For me, Jim Jarmusch has been delightfully rediscovered through this assignment. Words cannot explain the enjoyment I received in watching Jarmusch’s earlier films, Coffee and Cigarettes, Stranger Than Paradise, and Down By Law. I am familiar with a couple of Jarmusch’s recent work which includes Broken Flowers and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai but in no way was I prepared for the ground-breaking work I was to experience in his earlier works mentioned above.
My findings and analysis are based primarily on Coffee and Cigarettes, which is the short film requirement and relating it to two of his feature films, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. However, I ran into a problem when attempting to relate Jarmusch’s short film to feature film. As a director, Jarmusch did not begin his film career making short films first and then moving to feature films. He was already well on way to launching a new world and genre of film to American cinema without easing his audience to his directing style with the addition of his short films. Thus, I have adjusted the focus of this paper to be based not on the transition of short to feature film but how all the films relate to one another in a chronological sense.
Jim Jarmusch cannot be discussed or analyzed without using the word minimalist. Minimalism, as referenced on www.dictionary.com, states that it is the “use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature, or design.” On www.wikipedia.org, minimalism is described as “Long takes, static frames, distinct framing/composition, as well as stories dealing with more internal narratives are common place.” These definitions embody Jarmusch’s films and opened the door to a new kind of film in the 1980s.
I chose to view Coffee and Cigarettes, Stranger Than Paradise, and Down By Law because of personal preference. I had not seen these Jarmusch films before and used this assignment as an opportunity to fulfill the desire I had in watching these movies and at the same time, analyze and discuss the themes and changes made from one film to the next. On the online magazine, Senses of Cinema, Jarmusch is quoted as saying, “Life has no plot, why must films or fiction?” I find this quote fitting for all the Jarmusch work I viewed in preparation for this paper. His films had no established beginning, middle or definite end in the way a traditional Hollywood movie would define a film. Jarmusch creates film with the intention of documenting its characters in their everyday lives without a dramatic event ensuing but instead focusing on the “in between” situations where nothing is going at all. And that is why the art of his film is so enigmatic. J.D. Lafrance stated, “Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker interested in what goes on in the margins of life. He is not concerned about the ‘whats’ or ‘whys’ of people’s actions like most filmmaker’s, but rather in how they got there (par. 1).”
Stranger Than Paradise was released in 1984. This is the film that recognized Jarmusch’s raw talent in the independent film genre. The stark use of black and white film with high contrast captures the dismal and gloomy atmosphere that embody the characters and their surroundings. The minimalist technique is used to its fullest extent in this film because, simply, it defines what minimalism is. Jarmusch does not sugarcoat the movie with color, a soundtrack, or dramatic conversation. Instead, there is barely any dialogue throughout the movie; the soundtrack is created by the sounds on the streets, the television, or the occasional song from “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.” Other than that, Jarmusch documents the sounds made by the characters themselves and nothing more.
The film is split into three parts, essentially: “The New World,” “One Year Later,” and “Paradise.” These three parts are separated much like Jarmusch does in Coffee and Cigarettes. He uses a black screen and white type across the black screen to signify which third of the movie the viewer is watching. Since Stranger Than Paradise was released before Coffee and Cigarettes’ first vignette was, it would be logical to point out that Jarmusch carried this same technique into Coffee and Cigarettes, as a way to differentiate the 11 vignettes.
I found it interesting when Jarmusch used this “black screen” technique throughout the movie within each third of the film. Each scene within the appropriately titled portion of the film was isolated with a black screen. Many of the scenes do not last more than just a few minutes and includes scenes of the characters watching television and smoking in silence, driving a car, or sleeping. The use of the black screen creates vignettes, in a way, within the titled portions of the film. This same technique is used in Coffee and Cigarettes, but as mentioned before, it is used in combination with a title for the vignette.
Down By Law had more of a traditional “movie” quality in that it eliminated the use of the black screen and had more of a “plot,” if one can call it that. The film centers around three men who are arrested, put in jail and then escape. Although this is what happens in the film, Jarmusch focus’ more on the interaction of the three men through dialogue and most importantly, without.
Down By Law is also shot in black and white with bright contrasts to capture the deadpan mood of the entire film. Although this film may not be considered to be a comedy by most, it is in fact a very unusual brand of comedy. This seems to be most accomplished through Roberto Benigni’s character, a lovable Italian man who is constantly trying to overcome the language barrier he has with the English language. This, in itself, becomes a comedy and the few phrases Benigni’s character does have are humorous. Jarmusch’s style does not include laugh-out-loud comedy. Instead, it is a deadpan comedy where it just shows the characters as they are, as people, not as entertainers. He uses this technique throughout all of this work. It allows the viewer to keep watch on the interaction of the characters and not be distracted by the slap-on-the-knee kind of laugh.
