A Bill of Divorcement:
James Crawford talks with Jim Jarmusch about Broken Flowers

Jim Jarmusch, one of the last bastions of truly independent American cinema and director of the 2005 Cannes Grand Prix–­winner Broken Flowers, is an elusive interview. Not elusive in the P.T. Anderson sense, who cagily (and obstinately) deflects inquiries on his films—at a screening of Punch-Drunk Love in Boston, he memorably deflated an audience member’s question about the film’s cinematography by saying “I don’t know. I thought it looked cool” before guffawing sophomorically and moving onto the next query—rubbishing any and all analysis without elucidating his own. On the contrary: Jarmusch, soft-spoken and with a shock of grey hair that comes close to Eraserhead’s in verticality and diameter, is a voluminous talker, keen to explore any number but not keen to mull over meaning. In a round-table conversation, when asked about the import of the four women Don Johnston (Bill Murray) visits in Broken Flowers for example, he was as willing to defer to an interviewer’s interpretation as expound upon his own. So to with questions about genre (Broken Flowers was not consciously a road movie, but Jarmusch accedes that it obliquely fits the archetype) or the evolution of his noteworthy oeuvre (he demurs all questions about his development as a filmmaker, claiming that he doesn’t “track” his work). But where Jarmusch gets animated, at least insofar as his laconic demeanor allows, is the subject of acting and performance.

Which is not at all surprising. Aside from his status as one of the most innovative voices in American cinema, Jarmusch belongs to that rarefied cadre of directors that hark back to the so-called “New Hollywood” of the Sixties and Seventies. That era, as much as it was known for maverick directors, looser moral standards, and experiments in storytelling, marked the ascension an actors’ cinema—an unprecedented time of meaty roles and performers of equal mettle. Of the directors working today, at least the ones that matter, only a handful can be said to foreground performance and their films. For postmodernists like Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Sant, the text is more important; I’m thinking here of QT’s delirious quotations that almost obliterate Uma Thurman from the screen, and Gus Van Sant’s privileging of the cinematic apparatus (Elephant’s silky tracking shots or Last Days’ sonic opacity) that blots out the actors. On the other hand, P.T. Anderson, Stephen Soderbergh, and Richard Linklater place an old-school importance on the work of their performers, and, with the exception of Linklater’s enthralling Before Sunrise/Sunset duet, Jim Jarmusch surpasses them all. As much as JJ’s oeuvre is rife with archetypal Americana and the weight of mythology, his is very much an actor’s cinema.

Actors, emphatically, not movie stars. Jarmusch has cast musicians (notably Tom Waits and Iggy Pop) and true thespians (Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett) over performers who sail by on the strength of persona alone. Yet in Broken Flowers, he’s strangely in thrall to Bill Murray, who is on the cusp of abandoning his madcap comic flair in favor of not acting at all. Jarmusch wrote the script with Bill Murray in mind, after having abandoned a previous project intended for the actor. After mulling over a couple of script ideas, Jarmusch approached Murray with the idea for Broken Flowers, and upon getting approval from Lost in Translation’s newly anointed prince of sober disconnect, he banged the script out in two weeks. For the director, Murray’s appeal as a performer goes beyond the script. “He does the Bill Murray thing,” Jarmusch says. “That’s so beautiful, you can’t write that down, it just comes from him. It’s Bill improvising in the way he reacts to everything, which is very hard in a way.” Jarmusch’s enthusiasm for Murray’s performance doesn’t quite translate to the screen, however.

