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This is a work in progress in more ways than one. It is an unfinished version of a preliminary Introduction to my tentative PhD dissertation. Any comments are more than welcome.

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Forskaruppsats / Ph.D Dissertation presentation - Unfinished Draft

Stockholm University - Department of Cinema Studies - Supervisor: Jan Olsson

To be submitted for the graduate seminar 29 February 2000

Perceptual Dawnings

Jim Jarmusch's Offbeat Poetics of Cinema

Preamble / Introduction

By Ludvig Hertzberg

Fais apparaître ce qui sans toi ne serait peut-être jamais vu.
[Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen]

This proposal (of sorts) for my dissertation, is founded on two different - though (as I hope will become clear) not necessarily distinct - interests of mine, interrelating in a way which has dawned on me only gradually. They are, on the one hand, a wish to investigate and more fully understand the place and significance that films and their medium have received in our culture, and more specifically in our lives as individuals, and, on the other, my deep appreciation of contemporary filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's fiction films up to this date[1] .

In the prologue to his published lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino states that his “confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.” [2] My relationship to the art of film could profitably be characterized in similar terms, and it is this conviction which presides over what is to follow; an account of my fields of interest, guided by the claim that in the chosen group of films, (to paraphrase Stanley Cavell) cinema has found one of its great subjects[3] , in this case that of throwing considerable light on one way in which the cinematic form and address can help challenge our common perceptions, as film viewers and as human beings.

Regarding the films of Jim Jarmusch, it is striking that they have received very little serious attention, especially considering their relative popularity, coupled with their evident originality and arguably far-reaching influence, not least on the American independent cinema[4] . Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that they are commonly perceived as superficially ‘arty’ films with humorous observations of little significance to serious scrutinizing (what is it about humor that apparently makes it so hard to recognize its aesthetic implications?) A further reason may be that the films are notoriously difficult to categorize and relate to established genre conventions (words like ‘strange’, ‘underground’ and ‘alternative’ also tend to crop up in such contexts - Jarmusch himself mockingly described one of his films (Stranger Than Paradise) as “a semi-neorealist black-comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern-European film director obsessed with Ozu, and familiar with the 1950's American television show ‘The Honeymooners’.” [5] )

The failure to take these films seriously may also have something to do with their not seeming significantly self-reflexive, although it will be one of my central claims that they indeed possess this quality, and fundamentally so. As Cavell puts it: “The question of acknowledgment, of self-reflection, is not exhausted, as appears sometimes to be thought, by the tendency of films to be self-referential. The latter is at best a specialized (generally comic) mode of the former.” [6] The importance of the kind of self-reflexivity that I claim is essential to the films of Jarmusch receives its proper light in the wider context of the corresponding discussion of theoretical accounts of the film medium and of spectatorship. Or to state my assertion more clearly: the significance of the films I will discuss lies in how they (through their form and content) provoke an especially valuable kind of dawning of aspects in the viewer's perception, and thereby exemplify what I take to be one of the most important roles of the art of film, a role pivotal to art, executed in a way specific to film, thus giving us something only film can give us.

‘Perception’ can of course be taken to mean many different things. Generally, when the concept of perception is evoked in a film theoretical context, it is assumed, unsurprisingly enough, that the term designates a primarily audio-visual process (although such discussions tend to favor the strictly visual at the exclusion of the auditory - which, I will try to demonstrate later, is indicative of what I regard as a confused picture of the mind.) However do we make sense of what goes on in front of our eyes? - what happens, mentally, as we look at a moving image, it is asked, and any of a number of theories of the 'apparatus' of sight might be invoked to explain what goes on. It is my intention, in what follows, to discuss some of these theories of seeing, most of them falling within the realm of psychology[7] .

Another discourse - I am thinking of the tradition heralded by Michel Foucault - concerns the ‘genealogy’ of perception, i.e. the study of how certain technologies, such as cinematography, have changed the way in which we perceive the world, and reversely, which changes in perception were required for the advent and success of those technologies. Walter Benjamin's dictum that the ‘loss of the Aura’ in ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’ makes perception ‘distracted’ rather than ‘contemplative’ has served as the ice-breaker in this context. Clearly, 'perception' is here used in a somewhat separate sense, calling for a correspondingly separate approach and method of investigation. Whereas the former understanding of the concept involves a concern for how perception works and evolves on an individual level, the latter implies a (Hegelian) focus on its cultural and historical structure - a distinction which bears similarity to, but cannot be captured by, the nature/nurture dichotomy (which will receive more discussion later on.) Obviously, then, since my interest lies in investigating how films, in this study those by Jarmusch, can be important in the life of an individual, no considerable attention will be paid to such a broadly ideological discussion here. Rather, it is my intention to throw light on the question what perception is, in a fashion which nontheless will render apparent also its historical conditions.

It should be clear from the start, however, that my understanding of the notion of perception is substantially - even drastically - different from the above conceptions (or perceptions, as I am tempted to say.) Rather than confine myself, as many of these theories do, to speaking of perception as something mechanical that primarily has to do with neurons and sense data, seeing what is corporeal, tangible, I am thinking of the phenomenon as something akin to ‘experiencing’, and hence as more closely connected to understanding and insight, which, in my eyes, is what gives perception its importance in the first place. In other words, I take perception to stand not just for how we perceive the tangible make-up of the world (‘as it is’ or depicted in images) - whatever that could mean - but primarily for how we experience aspects of the world, and of instances of cinematic narration in particular. This understanding of ‘perception’ would (and will) include how we discern, say, the humor (or irony/parody/sarcasm) of whatever we find humorous, the significance of what we find significant, or (this time paraphrasing Ludwig Wittgenstein) the humanity in a man[8] , etc., etc. To speak opaquely (as I find that I must at this early point) my interest in perception is philosophical, and aesthetical, rather than physiological, or (strictly) psychological.

