Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 3

by Arthur B

Our tour of the works of the American auteur (via a German blu-ray boxed set) concludes with three off-kilter genre pieces.
Having covered his often-unclassifiable early works and his middle period, we've now come to the point where we can address three of Jim Jarmusch's most recent films. Each of them is a skewed take on a different classic genre; you have a romantic comedy where the romance has wilted, you have an achingly slow spy thriller, and you have a vampire story about the undead contemplating art and suicide.

Broken Flowers

This 2005 movie hails from that Lost In Translation period when Bill Murray was launching a second golden age of his career, profiting on the fact that whereas in his original prime he was great at Being Funny, as he aged he was getting better and better at Being Sad or Being Grumpy whilst still Being Funny, and that plays really well to the indie cinema crowd. Here, Murray plays Don Johnston, who through a fluke of nominative determinism has spent his adult life being a bit of a Don Juan (as other characters like to remind him). He kicks off his Being Sad early, as his current partner Sherry (Julie Delpy) is walking out on him as a result of his relationship goals being entirely too superficial.

We soon get a gear shift into Being Grumpy, interspersed with Being Sad and, as always, injected with Being Funny and also, given the character’s established interests, Being Horny. Don receives in the post a mysterious, unsigned letter, purporting to be from a partner of his from around 20 years ago. The letter claims that the author became pregnant by Don and gave birth to a son shortly after the end of their relationship, and that the lad, now just shy of 19 years old, has gone on a cross-country road trip whose purpose he’s being closed-mouthed about but could well be an attempt to track down Don.

Don’s immediate response is to not give a shit, but his neighbour and best friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) fancies himself an amateur sleuth, after cajoling out of Don the details of all the women he was dating at around that time, looks up their details and plans out a cross-country road trip for Don himself to go on - the idea being that he can call in on the various women on a “I was just in the area” sort of basis and see if any of them come clean or offer any clues as to who sent the letter.

(Note, however, that he completely forgets to look up Sigourney Weaver’s character from Ghostbusters, which is an enormous shame.)

So, what we get for the bulk of the film is essentially a set of vignettes, each of which consists of Don visiting one of his five exes from the era. You have, Laura (Sharon Stone), the widowed mother to an uncomfortably flirtatious teen who she actually had the stones to call Lolita (Alexis Dziena); you have Dora (Frances Conroy), who Don remembers as being a full-on flower child keeping the spirit of the 1960s alive but who now lives a straightlaced, utterly square life as a real estate agent; you have Carmen (Jessica Lange), who claims to be an “animal communicator” of some sort after her career plan of being a lawyer fell through; you have Penny (Tilda Swinton) who lives out in the wilderness with a gang of bikers at her beck and call and who has absolutely no time for Don’s shit; and you have Michelle, who’s spent the last five years putrefying under a gravestone and so, on balance, probably isn’t the author of the letter. Then, finally, we have Don’s return home, with few questions answered but still, perhaps, changed a little by the journey.

If you just heard the premise of this one, you might expect it to be the most conventional of Jarmusch’s movies to date - perhaps a romantic comedy with some sort of heartwarming denouement in which the major mystery is wrapped up. Naturally, because it’s Jarmusch, you don’t get that. The setup encourages you to, like John, strain to spot clues in the individual lives of the various women involved, but all this does is nudge you into noticing the finer details of their separate worlds.

Likewise, it’s tempting to try and find a common string connecting all of them and, from there, relate that back to Don himself as a statement about his character and the impact he had on their various lives. However, the more you look for Don in these four people’s lives, the more he’s absent; it’s ultimately a fallacy to imagine that, having exited their lives two decades ago, Don would remain at the centre of their personal universe. Whilst they have their various feelings about Don - warm or cold, awkward or straightforward, accepting or rageful - they also have spent about a quarter of their life expectancy going off on their own tangent, and Don stumbling back in almost invariably seems uncomfortable and out of place. (More or less the only thing you can infer from their commonalities is that Don had a particular “type” when it came to people’s personal appearance - though Penny seems to be a bit fo an exception there.)

If there’s a lesson to be had here, then, it’s that the span of our lifetimes - even if we just get to middle age - is a wide one, and there’s space in there for someone to be simultaneously extremely important to you when your path and theirs crossed and yet comparatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things afterwards - or, to turn that around, even if someone has wholly shifted away from the life they had back when you knew them, that doesn’t erase the importance you had for each other.

With Jarmusch’s usually deft use of music in really top form - from the easy listening Don likes to the strains of Sleep’s Dopesmoker issuing forth from the Penny’s biker buddies’ stereos - as well as really top-notch sound design in general, the movie’s a feast for the ears as much as it’s for the eyes, and it’s a really beautiful thing to just sit down and watch and allow it to wash over you - and perhaps in some respects that’s the best way to appreciate it. Winston’s detective nonsense is all very well, but if there’s one lesson to be learned from the movie it’s that people’s lives are not puzzles for you to solve.