After a memorably humanistic appearance as Polonius in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, and an undeniably brilliant (and subtle) comic one in Rushmore, Murray responded to the post–Lost in Translation lauds that descended upon him by coasting through Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In an early Cannes piece on Broken Flowers, Variety’s Todd McCarthy touted Murray’s work as “a lesson in minimalist acting.” When the remainder of reviews come out, I can picture them operating in the same hackneyed vein: “inscrutable” will be used. “Impassive,” too. All will remark how Murray is incredibly subtle and giving as an actor. I’m trying to figure out what differentiates subdued reaction shots from not acting at all. Though Jarmusch is a fan of Murray’s improvisational talent—according to Jarmusch, he ad-libbed Broken Flowers’ most memorable comic line, “I’m a stalker in a Taurus!”—Murray’s expression in the film never wavers. As such, he’s become a living, breathing example of the Kuleshov effect. In those two films, and especially in Broken Flowers, we’re not so much responding to his performance per se—it’s more that Murray’s inevitable deadpan reaction shots are inserted to react to whatever has transpired immediately before. Or put another way, his face is a blank canvas, inscribed a postiori, derived as a result of the remarkable actresses starring opposite him.

It’s hard to think of a recent film that has assembled a more formidable cast of women, and utilizing their talents, Jarmusch says, “was a partial impetus for wanting to make this story. Wow, think of all the female actors in this range. There are so many incredible women actors in the age of like 40-55… I could have had him visit 20 ex-lovers, you know?” Instead he whittled down to a remarkable five, bolstered by two deft ancillary performances (Julie Delpy and Chloë Sevigny). Jarmusch is very particular about what kind of actor he looks for, opting for those who can credibly inhabit a persona over scenery chewers. As he relates, he wants to achieve a situation where his actors “go into a scene, and they’re reacting, and not acting out a script. I can see often actors acting their way on the screen through the script, and I find it annoying because I’m not believing that…There are some actors I see do that all the time, and I’m like ‘Oh please, can’t you just make me believe that you’re this other person instead of showing me what a great actor you are?’”

While the tendency is to examine their characters as possible trajectories that the life of Murray’s character, Don Johnston, could have taken, that would erroneously invert the film’s teleology. Laura (Sharon Stone) married a stock car driver (the late husband’s car is parked in her driveway, decked out in NASCAR-type decals) and plunged into a white-trash morass one step away from the trailer park. She is blowsy, slightly needy, and struggling to keep in check the precocious sexuality of her only daughter, aptly named Lolita. Dora (Frances Conroy) is hitched to an oppressively proper yuppie, and bound with him in stilted decorous friendships and a stultifying real- estate partnership. Behind sweater sets and matching pearls, Dora shoots subtly pleading looks at Don, as if begging for release from this upper-middle-class hell, radiating a sense that she’s yearning for the bygone time when her life held much more promise. Carmen (Jessica Lange), open-minded and independent, takes refuge in an oddball profession, pet psychology, and her independence emerges as she defends her life choices. Stealing the scene to the point where Murray hardly seems present, Lange comes off as brittle and battle-scarred from their relationship, closed-off and emotionally distant. (Even Sevigny, as Lange’s ultra-protective and wary administrative assistant, is dryly bitchy and deliciously standoffish.) Finally Penny (Tilda Swinton), presumably tied the knot with one of the two backwater hicks who come to her defense when Don comes calling, is indelibly influenced by the poverty into which married, borne out in her sunken eyes and crushed, hostile demeanour. Stripped of her flaming red hair, Swinton is unrecognizable—I didn’t realize her inclusion until reading the press kit—and retreats into her burnt-out husk of a character more fully than any of her counterparts. These four women (the fifth is dead, we realize as Johnston visits her grave) do not represent four of Don’s potential futures. Rather, they demonstrate the effect that their spouses had in determining the outcome of their lives.

