| Mathilde Charras |
The slow and plaintive notes start rising over the black and white urban landscape flashing up on the screen. The rise and fall of the United States, their drop of crazy genius and lost souls pervade the broken journeys of Jim Jarmusch’s awkward heroes. Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law and Dead Man celebrate the acceptance of life’s stillness, of time’s loopholes and the role that others play in it. Let us dwell upon these impossible travels, these missed destinies before diving again in the stream of life.
Drifters and dreamers
Willie, Eddie and Eva; Zach, Jack and Bob; William Blake and Nobody land on life-changing shores. Whether they are foreigners trying to figure out what being an American means or hopeful men discovering violence, Jarmusch seems to whisper in our ears that everyone is innocent and yet guilty. Characters are failed poets of the daily life, used to loneliness and half successes. However, one day, they are forced to leave.
These departures propel them to adventurers: cars, trains and planes bring our companions to unknown yet familiar places. Jarmusch displays with mirth props embodying modernity and the loneliness brought along by it. The phones ring endlessly in small apartments; TV trays betray what Western civilisation has become: goods ready to be thrown away, even allowing us not to “wash [our] dishes”.
Landscapes and faces change but “you come to some place new and everything looks just the same”. This uncanny familiarity, far from bringing despair or rebellion, prompts laughter. The film director’s glance embraces the picture and carries tenderness and life-saving irony. This bittersweet taste reminds the viewer of the Myth of Sisyphus as theorized by Albert Camus, ending on those words: “Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux”.
Black and white road trips
Along with these shaky characters, our spirit rambles, as if in a lucid dream. In Stranger than Paradise and Dead Man, the story adopts the rhythm of a closing eyelid, pausing the movie and dividing it into short scenes, as if existing on their own. The road trips do not bring us anywhere but on the edge of friendship and humanity. The grain of the camera defines the space and the distance between people: the photography gives a physical existence to space. In Stranger than Paradise, the plot unravels in Willie’s destitute flat. His cousin Eva came to visit her family in the USA from Budapest and while sharing the same room, the two characters could not feel further apart; their remoteness could not be more tangible.
These three movies, all shot at a time during which moviemakers struggled to convince studios to invest in black and white, stage the United States and their landscapes with a renewed aesthetics. Trees, buildings and trashes stand out aside men, somehow deciding the fate of the latter. New Orleans, New York and Machine surround our protagonists with their overwhelming sounds and presence.
It is no coincidence that Jarmusch chose to give his leading roles to musicians. While music gives a unique voice to those, whose words are spare, silences are the ones revealing the questions at the heart of these masterpieces. The presence of the other, at first experienced as being trouble, is quickly felt as essential, as soon as they flee from a space that became familiar to both. It is also from silences that laughter is born, a frank laughter despite these characters losing their compass.
Neo-westerns and the quest of reality
What they are looking for eludes us in many ways. At the end of a journey between life and death, between a destination and one’s roots, between the past and the future, the acceptance of reality seems to await our characters.
Yet, in order to accept what is – the flight, the departure, the change – Jarmusch resorts to myths and the absurd, calling upon the great founding narrations. From the Odyssey to the Westerns and their codification of the West as a formative space of US national identity, he does not hesitate to take his characters on the roads of culture. Like Western heroes, our wanderers remain ambivalent, at once heralds of the American notion of civilisation and yet keeping escaping it. They are swindlers, murderers, thieves, but also in love and free, in a sense.
And, as Sisyphus, one must imagine them happy.
 “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”