Film Intuition Profiles: Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch
A Profile by Jen Johans

Originally from Akron, Ohio where he was born in 1953 to a film critic mother and Goodyear Tire employee father, Jim Jarmusch has since become one of the most iconic and often discussed independent filmmakers of the past twenty-five years.

At seventeen he relocated to Columbia University where he received his BA in English, developing a love for both creative writing and literature, with an emphasis on poetry.

Without any experience, he submitted some of his writing to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and became a film student, working with legendary directors Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders who quickly became both friends and mentors.

When he received a Louis B. Mayer scholarship, the money was erroneously sent to him instead of to the school and he blew every penny making his first film Permanent Vacation, which failed to impress NYU to such an extent that they denied him a degree.

After Wim Wenders donated old film stock to create Jarmusch’s first feature-length work Stranger than Paradise which won him the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, NYU started using his name in their advertisements.

When Jarmusch made a joke about failing to graduate in an interview, the school promptly sent him an honorary degree, about which he famously told The Guardian UK that,“the degree along with $1.75 can buy you a cup of coffee.”

Despite the snub from his “alma mater,” Jarmusch’s first film Stranger than Paradise set the tone for his work to come—namely his minimalist style, love of Buddhist and Existential philosophy and inclusion of eccentric characters who live on the "margins of life."

Jarmusch’s films are mostly filled with lovable losers, oddballs and sometimes deadbeats, who are often played by musicians or comedians. Some viewers and critics love his work, some hate it-- in any case, if you do have a passion for independent cinema, he’s worth checking out, especially his first few films that not only revved up film-goers but also inspired filmmakers Spike Lee and Kevin Smith who have both said that they owe a great deal to Jarmusch’s work.

Besides introducing the new “beat generation” to American cinema fans, he also imported one of Italy’s finest to American audiences-- the writer/director/actor and comedian Roberto Benigni who made his first films under Jarmusch’s watch. The two men had originally met each other while at a European film festival, and after being bored from the proceedings they sought distraction in an alley to smoke cigarettes, and although neither could understand the other's native tongue and communicated via broken French, a fast friendship was born.

While his most recent film Broken Flowers has been called his most mainstream work and doesn’t accurately represent his earlier films such as Paradise, Mystery Train and Night on Earth, it still has his trademark love of character over story, traveling on the American open road and a cast of stellar actors that include Academy Award winners and nominees all eager to play even the smallest of parts.

It was written exclusively for Bill Murray and inspired by an idea from a friend and his long-term live-in girlfriend, filmmaker Sara Driver about a man who receives an anonymous letter informing him that he had unknowingly fathered a son nearly twenty years earlier. Bill Murray actually plays the straight man in the piece and lets his co-stars shine including Jeffrey Wright who steals every scene he’s in as his humorous neighbor Winston and the many leading ladies whose odd characters have literary and pop culture allusions.

As The New Yorker’s David Denby said Broken Flowers’s overwhelmingly female cast sticks true to Jarmusch’s preference that his female characters are usually much more interesting and alive than the men and you’ll notice it right away.

Note regarding Jarmusch: There's a wealth of more in-depth features, interviews and articles available online but this is the first in a feature entitled Profiles, which will hopefully inspire movie fans to uncover some wonderful work that-- fitting to the idea of Jarmsuch-- lies just outside the mainstream.

Filmography of Feature Work:
Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and Broken Flowers (2005).