No, I'm very slow for one thing. A lot of things happened. It's not so interesting, but for six months, I had a thing called Bell's palsy. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but it's a virus in a nerve and you lose complete muscle control of half your face. So you can't blink and your eyes are really effected. You can't read or drive or watch TV or really anything to do with light and vision. That doesn't mean I couldn't have written a script, but instead, I just sat around and it stayed with me for six months. So I lost six months about a year and a half ago. Also, it takes me a while, but I do have two projects going now, in the process of starting. That's new for me, too. I usually do one at a time. So I plan to catch up with my lost time.

Want to talk about them?

No, I'm superstitious about that.

Were you scared when you got this palsy?

Yeah, I was. Because you can't blink and I had to wear a patch on one eye, and while I was sleeping, the patch cut my cornea. I almost lost all sight in my left eye. Then I had to heal the eye, and the thing about this Bell's palsy is that some people have it for years and years, and in other people, it goes away in a month. And you just don't know. It's a very odd thing. But in a way, there's always a gift in these things, so I had time to think about a lot of things that were important and sort of prioritize my life. It was kinda good in a way.

Did you see the Woody Allen movie [Hollywood Ending, the Cannes opener about a director who goes blind]?

I did not, no. I used to have some very, very hardcore landlords years ago when I was first starting out, some Italian Americans. They once said to me, when I was a few months behind in the rent, they said [Italian accent]: "Hey, Jimmy, I wanna ask ya sumthin'. How many blind directors do you know of?"

You've got a reputation as being very rooted in everyday life. How does this whole circus thing here strike you?

Well, you know, I've seen a lot of weird, strange things in my life, so now, I'm just kind of more Zen'd out. It's just... interesting to me. Although, the last few times I was in Cannes, I vowed I would never come back.


Just so much pressure. Because I was here with films in competition and just did press all day long, all day long. And meetings, and press. I got a little psychotic. But here I am again, so... [publicity voice]: And I hope to be back.

In competition?

Well, if it's good for the film, yeah. Although I don't believe in competition. In any kind of human expression, it's absurd. That's for sports.

"I've learned a lot about Zen philosophy" >>>

"I've seen a lot of weird, strange things in my life"
"I've learned a lot about Zen philosophy"

back to past articles


Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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