This nested set of uniformly excellent performances is also unified in that they collectively represent a partial cross-section of American experience—completed by the presence of Don Johnston and his neighbor Winston (a largely squandered Jeffrey Wright). When asked about the phenomenon, Jarmusch replied, “There’s a strata of American class for sure, and the biggest contrast is with Winston. He works very hard, and he’s obviously a very intelligent person, and he has five kids, and he works three jobs that are all factory stuff… He’s got his radiant Jamaican wife who seems very lovely, and his house is colorful with all the kids running around, and Don’s in that empty, nice, rich guy’s house doing nothing. Nothing’s motivating him.” Part of the shock in the remainder of the film comes from Don being forced to encounter not just the acute memory of past romances but the different socioeconomic circumstances that confront his former flames. “And then [there’s] the strata of the women,” said Jarmusch, with the lower-middle-class NASCAR wife to the upper-middle-class prefab home, to the kind of refined independent woman who has her own practice of some kind, in this case animal communication. And then to fill it out, the only location I could imagine living myself was where Tilda lived” in a kind of broken-down Appalachian farm. What’s remarkable is that, in the absence of playing against each other (the film is episodically constructed around individual encounters with each ex-lover, and only Sevigny and Lange share a scene), Conroy, Lange, and company dovetail with each other’s performances, occupying unique emotional spaces and portraying socioeconomic stereotypes without it seeming so. Where Stone is breezy and open, Lange is cold and closed off; where Conroy seems to submerge her own emotions, Swinton’s pain is keenly felt and very close to the surface.

And Bill Murray reacts neutrally to it all—nonplussed, slightly hangdog, and vaguely melancholic. During an early New York Broken Flowers press screening, shortly after its success at Cannes (meaning that it was presumably attended by the most important of the city’s film distribution and press elite), the audience was inopportunely laughing at Murray’s reactions, even at (especially at) the film’s most depressing and pathetic moments. Though Jarmusch is best when injecting sardonic humor into his narratives, it’s hard to take Broken Flowers as anything but tragedy. Which brings me to something kicked about by my fellow Reverse Shotters: called the Dictionary of Received Criticism , it’s a very short tongue-in-cheek guide, dubbed an “invaluable tool that will allow writers to quickly and efficaciously locate the correct and established opinions, attitudes, and observations about any number of cinematic topics without the annoyance of having to grapple with the heft and complexity of cinema’s century-long history.” Apropos of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, the Dictionary has this entry:

Murray, Bill: A standard-issue comic before Rushmore; now “a deadpan genius”

As per RS’s ironic Dictionary, I think the reaction I witnessed is a testament to the fact that audiences don’t know quite what to do with Murray, so accustomed are they to seeing his bemusement utilized to slapstick ends from his Ghostbusters and Caddyshack days. I’m sure that there will be a clamor to anoint Murray as having successfully made the transition to weighty drama, hailing his performance as a “tour de force of subtlety”—though for the life of me, I can’t find much to love about him until the devastatingly compressed emotions of the film’s final scene. Up to that point, Murray is a cipher, a foil for his formidable leading women; yet the majority of praise is showered upon him, and not on Stone, Swinton, et. al, which is where it belongs.

Writing in RS’s last symposium, Andrew Tracy did a deft little turn about Nicole Kidman’s performance in Birth, citing the overwhelming critical tendency to describe Kidman’s performance a certain way (the minute emotions that flicker briefly in an otherwise placid face)—a tendency that Mr. Tracy diagnoses as “lazy.” I think he’s brushing up against something important in this passage, something that is perhaps all too obvious: cinema studies is woefully ill-equipped to deal with actors’ performances. While scholars are keen to muse about the syntactic and semantic implications of editing, cinematography and mise-en-scène, work on actors’ contributions (or, if you prefer, their affect and effect) is usually farmed out to its dramatic-academic sibling, “performance studies.” With an accordingly diminished vocabulary, criticism only responds to a few performance types: extreme subtlety (Kidman’s turn in Dogville being the best example of recent years), overdetermined grandiosity (Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-bait work in anything he’s done), or the surprising efficacy of nonprofessional actors (see Iranian cinema). And even then, it’s impossible to ignore the limited verbiage marshalled to praise or condemn the quality of screen acting and the overall import it has for specific film texts. In Broken Flowers, the women carry the weight of Jim Jarmusch’s latest take on Americana, portraying the breadth and depth of class in the United States—while showing the quiet desperation and unfulfilled promises that unite them all.