Friday, September 14, 2012

Night on Earth

NIGHT ON EARTH                   B                  
USA  France  Germany  Japan  Great Britain  (129 mi)  1991  d:  Jim Jarmusch

I’m sorry I sound calm. I assure you I’m hysterical.
—Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands)

Jarmusch captures a rhythm of the night in five different international cities over the course of a wintry evening and night, following the exploits through the experiences of various cab drivers, where what begins in a whimsical manner in Los Angeles eventually turns colder and gloomier in points further East.  Jarmusch expresses plenty of painterly detail with his urban landscape shots, finding lines of palm trees, lone street lamps and solitary business establishments like hamburger stands or used car lots, featuring signs that appear to be art deco eyesores, with plenty of empty spaces and neon-lit streets, creating a sense of isolation and loneliness, using marginal characters whose stories are unfamiliar to moviegoers, continuing themes of displacement and alienation.  It’s a collection of five vignettes, where each segment is about 25 minutes long, all taking place on the same evening in different cities around the world, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.  Jarmusch wrote the screenplay in about 8 days and the decision to film in certain cities was largely based on the actors he wanted to work with.

Using Tom Waits songs as bookends, sounding very much like a 1930’s Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil cabaret song, “Good Old World” opens the film with the music before we see anything, Night On Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991) - Part 1 YouTube (15:00).  The enclosed space of a taxicab allows various speech patterns to develop, each significantly different as the evening wears on, followed by slowly emerging personalities.  This is a minimalist theater of non-action, as there are no thrills and spills, little suspense, yet plenty of well-written, personally insightful dialogue that explores the four corners of the earth.  For the most part it’s well acted, though on occasion certain roles appear strained.  Shot by Frederick Elmes, who worked the camera for three mid-70’s Cassavetes films, also two decades with David Lynch (1970’s to 1990), the opening sequence accentuates the quirky individualism of LA, seen as an artificial wasteland of fast food joints and eccentric personalities, where gum-chewing tomboy Winona Ryder (never comfortable in the role) is an unconventional cab driver continually lost in her own funk, a women who sets her sights so low she may as well not have any ambition at all.  When Hollywood casting agent Gena Rowlands (who spends much of the time on a cell phone) gets into her cab, she’s a bit taken aback by her overly aggressive nature, thinking she might be perfect for a difficult role she’s thinking of, exerting youthful angst in nearly every sentence she utters, but Ryder prefers to keep her life uncomplicated, where easy street (in LA) is a life without aggravations or stress.

The transition to the streets of New York City is something of a shock, as the blustery winter cold is a reality check, where Giancarlo Esposito, from Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE (1988) and DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), is a revelation in what is easily the most enjoyable segment, where the guy is a laugh riot throughout, where the sheer force of his continually likable personality dominates the segment.  Unable to hail a cab, literally exposing cash dollars to prove he has money for the fare, yet cabs pass by in droves leaving him stranded on the street mumbling to himself.  Finally when a clunker arrives in a permanent start and stop mode, we realize this is the taxicab from Hell.  Inside is Armin Mueller-Stahl, a driver who can barely speak English, who acts like this is his first day in the United States, looking around the city wide-eyed as if he’s never seen it before.  But the guy is such a horrible driver, out of sheer desperation Esposito is forced to take over the wheel.  However, on route he sees his sister-in-law, Rosie Perez, otherwise known as the mouth.  If Esposito was funny, Perez is hysterical, a non-stop battering ram of verbal insults using the F-word with utter relish, throwing it back in everybody’s face, where this may be the performance of the film, as her energy level is simply off the charts.  After awhile, once they’ve settled down, they actually start enjoying one another, where the “real” cab driver may as well be an alien from another planet, as he is so starkly strange and different from them, as are they to him.  A running gag on differing perspectives, this segment is a joyous romp, like a wild trip through the wilderness.       

