Many know Jim Jarmusch’s recent films for their sun-soaked landscapes and thirsty night owls. International in funding, casting and musical scoring, his last three journeys have delivered on his brand of humorous, off-kilter cool with marquee names: Murray, track-suited and nostalgic; De Bankolé, fated, free; the wry, blood-drinking Swinton.
Leading up to Jarmusch’s appearance with SQÜRL at Mission Creek, local audiences now have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with his earlier, sharply drawn cinema of American routes, courtesy of FilmScene (view schedule details). Indebted to music—muscular, formal, tough, yet light enough to go celestial or crack Borscht-y jokes—his black-and-white films are emblematic of our domestic independent filmmaking scene, and yet utterly original.
Stranger than Paradise (1984), featuring downtown jazz stalwart John Lurie and the original drummer for Sonic Youth, stakes a claim on the good ol’ bad days of New York City by way of Cleveland and Florida. With crisp cinematography and a scrappy, hard-scrabbled money plot, Jarmusch established his deadpan voice in this Cannes-storming vision of Reagan-era vagabonding. Watch for a cameo from the legendary Rammellzee and a scene that reintroduced a generation to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Lurie appears again in Down By Law (1986), joined by Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, in another criminal triangle. New Orleans ain’t no place for misdemeanors, but it is the wellspring of all music American, and this genre-bending jailbreak story sings its heart out, on foot, on the glass-smashed streets of the Marigny, in the bayou, on the road. Robby Müller, Jarmusch’s director of cinematography, rightly received accolades for his depiction of the Crescent City, dipping into the film noir wayback machine while keeping one broken toe in the proto-gutterpunk ‘80s.
Müller, after a hiatus in his collaboration with Jarmusch, returns with Dead Man (1995), his best known film of the period. Johhny Depp, pre-Pirates and fully legit, turns in a career-high performance as William Blake, an Ohio-based accountant on an unintended vision quest out West. Cameos by the likes of Iggy Pop and Robert Mitchum and a solo-guitar score by Neil Young mark this “acid western” as essential viewing.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) is both the one that doesn’t look like the others and the through-line that binds them all. Shot over many years on downtime, this gem distills Jarmusch’s style into an entertaining assemblage of encounters with his friends and fellow independents, who visit for caffeine and nicotine—those two great drugs that make a road trip possible. Steve Buscemi, Steven Wright, Cate Blanchett, Jack and Meg White, GZA and RZA perform with Bill Murray and more.