Jim Jarmusch Collection Vol.1

Carl explores the early history of the esteemed Jim Jarmusch, and finds this legendary talent struggling for his true voice...

I’m a big fan of Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes, so when I saw Ghost Dog presented by RZA at the Glasgow Film Theatre a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to delve into Jarmusch’s back catalogue of films. Thing is, I was about to be greatly disappointed…

This set collects Jim Jarmusch’s first three films: Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. He’s a director who is defined by his films: the way he directs a film will edit his perspective and the way he makes the film after. It means that, while Ghost Dog is pure genius, his earlier films lack that style that he has built upon since his first outing into cinema.

Permanent Vacation, originally released in 1980, is a film about Allie (Chris Parker) who is a guy who never seems to feel himself, and so travels from place to place, never really having a home. In the film’s time, he wanders around New York City and basically meets some nutters, a sax player, and his mother in an insane asylum. What’s really good about this film is nothing. It is a bad film. There is no way around it; it’s just a guy who walks around meeting people who are not interesting, and then leaving. It’s definitely one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.

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Stranger Than Paradise is a film about Willie (John Lurie) who lives in New York, and gets a visit from his cousin Ava (Eszter Balint) while her mother is in hospital. A year after she goes home, Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) go to Cleveland where she lives with Aunt Lotte, played excellently by first and last time actress Cecillia Stark. And she is truly the saving grace of this film. I mean, this is by far, a much better film than Permanent Vacation, but it’s definitely not brilliant.

When they do start their journey towards Cleveland, that’s when the film really begins. The best moments come from the interaction between the characters as they get used to being with each other, and start to have a good trip. One scene especially is hilarious, when they all go to see a kung fu movie together, and basically gate-crash a date that a friend of Ava’s invited her to. It’s scenes like this, and the few scenes that include Aunt Lotte that make this film worth the watch.

Down By Law focuses on three characters in their seemingly separate lives. Tom Waits stars as the fired radio DJ, Zach, who has just been left by his girlfriend, and – as if things couldn’t get worse – he’s also just been framed for murder. John Lurie, the only constant in all three films, has just been caught with a prostitute, and he was also framed; only when he was caught, he was basically saying that he was now her pimp. Go figure. And last but not least, the Italian who killed a man accidentally by self-defence, who barely knows any English. The first half of the film sets up these events, executes them, and then they meet over a month or two in prison.

This is when the good film turns into a great one. They escape, even though we never find out how, and then they become friends and have an interesting time wandering through forests and getting lost. A cell doesn’t really have many angles to work with, so that section of the film is always going to look a little boring; but when they get outside, the cinematographer can go crazy. The film looks utterly fantastic from then on, with the beauty of the forest caught well on black and white film. Additionally the characters start to blend well with the outside world, and the humour of their lives – which was subdued in the prison section by the gloomy scenario – shines through.

Down By Law is truly the film that stands out in this collection, and definitely one of Jarmusch’s best. Logically, this disc also features the most extras. Funnily enough, Permanent Vacation had none, and Stranger Than Paradise has bare scraps. Law, on the other hand, has a Tom Waits video, an interview with the man behind the camera, deleted scenes, a trailer, and some brilliant phone conversations between Jim and people in the film. This is a truly dazzling extra, as we get to see Jarmusch being himself, as well as being privy to the thought process behind the film 20 years on.

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All in all, this collection is a good little experience, only tainted by the fact that inexperience shows itself. Jarmusch can hardly be blamed for having a start to his career; everyone has one, and even here we can see trademarks he has kept for years to come, including the minimal dialogue and interaction between different languages, represented later to the best extent in Ghost Dog, where Ghost Dog’s best friend is a French man who speaks no English, when he himself speaks no French.

It’s a good collection, but I can only recommended it for die-hard fans.


1 out of 5