Night on Earth Review

Five cities, five taxi 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 (Gena Rowlands) who is having trouble finding the right actor for a role 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 “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 language not 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 has been released singly by Second Sight, but is now reissued in a two-film box set with Down by Law to coincide with the release of Jarmusch’s new film Broken Flowers. Affiliate links to your left are for the box-set release. The disc is encoded for all regions.

The transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1. The transfer is a little soft and there’s some light grain, possibly inevitable given that the great majority of this film takes place at night. Colours are good and blacks solid.

The soundtrack is a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, which replicates that of the cinema release. This is very much a dialogue-driven film, though the surrounds find occasional use for directional effects and music.

Subtitles are fixed for the three sequences not in English. However, there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available, which means that there anyone who may have difficulty with the dialogue in L.A. and New York will have difficulties. There are twenty chapter stops and no extras at all, not even a trailer.

As I said regarding Down by Law, if you’re a Jarmusch fan you may well have this already. Unlike Down by Law, there isn’t an overwhelmingly superior edition available elsewhere: the German and Australian editions seem to have just a trailer and biographies as extras. Also, a RRP of £24.99 for two bare-bones discs is pricey, but you could easily reduce that by buying online or waiting for a sale. But as an introduction to Jarmusch it will do nicely.

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