Friday, 16 March 2012

Jim Jarmusch: Open Letter to John Cassavetes

Night on Earth (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
‘Life has no plot, why must films or fiction?’ - Jim Jarmusch 

Jim Jarmusch is a director interested in what occurs on the margins of existence. Like one of his favourite directors, John Cassavetes, he is keen to document the seemingly trivial events that people often fail to appreciate and show that they too are filled with compelling drama. Jarmusch’s films are peopled by characters without any sense of direction in life, drifters who accidentally fall into risky situations – much like life itself. It is the delicacy of the speaking and acting in Cassavetes’ films that impresses Jarmusch the most – and Jarmusch is very much a director who prioritises the actor. Jarmusch creates the characters first, often with a particular actor in mind, and then ‘the plot kind of suggests itself around the character’. Before filming starts the actors rehearse scenes that are never filmed, but are deemed necessary to establish a tone and identity for when the actual filming begins. This process results in convincing, realistic characters fleshed out with their own shades and subtleties. In September 2000, Jarmusch wrote an open letter to John Cassavetes in tribute to the great American film-maker. It was published in Tom Charity’s excellent ‘LifeWorks’.


There’s a particular feeling I get when I’m about to see one of your films – an anticipation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the film before or not (by now I think I’ve seen them all at least several times) I still get that feeling. I’m expecting something I seem to crave, a kind of cinematic enlightenment. As a film fan or as a filmmaker (there isn’t really a clear dividing line for me anymore) I’m anticipating a blast of inspiration. I want formal enlightenment. I need the secret consequences of a jump-cut to be revealed to me. I want to know how the rawness of the camera angles or the grain of the film material figures into the emotional equation. I want to learn about acting from the performances, about atmosphere from the light and locations. I’m ready, fully prepared to absorb ‘truth at twenty-four-frames-per-second.’

But the thing is this: as soon as the film begins, introduces its world to me, I’m lost. The expectation of that particular enlightenment evaporates. It leaves me there in the dark, alone. Human beings now inhabit that world inside the screen. They also seem lost, alone. I watch them. I observe every detail of their movements, their expressions, their reactions. I listen carefully to what each one is saying, to the frayed edges of someone’s tone of voice, the concealed mischief in the rhythm of another’s speech. I’m no longer thinking about acting. I’m oblivious to ‘dialogue.’ I’ve forgotten the camera.

The enlightenment I anticipated from you is being replaced by another. This one doesn’t invite analysis or dissection, only observation and intuition. Instead of insights into, say, the construction of a scene, I’m becoming enlightened by the sly nuances of human nature.

Your films are about love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity. They’re about restlessness, drunkenness, resilience and lust, about humor, stubbornness, miscommunication and fear. But mostly they’re about love and they take one to a far deeper place than any study of ‘narrative form.’ Yeah, you are a great filmmaker, one of my favorites. But what your films illuminate most poignantly is that celluloid is one thing and the beauty, strangeness and complexity of human experience is another.

John Cassavetes, my hat is off to you. I’m holding it over my heart.

– Jim Jarmusch. From ‘John Cassavetes: Lifeworks’ by Tom Charity.

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