Jim Jarmusch | Ghost Dog | Coffee and Cigarettes

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Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch is a leading independent filmmaker.


Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) is about a solitary hitman who is betrayed by his employers. In this, it is in the tradition of the American pioneer film noir, This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942, based on a 1936 novel by Graham Greene) and Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967).

Landscapes

Jarmusch's films are full of enormous pictorial beauty. This is especially found in the landscape shots that fill his work. This is landscape in the broad sense, including cityscapes and street scenes. They are highly atmospheric too. They constantly create a sense of feeling, convey emotions, and bathe the drama in a world of evoked sensation, mental experience and sensory richness. In short, the landscapes create mise-en-scène.

The landscapes reach their peak in his color films: Mystery Train, Night on Earth, and Ghost Dog. But they are also found in his black & white work, such as the long final water journey to the tribal lands in the last sections of Dead Man. One of the best landscape sequences is the ride on the freeway around 15 minutes into Ghost Dog, one of the most hypnotic passages in modern cinema.

Jarmusch's use of color harmonies adds a lot to his landscape sequences. They tend to be full of reds, greens, blues, and other bright, glowing primary or secondary colors. The various patches of color tend to form geometric figures.

There are two ways to see Jarmusch. If you ignore his landscapes, he can be seen as a maker of somewhat minimalist comedies, inoffensive, with sympathetic characters, but not a whole lot of substantive events. If you open your eyes to the landscapes, he becomes a major filmmaker, a pictorialist in the tradition of Sternberg.

Jarmusch's work reminds one of a quote from Virginia Woolf. Woolf was describing the gorgeous, ornate prose of Joseph Conrad. She suggested Conrad's prose was like the young Helen of Troy, looking into a mirror, and realizing that she would never, ever be a plain woman.

Other contemporary filmmakers use landscape, in ways which formally recall Jarmusch's films. For example Abbas Kiarostami, who is an admirer of Jarmusch's work, cuts between minimalist interiors in a car, and exterior landscapes without his characters, in Life and Nothing More... (1991). The two filmmakers have a very similar approach.

Hipness

Mr. Jarmusch, with whom I am not acquainted, clearly likes to present himself as being hip. And a "hip" stream does flow through the comedy in his pictures, with rock and roll being a subject in Mystery Train, and literature and philosophy being discussed in Ghost Dog. Jarmusch's comments are lively and stimulating, and add another factor to the mix of these films. They also tend to prop up the films' structure. I tend to find this element pleasant and enjoyable, without seeing it as the core of Jarmusch's achievement. Unfortunately, some reviewers today are basing their entire response to Jarmusch films on this single aspect of hipness. It is certainly there - but it tends to distract them from the visual beauty of Jarmusch's work.

Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) is Jarmusch's most episodic film - eleven short sequences in all. It consists entirely of interiors - very odd, for a filmmaker whose genius is the exterior! Instead of landscapes, the film is punctuated with a series of still lifes, showing the table tops of the film, filled with cups, sugar bowls, and other paraphernalia. These table tops are seen from overhead, like a Busby Berkeley dance number. They form beautiful geometric patterns. Most of the table tops have a checkerboard motif. The alternating squares of the checkerboards contrast with the circles of the cups, saucers, sugar containers and other objects, making purely geometrical designs. Jarmusch comes up with eleven variations on this fundamental pattern. The designs are interesting in their own right, and also as variations on one another. Just as Jarmusch's landscapes are actor-less snatches of visual beauty that alternate with the dialogue scenes in his other films, so do the overhead still lifes play a similar structural role in this film.

The episodes are uneven. Some are so minimalistic that they have little significance, and just seem like filler, especially "Renée" and "No Problem". Others are more interesting.

"Strange To Meet You": This was the first of these short films to be shot - reportedly in 1987! It benefits greatly from a nutty comedy performance by Roberto Benigni. In general, Jarmusch gets some of the best performances out of the genuine actors, and the weakest out of various celebrities, musicians and poets who visit the film. Bill Murray and his episode "Delirium" are a complete bore, however.

"Twins": This recalls Mystery Train. Once again, we are in a Memphis coffee shop, with a pair of really hip visitors, the Lee twins. And as in the earlier film, there is much comic dialogue about Elvis and Graceland. Here, however, the sinister side of Elvis and his relationship with earlier black rock music is discussed - a contrast to the hero worship shown to Elvis in the earlier film. Steve Buscemi returns from Mystery Train, as well, offering another of his zingy performances.

"Cousins": This episode recalls the opening sequence of Night on Earth. There, a beautifully dressed representative of the entertainment industry (Gena Rowlands), encountered a slovenly, earthy young cab driver (Winona Ryder). The show biz type used a cell phone a lot, and was very busy with professional activities. All of these characters and characteristics return in this episode. But here the two characters are both played by Cate Blanchett, in a dual role! Even the suits she wears as the movie star, and her beautifully cut hair, recall Gena Rowlands' similar suit and hair design in the earlier film. Blanchett has a field day with the dual role.

This is the first scene not to show a checkerboard table. Instead, the checkerboard design is wittily spread out over the whole scene. The elegant hotel lounge's walls are filled with diamond patterns, that echo the checkerboard squares of earlier scenes. And the fancy cups themselves have diamond, checkerboard like patterns on them. They are vaguely Art Deco, and recall the elegant, Constructivist inspired design of the 1920's, when modern art began to be applied to everyday objects. All of this makes for a most pleasant visual variation.

"Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil": This is the most beautiful episode. It is full of poetry, as the pair talk about the development of modern electrical science. Eventually there is a demonstration of the title machine. The dialogue here is at once poetic, and filled with scientific and political interest. It reminds one a bit of the science fiction film Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004). The suggestion that science could be used more constructively, to benefit everyone on Earth, is a good idea, one absent from too many movies. The scene gives a brief glimpse of Utopia.

Meg White and Jack White are involved with a musical group called the White Stripes.

"Cousins?": This is a show biz spoof, that continues the inside acting theme of the Blanchett episode, but extends it into a full fledged, and highly acid, satire on today's movie industry. The similar titles, "Cousins" and "Cousins?", and parallel plot lines also continue the convergence. Both Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan give this all they've got, for a scathing look at show biz "values".

The table top here is one of the most complex in the series, with some geometrically shaped cookies adding further visual values to the scene.

"Champagne": The finale. Here the geometric interest centers on the background wall. It is full of rectangular shaped regions, doors, windows and grilled fence work, each lit at a different intensity. The whole rectilinear design is quite beautiful. It reminds one of the geometric compositions of Ozu. The dialogues are quiet, and have a poetic quality. There are echoes here of the Tesla episode, another of the film's most poetic sequences. There is just one overhead shot of the table, and it is so dim its pattern can barely be seen. It ties in with the whole subject of the episode: losing track of the world, as Taylor Mead puts it, quoting a Mahler song.