I say that I am not willing to ‘confine’ myself to either of the conventional uses of the concept, but really, as I will argue, I strongly doubt that this is something which (in a study such as this) lets itself be done without inducing claims which are (at best) reductive, (or worse) question-begging or nonsensical. Within the confines of the study of the films of Jarmusch in the chapters to follow I will deal more closely with aspects of the concept of perception, and there I will also try to account for and combat something I understand these views to share, viz. a fundamentally Cartesian, dualistic philosophy of mind (which arguably seems to underlie a large portion of contemporary film studies.) Indeed, I am not alone in this interpretation. On this topic, as on related ones, I might indicate that I am indebted - in forms which will become clear in due course - to the (later) philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein[9] and some of his exegetes[10] , and to the writings of film philosophers such as Stanley Cavell[11] , William Rothman[12] , Karen Hanson[13] , George Wilson[14] and Gilberto Perez[15] . I have also found inspiration in writings by Maurice Merleau-Ponty[16] and readings of Martin Heidegger[17] . To name a few. Still, I realize that, partly because the basic tenets might appear unorthodox or unfashionable, I will need to account for and defend the assumptions and conditions of an alternative conception in a voice of my own, and this is what I set out to do alongside my discussions of Jarmusch's films.

A related, precursory, remark on the grammar of ‘perception’: it should be noted and kept in mind that the words used in connection with this topic very often necessarily will be the same as those employed in talk exclusively of ‘seeing’. As should be familiar, in Western languages the visual has served as a prime metaphor for experience and understanding more generally (think of locutions such as 'to see the point', 'to regard the situation', 'to be blind to an aspect', etc., etc.) As Martin Jay shows and tells in the introduction to his study of vision, Downcast Eyes:

Even a rapid glance at the language we commonly use will demonstrate the ubiquity of visual metaphors. If we actively focus our attention on them, vigilantly keeping an eye out for those deeply embedded as well as those on the surface, we can gain an illuminating insight into the complex mirroring of perception and language. Depending, of course, on one's outlook or point of view, the prevalence of such metaphors will be accounted an obstacle or an aid to our knowledge of reality. It is, however, no idle speculation or figment of imagination to claim that if blinded to their importance, we will damage our ability to inspect the world outside and introspect the world within. And our prospects for escaping their thrall, if indeed that is even a foreseeable goal, will be greatly dimmed. In lieu of an exhaustive survey of such metaphors, whose scope is far too broad to allow an easy synopsis, this opening paragraph should suggest how ineluctable the modality of the visual actually is, at least in our linguistic practice. I hope by now that you, optique lecteur, can see what I mean. [18]
Inevitably, then, my discussion will sometimes run the risk of sounding as if it was concerned with sight and the ‘purely’ visual, as such a terminology is used out of necessity. However, on the one hand, when I talk for instance of ‘watching’ a scene, it importantly also implies auditory aspects. (Sight, as any blind person could testify, is not always even a necessary condition for experiencing a film, for a meaningful - though limited, or at least significantly different - perception of it.) And on the other hand, and more essentially, the idea of the ‘purely visual’ is obviously part and parcel of what I take to be a confused dualism between what our senses pick up and what we (or our mind, brain, homunculus - the little man (or is it a woman?) inside, or what have you) make of these impressions. Since I aim to dissolve the latter idea, it follows that the concept of the ‘purely visual’, along with the distinction itself, will show itself to be meaningless. In broad terms, I will argue against the theory according to which our senses are different channels by which we construct a picture of the world by noting that, primarily, we are oriented in the world, and from this abstract ‘the visual’, ‘the auditory’, etc[19] .

Though not hinted at in the title, another central topic of this study is the notion of lacuna. Since this concept in many ways is central to how I understand the films of Jim Jarmusch as well as their relevance to the overriding discussion of aspect perception, a few words of introduction are in order. Sometimes defined as a ‘gap’, an ‘omitted part’, or a ‘blank space’, the term ‘lacuna’ designates something that is left out, not attended to. Conceptually, to regard something as a lacuna is always relative to a perspective, it is the question why something is left out that brings it about (tautologically and thus uninterestingly, potential lacunae are of course to be found in abundance, since no representation could contain ‘everything’, in ‘every’ conceivable way). The perspective can of course either be internal or external in relation to the conventions. Externally, it concerns the question why a set of conventions does not attend to certain aspects of reality (e.g. taboos, censorship, and technical or technological obstacles, all for different reasons imply certain ‘lacunae’), and internally it concerns the question why one filmmaker, or a group of filmmakers, has left out something conventionally attended to (or, just as importantly for my study, vice versa). Pointing out a lacuna, as I will argue the films of Jarmusch do - either by attending to something conventionally left out or by omitting something usually included - is then by implication a form of questioning of the given set of conventions. Obviously, there can be any number of ways to begin to explain such lacunae, and how Jarmusch’s films relate to them. From the point of view of my concerns, however, there is particularly one element worth exploring, namely conformity of perception.

The conventions of cinematic narration, as conventions generally, favor certain ways of perceiving and depicting the world over others, implying that certain other aspects will remain unattended to. (The fact that a viewpoint is always only a viewpoint is of course inevitable and as it should be - indeed, it is what makes representations representations and is a prerequisite for our taking an interest in the first place.) Also, since our expectations depend on our familiarity with conventions (forms of address, genres, or as David Bordwell might put it, ‘narrational modes’), which determine our frames of reference, or ‘perceptual horizons’, only a limited - and habitual - range of aspects will ever be directly discernible.

