The writer director Jim Jarmusch is in many ways a foreigner. He looks on his characters as if he just arrived in their world and is fascinated by their customs. There is no detail too small for him to obsess over. The camera lingers on every fashion choice, every book, every piece of cultural ephemera his characters come in to contact with. He’s not so much shallow as obsessed with surfaces. Dead pan looks are the most common form of communication. When his characters do speak, they speak flatly, as if reciting lines they’ve read out of a phrase book. Everyone in a Jarmusch film is a stranger in a strange land.
Despite being an American, Jarmusch is often categorized as a European style director. Maybe it’s because he’s not afraid to shoot in black and white. Maybe it’s because his scenes are often loaded with philosophical subtext. But mostly it’s because his films aren’t driven by the engine of plot, but by small character details, which he pieces together to create idiosyncratic tableaus that feel utterly foreign to mainstream American cinema.
“I work probably in an erratically backwards kind of way,” Jarmusch has said of his process. “I start with some actors… then I just start collecting things that inspire me, and they come all over the place, from music, from poetry, from literature, from architecture… from conversations I overhear”. It’s the sort of piecemeal, indirect strategy that should create an unfocused mess, but in Jarmusch’s hands results in moments that feel wonderfully alive.
Take, for example, the scene in Down By Law, where three convicts stamp around a prison cell screaming “I scream, you scream, we all scream for icecream!” or the one in Dead Man where William Blake (Johnny Depp) grieves a dying fawn while covering his face with its blood. These scenes are rarely ever one thing. They can be simultaneously funny, disturbing and strange. They are invitations to a mysterious country, one where Jarmusch has you playing the perpetual tourist.