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Film

30 years of 'Night on Earth' - Jim Jarmusch's poetic voyage

@Russellisation

“The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events,” the idiosyncratic American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once said, with his poetic mantra inextricably tied to his eclectic filmography that remains focused on the small acts of everyday living. Such is true from his celebrated university project Permanent Vacation through to his 2016 movie, Paterson that focused on the day-to-day musings of a pensive bus driver.  

King of eccentric and stylish filmmaking, Jarmusch is well known as one of the most celebrated independent filmmakers in America. With a style that resembles David Lynch if he dialed down on the surrealism, Jarmusch approaches his films with a similar idiosyncratic sense of flair, often using recurring actors such as Bill Murray, Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton to tell his artistically-inspired soulful stories. 

This remains true in his 1991 movie Night on Earth reminding cinephiles of Jarmusch’s love for a mosaic of small details that builds up to create one beautiful whole. Similar to the narrative technique he utilised for his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, whilst hinted at throughout his entire filmography, Night on Earth collects five vignettes of related stories taking place on the very same night that highlights the temporary bond between a taxi driver and their passengers. 

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Spanning five cities across the world and five very different languages, Jarmsuch’s Night on Earth takes place in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki, with the action taking place at the very same time, taking into account each respective time zone. Loose and liberated, the film takes little interest in a strict narrative, much like the filmmaker’s other projects, giving the director a surreal European feel as he prefers to focus on the peculiar vignettes of life’s strangest moments. 

This by no means should suggest that Jarmush didn’t take considerable care writing the screenplay, even if it did take him just eight days to put together, with each section carefully constructed to reflect a profound truth about contemporary living. What’s more, Jarmusch has a sagacious approach to the realities of life outside America, with his Helsinki, Paris and Rome sections written with the same verve and vigour as the home-grown moments. 

Having spent much of his early life studying at New York University, it should come as little surprise that the section Jarmusch holds the most understanding over is the one that navigates the streets of the ‘big apple’ featuring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez. 

Telling not only one of his own best tales, but one of the best ever told about New York City, Jarmusch’s 23-minute segment about his University home town remains the film’s most quintessential moment. Led by a fervent display by Mueller-Stahl, his tightly sprung cabbie plays a game of tête-à-tête tennis with Esposito’s aptly named Yo-Yo, with both antithetical characters providing the perfect microcosm for a hilarious and surprisingly poignant vignette. 

“What I really liked was the idea that in a taxi you are in a space with someone alone and you have no nothing invested in your relationship,” Jarmusch explained in a French interview about the film, adding, “You can say whatever you want you can be completely honest or dishonest”.

Exclaiming that it was this “freedom” of a relationship with a total stranger that made him excited about taking on the project, it is clear that for a filmmaker with such a profound impression of the human mind, it was the promise of a vast character playground that made Night on Earth such an undisputed joy.

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