Though Judge Bill Gibron has frequently woken up cold, stinking, and afraid in the back of a taxi, he never had a night as evocative as the one depicted by indie icon Jim Jarmusch.
Five Taxis. Five Cities. One Night.
There is something to be said for synchronicity, that somewhere along the simultaneous space/time continuum, similar things are happening to seemingly divergent individuals. It's these minor connections that help create karma, and it's these imperceptible demarcations that continuously shrink the planet.
Call it the backwards butterfly effect, that somehow, the world makes sense when you consider that people in Tokyo are having the same difficulty in deciphering existence as you do. Similarly it makes humanity feel less fractured, creating a way of putting differences and ideology aside for some claimed common ground. Yet we are all separate entities, with one person's passion typically resonating as another's pain.
So are we really part of one whole biological bond or are we nothing more than generic genomes, carrying our idiosyncrasies around without any concern for how we match up with others? It's considerations like these that come to mind when looking back at Jim Jarmusch's quasi-commercial "hit" Night on Earth. Using a stylistic approach that hints at such universal happenstance, but breaking down as many associations as he creates, the end result questions the very nature of "now," and argues for a far less faithless view of humanity.
Night on Earth: The Criterion Collection gives viewers a new chance to connect with Jarmusch's movie.
Facts of the Case
Conceived as a single narrative, not a collection of unrelated short films, Night on Earth covers the same 30 minutes in the life of contradictory and divergent world citizens. Divided by city and storyline, the five tales here try to link people with place, and situation with sentiment. Individually, we experience the following intriguing interactions:
New York…desperate to get to Brooklyn safely, an anxious New Yorker (Giancarlo Esposito, Do the Right Thing) takes over for a reckless German immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Avalon) and picks up his saucy sister-in-law (Rosie Perez, Fearless) along the way.
Paris…a bitter hack from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé, Casino Royale) learns some intriguing life lessons from a blind passenger (Beatrice Dalle).
Helsinki…after a night of drunken depression, three Icelandic bruisers learn that life can get even worse, especially for a cabbie with a broken heart.
Night on Earth is a movie made up of little moments. It's not really out to consider a grand statement about the nature of man or discover the meaning of life. Instead, director Jim Jarmusch, long an outsider in the world of cinema, is out to tell personal stories, focusing his camera like a laser on the everyday incidents between people. Divided into five parts, and purposefully covering the same 30 minutes as they pass across the globe, the film is really nothing more than individuals, talking. In most cases, what they have to say can barely pass for the mundane. But because of the artistry inherent in how Jarmusch approaches his material, and because of the (mostly) compelling nature of his cast, we actually enjoy this collection of cab rides. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements in the film is the use of and stated reliance on hired vehicles. It suggests something urban and metropolitan, a notion of easy access to movement and travel. It's hard to imagine what the movie would be like if the characters actually piloted their own cars, picking up and dropping off the various personalities we meet. But by adding the notion of commerce to the conversation and making everyone aware of the cabbie's perceived control, there is a fascinating aura of mystery over the meetings.
In essence, Jarmusch is looking to disarm us, to thwart convention as he rests on his storytelling laurels. Each episode tries to twist its scenarios: the female mechanic has no desire to be a movie star, the black man and the immigrant do get along, racism doesn't play a part in a Parisian night, a priest fails to absolve a sinner, and a macho man shows that he, too, can cry. Yet such rejection of the routine isn't really the film's strongest selling point either. In fact, they're more like minor O. Henry homages than anything resembling an epiphany. No, where Night on Earth easily resonates is in the failed lives of the faithful. All of the characters in this film have an unquestionable belief in what they are doing. They may not be experts, but they don't feel they are failures. When YoYo takes the controls from Helmut, it's based on a desire to get home safely, not a question of the German driver's incapacity behind the wheel. Similarly when the angry African driver picks up a peculiar blind fare, his inability to understand her perception is not a failing, but a fascination. It puts into practice what his heart is constantly preaching against (the fallacies of discrimination). Even Roberto Benigni's oversexed hack is humble in his lifelong pursuit of horniness.
So when viewed as a backwards way of celebrating the innate qualities of the human spirit, Night on Earth is a wonderfully evocative offering. Yet there are small missteps along the way, issues that will work against the facets that Jarmusch is jonesing for. Take Winona Ryder, for example. Playing off a powerhouse like Gena Rowland (smart and sassy in her late '80s businesswoman ways), the then-rising star seems even more like a little girl. Even her chain-smoking seems forced, failing to resonate as the real mannerisms of a tomboy mechanic. It's possible to cut her some slack, especially since she was 19 when the movie was made. Yet rumor has it that Jarmusch wrote the role specifically for her. It's clear that he either overestimated her range, or she failed to deliver a defining turn. Similarly, Roberto Benigni has lost a lot of luster over the last 16 years. While many will still defend the dreadful Life is Beautiful, his motor-mouthed work here is even more trying. When we didn't know the man, it appeared inventive and quirky. Now, it's nothing more than a tired stunt in a Mediterranean madman's limited stock and trade. He still earns our respect for delivering such an amazing mash-up monologue, but the one-note nature of the humor provides a trapdoor to any lasting cinematic significance.
