Jim Jarmusch – Mystery Train (1989)

Mystery Train is not the best entry in Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre but it is an interesting one in the context of the director’s artistic evolution. Thematically, Jarmusch doesn’t offer anything new, again taking on themes of loss, alienation, and the decay of U.S. American culture which are all motives in his previous films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Stylistically, he expands on his more sophisticated frames in Law and adds a lot of camera movement. The one-shot-one-take approach of Stranger Than Paradise is not totally forgotten, but his camera fledges. Maybe the most notable development in Mystery Train is the director’s approach to structure. The three episodes comprising the film all take place in Memphis at the same time in the same neighborhood and overlap sometimes. It is here that we can consider how the director progressed as a storyteller during the early years of his career.

The first episode, entitled “Far From Yokohama”, follows Jun and Mitzuko, a young Japanese couple who, on a train trip through America on the tracks (no pun intended) of their idols Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, stop in Memphis to visit Sun Studios and Graceland. It is a well-observed character piece full of little surprises and irony but it also lays a solid foundation for the story and provides us with a few first pieces of the puzzle we’re meant to put together by the end of the film. We get a glimpse of Steve Buscemi’s character Charlie we will meet later on in the film, there is a very real sense of decay and emptiness symbolized by an abandoned movie theater and gas station (sitting at the train station, Jun observes “I like Yokohama station better. It has a more modern atmosphere”), there are a diner, an empty lot and a hotel that will serve as visual signifiers, the antics of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee who man the reception desk at the hotel, there is a picture of Elvis in the couple’s hotel room, the monologue of Tom Wait’s DJ announcing the King’s song “Blue Moon”, and a gun shot in the morning.

“A Ghost”, the second episode, fills in a few more pieces of the puzzle. We open at the airport where Luisa repatriates her husband who died during their honeymoon. We follow her with lateral tracking shots as she walks through destitute streets (like we did in the previous segment). At one point, she passes Rick Aviles’ character Will who works on the engine of his pick-up truck. We will meet him later together with Charlie. She reads a book at the diner Jun and Mitzuko passed by. She glances at the empty lot where the Japanese couple lingered earlier. She decides to spend the night at the same hotel the love birds occupy. There, she meets Dee-Dee who doesn’t have enough money to afford a room for the night and shares a room with her. They both hear Jun and Mitzuko have sex. Dee-Dee talks about her ex-boyfriend Johnny who everyone calls Elvis and who is a crucial character in the next segment. They hear the Tom Waits DJ routine and “Blue Moon”. There is a picture of Elvis on the wall and the King’s ghost even appears to Luisa. A gunshot in the morning.

The third and last segment “Lost In Space” (easily the most contrived and disappointing part of an otherwise charming film) finally puts all the pieces into place. Buscemi’s character Charlie is Johnny’s brother-in-law and has to pick him up at a bar together with Will where Johnny is wielding around a gun. They go to a liquor store where Johnny shoots the clerk. They flee, pass the ruins of the theater, hear Tom Waits and “Blue Moon” on the radio, and seek refuge at the hotel where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins owes Will a favor. They spend the night in the shabbiest room available where Johnny instantly complains about the Elvis picture. They drink more and talk about cult TV shows. In the morning, Charlie accidentally shoots Johnny in the leg. They have to flee again. The last shot of the movie shows us the train with Jun and Mitzuko on board leaving town alongside the truck with Willie, Johnny and Charlie taking off in the same direction. I was waiting for Luisa’s plane to pass by in the distance as well but that might have been too much synchronicity for Jarmusch.

Now the puzzle is solved. To be sure, Jarmusch doesn’t use any revolutionary screenwriting tricks. But he hones his storytelling. Consider Stranger Than Paradise, a film told in three separate segments, and Down By Law, also in three segments taking place in distinctly different locales – both films are less episodic and feature a continuing story, but laid the groundwork for Jarmusch's more fractured approach to storytelling. Some might argue that the two earlier films follow the traditional three-act screenplay structure more closely and are thus divided into three different parts, but even if that were accurate (and I don’t think it’s a compelling argument) Jarmusch dispenses with it in Mystery Train and doesn’t even think about it in Night on Earth which expands even further on the episodic narration that would culminate in the feature length version of Coffee & Cigarettes.