Moving on to instances, two people having a casual conversation over a cup of coffee are not conventionally perceived to have much dramatic potential, neither is a situation where three people quietly watch a movie commonly regarded as particularly humorous, nor is an almost two-minute duration of such a scene in a film usually considered to be justified, especially if nothing at all happens during the shot. Besides being precursory instances of what I mean by cinematic ‘lacunae’, what is common to these examples is that they, and many like them, occur in the films of Jim Jarmusch. These films (as a rule) provoke a shift in focus from what is habitually perceived to be interesting or salient features, to the lacunae of those conventions, the insignificant is made significant and vice versa (cf. the prison escape in Down By Law, which has almost none of the usual suspenseful build-up, and receives only marginal attention - whether the prisoners succeed in escaping or not is of secondary interest to how they manage to cope with each other's company.)

In Down By Law there is a sequence which could be taken as an illustration of the confines of habitual perception, and the potential importance of challenging it. While in prison, Roberto Benigni's character, Roberto, draws a picture of a window on the wall. Since his knowledge of English is rather limited, he queries one of his cell-mates whether to say you ‘look out’ or ‘look at’ the window. He is answered that “in this case, I'm afraid, Bob, you gotta say ‘at the window’”. (Probably not recognizing the acrimony of the response, he looks at his drawing and says (in Italian) “I'm looking through the window.”) In its context, besides bringing attention to an example of linguistic confusions, the scene also serves to reinforce our perception of Roberto as the most imaginative of the prisoners, willing to see the window as something he can look out of, to help him escape the sense of imprisonment. (Roberto, as it were, would be the one who sees the glass of beer as half full rather than half empty.) Habitually, we think of such a window as something to be looked at, and it takes a creative act of will to recognize the possibility of perceiving the drawing in an alternative way, as something to be looked out of. In the scene, Roberto implies that alternative, and thus occasions the possibility that the others might catch on, and partake in the ‘metaphysical’ escape that this allows. This is similar to what I claim is an essential strength of the films of Jarmusch. To repeat, by attending to lacunal aspects, in a style which is also heavily lacunal, these films help provoke a dawning of aspects in the viewer's perception.

A question to be raised is why aspects such as these, to which the films of Jarmusch attend, have been neglected, or rather, why they have been thought of as aesthetically uninteresting or insignificant (if thought about at all). Two competing answers spring to mind. Perhaps the aspects usually not attended to are naturally, essentially, less interesting, or their significance is somehow naturally harder to perceive or depict. Or perhaps they are simply historically, or ideologically, suppressed - our familiarity with conventions makes it seem natural that certain aspects and not others are interesting and should be foregrounded or attended to, when in fact the status of those conventions is more or less arbitrary. With the inclination to think of the problem and its solution in these terms, however, I would claim we are again in the presence of the Cartesian ghost. Fundamentally, the former ‘theory’ is realist and essentialist (ahistorical), whereas the latter is relativistic (or anti-realist), and logic permits no place for anything in between - which, of course, amounts to nonsense. I will not dwell further on this confusion at this stage, suffice it to say that the conventions are historically given (be that for reasons deemed ‘natural’ or ‘arbitrary’), and therefore call for my perspective to be informed by the historical contexts of the films under consideration.

Concerning a related topic, one which I have already touched upon, there is a long tradition of epistemologically trying to distinguish between what is (objectively) ‘there’ to be perceived - in a scene of a film, say - from what is (subjectively) ‘done’ with that perception, i.e., the role of interpretation. Perception is thus conceived to be necessarily divisible into ‘what is there’ and ‘what we bring to it’. A sight, sound, smell, touch or a combination of any of them is perceived and is processed in our minds or brains, it is commonly assumed, and consequently we must turn to psychologists or physiologists if we wish to receive explanations of these ‘processes’. But is not this conception as such actually confused? Consider the figure (see figure 1[20] ) discussed by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations[21] , which can be seen either as a rabbit or as a duck[22] . Figure 1

Some perhaps at first only see it as a duck, some only as a rabbit (and others, familiar with the figure from before, recognize it as 'the duck-rabbit figure'.) The ones who at first see only one of its aspects may soon experience something like a 'dawning' of the other aspect[23] . This might happen as if by itself, or after being prompted to look for, or helped to find, that aspect. (Note that such prompting is importantly related to what I claim about the Jarmusch films.) Then again, it is possible to remain blind to any (or both) of these aspects, even when getting all the help possible to see it (just as it is possible not to 'get' a joke, even after having it explained.) Anyway, and more to the point, it remains impossible to determine what is objectively there in the picture, and what role is played by subjectivity. In order to be able to see a rabbit there in the first place, one has to be familiar with rabbits or rabbit-like creatures - if no one in a given community were thus familiar with such beings, the rabbit aspect would be impossible to discern (and what is there to guarantee that there is not a third aspect to which all of us are blind since we are not yet - or any longer - acquainted with such entities?) Anyone only seeing one aspect, say the duck aspect, and not being aware of the possibility of other ‘interpretations’, would surely claim that the drawing is of a duck, that this is an objective fact, and that any other testimony would be purely subjective. What we claim is objectively there thus paradoxically depends on who we are, on our subjectivities.

