Stranger Than Paradise on DVD.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 11 2009 7:11 AM

The Cineaste of Cool

How Jim Jarmusch's hipness distracts from his greatness.

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Numerous European directors proudly claim Jarmusch as a major influence—among them Aki Kaurismaki, Michael Haneke, and Claire Denis—but there are few American directors willing to risk the ponderous silences and extended still images that mark Jarmusch's best work. Kelly Reichardt's recent Old Joy is a rare example; like Stranger Than Paradise, it is a film about friendship and loneliness in which intermittent conversation provides a distraction from the deeper conflicts between the two main characters.

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So it's all the more disappointing that Jarmusch, as his career has progressed, has relied less on visual melodies and more on his left hand. The trend began with Night on Earth, which Criterion has also just released, a series of five conversations between garrulous taxicab drivers and their fares in five different cities. Most of the 10 conversations that form Coffee and Cigarettes, meanwhile, are less dialogues than dueling monologues, in which two characters talk past each other. Jarmusch's chatter is funny, jangly, and sometimes poetic, but it's a poor substitute for the visual nuances of Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's films still contain strikingly memorable images, and still have their odd charm. But in his more recent work, his camera has tended to reveal far more about the world in which the film is set—a coffee shop, an urban ghetto, the American West—than about the characters themselves.

This is not to say that Jarmusch has completely lost his touch. There are many quietly evocative moments in his most recent film, Broken Flowers (2005), a delicate, moving portrait of love and aging. In one particularly resonant scene, we see Don Johnston (Bill Murray) sitting with a glass of champagne on his couch early in the morning. Don is about to leave on a trip to visit four ex-girlfriends, and the still image captures the difficult combination of loneliness, anxiety, and anticipation that have rendered him virtually catatonic.

Not a word is spoken, but everything is said.

Nathaniel Rich is the author ofThe Mayor's Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir, a book of film criticism.

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