Linking the three segments in Mystery Train superficially is, of course, a shtick but Jarmusch does try to put the major characters on an even thematic playing field. Jun, Mitzuko, Luisa and Johnny are all concerned with relationship issues mostly having to do with loss. The Japanese couple might be the happiest duo in the film but Jun is distant and Mitzuko craves more raw emotionality from her beau. Luisa just lost her freshly wedded husband and doesn’t even mention him to Dee-Dee when they talk about male-female relationships. Johnny and Dee-Dee just broke up and try to deal with it as well as they can. The fact that all of the characters spend most of their time in closed spaces (hotel room, bar, diner, car, train, airport) and seem adrift when they walk or drive around suggests that they are fundamentally trapped in those relationships and that leaving Memphis at the end of the film is an however ill-fated attempt at breaking free.

As fun as it is to play “spot similarities” in Mystery Train, Jarmusch makes a much more convincing case for his episodic storytelling in Night on Earth where he uses theme to link unrelated plot events instead of the opposite. The five episodes of that film reference each other constantly but the film is not meant as a plot puzzle the same way Mystery Train is. It may sound vague and lofty, but when two lonesome taxi drivers (who express their loneliness in fundamentally opposed ways) circle a monument in different cities the same night for similar but different reasons, Jarmusch tries to say something about a transcendent humanity that links us all. In Mystery Train the gun shot in the morning is meant as a puzzle piece and a sort of inside joke between the writer/director and his audience who both know more than the characters and can thus smile at their ignorance or puzzlement (pun intended).

The problem with this approach is that Jarmusch sets up plot incidences in the first two segments and has to use almost the entire third segment to pay it off. Where “Far from Yokohama” and “A Ghost” were both intimate character pieces, “Lost in Space” is purely plot driven and as a result feels oddly out of place. The director wants to explain the gun shot, wants to show us why Dee-Dee is ambivalent about Johnny and why Buscemi and Aviles were seen earlier in the film. It is this quest for explanation that gives the last segment a different feel. Arguably, Jarmusch encounters the same problem in Down By Law where the first half hour goes through a lot of unimportant plot to justify why the three main characters end up in the same jail where the film switches to a more intimate character study, but I would submit that Mystery Train’s ending is more problematic than Down By Law’s opening. The latter film’s first 30 minutes at least provides context, whereas Train’s last 35 minutes don’t offer much more than explanations to seemingly random plot signifiers without giving them any deeper meaning.

On the other hand, using the gunshot as a big reveal at the end of the film keeps us interested to a certain extent in the proceedings in "Lost in Place". The characters are rather bland and the narrative is oftentimes unconvincing (also see Rosenbaum for how Jarmusch misread social interactions in the South) but by offering a sort of reverse "Chekov's gun" introducing the gun shot in the first act and revealing the actual gun in the third act, we want to know what happens with it. At the moment the gun goes off, we connect the dots of what is happening in the two other rooms of the hotel we have seen and for a short moment Jarmusch's narrative trickery seems to work. But ultimately, the director's minimalism in the first two thirds of the movie works against him - finding out what makes Johnny, Charlie and Willie tick would have been much more satisfying than seeing the machinations of why there is a gunshot that vaguely ties together three otherwise unrelated stories. Less story, more character is Jim Jarmusch's strength. Mystery Train might be the most compelling case for that.

Jim Jarmusch – Down By Law (1986)


The esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote something interesting about Jim Jarmusch in an article discussing the director's singularity within the American film landscape: "It’s an enduring and endearing paradox of Jim Jarmusch’s art as a writer-director that even though it may initially come across as a triumph of style over content, it arguably turns out to be a victory of content over style. The humanism of this mannerist winds up counting for more than all his stylistic tics, thus implying that his manner may simply be the shortest distance between two points." In Rosenbaum's opinion, especially the early films - Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law - "(…) often [took] a backseat to the behavioral comedy."

It's an interesting observation for me personally, being that I found quite a bit of content in Stranger Than Paradise. In my mind, even though every shot was carefully conceived and staged, style took a backseat to the message in that film. By contrast, I found the content of Down By Law to be much more of the "behavioral comedy" variety and the style to be often admirable but ultimately uneven. It was a strange viewing experience seeing this film for the first time again after years. When I was just starting getting interested in "independent" film as a teenager, Down By Law was one of the first films that presented me with depths I never imagined cinema to have. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction first made me realize that there was more to film than Mission: Impossible and Dangerous Minds. But Down By Law opened the door for me to a cinema where I could linger instead of race through.

