Jim Jarmusch - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Akron, Ohio, 22 January 1953. Education: Graduated from Columbia University with a Bachelor's degree in English, 1975; attended New York University Graduate Film School, 1976–79, where he worked as a teaching assistant to his mentor, Nicholas Ray. Career: With the help of Ray, completed first film, Permanent Vacation , for $10,000, 1980; made The New World with 30 minutes of leftover film, 1982; added another hour's worth of film to it to make Stranger than Paradise , 1984; directed music

Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch
videos for the Talking Heads, Big Audio Dynamite, Tom Waits, and Neil Young & Crazy Horse, 1985–96; also recording artist with "The Del-Byzanteens." Awards: Locarno International Film Festival Golden Leopard, National Society of Film Critics Best Film Award, Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or, for Stranger than Paradise , 1984; Bodil Festival Best American Film, Robert Festival Best Foreign Film, for Down by Law, 1986; Cannes Film Festival Best Artistic Contribution, for Mystery Train, 1989; Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or, for Coffee and Cigarettes III (Somewhere in California) , 1993; European Film Awards Five Continents Award, for Dead Man, 1995; Camerimage Special Award (shared with Robby Muller) as Best Independent Duo: Director-Cinematographer, 1998; FilmFest Hamburg Douglas Sirk Award, 1999. Address: Lives in a loft in the East Bowery, New York.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


Permanent Vacation (+ sc, pr, ed, mus)


The New World ( Stranger than Paradise, Part One ) (short)


Stranger than Paradise (+ ed)


Down by Law


Coffee and Cigarettes (short)


Mystery Train


Coffee and Cigarettes II (Memphis Version) (short) (+ ed)


Night on Earth (+ pr)


Coffee and Cigarettes III (Somewhere in California) (short) (+ ed)


Dead Man


Year of the Horse (doc) (d only, + pr, ph, ro as himself)


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (+ pr)

Other Films:


Red Italy (Mitchel) (ro)


Lightning over Water ( Nick's Movie ) (Wenders, Ray) (prod asst); Underground U.S.A. (Mitchell) (sound recordist)


Only You (Vogel) (ro); You Are Not I (Driver) (ph, co-sc)


Burroughs (Brookner) (sound recordist); The State of Things (Wenders) (featured songs by The Del-Byzanteens)


Fraulein Berlin (Lambert) (ro); American Autobahn (Degas) (ro)


Sleepwalk (Driver) (ph); American Autobahn (Degas) (ro, ph)


Straight to Hell (Cox) (ro)


Candy Mountain (Wurlitzer, Frank) (ro)


Helsinki Napoli All Night Long (M. Kaurismaki) (ro)


Leningrad Cowboys Go America (A. Kaurismaki) (ro)


Golden Boat (Ruiz) (ro)


In the Soup (Rockwell) (ro)


When Pigs Fly (Driver) (co-exec pr)


Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (M. Kaurismaki) (ro); Iron Horsemen ( Bad Trip ) (Charmant) (ro)


Blue in the Face (Wang, Auster) (ro)


The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (Simon) (ro); Cannes Man (Martini, Shapiro) (ro); Sling Blade (Thornton) (ro)


R.I.P., Rest in Pieces (Pejo) (ro)


Divine Trash (Yeager) (doc) (interviewee)


By JARMUSCH: articles—

Interview (on Nicholas Ray) with F. Vega, in Casablanca (Madrid), February 1983.

Interview with H. Leroux and Y. Lardeau, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1984.

Interview with Harlan Jacobson, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1985.

Interview in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1985.

Interview in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.

Interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1986.

Interview with Saskia Baron, in Stills (London), February 1987.

"Asphalt Jungle Jim," interview with M. Mordue, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1988.

Interview in Cineforum (Bergamo), December 1989.

Interview in Films and Filming (London), December 1989.

"Kino podrozujacych 'Noc na ziem' nowy film Jima Jarmuscha," interview with W. Brenner, in Kino (Warsaw), March 1992.

"Film as Life, and Vice Versa," interview with Karen Schoemer, in New York Times , 30 April 1992.

"Jarmusch's Guilty Pleasures," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1992.

"Home and Away," interview with Peter Keogh, in Sight and Sound (London), August 1992.

"A Gun up Your Ass," interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Cineaste (New York), no. 2, 1996.

Interview with N. Saada, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1996.

" Dead Man Talking," interview with Amy Taubin, in Village Voice (New York), 14 May 1996.

