Ever since I first saw Stranger than Paradise, during its initial release in 1984, I’ve been an admirer of Jim Jarmusch’s work. Obviously, I prefer some films to others, but there’s not one I haven’t liked: his work is remarkably consistent, not only in theme and tone but in quality. That means I’ve been enjoying his work for three decades now, which is a long time. And there’s something that’s been disappointing me for just as long, though that’s not Jarmusch’s fault. I’m talking about a very particular, all too common response to his work – usually from fans, though also in some cases from detractors. It’s the notion that the main thing to say – indeed, perhaps the only thing to say – about Jarmusch and his films is that they are ‘cool’.
What does that mean, exactly? I’ve really no idea. So I’ve also no idea whether it’s true to say that the filmmaker and his work are cool. Nor am I remotely interested in such an assertion, if that’s as far as it goes, because it’s almost wholly uninformative, except perhaps that it indicates that the person deeming Jarmusch and his movies cool presumably approves of them for some unexplained reason. But what might that reason be? Is Jarmusch cool because his hair went prematurely white? (I’m not at all sure he himself would consider that an achievement of which he should be particularly proud.) Or is he cool because he has musician friends? But why would that make his films cool? I still don’t get it.
How has this reputation come about? It may indeed have at least something to do with Jarmusch’s good looks and his musician friends, but it may also be a consequence of the fact that he first caught the attention of many filmgoers (after his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation) with Stranger than Paradise, in which the protagonist, Willie – played by John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards – might be seen as someone at least trying to appear ‘cool’. Willie is keen to conceal his Hungarian roots (not to mention his Hungarian name), reluctant to play host to his visiting Hungarian cousin, and generally appears happiest with a way of life that’s fairly solitary, slacker-like and self-centred, save for his friendship with the more outgoing Eddie (Richard Edson).
Now, it’s true that filmgoers hadn’t seen many movie protagonists like the slightly lazy, generally unremarkable Willie, but just because he was the protagonist of the film, it didn’t follow that his creator endorsed each and every aspect of his behaviour or way of life. Indeed, Willie’s shortcomings are soon gently revealed, with affection and wit (qualities much in evidence throughout Jarmusch’s career): it transpires that he’s not quite as gruffly self-sufficient as he likes to make out, and just needs to open up a little, not only to cousin Eva but to himself. He may be trying to be ‘cool’, but actually what he needs is a little more human warmth in his life.
If Jarmusch’s first hit had not been Stranger than Paradise but one of the later films, he might not have been lumbered with that limited and limiting ‘cool’ label. Take, for example, its successor, Down by Law (1986), where we not only have Lurie playing New Orleans pimp Jack, but also Tom Waits as radio DJ Zack. Now, these characters are far more absurd than Willie was in their preening masculine pride and arrogance – each really does seem to consider himself the coolest dude in Louisiana – but Jarmusch’s take on their ludicrous posturing, while still affectionate, is more immediately apparent. Even in the film’s earliest scenes, Jack and Zack are told in no uncertain terms about their many failings by their respective lovers. Then we get to see how the enemies they’ve made feel about them.
And then, in prison, they meet a stranger who has no grudge whatsoever against them: their cellmate Roberto (Roberto Benigni), an Italian with a hilariously eccentric grasp of English and more than enough warm generosity to make up for Zack and Jack’s deficiencies in that department. Their cynicism and suspicion are countered by Roberto’s imaginative optimism. You don’t need to wait for the movie’s ending to discover where Jarmusch’s deepest sympathies lie.
Indeed, the great thing about Jarmusch’s films is not that they’re ‘cool’ – as I said, I’ve no idea what that means – but that they’re quite the opposite. They’re warm, and admirably human both in their pleasingly modest scale and in their abiding concern: what is the best way to live in what Roberto calls this “sad an’ beautiful world”?
Time and again, Jarmusch seems to be telling us that love, friendship, respect for others, and an open, imaginative mind are key to answering that question. And let’s not forget: Jarmusch may be (to quote a character in Down by Law) “as serious as cancer” when he reminds us of the importance of those things, but in so doing, he never forgets that it’s also good to make us laugh. No wonder he’s so fond of something said by Oscar Wilde: “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.”