Down By Law also made me realize that content doesn't necessarily matter much in the context of film. What initially drew me in was the strange off-kilter atmosphere of the flick and the great performances by Benigni, Wates and Lurie. It also offset a long phase in which I was obsessed with virtually plotless movies, films I couldn't discern the meaning of, and obscure directors none of my friends had ever heard of. It is ironic to me that now, after years of watching a lot of movies, I find myself more impressed with the content in Down By Law than the style.

I have always found Jarmusch's minimalistic style fascinating because it doesn't advertise it's complexity. In Down By Law, it was the lighting of the shots that impressed me the most, the play with light and shadow, Jarmusch's uncanny mastery of the black-and-white format. But if one doesn't pay much attention to it, the director will never show it off. It is for us to discover the director's work, not for him to force-feed it to us. The same is true for the film's content. There are issues of male/female relationships, broken masculinity and cross-cultural communication but what convinced me the most on an emotional level was the way Jarmusch found warmth and hope for the characters even in the most dire circumstances.

A theme that he would develop further in Night On Earth is that confronted with someone's humanity, it is a lot harder for us to dismiss or reject them. Zach and Jack are two wannabe big shot alpha males, belittled by their girlfriends, losers by all accounts, but masters of the world in their own mind. Playing cards together in a jail cell, escaping prison, eating an unseasoned rabbit over a fire, and witnessing the burgeoning love of two indecipherable people inevitably made them see something in each other. It's not just the typical hollywoodian going-through-the-adventure-brought-them-closer-together trope Jarmusch is interested in here, it's the idea that recognizing who someone is on a human level most often makes one realize something about oneself. At the end of the film, Jack and Zach, although wandering off in opposite directions, finally embark on a life journey that is more their own than the badass posturing they were engaging in at the beginning of the film.

The fact that shadows and contrasted white/black compositions make up the bulk of Jarmusch’s frames in this film almost has me tempted to say that the characters’ journeys could be seen as starting in the dark and possibly going towards some form of enlightenment at the end of the film. At the very least, they are closer to embrace their own humanity when they head out into the woods. In reality, I had more of an impression that Down By Law was a sort of formal and contentual experiment. For some reason, Stranger Than Paradise seems to me like a more accomplished offering, even though Down By Law exhibits more signs of the director’s early maturity.

The jail sequence, as well-crafted it is from a story standpoint, poses the biggest stylistic problems for me. The flatness of the decor and the strange lack of inspired frames result in something that is not particularly pretty to look at, which is strange because everything that comes before and after is beautifully photographed. Jarmusch’s methodical medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot set-ups force him to distill his pictorial impulses until he gets to something simple but refined. That’s why his interior scenes always strike me as more successful visually than his exteriors. In Down By Law, large chunks of the action take place outside. I wouldn’t say that it’s the reason why he plays around a lot with different light sources (street lights, car lights, moonlight, fire, etc.) but there is a tangible experimental approach to these shots. They are less systematically staged, less Spartan in their decors. The jail scenes, by contrast, have little texture.

It is also worth noticing that Down By Law is much more plot-driven than Stranger Than Paradise and Night on Earth. If Stranger dispensed with plot instead focusing on meaningful character moments and Night only showed us the moments between plot points and character moments, Down By Law attempts to explore how plot can change characters. Both Jack and Zach are wrongfully jailed and we see both the set-up and the arrest. They are pure story moments, something rather unusual for Jarmusch until then. But following these plot twists, we get a long stretch of the characters sitting around, fighting, screaming (for ice cream!) and trying to come to terms with themselves. Another burst of plot advancement is the escape from jail that propels the characters into a new state of mind that is resolved when Benigni's character finds love and gives Zach and Jack hope for a better tomorrow. Seen in that light, Down By Law is a film about consequences. Not situational consequences, but mental ones.

Jim Jarmusch – Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

If memory serves, Roger Ebert wrote about Stranger Than Paradise that it makes a mountain out of a molehill. He is certainly right about that. Jarmusch's debut feature that won a Camera D'Or for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival is as low-key and nonchalant as it gets. In a few long shots the director captures glimpses from the lives of people who are waiting for something to happen or who have given up all hope. However, short of dishing up world-class drama, Jarmusch gives us a poignant parable on immigration and assimilation in the United States.