At this point, it might be argued that this simply proves that objectivity is an illusion, that everything is actually subjective. But that is of course just the opposite perspective of the very conception criticized. What we think of as objective is open to revision with further evidence, we cannot determine once and for all that ‘this and nothing else’ is there objectively, but that does not mean that anything goes. A certain aspect is ‘there’ to be seen so long as it is there to be seen, if you will. We know this if we see it ourselves, and (before we are brought to see it ourselves) it is a matter of trust if somebody claims to see something else there. An argument to the effect that everything is subjective, based on the conviction that objectivity is an illusion seems out on a limb. How could such a statement to that effect be informative then, or even mean anything? Subjective as opposed to what? From the loss of possible objectivity obviously follows the loss of a meaningful distinction. But surely we have use of, and understand, the distinction in various circumstances, if not to describe a metaphysical division. We do things with words and descriptions, and ordinarily we envoke that distinction simply to express, say, support or criticism, i.e. as a matter of ethics rather than metaphysics.

The lesson to be drawn from the example of the duck-rabbit figure, in any case, is that there is no sharp a priori line between what we may count as objective and that which we count as subjective, and thus that the epistemological picture of the world initially accounted for, which would require psychological or physiological investigations of perception, is misleadingly reductive. Another, stronger, way of putting this would be to note that there could be no external investigation of perception, since its object is the relation between what is there to be perceived and how somebody perceives it, the former being an expression of how the observer perceives it. That is, the observer’s claims about what others perceive must be grounded in an idea of what is objective (if it is claimed that some given reactions are subjective, this is done against the background of what is thought to be objective.) Since this is a guiding conviction underlying the study to follow, I will have reason to return to it later on.

So far, I have tried to give hints as to what I believe are important, though often neglected, aspects of our interactions with films and their medium. To further show the relevance of these film-theoretical ‘lacunae’, I now wish to shift the focus. I have claimed that, and briefly reported how, I believe the films of Jim Jarmusch are illuminating in regard to issues of the structure and significance of cinematic perception. It now remains for me to demonstrate how very central the notion of lacuna, in its many forms, is to these films, as well as just how the conflict between expectations and the various lacunal elements may elicit perceptual dawnings (and the significance of this). This is something I hope to be able to do by also introducing the concept of the offbeat in relation to his films.

Certainly, ‘offbeat’ may evoke any number of connotations. Yet this cluster of meanings is something I would like to embrace, since from the perspective of my concerns it seems to be united by certain important family resemblances (in Wittgenstein’s way of speaking). First, obviously, there is the common use of the adjective which suggests that some style - always a style - is strange, unusual or unconventional. Indeed, the concept is frequently used by film critics (and even more frequently by reviewers of Jarmusch’s films, it seems) to indicate that in some way or another the film under consideration is not a run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie (often, one senses, offered as a warning). It derives, I presume, from the phrase ‘off the beaten track’ (a metaphor implying praise of apparent courage or adventurousness). In this sense, it bears considerable resemblance to the motif in Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken with its famous ending (which is quoted by Roberto - in Italian[24] - in Down By Law):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
‘Offbeat’ is also a musical term, referring to the unaccented beat of a measure, i.e. a beat which is rhythmically unbound (independent). A staple of modern jazz, an offbeat represents the part of a score which is not controlled by temporal or tonal conventions but more freely by the will. Unsurprisingly, yet interestingly, ‘offbeat’ was originally used to signify a beat being out of time. This shift of meaning itself represents a kind of perceptual dawning on the part of the general music listener, a shift from hearing an out of time-beat as a fault to hearing it as a musical possibility in its own right.

What I would like to stress in regard to the above conceptions of the offbeat is first and foremost that the term does not designate a state of being wholly independent or radically alternative, but rather the offbeat is defined - and thus best understood - against the background of the conventional. As I am sure Jacques Derrida would have been quick to point out, the very concept implies its opposite, the ‘beat’ as it were. The road less travelled by implies the beaten track, a beat is deviant only in relation to a system of conventions. What I mean to say is that the concept of ‘offbeat’ suggests a dialectic with conventions, and I claim that this dialectic is illuminating in relation to Jarmusch’s oeuvre, in a way it is not (or at least in a significantly different way) in relation to the work of many other ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’ directors (which, that is, could be dubbed ‘un-beat’ or rather ‘different-beat’ - the dadaists, surrealists, structuralists, would be extreme examples here, as well as directors whose films clearly work within their own idioms, such as those by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Harmony Korine, etc.) On a formal (if not on an ideological) level Jarmusch’s films seem to work principally within a conventional narrative framework (or mode) [25] . Obviously, his films are fraught with more or less subtle deviations in many respects, but my point is precisely that they can be regarded as deviations - i.e. rather than denials or rejections - and are thus, potentially, perceptually subversive à la Trojan horses. (As the suggestive title of an article about Jarmusch’s filmmaking has it, his films are neither Hollywood nor Godard[26] , thus also working towards bridging the gap between the film-culturally low and high. In some sense, this is a quality shared by the films of e.g. Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Aki Kaurismäki and John Cassavetes, all of which in this and other respects offer instructive points of contrast to which I will have obvious reason to return.)

The ‘beat’, then. The first thing to note is that there is not one but a whole array of beats, or sets of conventions against which Jarmusch’s films can be profitably read. There is of course the poetics of classical narration, as mentioned[27] . But equally important for a characterization of his ‘offbeat poetics’ are the poetics of various auteur-directors that have obviously influenced his films, the poetics of low-budget production, the poetics of the punk movement, and not least the poetics of... the beat generation[28] . (Indeed, the films are eclectic enough to be deemed postmodernist, at least in this restricted sense - Jarmusch’s work might equally well be considered highly modernist. More on that in due time.) Also, there is the track being beaten by his own films. As such these conventions are of different contextual orders, yet they are internal[29] to the ‘film language’ of Jarmusch (I wish to stress here again that my view of this language is not as form but as historical praxis), and thus of equal interest and importance, especially, as I intend to show, when they are deviated from. What I aim for, in summary, is something akin to close readings without excluding a historical poetics of sorts[30] , which - by attending to the balance between conventions and intentions, tradition and invention - will hopefully show the relevance of Jarmusch’s films to help provoke perceptual dawnings.

