Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Losers, Loners, Outcasts & Outlaws: An Original Series of the Early Works of Jim Jarmusch" at The Grand Illusion Cinema: Nov 2 - 21

What will likely prove to be the Northwest repertory cinema event of the year begins the first week of November with The Grand Illusion Cinema's original Losers, Loners, Outcasts & Outlaws: The Early Works of Jim Jarmusch series. Much in the way of the independent theater's 2016 Action, Anarchy & Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective and Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien of 2015, this is a rare theatrical opportunity to see an assembly of work by what the New York Times called, "The Last of the American Indies". Not a stretch in terminology, as "After 40 Years in Cinema, Jim Jarmusch Remains the Quintessential Leftfield Auteur", who's cinema began as a student of NYU, engrossed with the counter cultural environment of New York City's late 1970's No Wave scene. This pressure cooker of influences, edgy self reinvention, and a vital DIY culture created the setting (and supplied much of the cast) for the director's first feature. Jarmusch utilized the resources of the university to transform his final project, a working short film, into he feature length "Permanent Vacation", an 80-minute preamble about drifting set in and around Tribeca and the East Village. This early work of No Wave Cinema now watches as much a historic document of the era and it's setting as the documentaries on the time, like that of Céline Danhier's "Blank City". As detailed in Senses of Cinema Great Directors profile, a personal cinema was already proposed in this first feature. Much in the way of his German contemporary Wim Wenders, Jarmusch has built a cinematic world on the edge of popular society. From the vantage of these corners of the world, he observes the pursuit of the curious through the travels and ruminations of outsiders, eccentric wayfarers, and poets. In his four decade-long global cinematic journeying, he would expand on "Permanent Vacation"'s template to embrace ensemble works, romantic comedies, and genre film, yet remain true to this consistent set of core concerns. In his working process, he also shared much with another senior contemporary, John Cassavetes. Like the quintessential New York director of a decade before, in his early films Jarmusch adopted an actor-oriented approach to scenario. The characters would develop first, often with a specific actor envisioned for the role, to which Jarmusch credits the genesis of the details of “the plot kind of suggest itself around the character”.

From the DIY success of his first feature, he developed his 30 minute short film into "Stranger Than Paradise", having received recognition and praise for this first work by Wim Wenders himself, who would donate 40 minutes of extraneous film stock for the film's completion. This second feature solidified Jarmusch’s trademark style; minimal sets and long, uninterrupted takes of it's outsider protagonists traversing depopulated and fringe landscapes, overflowing in dialog centered on wry and subtle observations on life, circumstance and love. Occasional intersections of characters and concerns punctuate the low-relief dramatic high points of his storytelling, often with a quietly humanist, comedic flair. At the time of its release, Jarmusch described his methodology and approach to structure as such; "Rather than finding a story that I want to tell and then adding the details, I collect the details and then try to construct a puzzle of story. I have a theme and a kind of mood and the characters, but not a plotline that runs straight through." He would expand this methodology with his next film, and in doing so find an underground hit in 1986's "Down By Law". Described by the filmmaker as a “neo-beat-noir-comedy”, it features musicians and fixtures of the downtown New York scene, John Lurie and Tom Waits, alongside the Italian comedic actor Roberto Benigni. As three men who escape from a prison, who rather than freedom, discover themselves lost in the surrounding dense Louisiana swamplands. The setting and tone of the film cemented by the substance of another of the benefits of Wim Wender's patronage, the work of the German director's longtime cinematographer, Robby Müller.

"Stranger Than Paradise" won the Camera d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and was heralded by critics domestically and abroad as a watershed film in American independent cinema. Alongside the Coen Brothers' 1983 debut, "Blood Simple", Gus Van Sant's 1986 "Mala Noche", Susan Seidelman's Cannes-competing "Smithereens" of 1982, David Lynch's 1986 "Blue Velvet" (though produced by Dino De Laurentiis is still independent from studio funding), and Spike Lee's "She’s Gotta Have It" of the same year, Jarmusch's trio of early 1980's productions proved that the American indie could be a viable audience-drawing commodity. These niche films tonally and thematically nestled alongside a set of European contemporaries, yet expressed their own sense of a life on the margins of America's then-dominant concerns. The view gained on the society of their setting runs parallel, yet outside the prevailing social norms of the time. Jarmusch asserted a quietly countercultural posture by expressing the validity of the lives lived in his fascination with persons and communities on the margins of 1980s Reagan-era America. In 1989's "Mystery Train" he would continue this exploration of America through the eyes of outsiders, with his most structurally ambitious film to date. An anthology film comprising three vignettes that all intersect around a hotel on the industrial fringes of Memphis Tennessee, it features an eccentric cast on international characters who have descended on the city in their various travels from across the globe. This ensemble cast comprises Steve Buscemi from America, Nicoletta Braschi from Italy, musician Joe Strummer from England, and a young Japanese couple played by Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase, who all arrive at the central setting overseen by the hotel's night clerk, portrayed by Rock n' Roll legend, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Set to the R&B of Otis Redding, early Rock n' Roll of Roy Orbison, American blues of Junior Parker, and a moody contemporary jazz score by John Lurie, this was the first of the Jarmusch's films to place music in a more assertively forward role. Many notable meetings of sound and image in the course of the director's filmography were to follow. With scores composed for 1991's "Night on Earth" by regular collaborator Tom Waits, and Neil Young supplying a set of improvisations for guitar, piano and organ to accompany 1995's neo-western "Dead Man". It was in this film that Jarmusch's late career approach to editing, cinematography, and duration would also make itself felt. As Senses of Cinema have parsed in their review of "Filmmaker, Musician and Poet: Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise",  the form of this variation on the western was structured around the flowing improvisational work of Neil Young's sonic contribution into "a slow, hypnotic rhythm, which makes a viewing of the film into something akin to a spiritual meditation". It's setting also marked the first non-contemporary film for the director, as well as the first to explore abstracted metaphysical themes. The genesis of this American original is mapped in the three part The Guardian interviews at the BFI: Jim Jarmusch, traversing the path embarked on with his first realization that "not all films had giant crab monsters in them" at age 16, to studying literature at Columbia in New York, following a brief stint in Paris and his personal encounter with the Cinemathèque and international cinema. The earliest riches of this decades-spanning storytelling journey have been only recently disentangled from distribution licensing with Samuel Goldwyn, Island, and the defunct Orion, Fine Line, and Miramax Pictures. Now assembled together by Janus Films, through rereleases by The Criterion Collection, audiences of his late-period masterpieces can once again marvel at "How the Film World's Maverick Stayed True to His Roots".