Every shot, every timid plot movement and non-event is carefully planned. From the very first image on, Jarmusch builds the theme of the U.S. as a symbol, as a magnet for fortune-seekers and lost souls, as an idea more than a place. Eva, a 16-year old Hungarian, just arrived in New York and walks to her cousin's house on the Lower East Side. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put A Spell On You plays on the soundtrack. The idea of the U.S. as promised land for a crowd of hopefuls following the spell of the American Dream of fame and fortune in the "New World", as the first segment of the film is entited, is immediately counterbalanced by a graffito on a garage door that reads "US out of everywhere, go home yankee!"

At her cousin's house who arrived in New York about a decade earlier and who changed his name to Willie, she is prompted to not speak Hungarian anymore, only English. Willie spent too much time perfecting his American persona to let it be undone by a 16-year old brat he doesn't want to see in the first place because she reminds him of the past he is trying suppress. Willie dresses like a 1950's wiseguy but couldn't be farther removed from it. He is a deadbeat who spends his days in front of the TV, plays card games from time to time and is suspicious of the world outside his apartment ("south of Clinton Street in dangerous!", he advises Eva). He represents a certain type of American lifestyle that is empty of any intellectual stimuli, that is content with cheap and mindless entertainment and that is fearful of the "other" in best cold-war manner. It is a life out of touch with our natural environment (when Willie eats a TV dinner, Eva asks him where the meat comes from. "What do you mean?", he asks in puzzlement. "It doesn't look like meat" she remarks) and is not even interested in penetrating the most popular spectacles (when they watch a football game, Willie is unable to explain the rules to Eva. "Just watch the game!" he blurts out).

Eva is curious but disaffected with what she sees of the "new world". Assimilation, too, is a rocky road. When Willie's friend Eddie picks him up to go to a poker game, he wants to take Eva with them. But Willie is categorically opposed to it. "Just stay here and stay out of trouble" he advises his cousin. Jarmusch's way to dramatize an American society open enough to welcome newcomers in its midst but too peculiar to include them fully? Later, Willie finds that Eva should "dress like people dress here." He gives her a dress that looks truly horrible and she tells him that much. But in the end, she still wears it for his pleasure, even though she looks totally foreign in it. Willie's attempt to assume a new "American" identity leads him to read the signs all wrong. Ultimately, he remains empty and in search for identity even if he fancies himself a true "American". Eva is less ready to forget where she comes from. She might make the effort of talking a new language and trying to fit in but that doesn't mean that she is out to efface her past.

Jarmusch lets one year elapse and we pick up the story when Willie and Eddie have to lay low for a while after they got in trouble over a poker game. They hop into a car and drive to Cleveland where Eva has found employment at a hot-dog shop. From the emptiness of their pretend-bohemian/gangster chic life, the two are propelled to the cold, hard industrial environment of working-class America. "Could you imagine working in a factory?", Willie asks Eddie. "No I can't!" Right before, Eddie finds out that Willie is not of American nationality, to which Willie offers "I'm just as American as you are!"

Not only is it a powerful statement that America as a symbol (and that's certainly all Jarmusch is interested in with this film) is exactly the kind of place where people can come, shed their past and reinvent themselves, becoming just as "American" as they can, need or want to be. But both of these statements show a clear lack of understanding on Willie's part of what the American symbol really represents. He puts on airs of being a nonchalant rapscallion but that's all just posturing he probably picked up in movies. It has nothing to do with how reality works. His empty days attest to that. A willingness to work, a strong industry was exactly one of the core elements of the U.S.'s unparalleled rise to undeniable world power after World War II (although it is also purely treated as a symbol in the film). Willie can't see that because he is interested in appearances. Eva, on the other hand, follows a different path.

She says that Cleveland is "kind of a drag", she only speaks English with her Hungarian aunt she shares a roof with, she says things like "you come to some place new and everything looks the same". It's as if her pursuit of her own American Dream is at the same time corrupting her bit by bit. Blue collar middle-class America isn't exactly what American dreamers dream of either. And the erosion of the blue-collar middle-class doesn't help to make it more glamorous. It's beginning to wear down Eva.  So the trio hops in the car and drives to Florida. If New York City represents the mystery and the verve of a new beginning and Cleveland represents the downfall of the middle-class worker, then Florida really does represent the dream, the glossy image of careless materialism and unencumbered prosperity. In a way, this is exactly where all of these characters need to be. Eva for the postcard dream, Willie for the postcard facade and Eddie because he seems co-dependent.