A guiding claim throughout the essay, as I have said, is that in a deep sense Jim Jarmusch’s films are about perception, or rather, perceptual dawnings. About in what sense? In form and content, I said earlier. In style and subject, I could have said. How the content or subject can be about perception should be clear enough. I suggest, and will explain how later on, that in most if not all of the films by Jarmusch the characters’ views or perceptions of the world are contrasted with each other (except for Permanent Vacation which offers no such apparent contrast but still concerns (more or less nihilistic) perception) and that this is indeed central to the subject of these films. The stronger claim I wish to make, however, is that the major significance of Jarmusch’s films - that they are able to challenge the viewer’s perception of reality - derives from the fact that they are able not just to ‘speak’ of perception, but to show it, through content and form, subject and style. But how can the form or style be about perception? Consider this passage by Nelson Goodman:

Obviously, subject is what is said, style is how. A little less obviously, that formula is full of faults. Architecture and nonobjective painting and most of music have no subject. Their style cannot be a matter of how they say something, for they do not literally say anything; they do other things, they mean in other ways. Although most literary works say something, they usually do other things, too; and some of the ways they do some of these things are aspects of style. Moreover, the what of one sort of doing may be part of the how of another. Indeed, even where the only function in question is saying, we shall have to recognize that some noteable features of style are features of the matter rather than the manner of the saying. [31]
And somewhat similarily, in an introductory passage to his “studies in cinematic point of view”, Narration in Light, George Wilson remarks:
Surely, one wants to say, film does more than tell a story that is rendered in a visual medium, and it expresses more than whatever meaning might be ascribed to the elements of the action of the story thereby rendered. An important part of the ‘more’ to which one wants to appeal is the idea that film guides us to a way of seeing its fictional constituents, and the meaning a spectator discovers in these constituents is not detachable from the determinate point of view from which they have been shown. [32]
That is, the separation of style from subject, just like that of form from content, is really a dead end in the context of this discussion. Thus, I do not (I could not) mean to claim that Jarmusch’s films are about perception in their content on the one hand and in their form on the other. More to the point would be to say that Jarmusch’s films are about perception in effect, i.e. not just thematically.

Here I would like to engage another distinction, however. As already hinted at, I believe it will be helpful to distinguish between what a film, taken as a whole, is ‘saying’ and what it is ‘showing’[33] . What it says, usually its ‘moral’ or its ‘message’ - anyway, something that can be put into words, is determined both by the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the film. And so is what it shows. However, what it shows is something that cannot readily, if at all, be put into words. As I will argue, this is a symptom of an important aspect of film’s ethical relevance, of the possibility of film to deeply change its viewer’s perception of life. Recall Wittgenstein’s dictum “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”, according to which what is most important, indeed everything that is of human value, can only show itself, since it lies beyond the limits of language, as a matter of logic[34] .

Let me examplify right away to thus hopefully show, rather than just assert, how this distinction, and a focus on showing, is essential for an understanding in terms of perceptual dawnings of the significance of the films of Jarmusch. So what do the films in question say and what do they show? Since this is what I intend to study more thoroughly in the ensuing chapters, and here only discuss by way of a sketchy introduction, I will for the sake of clarity start with a film which is not too problematic in this respect, and already has received some scattered attention on these pages, Down By Law. (Chronologically in medias res, as it were - it premiered in 1986, as his third feature film.) To simplify[35] , basically it tells the story of two fatalists who wind up sharing a prison cell with an optimist. Together, masterminded by the optimist, they successfully escape the prison and make their way into the woods, where they eventually stumble onto an isolated cottage. The optimist befriends and immediately falls in love with its single lodger, apparently (keeping with the fairy-tale spirit of the film) to live thus happily efter after, whereas the two fatalists take off, each veering separate directions at a fork in the road. One thing the film says is obvious. With an optimistic mindset you are more likely to (literally as well as metaphorically) escape imprisonment, since your actions depend on your perception of the world. And similarly, how you regard coincidence, as well as the unknown, also depends on your point of view, i.e. that ‘you find what you are looking for’, as exemplified by the optimist approaching the cottage not as a threat but as a possibility, etc. One of the things the film ultimately is saying, in other words (actually Wittgenstein’s), is that the world of the happy person is a different one from that of the unhappy person[36] . It could also be argued (as I will) that Down By Law might equally well be read more controversially as an allegory about the contrast between American and European sensibilities, saying furthermore that fatalism is a symptom specifically of American culture, etc.

