Night on Earth: Criterion Collection Review
The first part of this review is the same as that of the Second Sight Edition of Night on Earth, which I wrote in 2005. For discussion of the Criterion edition, go to “The DVD” below.
Five cities, five tax rides, five stories all taking place simultaneously. It’s 7pm in Los Angeles, and as the sun sets Corky (Winona Ryder), picks up Hollywood casting agent Victoria Snelling who is having trouble casting a part in an upcoming movie. Meanwhile, it’s 10pm in New York. Yoyo (Giancarlo Esposito) picks up a ride from East German cabbie Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Helmut can barely drive and has no idea where he’s going, so Yoyo takes over, and Helmut gets himself involved in an argument between Yoyo and his sister Angela (Rosie Perez). Across the Atlantic, it’s 4am in Paris, where an Ivory-Coaster driver (Isaach de Bankolé) picks up a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle). It’s also 4am in Rome, and cabbie Roberto Benigni picks up a bishop (Paolo Bonacelli) and delivers a rapid-fire monologue that has an unexpected effect on the man of the cloth. Meanwhile, it’s 5am in Helsinki: Mika (Matti Pellonpää) picks up three men after a night on the town. One of them is so drunk he’s insensible. He’s just lost his job. But Mika tells them an even sadder story. As the sun rises, Night on Earth ends on a melancholy note.
The portmanteau form (a film made up of separate but linked shorts, more usually done by different directors) is a natural fit for Jarmusch, whose abilities tend towards the small moments and a minimalist style. His breakthrough second feature Stranger than Paradise comprises three equal-length sections, the first of them made as a separate short film, and Down by Law is also in three distinct acts. Mystery Train featured three stories linked by their hotel setting. In a sense Night on Earth is a summing-up of the early part of Jarmusch’s career. Later films tend to have more integrated full-length narratives. (Coffee and Cigarettes is the exception, being a collection of the short “Coffee and Cigarettes” shorts that Jarmusch has made over the years.)
Night on Earth is a Jarmusch compendium, and probably the best introduction to his work for newcomers. It covers a variety of moods, from the abrasive comedy of the New York segment, to the hilarious Benigni showpiece that is the Rome sequence. The Paris and Helsinki episodes are more serious, the former making some serious points about intolerance of minorities. The Los Angeles sequence is probably the weakest, though it’s never less than watchable. Jarmusch created each part from cities he knew and had visited, with actors who had either worked for him before or who had become friends. The Finnish episode is in part a tribute to Jarmusch’s friends the directors Aki and Mika Kaurismäki...and to their frequent leading man Matti Pellonpää, who died of a heart attack in 1995. Frederick Elmes’s camerawork helps define the mood of each sequence, and Tom Waits sings over the credits sequences.
All the episodes are conducted in their respective cities’ native languages. It’s certainly an achievement to make a film in any foreign language to your own, let alone three. Jarmusch even manages a non-English pun: in the Paris section there’s a play on “Il voit rien” (he sees nothing) and “ivoirien” (Ivory Coaster).
Multi-episode films are usually uneven, with one or two standouts making up for dead spots elsewhere. That’s less the case with Night on Earth: although you could say that at two hours this is perhaps an episode too long, but as a cinematic smorgasbord, it’s satisfying and filling.
Night on Earth is #401 in the Criterion Collection, a single-disc release encoded for Region 1 only.
The DVD transfer is director-approved, anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1. As per the title, almost all of this film takes place at night so as you’d imagine shadow detail is essential. Inevitably due to the low-light conditions and the fast film, there’s some grain, but the colours are vibrant and generally sharp.
The soundtrack is surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, which is faithful to the Dolby Stereo track that would have been heard in cinemas. The film is very much dialogue-driven, but there are directional effects here and there, such as passing taxis. The dialogue is in English for the first two sections, French, Italian and Finnish. English subtitles are available for the latter three sections, but can be switched off if you are sufficiently polyglot. Full marks to Criterion for including hard-of-hearing subtitles, something that is often neglected – they are the only option for the L.A. and New York sections.
Jarmusch himself does not do commentaries, so stepping up to the plate are DP Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin. This is over selected scenes only. As they finish, a voice tells you at which chapter the commentary continues, or you can use an index. Even so, they find plenty to talk about, taking in all of the Paris and Helsinki sections and virtually all of Rome. You get plenty of detail on the logistics of shooting at night in five different cities, which have different colour schemes and different methods of street lighting.
Jarmusch himself appears on the disc in an audio feature, in which he provides an introduction and answers questions sent in to the Criterion website. You can "play all" or select each contribution from an index where each questioner's city and timezone are displayed. Jarmusch is also interviewed in Paris, for the Belgian programme Alice (5:50) broadcast in 1992. He describes the origin of the film in the enclosed nature of the taxi cab, and the question of directing films in other languages, including ones he does not himself speak.
The booklet provides five essays, each written by a native of each of the five cities. In order, these are: “Passing Through Twilight” by Jim Anderson, “Jim Jarmusch: Poet” by Paul Auster, “Talk the Talk” by Bernard Eisenschitz, “Superficial Impressions About Jarmusch” by Goffredo Fofi, “Last Stop: Helsinki” by Peter von Bagh. All of them give their appreciations of Jarmusch’s work and how he has captured the flavour of each city. Two of the essayists have also worked as taxi drivers and they commend Jarmusch for conveying the essence of the job. Along with the usual chapter lists, cast/crew listings and DVD notes, the booklet also contains the lyrics to Tom Waits’s songs on the soundtrack.
Two years ago, I reviewed Night on Earth here, a bare-bones UK Region 0 edition from Second Sight. At the time, there was no superior DVD release available, as alternatives only added the trailer and biographies. However, there is one now, in this excellent Criterion edition.