Once there, Willie and Eddie exhibit a certain type of caricatural American make-it-or-break-it entrepreneurship. They want to go to the dog races and make it big. "I got a feeling we're gonna make a lot of money!", says Eddie. "One of those feelings." It's a spirit of enterprise, a faith in one's own luck that is typical for a society of libertarians like the United States. But contrasted with Eva's more pensive approach (to the point where she's almost aloof) it's as if Jarmusch opposes an American American Dream with an Immigrant American dream. Willie and Eddie loose all their money at the dog races but score big the next day at the horses. You go big, you might go broke, but you also never give up - and in the end it might pay off. That's also part of the American American Dream. Eva, too, makes it big, but it's an instant of pure luck. She writes both men a note in Hungarian and gets on a plane back to Europe, in my mind to reclaim her identity. What does this say about the Immigrant American Dream? Is the assimilation to America just a means to an end? Is the American promise just a passage, and not a destination as it is often made out to be? In Eva's case, that seems to be the case. The U.S. might have put a spell on her at the beginning of her journey, but with a bit of luck she undid that spell.

And what about Willie and Eddie? They too acquired a fortune simply by chance. The difference is they didn't really seek anything. Back in New York, they were adrift. In Cleveland, they were just killing time. In Florida they went to the betting range simply on a whim. Now they have wealth but what will they do with it? Can the money be of any meaning at all? In Eva's case, the money seems like a catalyst to something else. For Willie and Eddie the buck seems to stop there. It's emptiness that Jarmusch seems to criticize most in Stranger Than Paradise. America has plenty of that to offer. And the fact that Willie boards the plane back to Europe with Eva doesn't give his actions any more meaning.

Jim Jarmusch – Night On Earth (1991)

In his 2007 book on Jim Jarmusch, author Juan Antonio Suarez remarks that the director’s films “are centrally concerned with situations, actions, and locales that rarely find their way into conventional texts because they lack clear signification or obvious dramatic value. But in this lack of explicit value lies their interest: since they are neglected by dominant regimes of spectacle and narrative, they contain registers of behavior and affect that remain to be explored.” While Suarez is certainly right in assessing Jarmusch’s knack for marginal characters and unexplored behavior, I find it a little intellectually facile to simply oppose Jarmush's doubtlessly singular oeuvre to “high-concept, action-packed” Hollywood fare, as Suarez describes it. In my mind, Jarmusch operates well within the boundaries of classical Hollywood storytelling, but uses its devices in a different way.

Night on Earth, the collection of five shorts chronicling different cab rides in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki the same night, is a perfect example. From the first sequence on, Jarmusch seems wholly uninterested in presenting us events serving as plot signifiers, instead, as he has said before, capturing the moments between events. The obvious example is the scene at the very beginning of the film where Jarmusch cuts between Gena Rowland’s Victoria and Winona Ryder’s Corky who are both having a conversation on the phone. What we get to hear from that conversation are nothing but hellos, byes and platitudes. When one character is about to say something substantial we cut to the other one caught between statements that would mean something in a traditional plot sense. But by highlighting those “in-between” moments, Jarmusch finds his characters and draws them incredibly precisely.

And yet, all the characters in Night On Earth are simple archetypes and remain mysteries of sorts. The script gives us enough information (and the performances are subtle enough) that we can interpret their actions and find meaning in what we see but we can never really penetrate them. Why is Helmut in New York? Why does he work as a cabbie when he is a horrible driver, has no sense of direction and is fresh off the boat in the big city? Why is it so important to him to keep YoYo’s fare? Most of these questions can be answered one way or another, but that’s when we find ourselves in the realm of interpretation.