According to the first reading, what the film gives voice to is a conceptual truth. To recognize the optimism and positivity of Roberto and the fatalism and cynicism of Jack and Zack is at the same time to acknowledge the fact that they view and live their lives differently, and that Roberto’s world is happier and thus preferable. All of this lies in the grammar of these words - not to regard the outlook of Roberto as preferable would depend on recognizing him not as ‘optimistic’ but, say, ‘ill-judged’, etc. Anyway, the point is that in the case of such a reading of what the film says, it does not challenge our understanding of the world. At best, it simply offers us a momentary reminder of something which we are already aware of, not unlike, nor for that matter less illuminating than, a philosophical example[37] . The acceptance of such an assertion is a matter of acknowledgement - there is no room for questions concerning honesty or correctness. [38] According to the second reading, however, what the film asserts is not a necessary truth. Instead, it is more like a testimony, and as such it may very well be inimical to one’s perception of the world. However, there are still two issues which may prove to destroy the potency of the assertion, the second of which is crucially undermining in this respect. First, to be convincing the assertion needs to be successfully backed up by the film, i.e. it needs to manage to show how what it asserts is the case. A film may say one thing, yet show another. The said and the shown may even (sometimes intentionally) be contradictory - such as a film preaching the value of something it itself evidently does not endorse (the example of a war film more or less explicitly denouncing war heroics while at the same time showing violent battle to be glorious springs to mind.) And second, even if it has the power of conviction there is nothing to guarantee that the viewer who had not seen the truth of it before will not simply assimilate it into (as opposed to letting it overthrow) his or her general view of things, since what is said lies in the realm of what can be reasoned with. (That is why for instance even a very convincing film arguing against the death penalty will not stand much hope of changing the mind of a dissident.)

Arguably, such ‘messages’, as assertions generally, could trigger a realization in the viewer, leading to a changed outlook, to a change of life. Interestingly for my purposes, however, is that this seems very unlikely. And even if it did take place, the fact that it happened by way of a film (as opposed for instance to a novel, a daydream or a conversation, etc) would be next to irrelevant. And even if it were relevant, there is nothing to say the message of the film was important or even necessary for the change, it would probably be just one of many other, much more decisive, redeeming factors in the texture of life. However, what a film says (just like what it does apart from saying) is also always performative - you do things with assertions, both kinds of assertion, intentionally or not. And what this is can only show itself, it always involves a way of perceiving the world. What I claim the films of Jarmusch to be doing, and doing well, is constantly, on more than one level and ever so slightly challenging habitual perception - or, which amounts to the same, showing the habituation of perception. Let us return to the film for an example which allows me to point to what it is for a film to show more locally, and to the constancy, the sorts of levels and the slightness I have in mind.

Already the sequence of establishing segments preceding the opening credits of Down By Law bears witness to the sort of offbeat dialectic discussed, as the narration is conventional yet it also deviates from these conventions. The sequence establishes the location, by way of various fragments of New Orleans as seen from a moving car (and boat), and it introduces two of the main characters, by intercutting scenes first of Jack and then of Zack both in their home environments. It is accompanied by a song (“Jockey Full of Bourbon”) written and performed by Tom Waits (who also plays Jack in the film), which fades out momentarily for the scenes where the characters are introduced. On the face of it then, this seems like an opening by numbers. But still there is a striking oddness about it. To begin with, the film is in black and white. More importantly there is no obvious narrative motivation for that, which for one thing makes apparent the very choice of whether to film in color or not, and in effect puts into question the convention to nest to always film in color. Another striking feature of the sequence concerns the selection of views of New Orleans. Some of these are of the sort of buildings and streets commonly associated with the city (e.g. the French quarters) and the surrounding area (e.g. the swampy rivers), the type of images that are also connected to Southern mystique and its romantic mythology of crime and passion. Its kitschy character is laid bare, however, by the inclusion of more naturalistic elements (shots of ‘harsh reality’, such as factories, poor neighbourhoods, etc). New Orleans as we are used to see and think of it as contrasted with an unconventional viewpoint. Furthermore, the sheer duration of the sequence which is likely to feel a little too long. This feeling, or reaction, is interesting since the ‘too long’ - so far as it does not express something felt in relation to the film as a whole - implies an experienced or expected relation to conventions of such establishing sequences, and a perceptual shift may be required to view the duration not as faulty but different.

I could go on, and probably should if I wished to give a presentation of my argument which is not so simplified as to be oversimplified, but I hasten to add that my discussion is not at this stage intended to go into more detail than is necessary for me to indicate what sort of questions will be relevant further on. Like the black and white, the views from New Orleans and the duration of the sequence, so furthermore do the particular situations in which the characters are introduced, the type of characters they are, their casting, dialogues and the humor found in the parallell between their introductions all make apparent the conventionality of the conventions they seem imbedded in, with all that this implies[39] . What these local examples of the sequence shows, to summarize, suggest and repeat, is similar to what I claim the films of Jarmusch generally (i.e. globally) show; that by slight variations of conventions the familiar can be made strange, that by attending to lacunae perceptual dawnings can be provoked, that taking the road less travelled by can make all the difference. They show the habituation of perception. Having said that, just how this is accomplished still remains to be shown, and that is what I intend to do in the course of the ensuing study.


#1 Jarmusch has directed seven feature-length fiction films: Permanent Vacation (1982), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down By Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night On Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) (henceforth: Ghost Dog), and three short films in a continuing series called Coffee and Cigarettes (1986, 1986 and 1993). I only tangentially discuss his rock videos and the documentary The Year of the Horse (1997).

#2 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh (Vintage, 1996).

#3 In “More of The World Viewed”, Cavell notes how some subjects seem to fit the medium of film especially well, or rather (as he puts it) in a group of films he regards as masterpieces, film has “found one of its great subjects” in The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontlogy of Film. Second enlarged edition, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 140.