On JARMUSCH: articles—

Kiolkowski, F., "Independent Film: Stranger than Paradise ," in On Film (Los Angeles), Fall 1984.

Klady, Leonard, "Jim Jarmusch," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.

Stiller, Nikki, "A Sad and Beautiful Film," in Hudson Review (New York), vol. 40, no. 1, 1987.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1987.

Leibowitz, Flo, "Neither Hollywood nor Godard: The Strange Case of Stranger than Paradise ," in Persistence of Vision (Maspeth, New York), no. 6, 1988.

Pally, Marcia, article in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1989. Article in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1991.

Bassan, Raphael, article in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), December 1991.

Kilb, A., "O realni sedan josti," in Ekran (Ljublijana, Yugoslavia), no. 1/2, 1992.

Kelleher, E., "Indie Director Jarmusch Explores ' Night on Earth ,"' in Film Journal (New York), May 1992.

Schoemer, Karen, "A Director's Night on Earth, Close to Home," in New York Times , 1 May 1992.

Fabricius, S., "It's a Sad and Beautiful World," in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Summer 1992.

Hoberman, J., "Roadside Attractions," in Sight and Sound (London), August 1992.

Lally, K., "Jim Jarmusch Goes West," in Film Journal (New York), April/May 1996.

* * *

In the 1980s, Jim Jarmusch quickly rose to the forefront of young, independent American filmmakers. Recognition has been his from the very beginning with the release of Stranger than Paradise , a work that won a Camera d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival (for best "first film") and "Best Picture" from the National Society of Film Critics. The key to Jarmusch's success is a well-defined and thoughtfully conceived stylistic approach and a coherent circle of interests.

The focal point of all Jarmusch's work is the apparent contradiction that exists between the popular perception of the American Dream and what that dream actually holds for the individual who doesn't quite fit in. This contradiction is explored through the interaction of a characteristic ensemble of characters. Each of Jarmusch's early films is built around a trio of characters, although Mystery Train varies that slightly by using three separate stories to explore this central theme. The characters are all decidedly off-beat, but all seem to have a vision or aspiration which echoes a popular perception of America. The central characters—Tom Waits' down and out disc jockey in Down by Law , or John Lurie's small-time pimp in the same film—are forced to confront their misconceptions and misguided dreams when they are thrown together by fate with a foreigner who views this dream as an observer. In Down by Law , for example, the two central characters find themselves in jail with an Italian immigrant who has murdered someone for cheating at cards. The character carries a small notebook of American slang expressions from which he quotes dutifully and incorrectly. He refers to this notebook as "everything I know about America." It is this kind of character situation that Jarmusch uses to scoff at an America he sees as misguided and woefully out of touch with itself.

Stylistically, Jarmusch's films echo the work of the French "New Wave" directors, in particular the Godard of Breathless and Weekend. Jump-cuts are frequently used to disconnect characters from sublime and rational passages of time and space. A sense of disenfranchisement is created in this way, separating characters from the continuity of space and time which surrounds them. In Down by Law , for example, Tom Waits sits in his cell, then lays on the floor, then lays across his bed, but what seems like "a day in the life" editing approach actually concludes with days having passed, not hours. Jarmusch also uses moving-camera a great deal, but unlike his predecessors in other traditions, his fluid camera style is not functional. Camera movements in films like Down by Law and Mystery Train create a visual world that is always in transition. Down by Law opens with camera movement first right to left down a street in a small town, then left to right. As a result, the audience is introduced, through a visual metaphor, to the collision course that is central to the film's themes.

Jarmusch capped his early period with Night on Earth , an exhilarating five-part slice-of-life, each of which unravels at the same point in time in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. All are set in taxis, and spotlight brief but poignant exchanges between cab driver and passenger. The best of many highlights: the sequence in which a black Brooklynite (Giancarlo Esposito) and an East German refugee (Armin Mueller-Stahl) reveal their names to each other. Jarmusch's point is that people are people, whether black or white, American or French or Finnish.

