Friday, April 11, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Five Music Videos and One Omnibus Segment

Music Videos: The Lady Don’t Mind – The Talking Heads (1986), Sightsee M.C.! – Big Audio Dynamite (1987), It’s All Right with Me – Tom Waits (1990), I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Tom Waits (1992), Dead Man Theme – Neil Young (1995), Steady as She Goes – The Raconteurs (2006)

Omnibus Segment: Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet – Int. Trailer Night (2002)

In addition to the 10 feature films, and one documentary, that Jim Jarmusch directed before Only Lovers Left Alive – he also has a string of short films, music videos and one segment of an omnibus film on his resume. His shorts have all become a part of one of his features – he finished Stranger Than Paradise in 1982, when it was a half hour and then added the second and third segments for the 1984 feature version. He made Coffee and Cigarettes in 1986, Coffee and Cigarettes II in 1989 and Coffee and Cigarettes III in 1993 – and incorporated them with 8 other segments for the 2003 feature version. During the course of his career he also directed 6 music videos and one segment of an omnibus film entitled 10 Minutes Older: The Trumpet. In this post, I’ll look at these. I have to admit I don’t think the music videos – some of them good, some not – really add much to Jarmusch’s resume – but I did quite like the short.

Jarmusch’s first music video was for The Talking Heads The Lady Don’t Mind in 1986. I’ve never been a big Talking Heads fan (even though it’s considered one of the best concert movies ever made, this is why I still haven’t seen Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense) – but even their fans have to admit that The Lady Don’t Mind, while far from a bad song, is not one of the band’s best. It’s no Psycho Killer, Burning Down the House or any of their other great songs. It’s merely an average Talking Head song – and if you’re not a big fan to begin with, it’s rather forgettable. Regrettably, the video for the song is even worse – as it trots out one 1980s music video cliché after another – the most regrettable being the animated flashes of color (playing cards in particular) that flash in the background as the band plays the song in black and white. It looks like every other cheesy rock video from the 1980s. Overall, not a very good start to Jarmusch’s music video filmography.

His second video, a year later, for Big Audio Dynamite’s Sightsee M.C.! isn’t any better. The band, fronted by The Clash singer/guitarist Mick Jones mixes in musical samples and is part rock, part dance, part hip hop – and (sorry) was for me almost completely forgettable. This album, Big Audio Dynamite’s second, was produced by fellow Clash member (and future Mystery Train star) Joe Strummer, who also co-wrote a few songs on the album – but for me, they don’t really capture much of The Clash magic – at least not in Sightsee M.C.! The video shot by Jarmusch isn’t very good – it’s in black and white – but is basically made up of video clichés – the band walking towards a backtracking camera while singing the song (including Jones, in an interesting hat), and slow motion shots of individuals dancing to their song. There’s really not much else here, and the five minute video kind of drags. In short, Jarmusch’s first two videos seem like he did for very little reason other than to work with musicians he admires – and there’ worse reasons to do things – although one wonders why he and the bands agreed to do the videos if Jarmusch was just going to repeat music video clichés.

Jarmusch’s next two music videos however would be quite different – and quite entertaining as well. As part of a 1990 TV special entitled Red Hot and Blue which was made up of videos by contemporary artists and filmmakers (included Wim Wenders, Alex Cox, Jonathan Demme, Neil Jordan, Edward Lachman) singing Cole Porter songs. Jarmusch did the video for friend and frequent collaborator Tom Waits’ cover of It’s All Right With Me. The song is almost unintelligible – I have no idea what the hell the words to the song are, as Waits, whose wonderful, gravelly voice isn’t always clear in the best of circumstances, mumbles throughout. Jarmusch seems to follow this lead with the video itself – shot in almost blurry black and white, the video is made up of alternating scenes – the first with Waits dancing around what appears to be someone suburban’s back yard as only Waits could do (it’s no Christopher Walken in Weapon of Choice – but it’s not bad) – and the other scenes of Waits and Jarmusch himself driving around the neighbourhood, with a camera that seems to be floating around their heads, sometimes looking at the street, sometimes at their distorted faces, and sometimes at the floor. It’s an ever strange video – do not look for coherence in it – but never less than interesting – and probably the perfect one for Waits’ version of the song.

Two years later, Jarmusch would team up with Waits again – for a more traditional video for Waits’ I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Once again, the pair seem to want to make something wholly different from most music videos – and succeed. Again, the video alternates between two types of scenes. In one, Waits rides around on a bicycle in a cheap devil costume, occasionally stopping to looking into the camera with a magnifying glass in front of his mouth. It’s as strange as it sounds. The even better part has Waits on his knees on a miniature stage, with a miniature guitar singing the song. It’s a more straight forward video than their first, but more satisfying as well – I like the song more, and the video never ceased to amuse me. With the two Waits videos, Jarmusch seems to be allowing himself to play around a little bit more – a good thing after two standard issued, and rather dull, videos in the 1980s.