And that’s precisely where Jarmusch wants us to be. He can dispense with traditional plot in Night On Earth because the film relies one hundred percent on character work. At the same time, the characters are never made transparent to us. The script gives us just enough to get us hooked, but no question is ever answered. Paradoxically, that’s what makes this film such an intimate play. We form a bond with the characters precisely because we are trying to figure them out, because we have to interpret them, and because they are unmistakably human. Consider Helmut and YoYo. Before they happen on Maria, the unlikely pair banter back and forth and take an uneasy liking to each other. Maria can’t understand what’s going on in the cab because Helmut and YoYo share a bond together, but not with her. It’s precisely the moment when Maria asks “what the fuck is going on” and the two men laugh knowingly without answering her that this sequence becomes powerful. Suddenly, we are in on the joke with them. We still have no idea who these people are beyond their apparent personae but we understand them as humans.

That’s what Jarmusch is after in Night On Earth. If in a traditional sense, movie audiences have to figure out the plot by making sense of a sequence of events that drive the story, Jarmusch presents us a series of glimpses into his characters’ soul, and it is by interpreting them that we can make sense of the larger text. In this sense, I would argue that Jarmusch doesn’t operate so much outside of Hollywood conventions, but rather uses traditional storytelling techniques in an idiosyncratic way. When Roberto Benigni’s driver blabbers away about his various sexual misadventures, it is not to give the audience any real information about who he is. The content, as funny as it is, is almost of no importance. The details are what matters: the sunglasses he forgot he was wearing; his reaction to picking up a clergyman; his obliviousness to his customer’s distress; the way he disposes of the body. These are all signifiers who bring us closer to who the driver is as a character, just as the sequence placing explosives + activating time detonator + time running out = explosion leads us to exactly understand what the advancement of the story is.

All of the characters in Night On Earth deviate largely from the “typical” Hollywood characters. That’s where Jarmusch's world is the most different from movie conventions. As Kartina Richardson recently wrote on her blog, the overwhelming majority of Hollywood films are written from a "white-male default viewpoint" and thus all rely on the same values, philosophies and signifiers. It is this homogenized worldview that Jarmusch escapes. Just as he is primarily interested in capturing moments when the plot stands still, he is interested in and curious about honestly showing characters that usually don’t have a voice in the mainstream entertainment machine. This means social misfits (Benigni’s driver or YoYo) but also borderline racist African diplomats, blind women, white immigrants, and miserable middle-class guys. What links all these characters is that they are frequently ignored in social and cultural discourse. It is, of course, never addressed by the characters themselves, but it is here that Jarmusch’s editorial voice shines through the most. This obsession with outsiders and shunned characters is a common thread in all the director’s movies.

The sequence that articulates one of the film’s central themes the clearest is the Paris episode where the Ivorian driver picks up a resolute blind young woman who won’t take any shit. Jarmusch loves to subvert appearances – a lot of the humor in his films springs from that. Here, the surprise is not only to find that the woman, who we naturally assume to be vulnerable is in fact one of the strongest characters in the film. What is really interesting is the driver's curiosity in how she perceives the world. What is her experience like eating when she can't even tell what color the carrots are? How can she have pleasure during sex if she can't see her lover? Her answers, revealing a worldview that is totally foreign to anyone who can see, fascinates and repulses the driver at the same time. In the end, it's the blind woman who resolutely goes on with her life while the driver gets in an accident.

The question of wether or not the characters can see correctly is raised in almost every episode of the film. In the Los Angeles sequence, Victoria tells Corky that she has night blindness. In the Rome episode, Roberto Benigni can't see the road because he wears his sunglasses at night. In New York, Helmut can't tell right from left. And ultimately, it's wholly unimportant. It's not what's going on outside that counts, it's what's going on inside the characters. And the parisian woman is the embodiment of that idea.

Night On Earth can also be read as a grand parable on the randomness of life. The film starts with a view of the Earth from space - a sort of God's point-of-view. When we zoom in on the Earth's surface and survey its continents and countries, finally arriving at our first destination Los Angeles, it is as if God had spun a globe and stopped it blindly to let life begin. In the first episode of the movie, Corky tells Victoria about her desire to have a family and how difficult it is to find the right man to be the father of her children. Immediately, Jarmusch builds the theme of the unborn child as hope. In the film's last episode, Mika, the driver, tells the story of how he lost his newborn child at the hospital, effectively burying the film's life theme. At this point, Night On Earth has come full circle.

