With his trademark shock of white hair and ultra-cool rock star persona, Jim Jarmusch is the archetypal auteur of American independent film. Steadfastly resisting the sirens of Hollywood, Jarmusch has fashioned stylish, worldly, and thoroughly hip movies that have been the toast of the international film circuit.
Born on January 22, 1953, in Akron, OH, Jarmusch was the son of a former film critic for the Akron Beacon Journal. As a child, he spent much of his time watching B-movie triple features. After graduating from high school in 1971, he ended up in New York before venturing to Paris one summer on an exchange program. He loved the place so much that he stayed there for a year, soaking up French culture, literature, and particularly films, spending much of his time going to the cinématheque instead of to classes. At that time, the hallowed French New Wave movement was still a recent memory and such luminaries as François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard were still regularly making movies. Upon his return to New York, Jarmusch transferred to Columbia University, where, though he eventually received a degree in English literature, his love of film continued to inspire him. With no film experience, he was accepted into New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and soon found himself a teaching assistant to legendary maverick filmmaker Nicholas Ray. Ray helped him get funding for his thesis project, Permanent Vacation (1980). Though the film was later released to critical acclaim, his professors were underwhelmed by his final project and Jarmusch never got a degree from N.Y.U.
Jarmusch's break came with his next film. Originally dubbed New World, this 30-minute short eventually evolved into Stranger Than Paradise (1984), thanks to Wim Wenders, who donated a cache of unexposed film. Upon its release, Paradise was hailed as a masterpiece. It earned a Golden Leopard at the San Locarno Film Festival, a Best Film of the Year award from the National Society of Film Critics, and the Camera d'or at the Cannes Film Festival for best first picture. Critics responded to the film's deadpan wit and spare minimalist style, which drew comparisons to Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and James Benning. Constructed as a series of discrete long takes broken up by black leader, the film was a conscious reaction against the hyperkinetic visual barrage of MTV.
Paradise revealed a number of nascent motifs that would pervade Jarmusch's later work. Popular perceptions of America as seen by outsiders are a constant theme in Jarmusch's work. Eva, the newly arrived Hungarian immigrant in Paradise, is underwhelmed by life in America, though she is enamored of its music, and the Japanese couple in Mystery Train (1989) looks at Elvis Presley, the very icon of Americana, with a mixture of awe and befuddlement. Another theme is Jarmusch's fascination with music. As he has noted in numerous interviews, he drew inspiration from the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, which reached its zenith in New York just as he was directing his first feature; he cut an album with his band, the Del-Byzanteens, in the early '80s. His fascination with rock & roll is evident both in the stories he tells and in the actors he casts. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" plays an integral part in Paradise, Mystery Train is entirely about the legacy of Elvis Presley, and his Year of the Horse (shot on Super-8 film) is a concert documentary on grunge godfather Neil Young. Such music luminaries as John Lurie, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Hawkins have all had leading roles in his films.
Jarmusch's next film, Down By Law, refined his trademark ironic wit and laconic style, adding gorgeous black-and-white photography and elegant tracking shots. Telling the story of an ebullient Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) and two hepcat petty hoods (John Lurie and Tom Waits) thrown together in a jail cell, the film makes knowing use of Robert Bresson's A Man Escapes (1956), along with almost every other Hollywood prison flick convention. Yet the film remains fresh, funny, and oddly moving. His next two films, Mystery Train and Night on Earth (1991), were praised for their cleverness and charm, but critics increasingly complained that his films were a retread of his previous works. Jarmusch found himself in a similar situation to David Lynch after Twin Peaks (1990) and Wong Kar-Wai after Happy Together (1997): he had so thoroughly staked out a particular style that he risked repetition and self-parody.
His 1995 opus Dead Man provided a response to this criticism. Panned by mainstream reviewers while hailed by others, especially internationally, as a visionary work of genius, the film had little of the hip irony or mannered style that marked Night on Earth. Instead, Dead Man was a bold, lyrical depiction of death and a penetrating look through gauzy myths of the American frontier. The classic shoot-out, the meat and potatoes of Western legend, is rendered jarring and brutal, while American industrialization (in the form of a factory town called Machine) resembles a vision of Hell. The protagonist, a fatally wounded Cleveland accountant named William Blake (played by Johnny Depp), slowly journeys toward his own death, aided by Nobody, a British-educated Native American. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film grows increasingly surreal as Blake comes to accept his own mortality. One critic noted, "This is the Western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make." In 1999, Jarmusch released his follow-up, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. Borrowing from Seijun Suzuki's loopy masterpiece Branded to Kill (1967), the film reworks the gangster genre, as Down by Law recast the prison film, gleefully combining clichés of the hip-hop gangsta, the Italian Mafioso, and the Japanese yakuza.
The following decades would prove to be just as creatively lucrative for the filmmaker, with the 2003 black and white episodic comedy Coffee and Cigarettes, the massively acclaimed 2005 Bill Murray dramedy Broken Flowers, and the 2009 crime drama The Limits of Control.