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Chapter One: There's Nothing Happening


As Hollywood Bankable as Jean-Paul Sartre

Jim Jarmusch became aware of the rich treasures of the Cinémathèque Française whilst on a visit to Paris in the mid 1970s. After graduating from his English literature course at Columbia University, he enrolled as a film student at New York University, where he became teaching assistant to director Nicholas Ray (Cinemania 1997). In the fifties Ray was something of a maverick, renowned primarily for his production of films such as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel without A Cause (1955). As a filmmaker he undoubtedly had an influence on Jarmusch and it is certainly evident that, in terms of characterisation, both directors share a fascination with social outcasts.[3]

Further parallels can undoubtedly be drawn between Ray and Jarmusch. Interesting in terms of Jarmusch’s status as an independent (as opposed to a “Hollywood”) filmmaker is auteur critic Andrew Sarris’ view that the tension between Nicholas Ray’s personal vision and the constraints of the Hollywood studios is reflected in his consistent thematic portrayal of the individual’s struggle against the system. By way of illustration, he refers to the scene in Johnny Guitar where the title character’s declaration “I’m a stranger here myself” could be seen to indicate Ray’s own state of mind – his simultaneous love for and disillusion with the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s. (Sarris, 1968)

It is unclear if Ray felt his vision unduly restricted by the studio system but it does seem interesting that eventually he was to abandon working in Hollywood. Indeed, it has been said that Ray seemed to reject Hollywood completely in the latter phase of his career (Cook, 1985: 140), preferring instead to work on experimental projects in Europe and New York, the last of which was Lightning Over Water (1980). This documentary film chronicled the final months of Ray’s battle with cancer and was co-directed by Ray and Wim Wenders. Jim Jarmusch worked as production assistant on the film and was later to reflect on the influence Ray had on his own early filmmaking career -

“He would say, ‘There’s nothing happening. You need action. The girl should pull a gun out of her purse and shoot the guy.’ At which point I’d take the script home and remove even more of the action [...] He realised I was going to do the opposite of what he told me so he told me to find my own style and voice.” (New Statesman, 5/7/96)

Although Jarmusch might claim to do the opposite to whatever his tutor told him, it seems evident that, if anything, Ray taught him to have his own vision. Jarmusch’s style and voice are defiantly anti-mainstream. In an industry governed by agent packages, script bids, rewrites, stars who have say over the final cut, test marketing and so on, it is significant that Jarmusch maintains complete artistic control over all his work. Certainly, the commercial side of filmmaking does not seem to interest him -

"To me, 'independent' means staying independent from your work being dictated to, or formed by, some concept of a marketplace." (Sundance: Filmmaker Focus: Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
As one critic has remarked -
"Jarmusch is about as Hollywood bankable as Jean-Paul Sartre." (New Statesman, 5/7/96)

Questioning the prevailing modes of thought

It seems possible that Jarmusch's staunch independence as a filmmaker stems from his earlier participation in the punk movement. In saying this, however, I should point out that I am not referring to punk’s well-documented mixture of music and aggression (e.g. stage-diving, pogo dancing, moshing, gobbing, self-mutilation); instead I am referring to what Craig O’ Hara terms the “philosophy of punk” (O’ Hara, 1995: 8-32). O' Hara argues that punks question conformity not only by looking and sounding different but also by questioning the prevailing modes of thought. It is in this context that the notion of "selling out" or pandering to commercial interests is seen to be the most serious of crimes. Although it has been argued that punk was ultimately absorbed back into the mainstream (Hebdige, 1979), it seems probable that its core philosophy is still held high in Jarmusch's esteem. Certainly, long-time acquaintance of Jarmusch and self-professed "independent film guru" John Pierson has recalled that -

"Jarmusch often suggested that underground film was like punk rock." (Pierson, 1995: 25)
Indeed, just as punk bands such as Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were noted for their disdain for the pretensions and self-indulgent "virtuosity" of 1970s “progressive rock” music (i.e. bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson etc.) as well as the apparent banality of popular disco music (Bangs, 1987), Jarmusch would claim to distance himself from the polished style often associated with mainstream Hollywood.

"Neither Hollywood nor Godard" - the title of an article written in 1988 (Leibowitz, 1988) [4] - is probably the most apt description of Jarmusch's work. As a filmmaker he is deliberately unconventional but fundamentally his style is removed from Jean-Luc Godard’s forms of cinematic experimentation. Unlike Jarmusch, Godard is a highly intellectual filmmaker whose films commonly involve some form of autocritique or interrogation of cinema itself (Cook, 1981: 564). As Godard himself puts it -

“Instead of writing criticism I now film it.” (Cook, 1981: 564)
In order to understand exactly what Godard is critiquing in his films, it is perhaps useful here to recall the table drawn up by Peter Wollen (Wollen, 1972) contrasting Hollywood cinema with Godard’s cinema –

[Hollywood] [Godard]
Narrative transitivity Narative intransitivity
Identification Estrangement
Transparency Foregrounding
Single diegesis Multiple diegesis
Closure Aperture
Pleasure Unpleasure
Fiction Reality