The taxi, as opposed to the desolate and vast outside world that Jarmusch presents us in beautiful but depressing shots at the beginning of each episode, is a a shelter of sorts for these characters. They are all on the search for something. Corky wants a family, Victoria doubts the seriousness of her relationship with a man, Helmut is fresh off the boat and just finding his bearings, YoYo is obsessed with what's "cool" and "fresh" and "hype" suggesting a character who hides an inner emptiness by focussing on appearances, the Parisian driver is obviously longing for emotional honesty and a way to truly experience life, Begnini's driver can't have "normal" sexual intercourse, and Mika has lost his faith in life. By pairing up these characters who have all been somehow disappointed by life, Jarmusch finds new hope for them.

Maybe that's what it all comes down to. We're all on a quest for meaning and for a true connection with someone. But most of the time, all life gives us is randomness and absurdity (In the L.A. episode, we get a close-up of a poster for the Rocky and Bullwinkel Show; in New York, Maria at one point blurts out "what is this? The fucking Rocky and Bullwinkel show?" Begnini's driver circles a monument trying to pick up the priest; in Helsinki, Mika circles a monument waiting to pick up a fare). The only time we experience something truly meaningful is when we have an honest one-on-one with someone else. The taxi in Night On Earth forces the characters to be exactly that: honest. And that's why the movie is such a beautiful ode to humanity.

Kinski Watch XX: Neues vom Hexer (1965, Alfred Vohrer)

Neues vow Hexer  is certainly one of the better Edgar Wallace krimis. All things considered, and a few drinks in, it is even a rather entertaining affair, with an early death from Klaus Kinski's character, a bearded and relatively tame Eddi Arendt, some ridiculous (and in one case, cringe worthy racist) high-jinks with the Hexer duping the police by wearing masks, and enthusiastic direction by Wallace veteran Alfred Vohrer. It is pure camp, it is oftentimes silly but Neues vom Hexer has a lot going for itself.

For those (most) of you who don't know, the Hexer (literally "sorcerer" in English) was a clever murderer in Der Hexer, a previous hugely popular Edgar Wallace krimi. He escaped to Australia at the end of the film. In this sequel, the wealthy Lord Curtain is murdered by his nephew and his butler (Kinski). They use the Hexer's modus operandi and leave his business card at the crime scene. Which brings back to mind that before there were omnipresent surveillance cameras, DNA traces and "mentalists" who can unmask killers by simple mind games, there used to be a time when criminals in movies would leave a card at the crime scene to brand their mischief. I remember distinctly several films from the 1950's and 60's I watched with my mother, who loves krimis, as a young kid where this was the case. It obviously left a strong impression on me because this simple detail brought back a lot of film watching memories from my childhood. In Neues vow Hexer, the titular character decides to fly back to London with his wife and Butler in order to prove his innocence.

What ensues are Edgar Wallace histrionics at their best. Heinz Drache plays his Inspector Wesby with all the arrogance, phony wittiness and misogyny he can possibly muster and Rene Deltgen as the Hexer is asked to make a fool of himself repeatedly but does so with a gleeful insouciance. Vohrer, who's oftentimes childish visuals have already been the highlight of many previous Wallace entries, does his job well and gives us several striking shots that mystify but ultimately stay with us (a room filled with men sleeping with a newspaper unfolded over their faces anyone?). During shooting, the director fell ill and had to be replaced by Will Temper who apparently quickly lost interest and was ousted by assistant director Eva Ebner and cinematographer Karl Loeb. As far as I could tell, the film didn't suffer from it significantly. I kept trying to spot sequences that seemed less lively than Vohrer's signature style but couldn't make out any.

Kinski, donning scruffy facial hair for this film, phones in his performance and is done with it by the halftime mark, when he is shot to death by Inspector Wesby. But we get one fabulously ludicrous scene at the very beginning, when the camera slowly pushes in on a coffin that magically opens to reveal Kinski lying in it. A man approaches him and Kinski sits up, smiles and utters: "It fits!" It's quintessential Edgar Wallace: it goes for the shock factor that grabs one instantly, it doesn't make any sense, it's vaguely poetic, and it never figures into the final denouement. Edgar Wallace krimis are a lot like American Horror Story at the moment: it's a collection of attention grabbing moments without a core. But in both cases, that can be enough for an entertaining viewing experience.

