Night on Earth

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Apr 17, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Whatever you think of his filmography as a whole, you can't deny that Jim Jarmusch was always Jim Jarmusch. While his style has expanded (and sometimes, I'd argue, contracted) over the last four decades, the basic earmarks were set early on: the mumbly-cool protagonists, the stylishly disheveled backgrounds, the bone-dry humor queerly punctuated by quasi-vaudeville routines. Jarmusch's aloof cool can be grating at the lower points of his catalog — to say nothing of his need to broadcast whatever not-as-cool-as-he-thinks musical interests have grabbed his attention during filming (cf. the lame-ass Jack White references in Only Lovers Left Alive) — but his best films make even those affectations work in his favor.

Night on Earth, Jarmusch's first one-man omnibus film from 1991, isn't one of his best films, but neither is it his worst. The film's five sections take place in as many taxicabs, in as many cities (namely: Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki). The stories aren't interconnected in some over-clever way; like his other omnibus, Coffee and Cigarettes, the disparate action here simply revolves around the film's central thematic device, and that's enough.

Aside from the shared setting, though, there seems to be a theme of small, but not inconsequential, personal growth which ties these stories together. There's a human camaraderie even among apparent antagonists: sure, profane tomboy cabbie Corky ( Winona Ryder) isn't going to stay friends with prissy talent agent Victoria (Gena Rowlands) more than a few seconds after the fare is paid, but what starts as a stilted, dubious relationship still ends with a brief spark of connection. The film's Helsinki story is the most emotionally naked and empathetic; though it starts out silly and caustic, it gets sad almost to to the point of being histrionic. The delicate balance of hurt and humor, though, ultimately makes it the most affecting portion of the film.

As far as this particular edition goes: given that this is the Criterion Collection we're talking about, it should go without saying that the restoration is top notch, and the bonus features, though not as extensive as some other titles in that catalog, all genuinely complement the film. The booklet features essays by different writers for each section of the film; Thom Andersen, he of the excellent essay/collage film Los Angeles Plays Itself, offers particularly insightful observations about Jarmusch's depiction of the City of Angels.

Night on Earth isn't Jarmusch's funniest film, nor his most ambitious. It feels transitional and self-conscious, and Tom Waits' pseudo-"ethnic" soundtrack, the leitmotif of starting each section with a shot of five clocks representing each of the film's settings, and its attempts at more puerile, obvious humor all smack of Jarmusch taking pains to make a "cult" film for a bigger audience. That he actually managed to make a bonafide cult classic a couple years later with Dead Man, and did so by indulging in his most languid pacing and oblique humor instead of sanding his edges for a mass audience, suggests that Jarmusch learned something from Night on Earth's shortcomings. That in itself is enough to make it a valuable film, but anyone interested in picking apart this talented, occasionally brilliant filmmaker's long game will find something to enjoy besides.  



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April 23rd 2019

Wonderfully written and interesting throughout… kept readers wanting to read more and more and more… tha’s exactly what readers are looking for when reading books.
Amber Park
New Amber Park