Thursday, November 29, 2007
11/29: Night On Earth
Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth is a love song to the beauty of city streets at night. It's also a love song about conversation, and storytelling, and the collisions (fortuitous or ugly) of strangers that make up the fabric of the urban landscape. The film tells five stories, each set in a different city Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki and each set primarily in a taxi cab at night. The first story, in Los Angeles, opens on late afternoon verging into evening, and the last story, in Helsinki, ends with a very early morning scene as the sky begins to flood with light and the city wakes up. In between, Jarmusch focuses on the dead-of-night hours when even these urban centers are largely quiet and subdued, devoid of people but still flooded with artificial light. This is an urban space in which the usual characteristics of city life the clutter, the noise, the crowds have been peeled away, revealing a quiet poetic beauty in the empty neon-lit streets and a possibility for random connections between those few strange people wandering around at this late hour. Obviously, this is an idealized fantasy city, a hermetically sealed artificial world for Jarmusch to play around it.
As with Jarmusch's previous feature, Mystery Train itself an urban tone poem, in that case to Memphis Night On Earth is a series of unconnected vignettes following different characters in each locale. And also like Mystery Train, not every segment is entirely successful, though the film as a whole holds together quite well. The first segment takes place in Los Angeles, with Winona Ryder as the spunky young cab driver Corky (really?) and Gena Rowlands as Victoria, a successful but stressed out Hollywood talent agent. Jarmusch seems to be reaching for the collision of the Hollywood dream factory with gritty everyday reality. But between the innately overwrought nature of Corky, and the disparity in acting talent between the smoothly realistic Rowlands and the awkward, amateurish Ryder, the expected collision winds up being reversed: Rowlands is the sharply defined real character and Ryder is the fantasy caricature. This reversal, possibly unintended, muddies the meaning of the segment's final exchange, in which Corky rejects the offer of a movie role because she's happy with her life as a cab driver and future mechanic. Is she truly rejecting fantasy for reality? She's already something of a cartoon, barely believable, and one gets little sense from Ryder's gum-snapping performance that she means anything she says. The world-weary Rowlands, though, turns in a typically great and understated performance, quietly injecting realism into the proceedings even if she is standing in for the Dream Machine. This segment is interesting, and I can't help think that Ryder's performance prevents some of its ideas from being fully communicated.
Much better is the New York segment, in which YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) is picked up on a lonely Manhattan street by newly arrived German immigrant Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl). This is one of the film's funniest segments, a pure blast of comic greatness that doesn't stretch as much thematically as the Los Angeles segment, and is consequently lighter and sizzling with sharp dialogue. The interaction between the fast-talking, showy YoYo and the halting, uncertain Helmut is hilarious, especially when Helmut's total incompetence behind the wheel forces YoYo to take over the job of driving to Brooklyn. The introduction of Rosie Perez as YoYo's philandering sister-in-law Angela only compounds the humor, with her shrill screaming and profanity-laden abuse for her controlling brother-in-law providing yet another counterpoint in terms of personality. The meeting between these three multi-ethnic characters the black YoYo, Hispanic Angela, and German Helmut provides an implicit commentary on New York's famous melting pot, suggesting the possibility of connections across boundaries. Obviously, this verges as close to fantasy as the Los Angeles story did, but the better acting and richer humor help to pull it off this time. This segment, like the film as a whole, is especially a study of language, of the rhythms of speech and the emotional character of words and their multiple meanings. When Angela is first dragged into the cab by YoYo, she looks at Helmut after a few moments of yelling and derisively asks, "who's this clown?" But Helmut is unperturbed, because he really is a clown, or was one back in his native land anyway, and he happily pulls out two flutes and demonstrates his trademark trick of playing them a jaunty melody on both of them simultaneously. Angela looks baffled, then cracks up. And so an insult becomes an occasion for joy, and the language barrier is broken with song.
