Stand by Your Man:
A Jim Jarmusch Symposium
In selecting a candidate for our recurring auteurist symposiums we at Reverse Shot first try to locate a particular favorite director of ours who has an upcoming film and whose career is marked by the kinds of titles that makes one’s eyes light up at recognition—with the safe knowledge that most, if not all, of the films in his oeuvre will be desirable to revisit, texts that with time have blossomed into something greater than they first appeared, and seem to continually evolve. Olivier Assayas was a no-brainer, as his varied output never fails to surprise and antagonize and stir debate. Tsai Ming-liang, indisputably brilliant, perhaps has perfected his visual style a little too succinctly for a truly wide-ranging discussion of his films, yet nevertheless his Goodbye Dragon Inn was a force to be reckoned with, and what better way to work through its deceptive simplicities than to go back and start a dialogue with his earlier static tableaux? Perhaps our most successful roundelay was last summer’s Richard Linklater issue, out in time to praise our voted-best-of-2004 Before Sunset but also a reminder that perhaps there was no better way to properly view it without the context of his prior films, and that yes, here was a man whose life work has been steadily building into a rather impressive monument of searching philosophical inquiry.
If ultimately School of Rock seemed just as valid an artistic statement as Waking Life with the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a little hagiography, couldn’t the same be true in the final stack-up of say, Night on Earth to Stranger than Paradise? Well, no, probably not. What we discovered in compiling, assigning, and writing about Jim Jarmusch, upon the occasion of the release of his Cannes Grand Prix–winner Broken Flowers, is that unlike Linklater, who perhaps we had taken for granted all those formative years as we grew into film-lovers and thinkers, Jarmusch perhaps had to unfairly hold the mantle for American Independent Cinema for so long—and his inconsistent yet fascinating output shows that it’s obviously been too much for one man to reasonably handle.
At Reverse Shot, we all pretty much like Broken Flowers, some more than others. Not so much a return to form as a reaffirmation of Jarmusch’s inherent talents, exacting skills, and good-hearted imagination, Broken Flowers just works. It doesn’t push the director’s artistry into a new realm (like Before Sunset or a Mulholland Drive did for their questing helmsmen), but it does remind those of us that came of age with Jarmusch’s films, seen as they were as symbols of a different kind of American cinema, that we were indeed in the hands of an expert. Jarmusch has widely been cited as a “minimalist,” an easy, often ill-used tag for someone who is much more interested in the big picture. His films luxuriate in set pieces, just perhaps not on an imposingly grand scale. Despite his penchant for abbreviated narratives, he’s more likely to dredge up overarching themes or ideas than individual moments. For all their mechanized insularity, Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law are wide-open nets, grey scale tableaux that contain worlds of idiosyncrasies looking for specific goals, while Night on Earth’s vignettes are so (often repulsively) “united” in that anthology’s vision of one harmonious glut of racial stereotyping that one can barely concentrate on the differences. Likewise very few of Coffee and Cigarettes’ moments are memorable past the titular vices that crop up in practically every shot—often Jarmusch is content to just rely on his themes to carry the day.
Broken Flowers is arguably his strongest film since Dead Man (no small compliment given the curious, under-discussed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), which is looking more and more with each passing year like one of the greatest films of the nineties and certainly the apex of his career, an artistically and sociopolitically visionary watershed that Jarmusch will probably never top. Yet unlike that earlier film, Broken Flowers might not last beyond the hype. Yes, the pairing of Murray and Jarmusch seems like it was just waiting to happen, as it’s been said ad nauseam in the press, yet perhaps that duo is a little too perfectly matched, somewhat unchallenging in its inevitability. Colleague and fellow RS writer Nick Pinkerton questioned appraisals of Lost in Translation by asking how truly transgressive the film might have been if it had starred, say, Bryan Doyle-Murray instead of Bill. An amusing observation, but he brings up an integral point; rarely are the widely accepted art-house darlings doing much more than reaffirming held truths themselves, not daring our sensibilities so much as approbating our self-maintained iconoclasm, which Murray, for all his graceful numbness, has been providing in spades as of late. Broken Flowers is indeed a “movie of the moment,” to use a parlance of Film Comment. Yet let us remember Dead Man’s poor reviews, distributor rejection, and public indifference back in 1995—for there do we see that Jarmusch is indeed one of our most important filmmakers, showing us things both unexpected in film and crucial to our human nature.
Even if, perhaps, that one film has set the bar unreasonably high for all the works that surround it, that doesn’t mean we can’t love them, and their creator for what they represent—maybe nothing more, or less, than one of the “coolest” bodies of work from an American Independent landscape that seems to have all but vanished. Yet hope for this cinema lies this month in a film that perhaps we’re even more excited about than Broken Flowers but couldn’t exactly yet devote an entire symposium to. Therefore, we put a special Spotlight on Phil Morrison’s Junebug, an extraordinary work that more easily captures the ineffable Americana that Broken Flowers tangentially goes for.
And as Reverse Shot continues to expand, we’ll continue to set aside a little space in these introductory paragraphs to let readers know about exciting additions to the site. For a few years now “blogs” have been slowly creeping their way into the popular consciousness. Especially in the run-up and aftermath of the 2004 elections, political blogs provided the most up to the minute (if not always the most accurate) opinionated reportage of the various goings on, and it’s been a treat to watch their transition from sideline hecklers to manipulators of policy and debate. They’ve proliferated at a rapid pace, and if you have a hobby (besides movies, of course) there’s probably someone somewhere who’s started a blog about it. Given that resources only allow us to publish quarterly (at least for now), we’ve jumped on the bandwagon and launched the “ReverseBlog” (hosted by our good friends over at indieWIRE) to fill in the gaps between issues with our random thoughts, accusations, and conversations—as we’d subtitled it once: “It’s like Reverse Shot. Only dumber.” Not totally accurate, but it’s a place for us to continue the dialogue we’d hoped to open by starting Reverse Shot almost three years ago, on a more regular basis (we try to update near-daily). Check it out. And please, take it with more than a few grains of salt.