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.


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