Extract from
space under pressure in the post-modern city

in David B. Clarke (ed.), The Cinematic City (Routledge, 1997), 168-185.

By Elisabeth Mahoney

Juxtaposition is […] an important structuring device in Night on Earth as Jarmusch records one moment, in one night, in five cities: Los Angeles, New York, [page 177 / page 178] Rome, Paris and Helsinki. In each of the cities, the narrative unfolds in a taxi; this both captures the transitory nature of urban experience - unpredictable meetings and journeys – and foregrounds what is usually deemed insignificant, trivial, everyday, as central to this film. In interview, Jarmusch emphasizes this point:

So in a way the content of this film is made up of things that would usually be taken out. It’s similar to what I like about Stranger than Paradise or Down By Law, the moments between what we think of as significant. (Interview with Peter Keogh, ‘Home and Away’, Sight and Sound 2 (4) 1991: 9)
This attention to ‘things that would usually be taken out’ signals a concern with at least the details of realism. Commenting on the different registers of French used in the Paris scene, for example, Jarmusch argues ‘these things are important so that it feels real’ (ibid.). This is a striking comment from a director not conventionally championed as a realist, whose film works to construct and deconstruct class and gender stereotypes as a narrative device. In each of the five narratives, national, regional, class and gender stereotypes are reproduced and restylized in these arbitrary connections in urban landscapes. This is of course a postmodern and playful use of such stereotypes; Jarmusch is positing identity as ironic and performative, and deliberately sets out to defeat expectations of such stereotypes. Seemingly, the urban space, in this positive, self-conscious and playful text, offers a place for the deconstruction of conventional ideologies of racial or sexual difference.

I want to suggest, however, that in Night on Earth, while we see a reconfiguration of urban space and a release from some traditional discourses on the attraction and repulsion of the city, for example, we also see a reliance on stereotypes of gender and race, which means that it occupies […] a very conventional place in terms of its representations of sexual difference. This conventionality is […] grounded in points of connection between urban and gender ideologies. Narrative might be liberated in this film by the play with time and location, but as we see in the New York and Paris sections in particular, women are reassigned to a traditional (here, transgressive) place in the city. In the New York narrative Angela (Rosie Perez) is a feisty, fast-talking and uncontrollable woman who very much comes to symbolize Brooklyn for Helmut, the taxi driver from Eastern Europe. In the Paris section of the film, one of the passengers is a blind young woman (Beatrice Dalle) who takes a taxi driven by an African driver. In both narratives, despite the parodic treatment of other characters and situations, these female characters occupy very conventional discursive spaces. Angela is portrayed as wild and exotic, but also, for Helmut, as enigmatic and elusive in the same way – and at the same time – as New York is: he describes both Angela and Brooklyn Bridge as ‘beautiful’, with the same facial expression of wonderment and innocent fascination for both. Whether intentionally or not, Jarmusch has reproduced a series of stereotypes around this female character which do not work as parodic in the way they do with other characters in the film (such as Yoyo, Angela’s brother-in-law, or Helmut); some stereotypes are clearly more resistant to postmodern restyling than others. [page 178 / page 179]

This is also true of Dalle’s character in the Paris section. The theme of this narrative is simple enough: although the character is blind, she ‘sees’ more than others in her narrative and the rest of the film. The parody of this scene is connected to the power that the woman has over the taxi driver despite her blindness. She can tell exactly the route he is taking , she can trace his accent, and she rejects all of his ideas about her life as laughable. She is also shown to be aware of his gaze in the driver’s mirror as she freshens her make up and adjusts her bra strap. The humour here is supposed to be in the fact that the driver is unable to avert his gaze, and she knows this, particularly as she tells him of the sensual pleasures of love-making without sight. This all takes place in the taxi, on the deserted outskirts of town, in the middle of the night. Two things break down the parodic distance here and they are both connected with gender and the urban space. First, thinking back to Jarmusch’s comment that the film should ‘feel real’, it is ironic that it is actually the specific ‘real’ represented here which is problematic. As a spectator, I found myself immediately thinking of the dangers that the scene in Paris did not address, the very real limitations on women in the city, particularly at night. Second, the playfulness and irony of the text is at least compromised by the use of a sexualized, glamorous, sensual woman to represent any city, but especially Paris […]. This is of course highly conventional and, seemingly, non-parodic here and complicates any response to my first point on the grounds that Jarmusch is simply reproducing images, signs and stereotypes in a parodic fashion.

Certainly, the critical reception of these two female characters shows that they can be read as reproducing certain dominant narratives of feminine sexuality and women in cities. In J. Hoberman’s review of Night on Earth he describes Angela as follows: ‘Perez’s patented head-bob – emphasizing the fastest mouth in American movies – generates enough exoticism to warm the wide-eyed driver (not to mention Jarmusch)’ (Hoberman: “Roadside Attractions”, Sight and Sound 2 (4) 1991:8). The conflation of actress and character is striking enough, but it is the conflation of black actress/character and ‘exoticism’ that is most revealing: this exoticism, this otherness, is clearly marked as sexual and readable by any male spectator (to warm the wide-eyed driver . . . Jarmusch’ and presumably the critic as well). (NOTE. This reading of racial ‘otherness’ in terms of exoticism within a playful, postmodern text alerts us to the persistence of metanarratives, marginalization and objectification not only within the primary text itself, but in ways of looking and reading. Hoberman’s comments on the character of Angela made me think of Baudrillard’s description of some of the urban communities in America. In this text, the theorist perhaps most closely aligned with postmodernity tries to describe the ‘otherness’ of women of colour that he sees on the streets of New York: ‘The beauty of the Black and Puerto Rican women of New York . . . Apart from the sexual stimulation produced by the crowding together of so many races, it must be said that black, the pigmentation of the black races, is like a natural make-up that is set off by the artificial kind to produce a beauty which is not sexual, but sublime and animal – a beauty which the pale faces so desperately lack’ (Baudrillard, America Verso, 1988: 15-16). ‘Sublime and animal’; the ‘sexual stimulation produced by the crowd’: Baudrillard’s text –and view of the city as texts describing the cities of the urban – is obviously framed by the kind of conventional binary oppositions and flâneur-like impressions of the city as texts describing the cities of modernity. The position of mastery and distance has not been called into question.)]

The discourse reserved for the blind woman in the Paris scene marks her much more clearly as sexual, transgressive and monstrous: ‘Eyes rolling in her head, head swivelling on her neck, Dalle is beautiful and monstrous’ (Hoberman 1991:8); Dalle is introduced in his review as ‘the eponymous self-mutilated heroine of Betty Blue’ (ibid.). To score the urban landscape as other, it seems, Jarmusch has to reproduce and proliferate images of woman as excess in the city; these are then focused on by the critic to detail the text’s otherness. For example, Hoberman, attempting to describe adequately the narrative fluidity of the film, comments on the ‘endless loops’ in the film, as ‘one immigrant driver [melts] into another as Rosie Perez mutates into Beatrice Dalle’ (ibid.). Although no one has a secure, safe place in Jarmusch’s city (and there is no desire or nostalgia for such a place) and there is no sense of ownership of the cityscape, hence the concentration on immigrant identity, women are doubly displaced: monstrous, linguistically or sexually [page 179 / page 180] excessive ‘mutations’ in the urban space. […] [I]n Night on Earth the playful representation of the simultaneity of urban experience is grounded in certain points of racial and sexual fixity which have conventionally framed readings of the city space.