NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) *** 3/4
Maverick filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a cool, tongue-in-cheek observer and low-budget minimalist, has made a film of five sketches or slices of life, five cab rides at the same hour in five different cities, each trip having a special contact between drivers and riders, reinforced by deep night.
For many independents, poverty is an asset. When they attain bankable status and bigger means, they often lose their purity -- and disappoint us. Will success spoil Jim Jarmusch?
For this film he worked with a high (for him) budget, color, and some name stars. He took the risk of a multi-episode formula, one than fails more often than not. The good news is that Jarmusch has come up with a wonderfully fresh, offbeat, and original movie, the most delightful of the season.
We get a mordant view of Los Angeles as casting agent Gena Rowlands, all chic and frantic calls on her cellular phone, becomes the fare of scruffy cabby Winona Ryder who can chew gum maniacally, chain-smoke and drive at the same time -- something not given to everyone, including famous public figures.
Ryder and rider are respectively and gloriously low-class and showbiz. Nothing much happens. The two chat across their social and generational differences. Gena offers Winona a movie part, but fame and fortune are turned down. What Winona wants is to be a mechanic. An improbable refusal but emblematic of Jarmusch¹s anti-Hollywood-Establishment stance.
In New York, agitated Giancarlo Esposito is ignored by taxis. Partly because he¹s black? Maybe, but Jarmusch won¹t fall into obvious political correctness. Instead, another minority member picks up Esposito. Armin Mueller-Stahl, fresh from Eastern Germany, formerly a circus clown, now starting out a colossally inept cabbie who can understand neither New York traffic nor Newyorkese
Verissimilitude goes out the window, but Armin, the innocent immigrant, is appealing in his natural simplicity. With much cleverness, Jarmusch makes of him something like fawn in the jungle, but one not quite aware that it is a jungle. Esposito takes the wheel. Both men are baffled and amused by each other, by German accents, Black English vocabulary and names. Helmut sounds like ³helmet² to the mirth of Giancarlo... who is called Yo-Yo.
Yo-Yo has never heard of Dresden or Czechoslovakia; Helmut is confounded by New York¹s topography. They¹re even. They like each other. And when Yo-Yo picks up his errant, foul-mouthed, cute sister-in-law Rosie Perez, Helmut is enchanted by her. Between him and the street-smart Yo-Yo there is fleeting sympathy. Jarmusch¹s habitual irony is still there all right, but, contrary to the opening images, without the aloofness of an alien watching earthlings. And the octane of warmth has been upgraded, but without reaching the level of sentimentality.
The next sections are in local languages and with subtitles. In Paris, an Ivory Coast native, taciturn Isaach De Bankolé, drives two black Cameroonian businessmen, nattily suited and high on champagne.. They mock, taunt, call him "Ivoirien" ("Ivory Coaster") and "Y voit rien" ("He sees nothing"), an untranslatable French pun. There¹s discrimination among Africans too--but that¹s just a passing point.
Isaach kicks them out, picks up new fare Beatrice Dalle. She is white, pretty, and blind. Jarmusch de-romanticizes her by showing the white of her eyes and giving her an attitude. Isaach is fascinated, asks questions and gets nasty, agressive-defensive responses. You half-expect a romance, but wait and see.
In Rome, hyper Roberto Benigni drives like Fangio but ignores one-way streets. He is a compulsive chatterbox, even with his radio dispatcher and--like a Godard character--even to himself. Picking up a priest, he inflicts on the unwilling old man an impromptu, detailed, scabrous confession of sexual experiences, taking a break to say hello to friends, transvestite hookers. Benigni, his monologues and the gags reach such a delirious level that there is more laughter in a few minutes than in an entire, solid comedy feature. At the end comes a dark twist -- but look closely, it may not be all that dark.
The film's finish is Finnish. In drab, empty, snow-covered Helsinki, cabby Matti Pellonpaa loads up a loaded trio who tell a sad tale. Matti counters with a sadder story yet, which becomes a consolation of sorts for the others. You may be expecting a gimmick, but the catch is that there is no catch.
This is the only dispiriting episode. You may wonder why the filmmaker closes his picture with it, but then Jarmusch takes his uncompromising unorthodoxy all the way. If Hollywoodized, driver Ryder would have been turned into a Lana Turner type of discovery, the German and the two Brooklynites would have become friends, Isaach and Beatrice, lovers, and a catch would make for an upbeat finis. But not with J.J.
Jarmusch is clever and subtle. The cabs, in a technical tour-de-force, are real, alive and a far cry from the old rear-projection techniques or even newer, more sophisticated special effects. The social promiscuity in their space is taken to the max.
The supercharged vignettes unfailingly takes little turns that shift away from conformism and expand the meaning of minimalism. You know that each episode is just one-fifth of the whole, so the intimacy, closeness and over-acting are not heavily thrust upon the audience.
Jarmusch is true to himself, to his concerns with solitude, anomie, connections and disconnections. He brings out the bizarreness within the commonplace, aspects that are as true as is the haphazardness of real life. But this film is also all-new. Jim does not ape Jarmusch.
His performers are razor-sharp. So are the ways in which Jarmusch captures the look, essence and mood of his five cities after hours. With the help of his cinematographer (who has worked with David Lynch) and others --including Tom Waits whose wonderful, gravely song connects all the sections.
Jarmusch, the fellow from Akron, Ohio, has made genuine Los Angeles and New York movies, and authentically French, Italian and Finnish films.
[Publ. Friday 13 Nov. 1992 by Edwin Jahiel]
WITH ADDITIONS, CHANGES, CORRECTIONS APRIL 1995