Criterion Challenge #401
Night on Earth
1991 // United States // Jim Jarmusch
Criterion Collection is the colossal polymerization of, yet not limited to, the art house cinema. It’s like a treasure box you never know what’s gonna be inside, sometimes you find a gem, any other times, it could be a portal that transport you to another territory you never explored. I would never forget the excitement I had when I first stepped on the land of American independent cinema created by John Cassavetes. Besides Cassavetes, I would think of Jim Jarmusch as the representatives in that same realm, though they came from different generations. In contrary, my encounter with Jarmusch’s films in Criterion Collection, firstly DOWN BY LAW, then STRANGERS FROM PARADISE, lacked the bewilderment I found with Cassavetes. Still, I’m enchanted by the films’ unique marginalization and cross-cultural reference. The following short review was written after my first viewing on Jarmusch’s fifth feature, NIGHT ON EARTH, without much deep knowledge on his others films. My thoughts may come superficial and inadequate in fully appreciating the film, the anthology of five episodes of encounters in five different cities, but somehow I enjoy the similarity between my almost blank impression upon the film and the auteur himself, and the five encounters by chance depicted in the film itself.
The film, as previously mentioned, is comprised by five “intervals”. Shortly before the first episode begins, Jarmusch created a cosmic view on the planet Earth itself, together with Tom Waits’ provocative waltz song, the shot slowly zooms to a more detailed map-like look of the world. Actors names are credited in association with the location of the city they appeared in the film. The opening credit gives a sense of homogeneity, a view of one world and one world alone, and a strong unifying force. Paradoxically, this homogeneity is both reinforced by the repetition and recurrence of framing and formalism among the five episodes, and contrasted with the heterogeneity and diversity of the people involved (ethnic, language, behavior and social class).
The formalism is easy to catch on, all five stories began with the shot of five clocks, and subsequently zoom-in to the one clock that the city represented, and then the montage of the city’s night view. Five stories occur at the exact same time in four different time zones, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki respectively. Each took around 25 minutes, almost played in real time. Therefore the film started at dusk in Los Angeles and then nightfall, ended at dawn in Helsinki, thematically it was from dusk till dawn. The stories took place almost exclusively inside a taxi, and unfolded along the exchanges between the passenger(s) and the taxi driver. The confined space framing and nocturnal cinematography by Frederick Elmes captured the confrontation between intimacy and repulsion, as well as the essence of cities without relying on the landmarks alone.
Unlike Robert Altman films NASHVILLE and SHORT CUTS, or Jarmusch previous film MYSTERY TRAIN, which had interspersed storylines intertwining with each other, the five episodes in NIGHT ON EARTH were independent geographically and interpersonally. Yet when viewed as a whole, each one of them are reflective and sublimely linked. They are about mutable encounters and unorthodox exchange normally avoidable within characters social network. That’s why riding a taxi is like playing a lucky draw, it’s chance and fate. In the 1st episode “Los Angeles”, a well-dressed upper class woman Victoria (Gena Rowlands) got on the taxi driven by the unmannered, tomboy looked driver Corky (Winona Ryder). It’s unlikely they would have anything in common, and the characters are first shown by cross-cutting their individual scenes. Victoria just got off the plane and Corky just dropped off a Rock band at the airport, Victoria talked to her work associate via cellphone while Corky used a pay phone. Slowly the two characters crossed path and shared their existence within a single frame. I took this as the major theme of NIGHT ON EARTH, the theme of cross-cultural and social class encounters, just like two planets collided into each other, and created some astonishing fireworks. NIGHT ON EARTH is full of fireworks.
In the 2nd episode “New York”, a black man YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) was unsuccessful in making a taxi stopped for him and bought him home, until a rookie Eastern-German immigrant Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) showed up as a rookie cabdriver. How Helmut, a previous circus clown, can drive the cab in a “stop-and-go” motion with limited English vocabulary was a mystery to me, but the request of YoYo to drive the cab and let Helmut to ride along created such an amusing situation that I totally bought it. Both of them were marginal characters and outsiders. A black man cannot take a cab in Mahattan is simply because he is black, but even they share the same race, things won’t turn out nicely. The arguments between YoYo and his sister-in-law Angela (Rosie Perez) he coincidently picked up along the streets, were intense, but somehow darkly comical. This kind of confrontation was carried on in the 3rd episode “Paris”, which had an unnamed cabdriver (Isaach De Bankolé) being teased by his fellow African passenger at first (Although I find the joke, which is very French-related, difficult to be interpreted). Sooner afterwards, he picked up a blind passenger (Béatrice Dalle) but ended up in humiliating himself by asking insensible and insensitive questions.
Human blindness also occurred when one assess others superficially (most of the time incorrectly) just by their looks, especially upon a brief encounter with strangers. In the 4th episode “Rome”, a relentless driver Gino (Roberto Benigni) cruising around the open city in dark night, and wearing sunglasses! He picked up a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and unconditionally offer his confession, even though the priest rejected his idea. Gino’s sin of sexual experience sounded bluffing, but as he was played by Roberto Benigni, everything made sense. He blindly overlooked the priest’s suffering from the backseat (maybe Gino’s monologue trigger the sickness), as he’s totally immersed in his own account of the past. In the last episode in “Helsinki”, both the driver Mika (Matti Pellonpää) and the three passengers (Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Salmela) with one drunk, dealt with their own sorrow past. For those two passengers who thought their drunk friend Aki had the worse day of his life, Mika countered it with his own story of lost child. The Helsinki part was obviouly a homage to Aki Kaurismäki, using the actors frequently collaborated with him, and the tone of witty humour in a “dark” story. At the end, Aki was left alone in the snowy street at dawn, after his neighbors greeted him upon their way to work.
Upon recalling the film, I found myself liking it more and more, each episode has its own merit and highlight that lingered in my mind. The “Los Angeles” segment reminisced the work of Cassavetes due to the present of the immortal actress Gena Rowlands, it’s her first film role after the death of her husband John Cassavetes. The story ended with the practical “dream” of being a mechanic and normal life prevailing the Hollywood dream factory, call back to the existence of independent cinema against Hollywood blockbusters. However, it’s the humour on the second segment that won over my love, I can see “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” that was ended too shortly. I especially like the charming performance from Armin Mueller-Stahl. There are metaphor of “sense over sight” in the “Paris” segment, which was insightful when Béatrice Dalle’s character applied it in watching films. Unfortunately I find it hard to fully grasp the over-the-top absurdity in “Rome” and the undertone comedy in “Helsinki”. Maybe I felt a bit tired over the end of the film?
Overall, five episodes with five stories, each one is actually a glimpse of the city life, a life that is too trivial to be put in a conventional Hollywood film. But Jarmusch’s interest is beyond the storyline, it’s more on the extension of human existence. Once again, I find Cassavetes’ works more vigorous, more intimidating. But once in a while, when I want to spend a moody night in a movie universe, Jarmusch hypnotic works may come to my mind. Did I tell you I love ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE?
Film score: 4/5
Although the audio commentary may focus more on the technical aspects, the Q&A (audio only) with Jarmusch is highly informative and entertaining, probably the best special feature in the disc. Also included are a short interview with Jarmusch, and a booklet of five fantastic essays in association with the five segments/cities involved in the film itself, I’m fully satisfied with all the contents.