Los Angeles Plays With Itself
Joanne Kouyoumjian on Night on Earth
Chris Marker’s Sans soleil presents us with a personal essay, a travel journal, a series of observations in San Francisco, Iceland, Africa and Japan woven together with memories of real life and even scenes from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. There are no definitive statements, only observed connections between cultures and places and people. The Japanese teenagers are seen from a detached viewpoint as they perform a ritualistic robot dance on the city streets, but the filmmaker makes no claims to omniscience. Marker only reiterates his own disembodiment as he watches Japanese television in his hotel room. We know he is behind the camera, or that someone is behind the camera, making observations. Maybe the existence of Sans soleil is why I find Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth such a shoddy attempt to bring a kind of poetry to the universal experience between individuals. Jarmusch’s film, with its cheap stock characters, seems flimsy and incoherent, merely a one-off opportunity to combine disparate groups of actors of some international renown and see what happens. That the stories or characters have no unifying themes, no overlap at all, just alienates further. There are no comparisons drawn and conversely, there is no negation either, just a bunch of actors desperately bending over backwards to imbue their characters with some trace of believable humanity in 20 minutes or less.
After the success after Mystery Train, it’s easy to see how a film like Night on Earth could get made. Independent director/scenester Jim Jarmusch stamped out a trademark style in his wispy glimpses at the banal moments of the everyday life of outsiders and made them transcendent and unforgettable. With a few great features under his belt, he moved on to another film with a similar structure and some bigger stars. Night on Earth seems like a great pitch for a Jarmusch film: glimpses of taxi drivers and passengers in five cities around the world. Unfortunately, the film itself never lives up to the promising concept—Jarmusch could have done for Helsinki or Rome what he had earlier done for New Orleans or Memphis.
Perhaps trying to cram five cities into one film was a bad idea from the start. But somehow I can’t fully blame the film’s problems on the limitations of its structure. There are other, more intrinsic problems with the characters: At best, each one is a shallow, blatantly stereotyped vision of the cities from which they are supposed to hail. At worst, they are utterly cynical creations, a low form of hackneyed sitcom filler one would normally expect from a coked-up Hollywood producer with better ways to spend his time.
Case in point: Winona Ryder’s unconvincing L.A. cabbie with a backwards ball cap and a serious addition to both nicotine and bubble gum. It's hard to do anything but cringe at lines like “Hey, watch how you’re driving, nimrod!” With the addition of Gena Rowlands’s elegantly stressed out casting agent, I knew immediately how this vignette would end: of course Ryder would rather “be a mechanic, lady” and not the starlet that Rowlands’s character hopes to make her.
Of course, the L.A. story would necessarily concern those industry types for which Jarmusch has obvious contempt. Though it’s hard to argue with his point of view on that, what’s most disconcerting however is that Jarmusch’s L.A. is curiously devoid of people of color. By casting Winona, he completely omits the intertwined nature of race and class that is so intrinsic to the urban experience in any American city, including Los Angeles. To have such an obviously middle-class white woman so unconvincingly play a working-class Angelino allows him to sidestep the whole matter. Possibly Jarmusch, like those who stick to the areas west of La Cienega, doesn’t know anything about Los Angeles, except for the most stereotypical depictions—or at least of the white upper-middle-class or upper-class industry professionals. Where are the murals? The mariachis? The improvised fruit stands on the streets? The late night taco trucks that draw crowds of dudes wearing cowboy hats? He prefers to dispose of this city conveniently through some obvious shots of abandoned drive-thrus and the tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills. Jarmusch isn’t seriously engaging with race or class; he’s trying to capture something intrinsic about L.A. without actually discussing it. I think that’s impossible.
Unfortunately, things don’t get any better when the story moves to New York. The city itself gets a slightly better treatment as all the characters are left awestruck by its beauty—the Manhattan bridge, Times Square, all the usual suspects. As this is Jarmusch’s town, one would expect no less, yet one would hope for something more than a very special Christmas episode of Taxi. Hapless East German taxi driver (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the only cabbie naïve enough to pick up a black man (Giancarlo Esposito) in Times Square. Great. Only problem is, he can’t drive. It turns out that this taxi driver with the (apparently) hilarious name Helmut used to be a circus clown back in the old country. The passenger with the equally “hilarious” name Yoyo offers to drive and pay the fare if only Helmut will take him into (gasp) Brooklyn!!! On the way, they pick up Yoyo’s sister-in-law, a hysterical Rosie Perez. Puerto Rican girls are sassy. Check. Black dudes from Brooklyn are zany. Check. German clowns are… well, you’ve got me there.