It is clear from the table reproduced above that Godard’s cinema could be viewed in counterpoint to such Hollywood conventions as: the employment of a unitary homogenous world in the narrative (single diegesis), the use of a cause-effect structure (narrative transitivity) as well as the masking of the actual process of filmmaking (transparency). In that he challenges the spectator’s expectations, therefore Godard is clearly quite radical as a filmmaker. His collective works have had an enormous influence on contemporary cinema -

“Just as there is a fundamental difference between Braque and, say, Warhol, so there is before Godard and the cinema after Godard.” (Roud, 1980: 437)
In terms of films produced in the last decade, certainly Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) could be seen to bear some of the hallmarks of Godard’s “Counter Cinema” as alluded to by Wollen. (However, whether these films are as challenging to the spectator as the work produced by Godard forty years earlier is clearly open to debate).

With regard to Jarmusch’s approach to filmmaking, while his work plays with conventions and stereotypes, he is fundamentally less self-reflexive than Godard. He tends to allow the spectator to become absorbed in the narrative rather than reminding them of its existence.[5] Indeed, in that his characters are in a sense more down to earth than “larger than life” or heroic, it could be argued that the audience’s empathy in their plight is heightened to a greater extent than with a conventional Hollywood movie.

Structurally, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law both essentially follow a classical three-act structure with a coda at the end. Mystery Train differs slightly in that it tells three "separate" stories that are gradually revealed to be taking place simultaneously. Taken autonomously, however, these stories too follow a classical structure. Whilst this may indicate that Jarmusch is perhaps more inclined towards the conventional than a director such as Godard, it is still apparent that he is not a conventional filmmaker in the Hollywood sense.

François Truffaut once explained why the Cahiers critics found Hollywood films so appealing -

“We loved the American cinema because the films all resembled each other.” (Cahiers du Cinéma, Dec. 1963 – Jan. 1964: 16)
Whereas a Hollywood film is traditionally (but not necessarily always) seen to adhere to a set of formulae and endeavours to deliver a fast-paced, stylish movie product to the film spectator, a Jim Jarmusch film takes its time. There is no fast editing à la MTV. The camera is allowed to linger on its subject. The characters do not live exciting action-packed lives. As Jarmusch himself puts it -
"The acts don't necessarily follow a classical form where there is a conflict presented and resolved." (Sight & Sound, August 1992)
People seem to merely exist, drifting from one location to another without caring much for the consequences. In fact, it could well be argued that, in Jarmusch’s films, nothing much ever seems to happen.

Parallels could conceivably be drawn between Jarmusch’s maintenance of a distance from the conventions of mainstream Hollywood Cinema and the characterisation of the punk movement (in which Jarmusch obviously participated with The Del-Byzanteens) as "modernist in orientation" in its self-conscious rejection of mass culture. (Wheale, 1995: 84) Questions may therefore be raised regarding how a filmmaker with a modern sensibility might operate in what many cultural theorists (among them Hal Foster, Jean Baudrillard as well as Fredric Jameson (Foster, 1983)) consider a postmodern climate. For this reason, in my view it is interesting to consider Jarmusch’s work in the context of what might be termed the “modern/postmodern debate” – an overview of which is provided in the next section.

A (Necessarily) Simplistic Overview

A complex cultural condition, modernity is less the product of a single “origin” than a multitude of converging forces through the centuries. Sketching briefly over the last 500 years, one finds the self-awareness of history of the Renaissance, the philosophy of René Descartes and his focus on reason and subjectivism, the Scientific Revolution and the stress on universal truths, the emphasis on progress and freedom during the Enlightenment, the embodiment of democracy in the American and French Revolutions as well as the rise of capitalism. Whilst such an inventory is necessarily simplistic, it can be seen to reveal some of the multiple strands of modernity. (Gallagher, 1997: 66 - 76)

The twentieth century of course saw much of modernity’s optimism shattered following two world wars and the rise of consumerism. From the shards of this shattered optimism rose a “postmodern” suspicion of reason, history, progress and all things universal. As with modernity, it is impossible to isolate any single origin of postmodernity. (Indeed, with postmodernity, the notion of an origin is in itself deeply problematic). Along with the aforementioned social factors, Nietzsche’s challenge to Enlightenment conceptions of reason, the psychoanalytic challenge to the notion of the fixed universal subject as well as Lyotard's "incredulity towards metanarratives" are just some components of the postmodern (Gallagher, 1997: 87 -100). Whilst this again is only a simplistic inventory of elements, David Harvey usefully refers to terms such as post-modern, post-structural, post-punk and post-industrial as indicative of a “post-age” – an era that on the surface is suggestive of the decline or end of modernity, philosophy, ideology and history. Beneath this surface, however, lies the essence of the modern/postmodern debate - a brooding sense that something unique is happening around us – something not easily explained in terms of either the modern or postmodern but perhaps best understood when considered in relation to both. (Harvey, 1989)

Relating all this back to the subject of this dissertation, in my view Jarmusch's films operate somewhere between the modern and postmodern. On one level his films challenge the values and assumptions of mainstream American culture and as such could be seen to be "modernist in orientation". More relevant to the concerns of this thesis, however, is the notion of Jarmusch combining modern and postmodern aesthetic strategies in his simultaneous celebration and acknowledgement of the difficulties facing modernity. It is this apparent recognition of contemporary disillusion at a time of crisis or change that in my view permeates Jarmusch’s trilogy. In this respect, certainly one cannot ignore the context in which his trilogy was made. Indeed, I would propose that his trilogy offers a satirical look at the feasibility of the American Dream in the eighties.

