Jim Jarmusch Collection: Volume 2 Review
Volume 1 of Optimum’s Jim Jarmusch Collection, released in May 2008, comprised his first three features, Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Volume 2 collects his next three.
Mystery Train (106:01, Certificate 15)
Memphis, Tennessee. Three groups of tourists:: Japanese couple Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh), who arrive by train and take a tour of the city, Italian widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), who is taking her husband's body back to Rome, and British punk Johnny (Joe Strummer) whose drunken binge with Charlie (Steve Buscemi) has fateful results.
Mystery Train was Jarmusch’s fourth feature and his first in both colour and 35mm. The DP was Robby Muller, who had previously shot Down by Law and who would go on to shoot Dead Man, both of them particularly beautiful examples of contemporary black and white. But Mystery Train is a riot of vibrant colour.
Like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, Mystery Train is subdivided into three sections, but the difference is that this time those sections are three separate – if linked – storylines instead of three acts involving the same characters. All three stories take place in the same hotel, with the same night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and bellboy (Cinqué Lee) on reception. The first two ends with the characters hearing a gunshot, something which is explained in the final story. Jarmusch would develop the portmanteau format further in Night on Earth. Since then, with the exception of Coffee and Cigarettes, which is a compilation of short films made over a number of years, Jarmusch has concentrated on films with more integrated, less schematically divided narratives – though you can still see some of this earlier structuring in the separate sections of Broken Flowers.
Jarmusch’s work is so insistently minor-key that to call Mystery Train slight is to state the obvious. Yet that is what it is: it pleases for the hour and three quarters that it’s own but leaves less of an impression behind. There’s the usual wide-ranging cast but the acting is uneven: Joe Strummer in particular reveals himself not an actor. In minor parts can be found the splendidly named (and late) Rockets Redglare and Jarmusch’s former producing partner Sara Driver, to whom the film is dedicated.
Mystery Train is an interesting staging post on the way to Jarmusch’s later work, and a pleasant indulgence of some of the director’s favourite actors, tropes and music. But, watched again nearly twenty years later, it comes over as Jarmusch lite.
Night on Earth (123:09, Certificate 15)
This review is a shortened version of the one I wrote for the Criterion edition of Night on Earth.
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.
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.
Dead Man (116:31, Certificate 18)
This review is a shortened version of the one I wrote for the Universal Region 2 release of Dead Man.
1876. Mild-mannered accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels west to the outlaw town of Machine to take up a job at Dickinson Metalworks. He finds that he’s arrived a month late and the job is taken. Blake asks to speak to Mr Dickinson (Robert Mitchum) but he threatens Blake with a gun and runs him out of the building. At a saloon, Blake meets Thel (Mili Avital), but their romantic interlude is interrupted by her ex-lover Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne). Shots ring out. Charlie and Thel are dead. William Blake is now a wanted man.
If Night on Earth seemed like a summing up of Jarmusch’s work to date, Dead Man saw him moving in a new direction. The earlier films are made up of linked episodes, while Dead Man is a more fully-integrated narrative. The earlier films were basically comedies; Dead Man is fundamentally serious. It’s also a genre film, namely a western, though hardly a conventional one.
Jarmusch’s view of the Old West is certainly not romantic. When Blake arrives in Machine, we see his first view of the town in a series of tracking shots. It’s a dirty, violent, corrupt place, only emphasised by Robby Müller’s black and white camerawork. William Blake is a passive protagonist, more acted upon that acting, as he transforms from nerdy accountant to killer at large. For much of his journey he’s accompanied by an English-speaking Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer), who believes that Blake is a reincarnation of the English poet and mystic of the same name. By the end of the film, Blake has travelled far beyond the white man’s civilisation.
This may be a Western, but it’s fair to say that it’s also a Jarmusch film and hence very likely to be an acquired taste. More conservative Western fans will likely hate it, as it debunks the traditional cinematic myths of the Old West while trying to create its own. The pace is, as usual with this director, measured, and there are moments of quirky humour and some oddball supporting characters.
