Cinastey Hack

New York
01.22.06

Left: The New York Times's Dinitia Smith with Jim Jarmusch. Right: Jim Jarmusch. (Photos: Kenny Jacobson)


The first thing to remember is that he’s cooler than you. Cooler, in fact, than anyone has a right to be. Raised in Akron, Ohio, home of Devo, Jim Jarmusch studied poetry at Columbia, crashed CBGB in the ’70s with Richard Hell’s “Kid with the Replaceable Head,” was Nicholas Ray’s acolyte and teaching assistant at NYU Film School, used his Louis B. Mayer grant for film-school tuition to make his first feature, didn’t ever pay his tuition (but still received his degree a decade and many acclaimed films later), breaks bread with everyone from Bill Murray to Tom Waits to the RZA, made an entire film about coffee and cigarettes, loves Yasujiro Ozu and Jackie Mitoo in equal measures, and sports a gravity-defying, sandy-colored coif that, unlike Donald Trump’s, none dare call a loaf of challah. He’s also a pretty good writer/director, which was the reason for his inclusion in the recent New York Times “Arts & Leisure Weekend,” a series of conversations with prominent performers and culturati.

The second thing to remember is that anyone this cool is bound to be somewhat reluctant to analyze his own work, especially when he loves the gaps between words and the hobbled exchanges between people who speak different languages. Indeed, Lost in Translation could serve as the title of nearly every Jarmusch film if Sofia Coppola hadn’t already trademarked it. But then, Jarmusch would never be that obvious.

This is the problem at the CUNY Graduate Center. Times critic and novelist Dinitia Smith wants answers—blessing for her Joycean reads of his work, close analysis of scenes, acknowledgement of her ontology-recapitulates-phylogeny theory of his doggedly consistent style, explanations of how he works with “non-Jarmusch” actors like Johnny Depp, etc. The full-house crowd—film students, video clerks, middle-aged movie mavens, the odd European—wants them too: What’s up with the Japanese plum Screamin’ Jay Hawkins eats in Mystery Train? Why aren’t there more female leads in your films? How can you “let the film find itself” if you shoot out of sequence? Will you listen to my band’s demo CD?

Jarmusch gamely faces this and more—impassive, Cuban-heeled, deadpan as John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise. Smith makes for an unlikely interlocutor: While obviously a Jarmusch fan, she seems scattered and unprepared, mismatching plot summaries and film titles, unable to sense when she’s not going to get anything further with a line of questioning, attached to her pet theories, and, at one point, suffering a coughing fit that takes her offstage during the audience Q&A, where she can still be heard hacking away behind the backdrop. The last gets a minor rise out of Jarmusch, who smiles and drawls, “I think she’s had enough of me.”

The venue, while comfortable, is similarly dissonant. A high-tech lecture auditorium, the room’s many mini-screens roll bland corporate ads while people are getting seated, then inaudibly and microscopically play the clips from Jarmusch films Smith wants to analyze. The effect is similar to watching a movie on an airplane fitted with those little screens that appear solarized unless you’re looking at them just so. I’d never seen Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch’s student film and first feature, so to not be able to hear a word of the scene Smith posits as the source code for his entire oeuvre was a tad irritating.

Nevertheless, Jarmusch’s discussion of this film provided the most revelatory factoid of the entire talk: Casting Chris Parker, his CBGB pal and inspiration for Hell’s “Kid with the Replaceable Head,” as his lead for his manic real-life behavior, Jarmusch found that Parker became silent, sullen, and slow-moving when the cameras rolled and changed the tone and rhythm of the film to reflect this. Voila! The Jarmusch style—born of necessity, adopted with Puritanical rigor to all his subsequent films. To be fair, Jarmusch offered other reasons for his glacial pacing and minimal dialogue—his admiration for Ozu, his fondness for blank patches on poetry pages, his distaste for what a friend of mine’s father, an aging director, calls “that MTV shit,” i.e., quick-cuts and peripatetic camerawork, which was becoming trendy as Jarmusch emerged as a filmmaker—but this is the kind of hermeneutic nugget one goes to these talks to hear. Unfortunately, like the lines of dialogue in a Jarmusch films, they were too few and far between to ensure a truly satisfying narrative.

After the talk, I followed some of the crowd into the makeshift Tower Records outlet across the hall from the auditorium—a cross-promotional concessions stand for the festival’s culture-vultures. Noting the array of Jarmusch DVDs on sale, I instead opted for remasters of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Charles Mingus’s Ah Um. For a director who claims that music sets the tone for his films and who never watches them again once they’re finished, these choices seemed fitting, made by patron saints of the type of creative outlawry Jarmusch cherishes. Plus, they’re cooler than you’ll ever be.

Andrew Hultkrans