The Director's Chair Interviews
An Interview with Jim Jarmusch
by Mili Avital
In Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's recent improvisational sequel Blue In The Face there's a scene between Harvey Kietel and one of New York's most elusive, down and dirty independent filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch, where the icon of the deadpan and oddball discusses giving up smoking. Looking like a pale angelic cross between Billy Idol and a peroxided Nick Cave, Jarmusch concludes that if he gives up smoking then does that mean he must give up sex? There's a wry grin and a quizzical, mischievous glint in his eye that is impossible to deny and impossible to resist.
The conversation and scene is pure Jarmusch, raw and in the flesh as he philosophically poses the question that most people are happier to avoid. In the same intense and disquieting fashion it comes as no surprise to hear Jarmusch postulate on the topic of his latest controversial, cinematic obsession Dead Man (the tale of William Blake) that "death is life's only certainty, and at the same time its greatest mystery".
While the icon of celluloid surrealism ponders the question that has confounded man since the beginning of time, the consumers of counter-culturalism try to unravel the mystery of Jarmusch himself. The part Czech-German-French and Irish auteur, born into the wilds of a town called Akron, Ohio, (home of 1980s new-wavers Rachel Sweet and the Rubber City Rebels, the latter named so because of the town's predominant tyre-making and associated industry) continues to paint his portraits of poetry and startling violence onto the canvas' of his powerful and stirring journeys, none more powerful, minimalistic and intoxicating than Dead Man which centres around his conception of the 17th Century poet, engraver, painter and mystic William Blake.
"This was an English visionary poet, painter, printer and inventor," he explains in a shuffled New York drawl. "His work was revolutionary, and he was imprisoned for his ideas. I can't honestly cite a specific, concrete reason why he entered the script, except that while I was reading books by Native American Indians on Native American thought, it struck me that many of Blake's (the character) ideas and writings sounded particularly true of Blake's Proverbs From Hell, which, along with other fragments of poetry, are quoted by the character Nobody throughout the film.
"For Bill Blake, the journey of Dead Man represents life. For Nobody, the journey is a continuing ceremony whose purpose is to deliver Blake back to the spirit-level of the world. To him, Blake's spirit has been misplaced and somehow returned to the physical realm. Nobody's non-western perspective that life is an unending cycle is essential to the story of Dead Man."
Highly stylistic and sparse, Dead Man has drawn some gasps of confusion and others of praise for its transitional journey through life, death and this strangely disquieting nether world that hovers in between. Jarmusch's camera attempts to travel into the eerie stratospheres of the soul in close-up shots of his disparate characters; Neil Young's sonic cadences that chime, jangle and give an arid rawness to the silence that roars through the picture add a sometimes stilted and overwhelmingly claustrophobic beauty.
Casting the cerebral and haunting Johnny Depp as a tragi-comic, Chaplinesque Blake, the wise and witty Gary Farmer as Nobody, the rugged and wild Gabriel Byrne as Charlie Dickinson and the tender and fragile Mili Avital as Thel Russell, the ex-prostitute who changes Blake's life irrevocably after a one-night liaison, Jarmusch in his usual sardonic fashion goes against the casting grain and cleverly fills each aesthetic black and white scene through his characters with fatalism, innocence, the humour of a spaghetti western and pure abstraction.
For the young Israeli actress Avital, who is nestled comfortably in the bedroom of her apartment in New York City surrounded by scripts and filled with warm memories of the filmmaker she describes as "part clown, part philosopher", Dead Man allowed her to not only explore emotions and fundamental notions of redemption and tragedy, but it allowed her to experience first hand the essence of a man who inspires her greatly.
"There is something truly amazing about Jim Jarmusch," she gasps. "When you see a film by a very distinctive filmmaker that has a very specific vision, you would think that he would come on set and be very strict and everything would be his way. His films are so personal," she adds, "and the amazing thing about Jarmusch is that he is SO open. He has the confidence and the guts to not know things sometimes. To not give you the answers, and to leave the whole thing as a question mark.
"I think you can really see that in Dead Man.. The film is not an answer to anything. It just raises questions about the relationship between nobleness and cruelty. He raises those questions in your head. At the same time in person, Jarmusch has this clown in him, and also a philosopher. He's a very serious man but at the same time he's a complete clown," she grins. "You ask him a serious question and he'll say 'what are you asking me for? I'm the last person you should ask'."
Through the wild terrain of stylish alienation in Stranger Than Paradise, American anti-heroes who were sad and beautiful in Down By Law to his cockeyed valentine to the cradle of rock'n'roll Mystery Train, Jarmusch has conveyed to the audiences who have drowned in his moody, bewildering and dimensional works a sense of starkness and humanity. What is it that makes this man tick? What is it that he seemingly extracts from his very soul that is unsettling and poetic, cruel and chaotic.