The Limits of Control

The Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) is on some sort of clandestine mission in Spain. Beginning with his flight out, he must meet with a sequence of contacts, each of whom has a little bit of philosophy to share with him, each of whom gives him a little more information concealed in a box of matches. These matchbox codes are shown to us, briefly, but not decrypted for our benefit, so it becomes hard for us to know just how much of the Lone Man’s enigmatic behaviour is directly tied to the mission and how much is him spinning his wheels as he waits for the message to be completed and the final instructions to be carried out. Meanwhile, a nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) keeps showing up in the vicinity of his hotel suite to try and persuade him to have sex with her; he consistently refuses.

This is pretty much Jarmusch taking the spy genre and making it as Jarmuschy as he can. The achingly slow pace, and the fact that a certain subset of the stuff we see does in fact have some hidden meaning or another, prompts the viewer to analyse every shot for hidden meaning. On the plus side, if you are going to be glued to the screen for nearly two hours, you could do an awful lot worse than this - the thing is shot absolutely beautifully. On the downside, I feel like if you got very invested in this movie eventually making sense you’d be disappointed - as with Broken Flowers, it’s about the journey, which is replete with weird little touches - like early on whenever one of the women in the movie pours out a glass of water, chimes play, and then quite late in the movie the Lone Man stirs his espresso and the same chimes play, heralding the arrival of one of his contacts.

The movie sees Tilda Swinton returning, having become part of Jarmusch’s usual suspects, though whilst her appearance in Broken Flowers was impressively un-Tilda Swintony her manifestation here indulges in pure Tilda Swinton fetishism; she gets way more of a glamourised entrance than any of Lone Man’s other contacts, and is dressed like she just stepped out of a vastly more stylish spy movie, also she gets to deliver a monologue about films in which, in a brief lampshading moment, she mentions how she likes it in films when people just sit there and don’t say anything, and then she and the Lone Man sit there saying nothing for a few seconds - she’s also one of the only contacts who makes an especially memorable appearance after her encounter with the Lone Man.

Other Jarmuschian habits indulged in here include an appreciation of extremely pretty women in general (for those whose tastes coincide with arthouse movie standards of beauty), mild manic pixie dreamgirl-ism (aside from the question of whether the mystery nude woman is even real, there’s the way she seems to always have a perfect pair of nerd glasses on at all times), Jarmuschian musical tastes (Sunn O))) and Boris and post-rock noises in general abound), and the use of Bill Murray in an intriguingly non-standard role.

Though Spanish is extensively used in the movie, fortunately my copy includes appropriate subtitles for the Spanish bits in the German or English soundtracks alike.

Only Lovers Left Alive

With a gothic font deployed in blood red against a starry night sky in its title sequence, Only Lovers Left Alive has Jarmusch at least making a few token efforts to engage with the conventions of the vampire subgenre - though the next shot we get is an extended look at a record spinning on a turntable, which cuts to rotating shots of our leads Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) as they doze in their respective lairs continents apart. In other words, the movie doesn’t waste any time in going full Jarmusch.

So, Adam and Eve are vampires, and have known each other for centuries; in principle they’re married, but you don’t stay married for that long by being clingy, and when we catch up to them in the present day Adam is kicking about in Detroit whilst Eve is lurking in Tangier. They’ve been at the vampire thing long enough that they don’t even need to bother with the risks of scoring blood directly from the source, as it were, since they both have various intermediaries to obtain it for them - which is just sensible given that disease and pollution has made recent vintages somewhat unreliable.

Adam spends his time immersing himself in his musical interests, through which he’s influenced multiple generations of artists. It’s not enough, to fill the empty nights, however, and he’s beginning to contemplate suicide. After checking in with him, Eve gets some sense of how glum he’s getting, and undertakes the tricky journey to Detroit to check in on him. As the modern world - and the ordinary mortals they’ve long since lost all empathy for - continue to intrude on their idyll, their secret cannot remain undiscovered forever - the question remains of how it will all unravel in the end. Foreboding dreams on the part of several characters hint that it’ll be something to do with Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s walking disaster area of a sister...

We get another nice dose of John Hurt, generically John Hurting it up (just like Jarmusch tends to have Tilda Swinton Tilda Swinton it up here, and Bill Murray Bill Murray it up when he casts him). He’s here as Christopher Marlowe, who Eve had saved from death by vampirising him; the friendship between the two of them is built partly on the affection of centuries, and partly on the delicious shared secret that Marlowe wrote most of Shakespeare’s plays. This ties into the way that the vampires are hooked on culture as much as they are blood. Adam being a musician naturally gives Jarmusch free rein to be as self-indulgent with the soundtrack as he likes, with doomy funereal post-rock largely being the order of the day. Eve lives in a house stuffed with books, and when she packs for her Detroit visit the main thing she spends time on is selecting a substantial stack of books to accompany her.