Perhaps my reaction to Night on Earth comes from a distinct sense that this film (or at least the two vignettes set in New York and Los Angeles) is a spectacle painted with the amusing clichés of America that I’ve seen elsewhere. In Jean Baudrillard’s epic travel essay America, he discusses his journey through the United States with the authority of a European. For Baudrillard, since Europe is the source of the utopian dream/nightmare that is America, outsider Europeans are more able to see America for what it really is, more so than Americans themselves who are merely products of their environment which seems to fit in quite nicely to what most Europeans have thought about the subjects they conquered and ruled throughout Europe’s imperialist heyday. Everywhere in his journal, he records his impressions as a traveler, a visitor and an outsider—for him the most authentic way to experience this country that is always locked in a kind of perpetual motion with no destination, on the freeway, in the air, or jogging in circles. This is the kind of absolute critique that I saw imitated in a more benign, diminutive way in Night on Earth:
"In years to come cities will stretch out horizontally and will be non-urban (Los Angeles). After that, they will bury themselves in the ground and will no longer have names. Everything will become infrastructure bathed in artificial light and energy. The brilliant superstructure, the crazy verticality will have disappeared. New York is the final fling of this baroque verticality, this centrifugal eccentricity, before the horizontal dismantling arrives, and the subterranean implosion that will follow."
Is there anything beyond this judgment, this apocalypse? From the wilderness of academia, I hear a response coming from the unlikely place of the Harvard Design Project in the voice of McKenzie Wark. In a recent essay about globalization, he writes:
“To Whom does globalization appear to be a new phenomena? To those used to living close to the center of the old imperial powers. To the rest of them (we others, your others), out in the periphery, globalization is nothing new….History, seen from the periphery, is nothing but the struggle by one metropolitan center after the other to distort the growth of contact and trade between peoples in such a way as to benefit themselves. History is not about time, it is about space.”
To the outsider perspective, a city like Los Angeles, gutted by freeways and strip malls, represents the collapse of a civilized way of life. My contention here, is that this collapse has been hastened by the existence of those places where this so-called civilized life was possible, vis a vis the exploitation of the rest of the world. In a bizarre turn of events, America, the ultimate heir to the old imperial powers, has begun a new model of colonization—a cannibalistic one, where it’s own landscape is the one being homogenized by Wal-Marts and gas stations.
Jarmusch has taken a moral stance here: he hates L.A., or L.A. as the myth that he is perpetuating, and he sets New York as an opposite, more authentic place. As Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three hour diatribe on the depiction of Los Angeles in films shows, Jarmusch isn’t the first to do so. Anderson sorts through hundreds of films, narrating over clips from all kinds of genres: everything from exploitation movies, to horror flicks to Woody Allen and Michelangelo Antonioni are pieced together to find some truth to this place which is a real city, and neither a Shangri-LA or a Hell-LA. In the final segment of the film, Anderson focuses on real independent films where Angelinos actually do play themselves, films like The Exiles about the now-disappeared Bunker Hill neighborhood in Downtown, and Bless their Little Hearts about the largely African-American community in Los Angeles’ industrial South Bay. Los Angeles Plays Itself set a new standard for me, as I can no longer tolerate easy answers, and simple clichés. This is a multicultural, mutliethnic city with a complex history, complex in its urban-ness because in many ways it isn’t urban at all. With so much to say about this place, good and bad, I just can’t stomach Winona Ryder’s tough talking cabbie as Jarmusch’s last word on Los Angeles.
The other vignettes are just as embarrassingly stereotyped. The French are sexy, the Finnish are drunk and blond. Paris is lovely, Helsinki is snowy. Richard Boes’s African driver in Paris confronts two tipsy black French businessmen after they make racist comments, but any complex postcolonial critique is shot to hell with the addition of sexy blind passenger Beatrice Dalle. Following, the crazy Italian taxi driver, played by Roberto Benigni represents perhaps the most atrocious display of a hollow cultural cliché. Benigni rambles at length, recounting tales of sexual debauchery to a Catholic clergyman in cardiac arrest as they drive by transvestite prostitutes and an amorous couple having sex on a Vespa. The idea of the taxicab as confession booth is made hopelessly literal; the whole thing plays like a sloppy Saturday Night Live sketch.
In a sense, Jarmusch’s later films: Dead Man and Ghost Dog evince a desire to atone for his failure with Night on Earth. It seems fitting that Dead Man was his next feature, as it is a tale of a journey, that taken by a white man, William Blake, through the American heart of darkness. The gaze is now turned back towards the source of our culture, the values and violence that shaped it, as Jarmusch’s 19th-century America is a surreal landscape filled with psychotic and greedy white murderers and missionaries. His only friend in this wilderness is the loner “Nobody,” a mysterious Native American guide who knows enough about Europe and the white man to know that he will bring about destruction wherever he goes. Similarly, Ghost Dog’s black urban hitman is a noble outsider, choosing to live outside of the ways accepted in the world around him. Both films take radical juxtapositions of time and place as their tools to understanding our culture now. They are successful in ways that Night on Earth cannot be, because Night on Earth feels utterly ahistorical and bereft of context.
It would be easy to consider Night on Earth as a blip on the radar, a temporary lapse in judgment, or a hasty decision made after a first breakthrough success. I think it would be better characterized as a necessary step towards creating a kind of cultural awareness and self-consciousness as evidenced in Jarmusch’s later work. Perhaps after Jarmusch made a film attempting to find humor in the most pedestrian evaluations of these aforementioned five cities, he wanted to delve a little bit deeper. Everything after Night on Earth is about America; Ghost Dog seems the logical progression of a society that was just forming in Dead Man—one of environmental destruction, racism, sexism, classism, and insatiable greed. However, both films also speak to other ways of being, particularly that of compassion in the midst of hatred and violence.