Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Completist: Jim Jarmusch

A few weeks back I read a tweet where someone was demeaning the quality of the film writing on Letterboxd. Seeing as 'Becca'lise and I are both huge proponents of the site (find us here and here) this came as a bit of an insult. I've personally read many fascinating and insightful pieces on the site and as a result have found certain reviewers that I make a point of regularly reading. One such critic is Simone. I'm not really sure where she finds the time to watch as much film as she does (in June alone she watched 100 films!) but boy do I appreciate the writing that comes out of it. Here's hoping that you do too!

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One of the signs you may be obsessed with cinema is that you like to complete the entire filmographies of notable directors. It's easy to knock out the directors who only have a handful of films, especially if they've been released in the past couple of decades. Last year I did Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Guy Ritchie. Sometimes a director's body of work is too large to get to everything, and other times it's too difficult to find the more obscure ones. In those cases, I like to pick 10 of their most well-known titles in the short term and dig into the rest over time. This year I've challenged myself by taking on directors with horror films (I’m such a wimp!) like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. I've steadily gone through the the Coens and Martin Scorsese over the past year and I’m hoping to be finished with both in the next month or so.

A few months ago, I randomly decided to watch Dead Man, a 1995 black-and-white western starring Johnny Depp. It's beautifully shot and endlessly stylish, but I found the story and tone too opaque to fully appreciate on a first watch. When I looked into the rest of director Jim Jarmusch's filmography, I was surprised to discover that I’d seen two of his films and formed wildly different opinions on them. I enjoyed Broken Flowers and hated Coffee and Cigarettes. It got me thinking that I should explore his other work. What's unique about his filmography is that almost all of his films are currently available to stream:

Hulu Plus
Permanent Vacation (1980)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Down by Law (1986)
Mystery Train (1989)
Night on Earth (1991)

Netflix Instant
Dead Man (1995)
Ghost Dog (1999)
Broken Flowers (2005)
The Limits of Control (2009)

Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)

With all of his works so easily accessible, I decided to make him my next project. It was strange to go into it without already being a die-hard fan like I’ve been in the past. This endeavor was more to understand why he's well-regarded, recognize his place in film history, and identify common themes and stylistic flourishes. I didn't really come out of the project more of a fan than when I started, but I suspect that if I go back and watch Dead Man, I'll have a better-informed and articulate opinion of it than "It's very cool, but I don't get it." His films move along at a languid, glacial pace and don't have much to say. The soundtracks are always excellent. There’s usually a diverse mix of people on screen and the stories he tells are often about people on the fringes of society. I mostly enjoyed the style and atmosphere, attributable to gorgeous cinematography and subdued performances from both amateurs and seasoned professionals. Even though it's hard to deny a lot of his films are deeply flawed, I find the majority of them unforgettable and extremely creative.

It was definitely a worthwhile experience, but what's missing from this and other projects I've completed is an understanding of the person behind the art. To be able to ground Jarmusch's unique style in a specific context and place in history would probably increase my admiration for him. Maybe one day I'll go deeper than his Wikipedia page and read a biography on him. Maybe I'll just leave him a mystery. As much as I want to go back and research him and the other directors I've looked at, I know myself too well. Faced with the choice between reading about films and watching them, I'd much rather spend my time on the latter.

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