The scenes that show the three men incarcerated are perhaps the most interesting interaction and are set up as small vignettes themselves. Each few minute scene is cut to the next with the variation of the men sleeping, playing cards, or sitting. Although the majority of the scenes do not include dialogue, it is the film’s strongest point. The interaction between the three gentleman is what Jarmusch wants the film to focus on and thus, he does so by using as little dialogue as possible.
Another way he focuses on the interaction of the three men is by eliminating any scene that would take away from them. Jarmusch does not give in to any climatic scenes or explanation of why or how and instead wants the viewer to look at and dissect the interaction of the men. “What this leaves is the central trio of characters, talking, fighting, and generally interacting; it works beautifully (Cannon, par. 4).”
I actually had watched Coffee and Cigarettes first, unaware that it was released most recently of the three films I decided to watch. It was released in 2003 and covers a span of 17 years, starting in 1986 with the release of the Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright vignette. The short film is introduced to the viewer with a black screen and a white lettered title appropriate to the subject matter filmed in the vignette. This particular vignette is entitled, “Strange to Meet You.” In between the scattered bits of awkward conversation, Jarmusch cuts to overhead shots of the checkered coffee table with coffee cups and ash trays, a cut he uses in every single one of the 11 short films. This is one of the techniques he uses to correlate all the short films together, even though each vignette is a film unto itself.
The way in which Jarmusch cuts from scene to scene is the same in each vignette. The camera never moves to follow an actor out of or into the frame. Instead, he maintains long and static shots of all the characters, characteristic of minimalist art, to create that tension and awkwardness which gives way to a deadpan humor.
Jarmusch’s use of dialogue ties each short film to each other as well. In every vignette, the actors are, in some way, discussing coffee and cigarettes. This is the obvious thread that pulls all the vignettes together. However, in a few specific vignettes, the same stories are being discussed. For example, in “Strange to Meet You,” Steven Wright talks about how he drinks coffee before he goes to bed so he can dream at the speed of the Indy 500. This idea is revisited by GZA in the short film entitled “Delirium.” Jarmusch uses the repetition of certain stories and conversation to appear in different vignettes as a way to structure the film since there is no defined plot.
Although all three of these films are different because of their subject matter, characters or overall purpose, the main thing they have in common is that they reference life in those “in between” states when nothing dramatic or life-altering is happening. Instead, it focuses on the silence between awkward conversation, the quiet moments of sitting on the couch with nothing to do, and times of being absorbed by the television. I feel the most important concept Jarmusch shows the viewer, is that silence is just as loud as mindless banter. Because there is so much silence throughout the film, the viewer has no choice but to realize that the simple interaction of characters is more informative than any use of words. The use of black and white film is also a common theme with all three films. It creates that deadpan and dreary mood Jarmusch is so well-known for and captures it beautifully in these films.
Jarmusch also has an appreciation of different cultures and this is displayed throughout all three of these films. Coffee and Cigarettes includes actors of various foreign descent and similarly so in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law where it is a central part of the movie. The way people interact with each other when there is a language barrier is touched upon in scenes within the latter two movies. Joshua Klein of the Onion A.V. Club interviewed Jarmusch on March 15, 2000 who stated that the synthesis of cultures is inevitable (par. 7).
I thought it was interesting that unlike any other director, Jarmusch created his short film work after he had already had success in the world of feature film. In an interview with Newsweek Magazine by Jennifer Barrett on May 13, 2004, Jarmusch is quoted as saying the following of Coffee and Cigarettes “…these were done so intermittently and as a kind of escape-they were really fun to do-so I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing it as a project, just kept doing it for amusement, really (par. 3).” In a time when creating movies has to have a reason behind it, Jarmusch defies that logic and states he filmed these vignettes out of pleasure for himself. It did not have to be done before his feature film work to count as a film. Coffee and Cigarettes does, however, become the culmination of Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. The similar “barely there” dialogue, awkward pauses, long and static shots, and ultimately, a minimalist attitude, these movies provide only what is absolutely needed in order to make the film work. When it comes down to it, Jarmusch keeps this ideal in mind for each and every one of his films and it shows from the beginning of his directing career to the most recent body of work.
Barrett, Jennifer. “Caffeine and Nicotine.” Newsweek. 13 May 2004: 3. 8 Jan. 2007 .
Cannon, Damian. Down By Law. 8 Jan. 2007 .
Coffee and Cigarettes. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Perf. Roberto Benigni, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett. Metro Goldwyn Meyer, 2003.
Down By Law. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Perf. Roberto Benigni, John Lurie and Tom Waits. PolyGram Video, 1986.
Klein, Joshua. “Interview: Jim Jarmusch.” A.V. Club. 8 Jan. 2007 .
Lafrance, J.D. “Jim Jarmusch.” Senses of Cinema. Aug. 2003: 1. 8 Jan. 2007 .
Stranger Than Paradise. Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Perf. John Lurie, Tom Waits and Eszter Balint. Key Video, 1984.