Jim Jarmusch, in Film After Film, Reveals What Life Actually Is


Adam and Eve have been married for centuries. Over time, though, this pair of British vampires has drifted apart. Now she wanders Tangier by night while her musician husband mopes, inspiration-starved, inside a dark Detroit room. As they talk by Skype one evening, she says she’ll return to him. He tells her he loves her so much, and she answers, “I’ll take that for the journey.”

These eternal lovers, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are the focus of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s 11th feature, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). The film opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 11 following the eight-day retrospective “Permanent Vacation: The Films of Jim Jarmusch,” which began Wednesday and features the filmmaker and other guests in attendance at several screenings.

Throughout Jarmusch’s films, characters build relationships as a way to fill time in tales that he told a New York Times reporter over 20 years ago are about “things that we take for granted that may be what life really is.” His focus has stayed consistent since then, leading up to an idiosyncratic vampire film; the survival high that Adam and Eve get from drinking from strangers pales next to the sustenance they draw from journeying toward one another.

Like them, several of Jarmusch’s other heroes travel with death, such as the terse Lone Man played by Isaach de Bankolé in The Limits of Control (2009), who focuses on his mission of carrying out an assassination in Madrid. They do so because, whether outlandishly or tenderly, looking to death helps drive them through life. The outlaw accountant William Blake (played by Johnny Depp) in the black-and-white Western Dead Man (1995) rides toward the sea with a bullet lodged in his heart, building his courage by making poetry out of killing bounty hunters. The Italian woman Luisa played by Nicoletta Braschi in Mystery Train (1989), stranded in Memphis with her recently deceased husband’s coffin, wanders, adrift, until the ghost of Elvis appears in her hotel room to give guidance and solace.

The people in those films revive themselves among the dead. So do Adam and Eve, who drive through Detroit shortly after her arrival to survey its desolate landscapes. The lovers visit the sites of former concert halls and movie theaters, recalling the Motor City of popular imagination, and soon go home to dance to the throwback sound of Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love.”

“I’ve always been interested in the ruins, or the artifacts, of previous civilizations, whether they be from 2,000 years ago or 50 years ago,” Jarmusch told Inkoo Kang in a Village Voice feature piece published in March. This is clear from how he films people and traditions — for instance, the equal weight given to ancient Japanese and modern-day mafioso lifestyles in the philosophical hit man film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). It applies to his locations, too. The 61-year-old Ohio native and longtime New Yorker was inspired to film Detroit largely because of its musical history and what that suggested of its cultural history, just as he was drawn to a tourist-driven Memphis for Mystery TrainM and to a downbeat New Orleans for the misfit prison comedy Down by Law (1986).

These last two films came so vividly into his mind that he wrote their screenplays before ever visiting their cities. They treat music as a spiritual wind blowing from the past into a present-day place to carry people forward. It propels character movement in other Jarmusch films as well, even if the songs aren’t particular to the city being shown. In Night on Earth (1991), a portmanteau film that takes place during five different taxi rides across five different cities, a Tom Waits score transports the viewer from Paris to Rome to Helsinki. At the beginning of Jarmusch’s breakout, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a young, recently landed Hungarian immigrant, Eva (played by Eszter Balint), walks Lower East Side streets with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” animating her and the camera’s travels through a new world — until she reaches her joyless American cousin Willie’s apartment, that is, at which point the music cuts out and the frame stays fixed.

Willie initially acts unhappy to host Eva, then eventually gets so used to her that he follows her out of New York. This grump (played by Lounge Lizards frontman John Lurie, who scored several of Jarmusch’s early films) is the first in a long line of one of the director’s signature types: the icemen for warmer characters to thaw out. Willie’s transition is echoed by Only Lovers‘ Adam, whom Eve sometimes succeeds in coaxing out of himself. In between these men stand stiff figures such as Bill Murray’s Don Johnson in Broken Flowers (2005), an initially inert former lothario who springs to life to visit several old flames after learning that one might have borne him a son.

Don sees pieces of himself in each of their homes, but he’s always only a visitor, traveling to discover where he feels least out of place. Allie Parker (Christopher Parker), the young Charlie Parker- and Lautréamont-obsessed protagonist of Jarmusch’s debut feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), takes a similar journey as he leaves his apartment and slowly traverses a wiped-out city, finally buying a boat ticket to Paris with the hope that he can find comfort abroad.

The feeling estrangement from one’s surroundings, of being foreigner wherever one goes, haunts even Jarmusch’s most comic scenarios and threatens his characters with a fate worse than death: isolation. The disaffected movie star played by Chloe Sevigny faces this prospect in Jarmusch’s short Int. Trailer. Night. (made for the 2002 multi-director feature Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet); her break from shooting contains wall-to-wall interruptions from crew members who only stay long enough to check whether she has what she needs. Isolation also fills several of the most stinging moments of the sketch film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), whose ensemble of celebrities playing lonely, paranoid, and miserable versions of themselves falls onto so many wrong sides of fame that the film sometimes seems to suggest that there’s no right one. A late Only Lovers scene of the vampires watching a Lebanese singer in Tangier is weighted with the dangers of what could happen if they find her too lively; in Jarmusch’s films, fame depletes people by turning them into beings off of which others feed.

The rhythm of his latest changes entirely during the time spent on this singer, Yasmine Hamdan, as the camera writhes and glides so close to her that her act separates from the film’s story to become a setpiece. This shift befits Jarmusch’s background as a director of music videos, one of which is slated to screen before each of the Lincoln Center retrospective’s features. They find the filmmaker (and musician — his band, SQÜRL, composed Only Lovers‘ score) playing with techniques and themes. Jarmusch’s videos for the Talking Heads’ “The Lady Don’t Mind” and the Raconteurs’ “Steady as She Goes,” paired with Permanent Vacation and The Limits of Control, respectively, present musicians and actors that appear and disappear from sight in ghostly ways much like people do in his existential features; his video screening with Night on Earth, for frequent collaborator Tom Waits’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” offers a frontal view of Waits kneeling on a small stage playing a tiny guitar as he growls that he doesn’t want to leave his room.

Two longer musical works round out the retrospective. The feature-length concert film Year of the Horse (1997), made on commission from Neil Young (who composed Dead Man‘s score), features interviews with Young and members of Crazy Horse amid several full-length performances from the group’s 1996 world tour. The 30-minute Joe Strummer-When Pigs Fly Score (1993) screens before Mystery Train (in which the Clash frontman acted as a Memphis-stranded Brit) and shows Strummer in a Wales studio recording the soundtrack for a film by Sara Driver, Jarmusch’s longtime partner. Strummer appears singing with headphones on as well as taking advantage of downtime to smoke and joke with friends. He says at one point, “What we’ve lost in the modern world is that people don’t want to put a sound loud,” as though he were Jarmusch’s version of the world’s original man.