Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Night on Earth (1991)

Night on Earth (1991)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Gena Rowlands (Victoria Snelling), Winona Ryder (Corky), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Helmut Grokenberger), Giancarlo Esposito (YoYo), Rosie Perez (Angela), Isaach De Bankolé (Driver – Paris), Béatrice Dalle (Blind Woman), Roberto Benigni (Driver – Rome), Paolo Bonacelli (Priest), Matti Pellonpää (Mika), Kari Väänänen (Man #1), Sakari Kuosmanen (Man #2), Tomi Salmela  (Man #3).

In my review of Mystery Train, I mentioned that things come in three in the early films of Jim Jarmusch – and I think looking at Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train that is certainly true. Perhaps his film Night on Earth would have been a little bit better had things also come in threes here. Instead, Jarmusch makes five standalone segments, all set in taxis at night at different cities throughout the world. While I wouldn’t call any of the segments bad, at two hours and eight minutes, the film certainly drags at times, and in part, it’s because he lets each segment drag onto too long. The segments are a little shorter than the distinct three parts of his earlier films, but not by much. By the end of all but one of Night on Earth’s segments, I felt Jarmusch had dragged things on too long. None of this is to say that Night on Earth is a bad movie – it really isn’t, and it’s highlighted by some great moments and performances. But it’s also the least successful of any Jarmusch film since his debut, Permanent Vacation.

In the first segment, a young cab driver Corky (Winona Ryder) picks up an older lady, Victoria (Gena Rowlands) at the airport in L.A. She’s a casting director, returning from a trip around the country looking at young actresses, and talks on the phone with the director who wants a fresh unknown face. Then she starts talking to Corky, learns a little bit about her modest dreams – she doesn’t always want to be a cab driver - what cab driver in L.A. does – but instead of becoming a star, all she wants to do is be a mechanic, and settle down with some nice guy and have a bunch of kids (I hope she stops chain smoking first). Rowlands nicely underplays Victoria – she doesn’t make her some horrible creature of Hollywood, like she could have, but rather a professional. Ryder perhaps tries a little too hard, something I feel often mars her performances, but is basically good as Corky. The movie doesn’t mock or valorize her modest goals – just presents them as they are and moves on.

In New York, YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) is trying to flag down a cab in Manhattan to take him to Brooklyn – and finds that none will stop for him, even when he takes out his money and waves it around. Finally, a driver does pull over. This is Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a recent immigrant from Germany, where he was literally a clown. Helmut doesn’t seem to know how to drive – and eventually YoYo convinces him to let him drive himself to Brooklyn – he’ll pay the fare, he just wants to get there in one piece. Over the course of the journey, the two surprisingly get to talking and like each other. YoYo also finds Helmut’s name hilarious – but then Helmut finds YoYo’s to be funny as well. At one point they stop and pick up YoYo’s foul mouthed sister-in-law, Angela (Rosie Perez). The segment certainly owes something to Spike Lee – Esposito is essentially playing a version of Buggin’ Out from Lee’s Do the Right Thing, at least at first, although Jarmusch gradually allows him to calm down. Perez speaks the way only she can. And Mueller-Stahl is quietly lovable as Helmut. My biggest complaint about this segment is that it goes on far too long – well past the point that language barriers, strange names and the charm of the actors can possibly sustain.

In Paris, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé) kicks out to ambassadors from Cameroon, because they’re being rude to him – and finds another fare that he thinks won’t be – a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle). She’s the most mysterious of all the passengers in Night on Earth – we never know why she was out in the first place or where she is going. De Bankole is fascinated by the fact she is blind – and asks some rather direct questions of her, but never in a rude way. He has problems seeing as well, even though he won’t admit it (when he she tells him she can do anything he can, he says “You can’t drive” and she responds “Can you?” – and the question is not altogether meant to mock him).  De Bankole and Dalle strike a delicate balance here, and never push too far – it’s a quietly amusing sequence, one that hints at loneliness and sexual longing. It’s a decent sequence – but as with the rest, is more than a little too long.

In Rome, Roberto Benigni picks up a priest and then torments him endlessly, by calling him a Bishop, even after he’s corrected many times, by smoking, in clear violation of the no smoking sign in the cab (that he throws out the window), by his crazy, erratic driving – he likes heading the wrong way down one way streets – and insisting the Priest listen to his confession of his sexual sins, even though the Priest, who is suffering from a cardiac event, doesn’t want to hear. It is at once the funniest of the sequences – because Benigni, when he’s on is a comic genius, and his monologue is often hilarious – and the least successful, because it goes on forever, and the poor Priest has done nothing to deserve the torment he receives. Benigni’s comic persona worked amazingly well in Down By Law, in large part because his exuberance was contrasted with John Lurie and Tom Waits’ stillness. Here, he’s a one man show, and while it’s a funny one man show, I wanted it to end long before it did.

Far and away my favorite sequence is the one that ends in the film – in Helsinki. Jarmusch is a great admirer of the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, and it shows in this segment –as he takes some actors from his films, and also captures the melancholy tone of Kaurismaki’s work (which isn’t all that different from Jarmusch’s). A cab driver picks up three men, drunk at the bar. One is drunker than the other two, and is practically passed out. The other two relate his story on what an awful day he had – he lost his job, his wife kicked him out of the house, his daughter is pregnant, etc. “It could be worse” the cab driver – played brilliantly by Matti Pellonpää tells them – and then he tells them his story – by the end of which, they agree, it could be worse – and more they’ve decided their friend is little more than a whiner. The segment is heartbreaking and brilliantly acted throughout – and even has a few more moments of humor – something Kaurismaki is known for. And then it goes on a little longer than expected – but unlike the other segments, I didn’t mind it this time. It works.

On the Criterion DVD, Jarmusch said he was interested in the idea of synchronicity – that all of these stories are happening around the world at the same time. He accomplishes that, as the time frame of each movie is slightly different – early evening in L.A., to the wee hours of the morning in Helsinki. He also makes it clear what a pain in the ass the movie was to shot – the rigs required to shoot the car interiors, trying to match shots with the passing scenery on the outside. Perhaps this is why we see less of the cities than we normally do in Jarmusch films. Up until now, he has specialized in making the cities in his movies seem like alien, unknowable landscapes. Here, although shot in the different cities, we really do not see much of any of them. We’re in the car the whole time.

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