Once in Paris, the highly indignant cab driver Isaach de Bankolé (with a band-aid over his eyebrow, something never explained), an émigré from the Ivory Coast, takes offense at the drunk yet blatant stereotypical caricature coming from two black guys in the back seat, supposedly in the employ of highly placed diplomats from Africa, yet their broad-based racial profiling of black Africans borders on repulsive, yet they think it’s hilarious, enjoying every snide remark that continuously belittles others.  Isaach contemptuously throws them out of the cab, leaving them on a deserted corner in the middle of the night, refusing to accept any more abuse, eventually picking up Béatrice Dalle, a blind passenger who defiantly wants no sympathy for her condition.  When Isaach starts questioning her obvious limitations, suggesting blindness must make her life difficult, she counters with insults about his obvious mental limitations which must deprive him of a fuller life.  While their back and forth conversation is testy, it’s always surprising, where both actors find fully realized characters in a brief amount of time, where Dalle especially couldn’t be more delightfully feisty.  The two segments of passengers are an interesting contrast, as Isaach grew thin-skinned at the crudely insensitive suggestions of the former, where it turns out he was the instigator of callous remarks with the latter, yet rather than growing furiously temperamental, like Isaach, at what were obviously superficially silly remarks, Dalle deftly handles herself with utter nonchalance, growing annoyed, as if she’s heard it all before, but making fun of his obvious limitations.  It’s an interesting play on race and preconceived notions, made all the more appealing by the passing Parisian landscape where the lights over the river look particularly impressive at night. 

The sequence in Rome is an endlessly rambling monologue from Roberto Benigni as the cab driver, where easily the funniest part is right at the beginning when in a thick Italian accent he ridiculously attempts to sing the Marty Robbins cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” Marty Robbins - The Streets Of Laredo - YouTube (2:49).  This gives you some idea of what kind of loony character he is, where once he picks up a priest, Paolo Bonacelli from Francesco Rosi’s CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (1979) and Antonioni’s THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD (1981), he starts right in and can’t stop himself from unleashing an excruciatingly detailed, sexually tinged confession of his earliest childhood sins in graphic detail, revealing every thought, every scent, every gesture, and every glance, a motor-mouthed display of delusional, self-serving confession, making a reality TV show out of it, where it has nothing whatsoever to do with seeking religious penitence, but becomes an exhilarating ride of an endless stream of near masturbatory verbiage.  While the priest attempts to dissuade his efforts, suggesting a taxicab is an inappropriate substitute for the church, but Benigni only gets more impressed with the idea of having such supreme luck to pick up an actual priest in his cab, ignoring the obvious medical affliction of his passenger.  This is another example of the two being on separate wavelengths, where an actual church official instills no sense of respect, honor, or interior contemplation, but is treated no differently than the whores he chases down on the street, where the driver always remains affable and friendly to everyone, but is too caught up in his own world to ever actually listen or hear what anyone else has to offer, where he will forever remain beholden to himself only, stuck inside a self-deluded prison of his own making, literally a stranger to the world around him.      
The sadly poetic final sequence is a brilliant tribute to the Kaurismäki Brothers, set in the frigid snow of Helsinki, where the depressive looking driver is appropriately enough named Mika (Aki’s brother), played by Matti Pellonpää, who appeared in 18 Aki Kaurismäki films and 7 of Mika’s.  This final episode carries with it the weight of finality, as it’s literally replete with the miserablism and doom that pervade all their films, turning Helsinki into the literal shithole of the world.  A night wouldn’t be compete without listening to a trio of drunken revelers boast about their world of woe, misfits one and all, each one more wretched than the next, where a well-lived life seems to be a collection of heartbreaking experiences, which gives one’s miserablist existence some weight.  This miniature perfection of storytelling, which completely captures the darkly comic Finnish state of mind, is told in two segments, where the drunken guys moan and wail about the pitiful life of their third partner (Aki) who is passed out in the back seat, a man much deserving of his semi-conscious state, who is the most drunk after suffering “the worst day of his life,” which they feel is like a badge of honor Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 1 YouTube (7:32).  After hearing their tale of woe, there’s a brief pause, then Mika suggests with complete sincerity, “Things could have been worse.”  When the burden of proof is suddenly on his shoulders, he has them crying like babies within minutes, where they’re soon calling Aki’s life “so full of shit…some people have real troubles.” Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 2 (13:18).  With the mood turning on a dime, Jarmusch has captured the essence of the fickle nature of humans, loyal to the very end, until they find someone new.  Showing the world with a comic-tinged winter glow, there’s a melancholic sadness about the bleak nature of existence, where misery really does love company, as a new day begins again with Tom Waits bringing home the finale with “Back in the Good Old World” Tom Waits - Good Old World YouTube (9:42).  

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