Monday, February 22, 2010

In Search of Lost Time

[notes written in 2009 around the release The Limits of Control]

1. "Who is Jim Jarmusch?"

For many, that's a troubling question, because Jarmusch is a director that everyone seems to know. It's been an accepted truth that there is a "Jarmusch style" and that his films are about the same very particular things. Like most accepted truths, it's total bullshit. Jarmusch might be liked by those who think his movies are uncomplicated and low-key, but he is admired by those that realize that they are complicated and adventurous: that Jarmusch is no more "outsiders" than Melville was "crime," no more "stillness" than Ophüls was "movement," no more dialogue than Chaplin was "silence." To say that Jarmusch is "consistent" denies how much ground he's managed to cover in the last 30 years. To think of him as a traditionalist denies how much new cinema and culture his films have embraced over the years.

2. There's this insidious notion that anyone who loves movies is a nostalgist. It's a descendant of that self-defeating idea that "cinema is dead." Or, more properly phrased, that "death" is something terminal, and that "cinema" refers to one particular thing. Jarmusch loves movies deeply--it is a love that grows out of a respect for mystery and not the sort of patronizing love that grows out of a belief that one understands something or someone.

He is a polyglot who remains distinctly American: however many counties and cultural traditions (especially cinematic ones) Jarmusch absorbs, every movie he makes is an American movie. Stranger Than Paradise may quote Ozu and The Limits of Control may quote Costa, but they are always being quoted in American English. His nationality is as inescapable as Sam Fuller’s; his country has always been his subject. It’s no surprise that he planned for years to make a biography critical of Andrew Jackson.

Jarmusch's films have always been about the present. Who Jim Jarmusch is as a director changes with every film he makes. Yes, it's possible to say who Jarmusch was and what he meant when he made Mystery Train or Broken Flowers. But let's follow Jarmusch's lead; let's focus on the present, on who Jarmusch is today. He's an accidental brand and a fairly popular anti-populist, but these have more to do with the mechanics of film distribution than with Jarmusch's own intentions. They've also had the beneficial effect of getting him funding. It's because of film festivals and the American indie boom of the late 20th century that a person like Jarmusch, who would've been making films on shoestrings (if at all) the 1960s, is able to make a movie every few years and get it into theaters.

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