For Avital it is something quite simplistic and unique. "I think he is such a courageous filmmaker, because he's prepared to take people who don't look like they would fit certain characters, and I guess that's what he likes to do, because I don't think he's interested in portraying real life.
"He's interested in saying something about the human life ..."
The fruits of Jarmusch's labours have been well documented, lavishly praised and criticised. Yet he remains an inspiration for many up-and-coming filmmakers. For this strange and disparate, intangible genius who has continually re-lit the flame for the alienated and the philosophical, awards such as the Camera d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture Of The Year from the National Film Society Of Film Critics in the U.S. (1985) for Stranger Than Paradise have no doubt been rewarding and stimulating, but not the core motivation to push him outwards and onwards.
It is only on closer inspection to the fundamental plot and core of Dead Man that Jarmusch perhaps reveals what it is that makes him one of the world's most exciting and experimental filmmakers today. He explains: "Contrary to his nature, circumstances transform Blake into a hunted outlaw, a killer, and a man whose physical existence is slowly slipping away.
"Thrown into a world that is cruel and chaotic, his eyes are opened to the fragility that defines the realm of the living. It is as though he passes through the surface of a mirror, and emerges into a previously-unknown world that exists on the other side."
And that for Jim Jarmusch, the noble and rebellious father of the down and dirty New York independent film scene, is precisely how he works his magic. He creates the celluloid mirror with its surreal, rippling reflections and boldly and without fear steps through onto the other side just like William Blake and the man who he lauds a genius in musical spheres - the equally elusive Neil Young.
For Jarmusch, it almost seems like he has finally met the yang to his yin. He grins, "I've been a fan of Neil Young for many years, and I was listening constantly to Neil and Crazy Horse while writing the script for Dead Man.. During the shooting of the film (and all the travelling it involved), we were also listening to Neil's music. Crazy Horse even performed in Sedona, Arizona, during our shooting periods, and a large number of our crew attended the concert.
"From the very start of the project there were hopes of Neil Young performing music for the film, but I was never very confident that it would actually happen," he admits. "When Neil finally saw an early cut of Dead Man and then agreed to score the film, I was ecstatic. (I should attribute this to the fact that Jay Rabinowitz, the editor, had cut some sequences of the film to instrumental sections of Neil's existing songs as examples of how his music might work with the story).
"Neil eventually played pump organ, detuned piano, and acoustic guitar, but the largest percentage of the music is from his electric guitar. What he brought to the film lifts it to another level, intertwining the soul of the story with Neil's musically emotional reaction to it - the guy reached down to some place deep inside him to create such strong music for our film," he concludes with vocal plumes of pure admiration and respect.
The melding of genius' in Dead Man , however, passed under the nose of the Australian Film Censorship Board (AFCB) and resulted in a controversial "ban". Disturbed and upset by the films' connotations of violence and sex, and a scene in particular in which the AFCB believed "contravened guidelines on sexual violence" they tried to suppress Jarmusch's child. It is the first English speaking film to have been denounced and banned since Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer upon its release.
The Australian film world reeled in shock, anger and unity in fighting the ban and succeeded, striking the hammer for liberty and freedom of artistic expression. Meanwhile, Jarmusch quietly explained to The Hollywood Reporter that his "intentions never veered even remotely close to exploitation or gratuitous imagery, and I'm very happy that my own intentions are understood in the Australian film community".
With the furore finally dying down and Dead Man hitting the big screen in all of its glossy, black and white tinged beauty, Jarmusch has finally seen his dream realised. In an in-depth analysis and response to the question of why make a film in black and white, and why a Western?, he quietly concedes: "Since the late '50s and early '60s stories using the "Western" genre, seem to be filmed in the same dusty colour palette over and over again. Whether in a film by Leone or Eastwood, or even a TV episode of Bonanza, the colours always seem to be the same to me. I would prefer that the black and white of Dead Man recalls the atmosphere of American films from the '40s and early '50s, or even the historical films of Kurosawa or Mizoguchi, than the overly familiar palettes of more recent westerns.
"And why a Western? The 'Western' as a genre is very open to metaphor, and has deep roots in classical narrative forms. 'Westerns' are most often stories involving journeys into unfamiliar territory, and they are also often shaped around very traditional themes, like retribution, redemption or tragedy. The openness of the form, and it's inseparable connection to 'America' in the broadest sense, attracted me to it. I have to admit, though, that Dead Man is not a traditional 'Western' - the genre was really only used as a point of departure."
For the visionary and liberating auteur Jim Jarmusch - a pale cross between a peroxided Nick Cave and Billy Idol, Dead Man is also a reflection of his own journey and the wonder and beauty that he traverses as he walks his own path. And for filmgoers and cult purists, the beauty is in the fact that his journey ultimately mirrors our own.
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