#4 So far, there have been two books devoted to the work of Jarmusch, one in French, Philippe Elhem, Stranger than paradise de Jim Jarmusch (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 1988), and one in Polish, Ewa Mazierska, Jim Jarmusch: opracowanie i redakcja (Warszawa: Fundacja Sztuki Filmowej, 1992) - and in a recent study on the development of independent film, Geoff Andrew, Stranger than Paradise: Maverick Filmmakers in Recent American Cinema (London: Prion, 1998), the influence of Jarmusch is paid notable attention. These studies, however, would seem to fall into the ‘popular’ rather than ‘academic’ genre, Elhem's study being a general introduction to Stranger Than Paradise, Mazierska's being largely biographical, and Andrew's primarily giving an historical overview. There are, however, a few shorter articles which provide stimulating discussions of Jarmusch's films, notably Flo Leibowitz, “Neither Hollywood nor Godard: The Strange Case of Stranger Than Paradise”, Persistence of Vision 6 (1988), Marcia Pally, "Closely Watched ‘Train’", Film Comment 4 (July/August 1989), and J. Hoberman, “Roadside Attractions”, Sight & Sound 4 (1992).

#5 In “Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise” (Two page press release authored by the director), (New York, March 1984). J. Hoberman described his stylistic attitude as distinctive of New York; “his cultivated immigrant-eye-view, highly developed taste for urban detritus, studied minimalism, beat disdain, fondness for roadside attractions and fascination with chance encounters”, “Roadside Attractions”, 6.

#6 Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, 14.

#7 Some instances of such theories of seeing are provided by Julian Hochberg, Perception (1964) (Second edition, Englewood Cliffs : Prentice-Hall, 1978), Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954) (expanded and rev. ed., Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), and E.H. Gombrich Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation (Washington, 1960). In a contemporary film theoretical context, Jaques Aumont's The Image, translated by Claire Pajackowska (London : BFI Publ., 1997), Gilles Deleuze's books on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) (Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time Image (1985) (Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) and Gregory Currie's Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) are relevant in this regard, as are many of the writings by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, which, even when they deal with issues not obviously linked to perception, are heavily influenced by the perspective of cognitive science.

#8 The passage alluded to, which - since it is congenial to my present concerns - I wish to quote in full, reads: "We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot discern the humanity in a man ['den Menschen im Menchen erkennen' - in the revised second edition translated as 'recognize the human being in someone ].", 21.8.1914, Ludwig Wittgenstein : Culture and Value : A selection from the posthumous remains [Vermischte Bemerkungen], edited by Georg Henrik von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman, first edition 1977, revised edition of the text by Alois Pichler, translated by Peter Winch (Blackwell, revised second edition, 1998).

#9 Especially Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997) and L. Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (1966) edited by Cyril Barrett (University of California Press).

#10 Considering philosophers who have demonstrated the relevance of Wittgenstein's philosophy to aesthetics, R.W. Beardsmore (e.g. Art and Morality (London: Macmillan, 1971)), B.R. Tilghman (e.g. But is it Art? (Blackwell, 1984) and Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics: The View From Eternity (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1991), and Oswald Hanfling might be singled out. I have also found Simo Säätelä's dissertation Aesthetics as Grammar: Wittgenstein and Post-Analytic Philosophy of Art to be valuable. In film studies, Malcolm Turvey's article “Seeing Theory: On Perception and Emotional Response in Current Film Theory”, and Richard Allen's “Looking at Motion Pictures”, both in Richard Allen and Murray Smith (eds), Film Theory and Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) are especially noteworthy.

#11 Other than his Pursuits of Happiness, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Second enlarged edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979) and Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996) are both relevant to my discussions.

#12 E.g. The "I" of the Camera: Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

#13 E.g. "Provocations and Justifications of Film", in Cynthia A. Freeland & Thomas E. Wartenberg (eds), Philosophy and Film (Routledge, 1995), 33-48.

#14 E.g. Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), and "On Film Narrative and Narrative Meaning", in Film Theory and Philosophy.

#15 E.g. The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

#16 Especially Phenomenology of Perception, translated from the French by Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1989, and The Primacy of Perception, and other essays on phenomenological psychology, the philosophy of art, history and politics, edited by James M. Edie (Northwestern University Press, 1964).

#17 I am thinking of Stephen Mulhall's exegetical texts, Heidegger and Being and Time (New York: Routledge, 1998) and esp. Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects (London: Routledge, 1990).

#18 Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, 1. In a note, Jay remarks that there are twenty-one visual metaphors in this paragraph.

#19 This also has some bearing on some problems of prevalent theories of emotion, not least in cognitively informed film studies, as Malcolm Turvey shows in “Seeing Theory”, where he lays out a criticism which is closely connected to mine.

#20 The figure was first introduced in 1901 by psychologist Joseph Jastrow.

#21 Philosophical Investigations, Part 2, section xi, 194.

#22 Indeed, the figure bears certain similarities to the trope imbedded in the narrative for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) (in which four different people tell varying accounts of the same event), a film which Jarmusch refers to both implicitly and explicitly in Ghost Dog. For the sake of clarity, however, I will at this stage stick to the duck-rabbit figure, but nevertheless this reference is an instance I will have reason to get back to.

#23 As Wittgenstein says, “And I must distinguish between the continuous seeing of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect”, ibid. Consider also an earlier passage, “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’”, ibid., 193. As B.R Tilghman sums it up, “The report of a perception is the report that an object of determinate kind is seen. Thus ‘I see the face’ usually reports a perception while ‘I see the likeness’ usually reports an aspect. A perception need only require good eyesight; aspects, on the other hand, dawn and can be missed even though the object itself is clearly seen.”, But is it Art?, 127.

#24 Note that Robert Frost is also famous for his remark that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”, which is thus ironically juxtaposed by Roberto having taken the Italian translation of his poetry to heart.

#25 I do not mean to evoke here a specific theory or stipulative definition of cinematic conventions, i.e. anything like David Bordwell’s rather problematic four-part distinction which guides his Narration in the Fiction Film (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) (between Classical, Art-Cinema, Historical-Materialist and Parametric Narration.) Instead, I will take the idea of the conventional more or less unproblematically for granted, in the hope that it will nevertheless reveal itself in in the course of my discussion.