The Reality of the Dream

Although Elizabeth Long does not pinpoint any definite origin for the term “American Dream” in her analysis of its relation to the popular novel, she does relate it to the notion of an “achieving society” (Long, 1985: 1) - something that could perhaps be traced as far back as the reference to individual enterprise (“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Multimedia Edition, 1998) Over 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was written, however, Long describes the American Dream in a state of disarray -

"An ideal that once gave people direction, and bound their individual endeavours to a broader sense of American mission and progress, has lost its resonance and power to inspire." (Long, 1985: 3)
She elaborates by explaining how the Reaganite ideal of the 'city on the hill' seemed very much at odds with the realities of a consumerist society in which the "rags-to-riches" dynamic no longer seemed feasible to the ordinary citizens of America. (Long, 1985: 3)

It is this sense of disillusionment over the fractured idealism of the American Dream that in my view permeates Jarmusch's trilogy. This leads me to suggest that his films could be considered to deal with what Richard Tarnas has referred to as the "Postmodern Condition" -

"A potentially debilitating anxiety in the face of unending relativism and existential finitude." (Tarnas, 1991: 398)
In my view, Jarmusch's films offer a wry look at America as it stood in the 1980s. Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train are all populated with disillusioned characters notable not only for their self-willed inertia and inability to communicate but also their misplaced optimism. This is not to say, however, that the director is essentially pejorative or contemptuous of the United States. Indeed, throughout the trilogy, and especially in Mystery Train, there are glimmers of hope in Jarmusch's vision. What follows is a film-by-film analysis.


NOTES

#3 Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this point are Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause which both feature social outcasts as protagonists.

#4 The title of Leibowitz’ article is clearly a pun/reference to Godard’s famous description of his work as “Neither Hollywood nor Brezhnov” (Harvey, 1978).

#5 By way of illustration, in Bande à part (1964), a straightforward narrative is interrupted by Godard’s spoken commentary in which he summarises the plot for latecomers, explains the characters’ thoughts and makes general observations about the setting. Jarmusch’s films seldom feature interjections in the narrative. (Having said this, however, Mystery Train is notably more self-reflexive than either Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law - a point I shall return to in Chapter Four).


Works cited in Chapter One

BANGS, Lester (1987), Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Toronto: Random House.

Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘Sept hommes à débattre’ (debate featuring François Truffaut), no. 150-51, December 1963- January 1964.

Cinemania 1997, Baseline’s Encyclopedia of Film’s Biography of Jim Jarmusch, Microsoft 1997.

COOK, David A., (1981), A History of Narrative Film, 1990 Edition, London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Multimedia Edition 1998, Declaration of Independence (1776), (Text reproduced), Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998.

FOSTER, Hal (1983), The Anti-Aesthetic, Seattle: Bay Press.

GALLAGHER, Michael Paul (1997), Clashing Symbols – An Introduction to Faith & Culture, London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

HARVEY, David, (1989), The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell.

HEBDIGE, Dick (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Reprinted in 1988, London: Routledge.

LEIBOWITZ, Flo (1988) "Neither Hollywood nor Godard: The Strange Case of Stranger Than Paradise", Persistence of Vision, no. 6, Maspeth: New York.

LONG, Elizabeth (1985), The American Dream and the Popular Novel, London: Routledge.

New Statesman, ‘Christopher Cook meets the lone rider of American movies’, (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Christopher Cook), Vol. 125, 5/7/1996.

O’HARA, Craig (1995), The Philosophy of Punk – More Than Noise!!, Edinburgh: AK Press.

PIERSON, John (1995), Spike Mike Slackers and Dykes, London: Faber and Faber.

ROUD, Richard (ed.) (1980), Cinema – A Critical Dictionary, Volume I, London: Secker & Warburg.

SARRIS, Andrew (1968), The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, New York: Dutton.

Sight & Sound, “Home and Away” (Jim Jarmusch interviewed by Peter Keogh), August 1992.

Sundance: Filmmaker Focus: Jim Jarmusch, The Sundance Channel, 1996.

TARNAS, Richard, (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind, London: Pimlico.

WHEALE, Nigel (ed.) (1995), Postmodern Arts, London: Routledge.

WOLLEN, Peter (1972), “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D’Est", Reprinted in Movies and Methods, Bill Nichols (ed.), London: University of California Press, 1985.


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