Kinski Watch XIX: The Pleasure Girls (1965, Gerry O’Hara)

1965 was not a good year for Klaus Kinski as far as the quality of the films he appeared in is concerned. The Pleasure Girls, a watery “Swinging London” film that tries to simultaneously explore the familiar country-girl-seeks-fortune-in-big-city theme while also dabbling in some darker film noir stuff, marks no exception. It might not be his worst movie that year but it might be the dullest.

Who knows what the film might have become if either director or producers had had full creative control. O’Hara had initially planned to work with producer Raymond Stross on the project but finally landed at Compton Films for which he had previously shot That Kind of Girl in 1963. Compton Films was interested in the film as a prospect for a wild exploitation movie that would drive audiences to the theaters for sex and violence. O’Hara, of course, had never intended his movie that way. Constantly pressuring for more nudity and sex, the production house finally took the final cut rights from O’Hara and inserted the orgy scenes they wanted themselves. The director alarmed the British Board of Film Censors and those scenes were ultimately cut from the film. 

As it is, The Pleasure Girls remains a fairly well shot indie flick (especially considering it was shot in 20 days for a mere 30,000 Pounds) with performances from Klaus Kinski and a young Ian McShane that seem phoned in at best. The story follows three young women who live the 60’s “Swinging London” lifestyle of parties parties parties, and their romantic entanglements. Klaus Kinski plays a shady landlord who houses the girls. There is a storyline involving some crime elements and one of the girls arrives in the big city to pursue a modeling career while experiencing some inklings of frustration with the London lifestyle, but the film never explores any potentially interesting story avenues.

Kinski’s landlord was modeled on the real life Peter Rachman, a notorious landlord in West London who drove out white tenants from his properties, offered them to African immigrants struggling to find housing under racial segregation and overcharged them immensely. With a character like that it would have been the perfect opportunity to show the underbelly of the “Swinging London” era – something of more interest than Ian McShane courting an aspiring model with no personality. We get a lot of scenes set in a gambling parlor and one of the girl’s boyfriends sells off some of her jewelry to pay off some debt and wants her to get an abortion when he learns she's pregnant (another theme that would have been interesting to explore in the “Swinging London” context) but the film ultimately has not much else in mind than to show some well-off people dancing in apartments and racing around in cars.

Whether that’s the writer/director’s fault who couldn’t craft a significant story, or the result of producers pushing for less story and more smut is up for debate, I guess. One thing is for sure, however: it doesn't make for a stimulating viewing experience.

Kinski Watch XVIII - Das Verrätertor (1964, Freddie Francis)

It is interesting to survey the critical response to Das Verrätertor, the first installment of the Edgar Wallace series directed by a british director and shot entirely on location in London. Some laud the film as a zany and fast-paced thriller, while other characterize it as boring and by-the-numbers Edgar Wallace fare. Both sides are right to some extent. While something like actual suspense is never achieved in Das Verrätertor, it is a rather well-structured film (which can't be said about a lot of Wallace adaptations) and has some impressive sequences. It's pure camp, of course, and most characters are cartoonish beyond belief but that's to be expected from the Edgar Wallace movies.

Das Verrätertor is not a typical murder mystery and that might be one reason why it didn't really caught on with audiences at the box office. The film follows a bunch of criminals, lead by the greedy businessman Trayne, who prepare and execute a nifty plan to steal the crown jewels from the impenetrable London Tower. The plot, while rather pedestrian by today's caper movie standards, breezes by rather nicely, and Francis, a horror and suspense veteran, knows his way around a camera. Kinski assumes his usual role as a deranged killer and brings an impressive physicality to his otherwise unremarkable role.

There is one memorable scene in which Kinski's shooting someone is intercut with a surprisingly explicit striptease. The editing is crisp and Kinski's deadpan performance brings just the right amount of menace and mystery to the table. In another scene, the crooks rehearse the robbery in a room that has been built out just like the London Tower - in true Ocean's 11 form. The script emphasizes process more than anything else, which gets us a lot of scenes of the bandits observing and studying their target but unfortunately not a lot of suspense.

In another instance of world cinema name calling bloopers, Trayne calls Kinski's character "Kinski!" instead of "Kane", which is odd because the film was shot in English and later dubbed in German. Did he call him Kinski in the original or was the mistake made in the voice-over studios? In any event, it's one of those weird moments when one is instantaneously taken out of the movie and the grand illusion that is created when suspension of disbelief and film craft meet is broken.