This cultural fascination ties into an argument Eve offers for vampires’ right to live as long as they do as any I’ve seen, in which she calls on all the things they can nurture over that time span. (It’s somewhat easier to sympathise with them when they clearly have means of living that don’t entail killing anyone, feeding from blood bank baggies being entirely fine.)

That said, their blood addiction is still very much present. The sequence where Marlowe, Adam and Eve all simultaneously take a shot of blood in their various lairs really goes out of its way to draw as firm a "vampirism = heroin addiction" connection as possible. The heroin connection is re-emphasised in all sorts of ways. Think of the locations - Tangier and Detroit are not only places that have a general reputation for having a serious heroin scene, but also are closely associated with subcultural figures like William Burroughs (who wrote the Word Hoard which became Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy in Tangier) and Jarmusch’s own buddy Iggy Pop (who came to notoriety on the Detroit rock scene with the Stooges) whose art draws heavily on heroin use in their own separate ways. And then when Ava shows up she’s got this tendency to badger Adam and Eve about where they keep their supply, and they take care not to let her know because she’s got the distinctive irresponsibility of a selfish junkie who’d swipe the whole stash given a chance and feel not one qualm about doing so.

An original spin is offered from the way the vampires generally don't just go feed on random victims unless they are truly desperate - contaminated blood is a serious problem for them. There's the delicious possibility that vampires may end up wiped out in the long term simply because of the pollution of human blood, without humans ever sussing out the reality of their existence, like a rare animal driven to extinction through oversight.

Though the story and worldbuilding are unusually ornate by Jarmusch’s standards, this is still a Jarmusch movie, so you get lots of Jarmuschian touches. The soundtrack is impeccable. There’s much self-indulgent scenery porn driving around abandoned sections of Detroit, but then again that never gets old. The characters all look great and we get plenty of chances to appreciate that, especially when it comes to Tilda Swinton. (Jarmusch really has a thing about dressing Swinton all in white - he does it in The Limits of Control too.)

This version weirdly doesn’t allow you to play the English soundtrack without German subtitles - a step down from the Limits of Control disc, but not one which will harm your ability to follow the film at all.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2018-06-18
finally, we have Don’s return home, with few questions answered but still, perhaps, changed a little by the journey.

You describe all the movies as idiosyncratic takes on genre films, but this article brought up for me two of the biggest reservations I typically have about independent/non-mainstream films. First, I have the concern that "slow, introspective, and light on action" will translate into "horrendously dull."

Second, I fear their endings will be unsatisfying. I almost always get annoyed with stories where the protagonist chases after some big goal, only to come to the end and they just never reach the goal to succeed or fail. Morals like "it's not the destination which matters, it's the journey," or "in real life, you don't get everything wrapped up nicely" are perfectly good in theory, but in most cases, they make the whole story feel pointless. And yeah, sometimes the pointlessness is the point of the exercise, but at that stage, to me, the story is just up itself. Maybe some philosophical concepts are best not explored in narrative format if they are actively incompatible with narrative storytelling.

... All of which is by way of saying that after reading your descriptions of the three movies, I feel like it's still an open question, if I ever decided to sit down and watch any of them, "would I be bored by this?" and "would the ending make it feel like the whole thing was a waste of time?" (I've actually seen a review of Only Lovers Left Alive which suggests there is a potentially satisfying conclusion, so there's that).

I guess I'm wondering, since the first two movies especially sound like they're all about raising standard genre movie questions and then deliberately not answering them - can you tell me what is there about the films which is supposed to hold my interest as a potential viewer?
Arthur B at 10:34 on 2018-06-19
Character performances, mood and aesthetic mostly. Though I will note that the protagonist of The Limits of Control does get the job done.

There is a culmination to Don's search in Broken Flowers, but I didn't want to spoiler it in the review, so I'll spoil it here in the comments:
Back in his hometown he runs into a young man of the right approximate age who seems to be travelling, and attempts to befriend the guy because he assumes that it's his son who's finally tracked him down. His attempt to be fatherly ends up coming across as creepy, and the guy runs away. Immediately after that, a car drives by and a different young man, also of the appropriate age and played by Bill Murray's IRL son, is staring out of the passenger window contemplatively - the implication being that this might be the actual kid, and Don just creeped out a total stranger purely because the stranger was the sort of person he'd like to think his son was.
Robinson L at 05:02 on 2018-06-25
Okay, that sounds like potentially a satisfying ending. At least like an event which extends naturally from the preceding narrative and gives some sense of closure to the story.
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