The filmmaker then disappointed with Dead Man , a well-intentioned but annoyingly obvious allegorical Western. Dead Man charts the experiences of a young man named William Blake (Johnny Depp), a bespeckled Cleveland accountant who arrives in a grubby, mud-soaked Western town and promptly finds himself accused of murder and wanted by the law. Jarmusch's point of view is without argument: America is a violent country, founded on bloodletting and bloodletting alone. But the problem with the film is that his portrait of America-the-violent is all-too-obvious, and anything but subtle. One of the film's few female characters keeps a gun in her bed. "This is America," is her reason for doing so. Blake eventually crosses paths with an Indian who is symbolically named Nobody; after all, in the quest to achieve "manifest destiny," did not the white man render the American Indian anonymous? (In the film's cleverest touch, Nobody mistakes Blake for the poet-painter of the same name returned to life.) Eventually, and predictably, William Blake becomes a for-real killer—but just as predictably, Nobody is the far more interesting character. He is a spiritual man, the lone one in the story. Even Blake, whom he befriends, is too dense to comprehend the Indian's worldview. Meanwhile, all the white men endlessly shoot at each other, often with fatal results. One of them, a celebrated bounty hunter, even has a sideline as a cannibal. In one scene, he dines by a campfire on what clearly are the remains of a severed hand. It is here where you will be thankful that Jarmusch has chosen to shoot the film in beautiful black and white. In Dead Man, Jarmusch casts screen veteran Robert Mitchum as the semi-demented industrialist who is the town's key powerbroker. Mitchum is on-screen ever so briefly, but his presence is one of the film's few highlights.

After directing Year of the Horse , an affectionate documentary chronicling Neil Young & Crazy Horse's 1996 concert tour, Jarmusch ended the 1990s with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The film is thematically linked to Dead Man in that it contrasts a knowing, spiritual racial minority and mindlessly violent white men. But the difference between the two is that Ghost Dog is a compelling film, a thoughtful and multi-leveled rumination on age-old enlightenment pitted against modern-era dysfunction. Ghost Dog is a portrait of the title character (Forest Whitaker), an African-American contract killer who is a loner, alienated and cut off from the American mainstream. In a classic Jarmusch touch, his one friend, an ice cream vendor, speaks only French; Ghost Dog does not understand that language, yet the two men somehow communicate clearly and understand each other perfectly.

Ghost Dog has earned his nickname because, professionally speaking, he is "like a ghost," and is "totally untraceable." He also is fascinated by the disciplines and philosophy of the samurai, and lives by the codes of the 18th-century Japanese text The Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai . This allows him to understand the meaning of loyalty, and so he remains faithful to his boss, a small-time hood who once saved his life. During the course of the film, Ghost Dog is pitted against a gang of Italian mobsters; he is shown to be their superior because he is philosophical—he has firm, grounded beliefs—while they are fallible because they are mindless. The Italians casually whack each other, or any innocent citizen who happens to be in their way, and they order Ghost Dog killed because he has the temerity to spare the life of a young girl who is present during one of his hits. But Ghost Dog will persevere, because the wisdom that permeates his soul is pure and true. Conversely, the Italians are doomed because they are as dysfunctional as they are amoral.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is loaded with the ironic, caustic humor that is so typically Jarmusch: the Italian gangsters are disbelieving when they learn that the hit man is called Ghost Dog, yet they remain oblivious to their own ludicrous nicknames (such as Sammy the Snake). Also throughout the film, Jarmusch employs the image of birds as a metaphor for independence; Ghost Dog communicates with his boss via carrier pigeon, and there are recurring shots of birds flying in the sky.

Jarmusch also is not averse to working in the short film format. In 1987 he made Coffee and Cigarettes , in which an American (Steven Wright) and an Italian (Roberto Benigni) meet in a cafe and converse over coffee and cigarettes. Jarmusch reworked the film's concept and structure twice more: Coffee and Cigarettes II (Memphis Version) , made two years later, in which an argument between twins Joie and Cinque Lee is intruded on by an overly earnest waiter (Steve Buscemi); and Coffee and Cigarettes III (Somewhere in California) , made four years after that, this time featuring a barroom conversation between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits.

Jarmusch's cool style and strangers-in-a-strange-land subject matter have influenced other filmmakers. Cold Fever , a likable 1995 Icelandic feature co-produced and co-scripted by Jarmusch colleague Jim Stark and directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, chronicles a Japanese businessman's odyssey across Iceland to perform a memorial ritual at the spot where his parents had died seven years earlier.

Like other emerging filmmakers of his generation, such as Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch approaches the American way of life with a sense of hip cynicism. A product of contemporary American film school savvy, Jarmusch incorporates a sense of film history, style, and awareness in his filmmaking approach. The tradition which he has chosen to follow, the one which offers him the most freedom, is that established by filmmakers such as Chabrol, Godard, and Truffaut in the 1950s and 1960s.

—Rob Winning, updated by Rob Edelman

Other articles you might like:

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: