Jim Jarmusch embodies the spirit of American independent cinema like no other director has since the heyday of John Cassavetes. Although he has never achieved the mainstream success of peers such as Tarantino or Soderbergh, he has continued to make a succession of critically acclaimed low-key films that have earned him a cult following.
Born in Ohio in 1953, Jarmusch was the son of a former film critic, and was practically raised in the cinema. As a teenager he travelled around France for a year, soaking up their culture, particularly New Wave cinema before returning to America to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. There, he soon became a teaching assistant to legendary maverick filmmaker Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause). Taking Jarmusch under his wing, he helped get him funding for his thesis project and directorial debut, Permanent Vacation (1980). A rambling paean to urban isolation, it merely hinted at Jarmusch’s substantial abilities as both a filmmaker and storyteller, talents that he would develop over the course of his career.
Within a few years Jarmusch had established himself as one of the most vital cinematic voices of his generation. Stranger Than Paradise (1983), with its long unedited shots and episodic structure, would go on to form the template for independent films in years to come and was hailed by many as a true masterpiece. Not one to get stuck in rut, Jarmusch didn’t rest on his laurels and continued to experiment with filmmaking technique and story structure in the work that followed.
The leisurely pace of his films can be seen as a response to the increasingly kinetic MTV-influenced films that were starting to appear in the eighties. Approaching music from his own perspective, Jarmusch tapped into a particular vein of American rock that reappears time and time again in his work. Mystery Train (1989) examines the legacy of Elvis, while Stranger Than Paradise revolves around Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Such musical legends as Iggy Pop,Tom Waits, and Joe Strummer have all had significant acting roles in his films.
Another recurring theme throughout his films is the deconstruction of popular American genres. Down By Law (1986) plays up to and subverts the traditional prison movie structure, while Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai (1999) offers a unique look at the gangster genre. Arguably his most accomplished work to date, Dead Man (1995) dissects the myth of the Western, challenging its conventions whilst taking advantage of them to frame the existential journey across a desolate American landscape by William Blake (Johnny Depp).
Now comes Coffee and Cigarettes. Although he can never be accused of making a blockbuster (the entire production of Dead Man cost less Depp’s normal fee), Jarmusch’s new film is much smaller and intimate than his recent work. A series of vignettes filmed over eighteen years, it is a modest film, more interested in dialogue than action or location. Themes and rhythms from his previous films reappear in new forms, all shot in a beautifully stark black and white.
Jarmusch has always toyed with the relationship between music and film, so perhaps Coffee and Cigarettes is best described as a greatest hits package – serving as an ideal starting point for those new to Jarmusch whilst reaffirming his unique talents to those already familiar with his work.
Originally written for Picturehouse Filmnotes.