1991 was a year of blockbusters in cinema, both bland and grand.
The second installment of the Terminator franchise ruled the summer box office, while Kevin Costner gave his droll rendering of the Robin Hood myth. There was a retelling of the Peter Pan story, a Disney monstrosity that broke all kinds of records, a few star vehicle comedies to boot.
Sounds like a typical year in cinema.
Some indie stalwarts released great early films, like Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” and Terry Gilliam’s Biblical comedy/drama “The Fisher King” which remains beguiling and interesting all these years.
Time has an effect on art, particularly films. What seems to have a sweeping cultural impact when it comes out, say another Arnold Schwarzenegger film, becomes forgettable through re-boots, or becomes the answer to a trivia question, like, “What movie was the Bryan Adams classic, ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ from?” It is difficult to tell what films will have an impact ten, twenty, or thirty years down the line.
Blockbusters bland and grand, perhaps, but 1991 yielded my favorite all time movie, one that hardly registered anywhere.
Somewhere down the list of the year’s blockbusters, with a budget of a couple of million dollars and an opening weekend at the box office of roughly $34,000 was “Night On Earth” by writer/director Jim Jarmusch.
This film wasn’t released with great fanfare on shopping mall cineplex theaters. Rather it was released as the type of art-house and college film movie that spreads by word of mouth, or through heady articles in the Sunday New York Times.
Among the lost and forgotten, this movie is one whose status has grown and flowered over the last three decades into something of a cult classic.
Night On Earth: Triumph In Concept
You may not have seen “Night On Earth”. If you have not, don’t worry, you’re not alone in this place of discovery.
Jarmusch’s fifth feature-length film, by far his most ambitious project to this point, is a loose-fitting story told in five parts. Each story takes place in a different taxi cab, in a different city, with each occurring simultaneously.
In Los Angeles, we meet a spunky young driver and a Hollywood casting agent, driving through dusky Southern California barrios.
At the precise moment that cab launches on its journey, we embark on an encounter between a fast-talking Brooklynite and his driver who simply cannot grasp the fundamentals of how to operate a car.
Further on, a racial argument in a Paris cab leads to a surreal conversation about the world of the senses and what it means to really see.
In Italy, an off the wall cabbie rattles on in a comic one-sided monologue, before involving a priest in an unwanted, middle of the night confession.
Then finally, in the snowy Helsinki, we are treated to a story of dueling sadness, tragedy and ultimately, resignation.
The stories are separate. Each is told to completion, from beginning to end. However, each story’s resolution leads to a shot of five clocks, rolling back to the same moment. This ushers the beginning of the next story.
The Gift Of Simultaneity
Simultaneity is defined as the relationship between any two events happening at the same time.
The concept in “Night On Earth” is based on twin fascinations. The first is how large or small the world is. Second, how connected we all are. These twin fascinations are related and wholly irreconcilable.
On one hand, our perception of how large (or small) the world is, is relevant to our place in it at any given time. Because we are always changing, that relationship remains fluid with it. On the other hand, the same could be said for our feelings of connection or isolation. That too is dependent on where we are at any given moment.
On first viewing, the stories in “Night On Earth” seem random. They feel like happenstance occurrences that can happen anytime and anywhere.
Jarmusch does not allow his film to wallow in the realm of random though. There is more bonding these stories than the sum of their parts. As a storyteller, he seems to innately understand that our feelings are constantly shifting and the river of our emotional experience is never the same.
The triumph in “Night On Earth” is its enduring capacity to satisfy these twin fascinations at any given point.
Slice Of Life Film?
The literary term “slice of life” is often associated with a realistic depiction of life’s mundane moments. It is a film or book that focuses on capturing the arbitrary, lacking in plot development.
Our current literary taste tends more toward plot-driven storytelling. A strong majority of modern readers and viewers want something dynamic to happen in the stories they absorb, and out of that, some larger more grand design revealed. They want a revelation, transformation.
There is no overarching plot holding “Night On Earth” together. There is nothing in the way of cohesive progression between the Los Angeles dusk when Corky (Winona Ryder) hangs up the payphone and picks Victoria (Gena Rowlands) up and that grim Helsinki dawn when Mika (Matti Pellonpaa) drops his drunken, down on his luck, fare onto the icy sidewalk.
Without that grand, a-ha moment to resolve them, it is easy to view “Night On Earth” merely a slice of life. But to dismiss it as a less than dynamic story for that quality misses some of what Jarmusch achieves in his storytelling.
The Legacy of Night On Earth
The moments of our lives are mostly lacking in grandiose plot or magnificent character transformation. Most of our lives are mundane. While we can try and relate the events of our day-to-day to heroic ascent, or terrible crash of cinematic characters, our lives will never be theirs.
In “Night On Earth” Jarmusch achieves a series of five realistic stories about the human condition, as it stands in a brief, twenty-minute segment through a single night. It reveals small conflicts. It revels in rare joys while balancing that with disappointing counterpoints. Its humor and tragedy we can, if we look at ourselves honestly, all relate to.
Opportunity knocks, as it does for Corky in Los Angels, and we miss it. Or, we choose a different road.
YoYo discovers that sometimes friendship arrives in an unexpected guise. But as anyone in a bar, airport, or cab knows, those bonds are ephemeral.
In Paris, the driver learns that arriving at an understanding of our differences when it comes to race and ability is a constant challenge.
While the life lesson in Rome is less tangible, we can share in a dark laugh at the intersection between absolution and mortality.
As the sun comes up over Helsinki, we are reminded of our shared appetite for tragedy, how even a sad story will keep us up till dawn.
A Quintessential Jarmusch Film
Few filmmakers could successfully deliver a film of the broad scope of “Night On Earth” complete with the necessary quirk and humor, sadness, and shadowy epiphany. Since his 1980 debut “Permanent Vacation” Jim Jarmusch has been treating viewers to memorable films of unexpected depth while tempting their definitions of strange.
This is not the film to watch in a crowded, rowdy room. It’s not the pick me up, comfort film either.
On that particularly ponderous night, however, when the breadth of this spinning, blue marble we’re all standing on feels within your grasp this is the choice. Something to help feel that connection we all share.
Did you watch “Night On Earth”?
What did you think of the film? Where does it stack up with other films in Jim Jarmusch’s expansive catalog?
Did you think of it as a good crime film?
Leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought.
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