It’s New York, 1978. Inside a darkened club, projectiles of beer and phlegm cut across the path of a spiky white-haired youth as he takes to the stage. Although secretly he thrives on every object, every word of abuse hurled in his direction, he maintains a cool air of indifference. The singer approaches the microphone -
“1, 2, 3, 4…” -
and a night of atonal bliss begins.
Years later Jim Jarmusch reflects on his early career playing keyboards with The Del-Byzanteens -
“I was a non-musician musician in New York […] It was like, you know, getting pelted with beer cans and spit.” (Sundance: Filmmaker Focus: Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
Although Jarmusch stopped working as a musician in the early eighties, in many ways his filmmaking career is imbued with much of the spirit of punk. He vehemently maintains his independence, producing relatively low budget films on the periphery of the mainstream. He would claim never to have “sold out” or pandered to creative interference from Hollywood but has recognised the need to strike a balance between the commercial and artistic aspects of filmmaking -
“I could make a lot more money by […] giving away control of my films […] But if I’m putting up three years of my life and a lot of work, and you put up the money, we can split the profits, but I keep the negative.” (Variety, 27/12/89).
While this approach to filmmaking might seem favourable in Jarmusch’s estimation, he has indicated that he has encountered some opposition as a result of maintaining an outlook somewhat removed from what might be considered mainstream -
“In Hollywood, if you say ‘art’, they reach for their nine-millimetre. ‘Art? Get the hell out of my office!’ They don’t want to hear about it. What’s wrong with art? I don’t know…” (Newsday, 14/5/96)
This opposition towards Jarmusch’s work could be seen to be offset by the fact that he has also received considerable critical acclaim. (Stranger Than Paradise won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France and the Best Film award from America’s National Society of Film Critics.) However, it is still apparent that, while other independent directors such as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino have had publications solely devoted to their work , the same cannot yet be said of Jarmusch. Almost twenty years after Jarmusch began his career as a filmmaker, in my view it now seems all the more evident that a book focusing exclusively on his films is long overdue. Dealing specifically with Jarmusch’s trilogy rather than attempting to present a comprehensive analysis of his entire output as a director , this dissertation certainly does not claim to be this “long overdue” piece of literature. However, as a selective study of Jarmusch’s work, it perhaps might go some way towards illustrating that he is a director worthy of further consideration.
For the purpose of clarity this dissertation is divided into four chapters. Chapter One presents an overview of Jarmusch’s origins and looks at the “philosophy of punk”, examining how this could be said to have served as a kind of template for Jarmusch’s filmmaking career. This will be followed by overviews of two themes central to my analyses of Jarmusch’s films; firstly, what might be termed the “modern/postmodern debate” and secondly, the “American Dream”. As I am focusing on what Jarmusch terms his trilogy – Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down By Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989) - respective studies of these films will follow in Chapters Two, Three and Four. These analyses will examine how Jarmusch’s films could be seen to articulate the apparent failure of the American Dream and the struggle to come to terms with modernity’s conflicting and fractured ideals in what might be termed a postmodern world – a world where truth is relative rather than certain.
#1 Books published on Lynch and Tarantino include: Films of David Lynch, John Alexander, UK: New Holland Publishers, 1993, David Lynch, Michel Chion, Robert Julian, London: BFI, 1994, Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip, Wensley Clarkson, Piatkus Books, 1995 and Quentin Tarantino, Jami Barnard, HarperCollins, 1995.
#2 As well as Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train, Jarmusch has made four other feature length films (Permanent Vacation (1980), Night On Earth (1992), Dead Man (1996) and Ghost Dog (1999)), an ongoing series of short films (all entitled Coffee and Cigarettes) and several promotional videos for recording artists such as Talking Heads, Tom Waits and Neil Young.
Newsday, “Remaining Independent”, (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by John Anderson), 14/5/96.
Sundance: Filmmaker Focus: Jim Jarmusch, The Sundance Channel, 1996.
Variety, December 27, 1989.
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