Jim Jarmusch spent his last year of college using scholarship money to fund his first ever feature film. The $12,000 project, Permanent Vacation, was not a success, and NYU even refused to award the filmmaker with a degree due to his misuse of funds. But nothing will stop Jim Jarmusch. The director is now 69 years old, and has thirteen feature films, two documentaries, four short films, six music videos, and a handful of albums under his belt.
Making a prominent name for himself in the independent scene, Jarmusch is not afraid to play with form and expectation, often including unorthodox stylistic techniques within his work, such as long, slow takes, often with no strong plotline, describing his desire “to approximate real time for the audience.” His preference for character study over action gives his films a less mainstream appeal – but that’s okay with him.
Over the course of his career, Jarmusch has amassed a cult following, particularly in Europe and Japan. In fact, the director’s work is often much more reminiscent of foreign, arthouse cinema, with many international actors appearing in his films, such as Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase, who star in Mystery Train as a couple travelling from Yokohama to Memphis. This film also demonstrates another distinctive Jarmusch quality – the use of music and cultural iconography. The filmmaker’s obsession with alternative music and culture bleeds into all of his work, often getting countercultural figures such as Iggy Pop or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to star in his films, as well as making a documentary about The Stooges in 2016 called Gimme Danger.
Over recent years, Jarmusch has released several feature films, from the unconventional vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tilda Swinton, the Adam Driver drama Paterson, to the star-studded ‘zom-com’ The Dead Don’t Die. Jarmusch has continued to surprise audiences with experiments in different genres, with Indiewire commenting that the filmmaker is able to “innovate while remaining true to his singular voice.”
Much of Jarmusch’s inspiration comes from his time in Paris as an exchange student when he was 20 years old. Instead of studying, he spent most of his time going to French cinemas, so much so that he even managed to be given an ‘incomplete’ by his university. He says, “I would stay in the theater between showings, seeing films from India and Japan and Hollywood films that I didn’t even know existed. I was discovering Edward Dmytryk, Yasujirō Ozu, Mizoguchi, Brazilian new wave… Wow! I didn’t know cinema could have all these things. My head was going around and it has never stopped since.”
His love for international and arthouse cinema stems from its attention to detail, bravery, and originality. When asked if modern cinema can still be as poetic as something like Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Jarmusch replied, “I have seen films that are incredibly poetic! The kinds of films I see are from everywhere, they are all types of films. But I am not Mr. Mainstream. The problem with Hollywood studios is that they are cowardly.”
When asked why, the director answered, “They’re afraid of anything where they can’t evaluate the demographic! It’s like, “It reads like The Graduate, but it’s got to be more like Love Story.” Why can’t it just be its own thing? What are they so afraid of? So they dig their own grave as far as any kind of innovation. It’s a miracle anything innovative comes out of this studio system, because they are afraid of anything that they can’t imagine how it’s going to be marketed. They are afraid of daring to do anything artistic. But maybe they should be, because it’s a business. I used to have very, very, very deep misgivings about that.”
However, he admits that he has, of course, worked with studios, including Amazon. When quizzed about this, he says, “True, but all of it is a business. My French distributor is a business, but he is also a cinephile. So if I mention Dziga Vertov’s films to him, he knows exactly who I am talking about. If I mention Dziga Vertov to someone in Hollywood, they go, “Is she a Russian model?” They don’t know what movies are.”
Finally, the director shared some words to remember given to him by Sam Fuller: “these people in LA, they used to run underwear factories, and now they tell us how to make movies.”