Also new to Jarmusch’s work were some scenes of graphic violence, resulting in his first and so far only UK 18 certificate. This culminates in a scene where hired killer Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), who has been put on Blake’s trail, crushes a corpse’s head under his boot. Squeamish viewers take note. (Want to know what nearly caused this film to be banned in Australia? Twelve minutes in, Blake passes a man with a gun being fellated by a woman in an alleyway. The Australian censor, the OFLC, seeing this as an unacceptable image of sexual violence, rejected the film, though it was classified for adults only on appeal.)
Jarmusch has gathered possibly the best cast of his entire career, including Robert Mitchum, who gives the two scenes of his final role considerable presence. You can well believe that he’s a threat. For a major star, Johnny Depp has taken considerable risks throughout his career and he gives the role of Blake a charisma that’s certainly offbeat but undeniably there. Gary Farmer gives strong back-up as Nobody, a part he reprised in Jarmusch’s next film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
On the technical side, the two standout contributions are Robby Müller’s black and white camerawork and Neil Young’s score. With his work with Wim Wenders, Sally Potter on The Tango Lesson and with Jarmusch on Down by Law, this film and one segment of Coffee and Cigarettes, Müller has proved himself one of the finest exponents of black and white photography amongst younger DPs. His work on Dead Man is exemplary, ably conveying the shift in tone from the grime and violence of Machine, to the more abstract and mythic feel of the later scenes in the countryside: black white and every shade of grey in between. It’s real black and white too, not filmed - as many contemporary monochrome films are - on colour stock.
Young’s score is certainly not your usual Western music. You could claim it as anachronistic, based as it is on electric guitar (improvised by Young), but it’s certainly effective. Like the film itself, it’s liable to be an acquired taste. Jarmusch and Young collaborated the next year on the concert documentary Year of the Horse.
Dead Man marked a new direction in Jarmusch’s work, away from films made up of shorter pieces towards more developed longer work, and towards genre work filtered through his offbeat sensibility. Certainly not everyone will like it – and I do think it’s overlong – but Dead Man is certainly one of a kind.
Optimum's release of The Jim Jarmusch Collection: Volume 2 comprises three discs, all encoded for Region 2 only. Night on Earth is a DVD-9, the other two DVD-5s.
All three films are transferred in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1, and are anamorphically enhanced. The transfers are good, faithful to the films' different looks: Muller's strong saturated colours in Mystery Train and detailed greyscale in Dead Man, and Elmes's more naturalistic colour palette in Night on Earth.
The soundtracks are mono for Mystery Train and Dolby Surround for the other two. All the films are dialogue-driven, and the surrounds in the latter two films are mostly used for ambience and the music scores. Both Mystery Train and Night on Earth have subtitle options, but these are only optional English for the foreign-language dialogue (Japanese in the former, French, Italian and Finnish for the latter). Nicoletta Braschi in Mystery Train has some brief Italian dialogue which is not subtitled. None of the English-language dialogue has subtitles available. In this respect, the previous editions of Night on Earth (Second Sight and Criterion) and Dead Man (Universal) are preferable, but except for the Criterion they are out of print.
As for extras, easily the best version of any of these films is the Criterion of Night on Earth. The Universal release of Dead Man had fourteen minutes of deleted scenes. Here, we have non-anamorphic trailers for all three films (1:52, 2:23, 2:03 respectively), plus interviews with Gena Rowlands (11:06) on Night on Earth and John Hurt (5:38) on Dead Man.The interviews are new (Hurt refers to acting in Jarmusch's new feature The Limits of Control. They both take the form of printed on-screen questions followed by the answers from the subjects. Some of the questions move away from the obvious – Rowlands is asked how Jarmusch (whom she calls “James”) compares in style and sympathy with an equally actor-centric director, her late husband John Cassavetes. On the other hand, the extra running time of her interview is taken up by her describing her character in the film. No commentaries on any of the discs: Jarmusch doesn't do them.
In terms of extras at least, there are better editions of at least two of these three films out there. But Optimum's release is certainly value for money, and takes care of the important part, the audiovisual presentation of the films themselves. If only they'd included subtitles for the English dialogue - but it's a regrettable company policy that they haven't.
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