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The Beginners’ Guide To Jim Jarmusch

Contemporary stalwart of the art house tradition, Jarmusch’s films are suffused with an equal measure of tragicomic protagonists, off-beat humor, and the kind of coffee table philosophy associated with ‘American independent’ cinema. Yet, you can’t accuse Jarmusch of the kind of twee-ness associated with the French new-wave philanderings of Wes Anderson’s films. His movies carry the kind of clout that only thirty years of experience and ten feature lengths, both written and directed, brings. Dominant features of his work include characters who move across zones by random circumstance, the emotional weight of musical direction (we’ve all experienced the perfect song played at the perfect moment feeling), and casual and often humorous contemplation of the deepest philosophical conundrums. Don’t hesitate in diving right into the unorthodox world of Jim Jarmusch.

Broken Flowers (2005)

This is entry-level Jarmusch, as it’s the most palatable of his films. Featuring Bill Murray, Broken Flowers is part American road drama, part detective narrative. Protagonist ‘Don Juan’ goes on a cross-country journey tracking down his lost lovers after receiving an anonymous letter proclaiming he has a son. Jarmusch patterns the film intricately with the use of motif and symbol, just as an author would. Whether the ending infuriates or calms you, Broken Flowers is a must for the supporting cast alone: Tilda Swinton, Sharon Stone, and Chloë Sevigny.

Soundtrack: Brian Jonestown Massacre, Marvin Gaye, Gabriel Fauré

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Technically a collection of short vignettes rather than a feature length, but nevertheless both hilarious and enlightening. The title is pretty self-explanatory: these are 11 shorts that share the thread of coffee and cigarettes. Performances to look out for include Roberto Benigini, Cate Blanchett, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina, and the incongruous coupling of Bill Murray and RZA & GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. With a focus on inter-personal connections shot in black and white, each vignette portrays how each person completely disagrees with the other, yet amicably shares a coffee and a cigarette at the same table. If vignettes are your thing then Stranger Than Paradise (1984) is its earlier equivalent.

Soundtrack: Joe Strummer

Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai (1999)

Here Jarmusch dips into the crime action genre. Ghost Dog, a hitman in the employ of the mafia played by Forrest Whitaker, lives by the strict code of Hagakure – more commonly known as the way of the samurai. The odd subject matter is a curious homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967). The film is an innovative blending of samurai and gangster lifestyle. Handsomely shot, surprisingly peaceful, and intriguingly parodic of dissimilar genres, Ghost Dog… is a brilliantly cohesive piece of disparate filmmaking.

Soundtrack: Original music for the film written and performed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.

The Limits of Control (2009)

Jarmusch’s most recent and most challenging film, second only to Dead Man (1995). It’s a movie that defies categorisation, but might be best described as ‘outlaw noir’. Isaach De Bankolé, a bit part player in previous Jarmusch films, takes on the lead role here. Critically, Jarmusch’s least well-received film is unsurprisingly his most ambitious. Disparaged for its use of minimal dialogue and slow pace, these features become Limits of Control’s virtues if viewed patiently. Yet another stellar cast of cameo performances by the likes of John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray, the characters remain unnamed and are credited as Blonde, Mexican, American, and Guitar. It is apparent that the film’s figurative nature is key to its understanding. Limits To Control is undoubtedly a movie buff’s film in its cultural references to Hitchcock, Welles and Tarkovsky. If you’ve got the inclination and the patience it is Jarmusch’s fullest feature, in which the rewards outweigh the film’s initial opacity.

Soundtrack: Meditative ambient noise rock from Sun O))), Boris, and Jarmusch’s band Bad Rabbit.

Jem Talbot

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