His next video followed a few years later – for Neil Young’s haunting Dead Man Theme, for Jarmusch’s movie of the same name. It is basically made up of shots from the movie, intercut with shots of Young, by himself, playing the song on his guitar. Because much of the video is from Dead Man itself, it is utterly beautiful – and the shots of Young playing his guitar fit in better than you would anticipate. The wordless song itself is brilliant – like all of Young’s music for Dead Man. It was probably an easy video to put together, but that doesn’t stop it from being utterly unique – and one I’ve found myself revisiting more than once.

Jarmusch wouldn’t make another music video for a decade – returning with what is (so far) his final video – for The Raconteurs 2006 hit Steady As She Goes. The video was filmed at a rundown farmhouse – with scenes of the band performing the song in what appears to be the attic, intercut with shots (and occasionally sounds) of cows running in a field. Like all of the videos Jarmusch has directed, there is nothing here that really indicates his hand in the video – other than perhaps the film used to make the video, which is grainy than normal, and recalls (at least somewhat) the grain in his documentary for Neil Young Year of the Horse (perhaps I’m stretching too much here). In fact, this video features more camera movement and editing than most Jarmusch features. I liked the video though – it’s somewhat odd, but memorable, and I’m a Jack White fan to begin with, so I liked the song as well. If this marks the end of his music video career (and so far, it does), I don’t think one can say it’s been a particularly distinguished one for Jarmusch – but it hasn’t been awful either.

A few years before Steady As She Goes, Jarmursch took part in his first and only omnibus film. I find this a little strange, because Jarmusch has shown himself more than capable of telling stories in short format – be it in the shorts that comprise Coffee and Cigarettes, or the different segments of Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train or Night on Earth, which are almost shorts in their own right. Still 2002’s 10 Minutes Older – The Trumpet (there is a companion piece, 10 Minutes Older – The Cello) is so far the only one he has participated in. Whether that’s because he doesn’t want to, or he hasn’t been asked, I don’t know – but he would be on my list every time for an omnibus films – especially the ones built around a specific city, as Jarmusch has shown he often has unique takes on famous cities. Anyway, the overarching concept of 10 Minutes Older: The Trumpet is to combine several famous directors 10 minute short films, dealing with “what time means at the beginning of the 21st Century”. Jarmusch makes a film about an actress (Chloe Sevigny) who is given a ten minute break in her trailer. She’s supposed to be able to relax, eat some food, smoke a cigarette before heading back to work. Instead, she has to take a phone call. And while she’s on the phone, one person after another comes barging into the trailer “Can I just check your hair?”, “Can I just check your makeup?” – the funniest one being the guy who asks if he can check her microphone – and then pretty much gropes her entire body, which she doesn’t find strange at all.

The message to the short I think is simple and obvious – even when we’re supposed to get time to relax, so much crap is going on that we never get a chance to. We can never unplug, unwind, having a single moment to ourselves. It’s not exactly an original message – but it’s a good one anyway. The film is brilliantly shot by Frederick Elmes – there aren’t many cuts in it as Jarmusch prefers to let everything play out in in real time. It’s a quiet, but generally funny and quite moving little film in its own way.

In short, the music videos are a mixed bag – ranging from mediocre, to entertaining to transfixing and back again. Jarmusch has always loved music – you see it in each of his films – and he seems to use his music videos more as an excuse to hang out with artists he admires – with only the Waits’ videos truly pushing for anything different. The omnibus segment is quietly funny and moving – and definitely part of Jarmusch’s overall work. I hadn’t seen any of them before doing this series – but for the most part, I enjoyed watching this time. They don’t add anything “new” to your understanding of Jarmusch – but they’re mostly still worth your time if you’re a Jarmusch fan.

Note: In case anyone is wondering why I placed this piece here – the answer is simple. I really didn’t feel that any of the individual videos, or the short, really needed a separate post of its own, which is why I combined them all into one long post. But since I am going through  Jarmusch’s films chronological, that presented a problem of where to place this piece. So, as an accountant, I do what I always do and turn to the numbers – when I take the average of all the years the videos and short were produced, I came up with 1994, so it slots in here. It’s a nice place to put it – we’re five films into a 10 film narrative career – although I’ll have do another digression, with Jarmusch’s Neil Young doc Year of the Horse next week as well.

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