In the third segment of the film, the bitter Parisian cab driver and African immigrant played by Isaach de Bankolé picks up the sexy blind woman played by Béatrice Dalle. The driver has just unceremoniously kicked out two African diplomats who had been harassing him, and he picks up this blind woman consciously thinking that he'll finally have an easy fare. As it turns out, he takes the occasion to be the insulting one, asking insensitive and callous questions about her blindness and her inability to do certain things, even asking her what it's like to make love while blind. But Dalle's character is comfortable in her skin, unlike her driver, who freaked out over similarly probing questions about his nationality and class from his previous fares. She is unperturbed, annoyed but secure enough in her own life that she can shrug off the insults and spit them back at him. This segment ultimately has something to say about race, but I'm not sure I know what it is, and Jarmusch seemingly makes every effort to complicate matters and prevent the presentation of race from being in the least bit straightforward. This is especially true of the decision to make the initial abusive passengers also black, so that their prejudice and abuse seems to be more a result of class than of race; they make fun of him for the kind of black he is, not just because he's black. As for the scenes with Dalle, the combination of a blind white woman with a black man naturally lends itself to certain sappy clichés, and Jarmusch skirts frighteningly close to triteness when he has Dalle say that she doesn't know what color means. But this segment ultimately pulls back from any serious treatment of race, and its primary appeal is the gorgeous imagery of Paris at night-time and the impressively weird performance from the always engaging Dalle.
Jarmusch may be the only director who can effectively handle Roberto Benigni, as he already amply demonstrated in Down By Law, and again in the Roman segment of this film. The usually aggravating Benigni is at his comic peak here, seemingly unrestrained and wild without veering off into annoying as he too often does. His performance is a masterwork of ever-escalating loony-ness, as he plays a cab driver who picks up an ailing priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and feels the need to abruptly make his confession right there in the cab. I'm reluctant to even discuss this segment, because it really should just be experienced rather than described, and I couldn't do justice to Benigni's frantic cadences, or the way he describes his ludicrous sins with joy and fond nostalgia rather than regret. It's in this segment that Jarmusch makes the best use of the film's recurring structural two-shot, showing the cab driver in the right foreground of the frame and the passenger in the left background. Here, the interplay between Benigni's foreground gesticulating and ranting and the priest's horrified reaction and struggles with his heart medicine form the very foundation of the humor. Jarmusch sticks with this two-shot for the vast majority of the segment, once Bonacelli enters the car, and it perfectly underscores the scene's humor by creating a constant tension between the foreground and background, with essentially two different mini-narratives occurring simultaneously. Benigni has never been better, or funnier, than he is here.
The last segment of the film, in contrast, is the most melancholy of the lot, concerning the depressive Mika (Matti Pellonpää), who picks up a trio of drunken revelers on a deserted, snowy street. Two of the men are carrying their passed-out friend, who they say has just had the worst day of his life. What follows is a kind of competition of misery between the men and the cab driver. The men first describe what's happened to their passed-out friend, and Mika then tells his own even sadder story, telling them that it could always be worse and even within Mika's tale, about the loss of his prematurely delivered first child, there is always the hope of the future. In this segment, despite the depressing subject matter of the conversations, there's a real sense of pleasure in the depiction of the conversations themselves. Jarmusch is a big fan of telling stories, as his episodic diner chat film Coffee and Cigarettes certainly demonstrated, and here his love of talk is clear even if the talk is mostly maudlin. This patter of voices is juxtaposed against the utter quiet of Helsinki's deserted night, the streets covered in snow at places and slicked wet with melted ice at others, the light reflecting off all these gleaming surfaces and giving everything an icy winter glow. This is possibly the film's most beautiful section, ending in a gray pre-dawn haze as the unfortunate passenger sits alone in the snow waiting for a new day to begin.
Despite the subtle strength of this final segment, which pulls everything together in some inexpressible way, Night On Earth is at its most successful when it aims for broad comedy, as it does in the New York and Rome sequences. These are the film's comic heart, its riotous vision of laughter and humor as the connective tissue between disparate souls in an emptied urban space. When Jarmusch stretches for understated social commentary in his urban vignettes, as he does in the Paris and Los Angeles segments, he's less successful, straining the limits of his caricatures and the fantasy cities they inhabit. The city as a fantasized venue for humorous interactions and social commentary is hardly a new idea, stretching back at least to Chaplin and Tati, especially in the latter's masterpiece Playtime. But Jarmusch's vision of the city is much different, much less physical for one thing: his characters never interact with the urban space but simply pass through it. The city is merely decoration, a poetically lit set in which these characters can talk and think and interact. Their connections, or failures to connect, are the film's real subject, and the city becomes ancillary, the passive object which allows these people to meet. Their meetings are depressing, hilarious, thought-provoking, puzzling, or provocative, but above all they're always entertaining and engaging.