#26 Flo Leibowitz, “Neither Hollywood nor Godard: The Strange Case of Stranger Than Paradise”, Persistence of Vision 6 (1988).

#27 I say ‘poetics’, as opposed to e.g. ‘aesthetics’ or ‘norms’, partly to stress the cultural and not just formal identity of artistry (i.e. to stress my interest in the soul of narration and not just its body, so to speak).

#28 In an interview, Jack Kerouac, who coined the term, gave his famous answer to the question what was meant by ‘beat’:

…now it’s jazz, the place is roaring, all beautiful girls in there, one mad brunette at the bar drunk with her boys - one strange chick I remember from somewhere, wearing a simple skirt with pockets, her hands in there, short haircut, slouched, talking to everybody - Up and down the stairs they come – the bartenders are the regular brand of Jack, and the heavenly drummer who looks up in the sky with blue eyes, with a beard, is wailing beer-caps of bottles and jamming on the cash register and everything is going to the beat -- it’s the beat generation, it’s béat. It’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like old-time lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat…
That is, the term was used to express several things, among them a reflection of a dissatisfaction (exhaustion) with contemporary society, an attention to the specific rhythm of modern life as reflected in modern jazz, as well as also referring to beatific, mystical detachment from the surrounding world. Finally, the ‘beat’ is very tied up to, with a critical distance from, American culture, a preoccupation and attitude which of course is central to the films of Jarmusch.

#29 I say internal in reference to - and endorsement of - a distinction between internal and external contexts of a text made by Peter Winch, where he questions the frequently presupposed division between text and context, according to which the aesthetic relevance of contextual elements is regarded with suspicion. He notes that even in the recognition of a text as a text, contextual factors play a (conceptually) necessary part, though some contextual elements are obviously aesthetically irrelevant. “We need to be able to apply our knowledge and skill to a text in such a way that it does not come between us and the text, but brings the text to life. [---] To exhibit a text’s internal relation to elements in its surroundings is not to submerge it in something extraneous; on the contrary, it is a contribution towards showing it for what it is.”, “Text and Context”, Philosophical Investigations 5 (1982), 44, 50.

#30 Which, if you will, following Wittgenstein, adds up to: a grammatical investigation, where ‘the language game’ in question is the art of film.

#31 Nelson Goodman, “The Status of Style” (1975), in Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: An Introductory Anthology, edited by Vassilis Lambropoulos and David Neal Miller (State University of New York Press, 1987), 254.

#32 George Wilson, Narration in Light, 6. I hasten to note that the book’s underlying line of thought is very closely related to mine, yet this relation with all its affinities and divergences is so complex and subtle as to demand close scrutiny only after I have let my point of view come into clearer relief.

#33 I should perhaps say right away that my use of the terms is intended to be untechnical. It might be tempting to think of the distinction between saying and showing as mirroring that between what is intended and what regardless of intentions is actually accomplished, but it should be noted that this link is far from necessary. This is probably true for many films, yet what a film is saying may sometimes not be what was intended, just as how we conceive of what was intended can be important for what we take a film to be showing. In any case, the relation is rather problematic - disregarding the confusion stemming from dualistic theories of the concept of intentions, there still is the matter that a certain outcome or interpretation may not be intended, yet this does not necessarily free whomever brings it about from their ethical responsibility, a point argued at length by Stanley Cavell in his essay “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1969), in his Must we mean what we say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1976), 1-43.

#34 The remark stands as the concluding proposition, paragraph 7, to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. B.R. Tilghman has noted that this ecchoes an idea expressed by Søren Kierkegaard: “In a little piece entitled The Point of View for my Work as an Author, Kierkegaard said that the aesthetic must be put to work in leading a person to a religious [...] view of things and that this can only be done by what he referred to as ‘indirect communication.”, Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics, 63.

A related thought, or rather suspicion, is that the attempt to articulate (rather than simply point to) the unsayable, would seem to run the risk of distorting or reducing it, though this in turn presents a practical rather than logical problem, since saying something in such a context can be a form of pointing (and thus showing). Indeed, pointing by way of words is the whole basis for a study such as mine.

#35 As I engage in a more thorough discussion of the film I will offer a more detailed and careful reading which should also help straighten out any possible question marks left by this rough account.

#36 The whole paragraph, no. 6.43 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, reads “If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts--not what can be expressed by means of language. In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.”

#37 Indeed, as Karen Hanson has pointed out, there is an instructive relation between films and philosophical examples: “In the traditional activities of philosophy, examples are schematic - sometimes bare outlines. But even when they are more than outlines, even when they are lush and suggestive, they are and they are meant to be, meant to be seen as, tendentious. They are used - sometimes to make, sometimes to support, sometimes to destroy a point. In film, exemplification can be the point.”, Minerva in the Movies: Relations Between Philosophy and Film”, Persistence of Vision 5 (Spring, 1987), 10.

#38 For my understanding of the distinction between knowing and acknowledging and the epistemological bearings it has on my subject, which will receive more thorough discussion in the course of the study, I am indebted to Stanley Cavell’s “Knowing and Acknowledging”, ibid., 238-266, as well as Peter Winch’s “Eine Einstellung zur Seele”, in his Trying to Make Sense (Basil Blackwell: Oxford 1987), 140-153.

#39 By the way, this offbeat poetics is also reflected in the Tom Waits song. As the music of ‘neo-beat’ Waits generally (at least up to the mid-eighties) it is offbeat in the sense that it uses the language, soundscape, of the popular and banal to express likewise ‘perceptually subversive’ idiosynchrasies.