Oddly enough, it's the other three "movements" that make Night on Earth masterful. The byplay between Giancarlo Esposito and Armin Mueller-Stahl gives the amazing NYC story the necessary amount of zing. Adding the firebrand Rosie Perez to the mix just kicks everything up another notable notch. In Paris, the silent movie elements incorporated by Jarmusch (Isaach De Bankolé plays it mostly mute) and the evocative setting of the City of Light give the narrative a disarming fabulist's quality. But it's the Helsinki sequence that delivers the knockout punch. It has nothing to do with the tale being told—the passed-out passenger's foibles sound like an Icelandic episode of standard sitcom—but it's the unusual faces we see, and the evocative way in which these people relate, that leads to the closest thing we'll have to insight. It is clear that the cab driver has suffered, his tale of love misplaced and misunderstood making perfect cultural sense. In a land where cold clouds everything, where liquor is not just an indulgence but an informal antifreeze, darkness skirts around every corner. For a movie that's mostly a comedy, such a downbeat denouement is striking. But it also suggests that Jarmusch finds such failures funny, or if not worthy of a laugh, at least demanding of defusing. Maybe it's supposed to come from the embarrassment of hard-drinking dudes weeping like women. Perhaps it's a cleverness that we'll never conceive.
In fact, a lot of Night on Earth feels like an inside joke that forgot to provide a universal translation. As Gena Rowlands works her ancient cell phone, and Winona Ryder puts on her Dead End kidding, the lack of soluble subtext is shocking. The same goes for YoYo and Angela's F-bomb beat down. Our trip to France at least has some social significance, while Italy is nothing more than a stock stunt strapped to the back of a buffoon. Again, none of this curtails the film's creativity or drive. Nor does it undermine Jarmusch's unique visual cues and tonal poetics. But the undersized operatics don't help matters much. Indeed, they tend to take away from expert actors nailing their parts. It's that cinematic nemesis—unnecessary expectations—that does a pride-like number on the back of our brains here. We naturally assume that each one of these stories will yield some manner of meaningful fruit. There just has to be more to each tale than the snapshot of life as it's lived. Yet this may just be the biggest aesthetic archetype countermanded by the director. Maybe he's hoping his sound and fury, signifying something, will actually be what's noteworthy about each story. It's all very meta, especially for a pre-millennial title.
It's also hard to forget. Though one may finish this two-hour trip around the world and wonder what the particular point was, Night on Earth will argue that, sometimes, existence has no moral. Fame can't dissuade those dedicated to a dream, while death draws its early morning dramatics before the factory whistle cuts the icy air. When the oppressed meets the opinionated, no great insights are unearthed, and having sex with pumpkins and sheep is funny—or about five minutes. After that, it becomes something slightly pathetic. Watching the natural comedy called "human," seeing how people play off each others in ways that manifest and mirror their daily designs rather than some grander affirmation, could legitimize relationships and reinforce emotional interaction. As the moon hovers over the horizon, and shadows suggest a million secrets kept close to the cuff, night is notorious for being both mysterious and mythic. Since the planet is made up of billions of souls, the sense that we're all bound to a common cosmic signal suggests a reality that borders on the insane. Still, in Jim Jarmusch's optimistic view, we're actually all light. We're beacons of decency in a domain constantly tempted by the absence of same. And it may only take a 30-minute taxi ride to bear this out.
Criterion continues its stellar release reputation by offering Night on Earth in a wonderful DVD package. From both a technical and added treat department, the disc is absolutely superb. Since almost every transfer comes from a fully restored master, the visuals are usually impressive. In this case, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful, clear, and loaded with carefully controlled contrasts. There are no major defects to report, and the balance between light and dark is expertly managed. While the vehicle interiors reveal little aesthetic prowess, the city shots are just stunning. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is marvelous, if a little flat. Oddball artist Tom Waits contributed some perverse post-punk scoring to the film, and the lack of spatial ambience undermines some of his sonic ambitions. Still, the dialogue is delivered in crystal clarity, and the subtitles (when needed) are easy to read and never intrusive. Overall, the preservationist experts reinforce their continuing promise to deliver quality film within the highest format standards.
As for added content, the company creates an intriguing collection of supplements and stand-alone elements. It's important to note that, as a filmmaker, Jarmusch takes a very "Spielbergian" view of commentary tracks—that is, he doesn't do them. Instead, he opts to answer questions submitted to Criterion in an hour-long, audio-only discussion. It's a spellbinding listen, with Jarmusch begging off on specific factual information (after all, he never watches his films again once they're completed and shown) for a larger view of his filmmaking style and scope. It perfectly compliments the scene-specific commentary track provided by director of photography Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin. They explain how the actors were bolted into their cars in order to run camera harnesses along the sides of the vehicles. After several hours locked together, some interesting interpersonal dynamics were bound to play out. In addition, a 1992 Belgian TV interview featuring Jarmusch is available. It mimics the movie by having the director Q&A'ed in a cab. Finally, a mandatory insert booklet of some 40 pages offers a collection of essays, as well as the lyrics to Waits's weird-ass songs.
Marginalized people making deadpan quips about the way the world cheats them usually would sum up the Jim Jarmusch aesthetic—at least, it did initially. Over the years, the director has polished and updated his personal philosophies, incorporating more love and longing into his otherwise surface cinema. What's most provocative about Night on Earth is not its novel approach; it's 30 minutes of meaning out of a typical 24-hour day. No, far more fascinating is the casual, almost inconclusive way that Jarmusch makes his points. Long after the film is over, and the unusual personalities have faded from view, memories of certain situations start replaying in your head. Before you know it, you realize that part of this filmmaker's function was to have you experience the events as a participant, not just as an audience member. You brought your own perception and preconceived notions to each and every sequence, and your reaction was part of the process. Just like the characters, you spent five separate 30-minute segments exploring the ties that befuddle and bind. It's a notion that makes Night on Earth more than just a dry humor haul. It turns it into something quite special indeed.
Not guilty. Jim Jarmusch and Criterion offer up another stellar DVD package.
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• Audio Commentary on Selected Scenes by Director of Photography Frederick Elmes and Location Sound Mixer Drew Kunin
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