January’s Filmmaker of the Month: Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch

We ring in 2020 by celebrating the birthday of independent cinema’s rockabilly godfather.

It’s hard to overstate Jim Jarmusch‘s impact on the world of independent cinema. Simply put, there would be no indie scene without Stranger Than Paradise, a feature shot for $184,000 that nonetheless won him the Camera d’Or at Cannes and established independent cinema as a critically laudable, commercially successful venture.

And yet, despite this singular success (and the self-evident idiosyncrasies of his style), Jarmusch himself resists the label of auteur. In a 2014 interview, he said that making a film was more like making a baby than setting forth a singular vision:

I’m the navigator of the ship, but I’m not the captain, I can’t do it without everyone’s equally valuable input. For me, it’s phases where I’m very solitary, writing, and then I’m preparing, getting the money, and then I’m with the crew and on a ship and it’s amazing and exhausting and exhilarating, and then I’m alone with the editor again … I’ve said it before, it’s like seduction, wild sex, and then pregnancy in the editing room. That’s how it feels for me.

Jim Jarmusch

Jarmusch’s films are marked by a few unique signposts. There’s the deep debt to popular music, be it country, rock-and-roll, or hip-hop (he frequently features musicians in his films, from Iggy Pop to Tom Waits to RZA); films often follow characters who are musicians (Only Lovers Left Alive), or center around cities known for their vibrant music communities (see: Nashville in Mystery Train). His characters are often wanderers, stuck in liminal states and just trying to exist, whether or not they’re looking for some kind of larger purpose. What’s more, his films feel relaxing, Jarmusch preferring to sit down with certain characters and just live in their lives and feel the passage of time (Paterson being a particularly useful example of this.)

And, of course, there’s the exploration of cultures in dialogue with one another, especially between East and West: take the Japanese couple visiting Nashville in Mystery Train, or Forest Whitaker’s samurai-obsessed hitman in Ghost Dog, or Paterson’s conversation on the bench with a Japanese businessman. Jarmusch is brilliant at looking at America from a foreigner’s eye, exploring our quirks from an outsider’s perspective. And all of this is done with a kind of swaggering, patient laconicism that makes a Jim Jarmusch film impossible to escape.

Since this month sees the 67th birthday of the indie film legend (and since this is the month of the Sundance Film Festival), we wanted to spend January appreciating the unconventional energies of the Cool Uncle of Indie Film. So sit back in your diner booth, throw on some sunglasses, have your coffee and cigarettes, and relax as we take an easygoing road trip through some of the most interesting films in American cinema.

Read the rest of our Jim Jarmusch coverage here:

Since His Debut, Jim Jarmusch Has Been on “Permanent Vacation”
“Stranger Than Paradise” and the Rebirth of Cool
“Mystery Train” is Jim Jarmusch’s Love Letter to the Ghosts of Memphis
Taking a Ride With Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”
The Untamed Territory of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”
The Hip-Hop Bushido Code of “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”

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