A student of literature at Columbia University coming from small-town Ohio, in the 1970s the young Jim Jarmusch embraced New York’s urban culture, becoming an enthusiastic contributor to the underground fervour of that decade. The art scene was opening up to street influences and cross-media contamination, and Jarmusch, a follower of the punk music scene that emerged from clubs like CBGB, the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City, found himself immersed in a vivid community of young artists who simultaneously embraced music and visual arts. Equally devoted to both music and cinema – at a time when being in a band seemed the most common accomplishment for the majority of aspiring artists – he was the keyboardist of the new wave group Del-Byzanteens, who released the album Lies To Live By in 1982. At the same time, he was actively involved in the so-called No Wave, or New Cinema, movement. Thanks to Columbia’s “Junior Year Abroad Program”, he moved to Paris in 1975. Instead of attending classes, he spent most of his time at the Cinémathèque, where he was exposed to a vast number of European and Japanese movies. This was the first of three crucial episodes that led Jarmusch to a life in films. The second was entering New York University’s Film School in 1976, where he worked as teaching assistant to Nicholas Ray, whose films Jarmusch discovered while in France. Ray would take him as his production assistant onto the set of Lighting Over Water (1980) directed by Wim Wenders. This work represented Jarmusch’s first association with a proper movie production and was the third decisive event that brought him into the world of filmmaking. At the same time as he was assisting Ray, Jarmusch started filming on his own first feature. After the tuition money for the last year of his studies was wrongly sent to him instead of the school, by sheer coincidence he collected the necessary sum of money to shoot Permanent Vacation (1980), a seventy-minute story of a wanderer in a post-industrial dismal New York, which was positively received at the 1980 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. Since his debut he has remained faithful to fixed principles of aesthetic and narrative simplicity, which have made him one of the most revered masters of contemporary independent cinema.
These are just some of the facts regarding the director’s career that the reader will be able to piece together from the dense flow of information and analysis contained in Sara Piazza’s Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise. The work is a much-needed – and excellent –addition to the limited number of publications dedicated to a very influential and well respected filmmaker. Piazza’s contribution is only the fifth full-length book on Jarmusch published in English to date,1, although other works on Jarmusch have appeared in Italian, German, French and Spanish.
The book examines the acoustic dimension of Jarmusch’s cinema. Piazza explores three forms of sound – music, words and noise – to argue persuasively that sound and vision share the same importance in Jarmusch’s works. In doing so, she touches upon the entire corpus of Jamusch’s films, as well as his poems and his music. The result is an original and thorough study of Jarmusch’s whole career, up to the release of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Piazza intentionally avoids a traditional structure in her writing and the result is a book that is neither a biography nor a chronological compendium of the filmmaker’s movies. The book is more than a simple investigation of the acoustic realm of Jarmusch’s films, insofar it offers an overall perspective of the director’s oeuvre, working methods, artistic credo and personal beliefs.
Two main motifs recur throughout the book. Firstly, Piazza pays close attention to the influences that Jarmusch absorbed in the 1970s, and examines how crucial these influences have been for the evolution of his cinema until today. Jarmusch owes much of his style and aesthetic sensibility to the New York experimental and punk film scene of the mid-1970s, where self-taught directors preferred the use of elemental equipment and improvisation over the formalism of both commercial and art-house cinema. The punk movement, in particular, had a durable impact not simply on his musical taste, but also, and more importantly, on his approach to artistic creation, freeing him from any concern over technical virtuosity and directing his attention entirely toward the creative spirit of a work of art. This was a principle shared with several other artists of the No Wave movement like Eric Mitchell,2, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Tom DiCillo, Howard Brookner,3 and Amos Poe, who directed the influential The Foreigner (1978), cited by Jarmusch as the perfect example of that dismissal of virtuosity that the punks had already adopted in music a few years earlier.
The second refrain in the book is the unique trait of Jarmusch as sole vigilant owner of the fruits of his creativity, mentioned many times as a rare instance of artistic integrity and independence in American cinema. Since the beginning of his popularity in the mid-1980s, Jarmusch has turned down every single offer to direct Hollywood studio productions. He has thus been able to keep the copyright of his films and retain complete creative and executive control over his own work, surrounding himself with trusted collaborators. Most of this working method derived from his participation on Lightning Over Water (Wim Wenders, 1980) where he observed a European film crew working with a director who was not a hired professional, but very much the leader of a consolidated team.
Today Jarmusch is admired as one of the initiators of the American “Indie” film movement, a definition that, like most labels, Jarmusch himself tends to discard. However, as Piazza observes, the adjective “independent” for Jarmusch’s cinema does not indicate a fashionable way of securing a low-budget entry into the mainstream arena, rather it is a synonym of homemade, artisanal craft that has stayed true to itself over the years, without ever running after the favours of critics or the admiration of large audiences (p. 15). “My films are made by hand”, he said in 2004. “I write the script, I’m there to get the financing, and I put together the whole crew and production. All my films are produced through my own company, then I am in the editing room every day, then I’m in the lab, then I’m out promoting the film, so that’s about three years’ work for each film” 4. 12 years after this interview, such mathematical precision has been maintained, and the director’s œuvre today counts exactly 12 feature films realised in 36 years, from Permanent Vacation (1980) to Paterson (2016).5.
The book opens with a section dedicated to music, which begins with an exploration of Jarmusch as a musician, from his days as a keyboard player for the Del Byzanteens to the more recent projects as a guitarist and composer with the band Sqürl and Dutch musician Jozef van Wissem. The director’s fondness for music is then observed from different angles, from the persistent use of diegetic scores to the employment of the most disparate music genres and the recurrent presence of musicians as actors in all his films up to Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2002).
In the “Words” section, Piazza contends that Jarmusch’s films defy the predominance of verbal communication in contemporary cinema by violating the cinematic rule of dialogue comprehension. This is possible through the frequent use of “emanation speech” – that is, words that are not intelligible, often because pronounced by strangers in a foreign language. The impossibility of deciphering the emanation speech “paradoxically brings the film closer to real life” (p. 178) by reproducing all those mumbles, vacuums or silences that rest in any normal conversation between people. The director’s predilection for foreign languages then offers the key for an attentive examination of the cultural relativism and fusion of different experiences, symbols and meanings in his films. Jarmusch is finally analysed in the guise of a poet who composes verses and creates poetic characters.
In the third and last section, “Noise”, the narrative strength of noise and silence is discussed before a theory of “silent-sound film” is introduced, an original description of the important presence of pre-sound cinema elements in Jarmusch’s works. Similarly to what happened in silent movies, the audience is pushed to use its imagination to make up for those vacuums, silences and “moments in between”6 that form an essential attribute of Jarmusch’s “observational” cinema.7
All these sound forms, together with their negative, silence, equally contribute to the communicative power of the films in what Piazza defines as a “sound democracy” (p. 18). She writes: “In Jarmusch’s films sound is never reduced to mere background comment, but becomes an ‘open, multiple, dispersed’ area of linguistic production in its own right: an area in which a word may ‘reduce itself’ to noise without annulling communication; an area in which a sound effect may become the bearer of the narrative structure; an area in which the music may assume the role of interlocutor with whom to converse.” (p. 17)
Each section is enriched by well-informed and stimulating references to both classic and mass culture as a reflection of the same nature of highbrow and lowbrow cultural hybridisation present in Jarmusch’s oeuvre. The reader will take pleasure in finding artists like Rammellzze or RZA alongside classic figures like Christopher Marlowe or Dante and many others. Additionally, in a testament to the long gestation of the work, Piazza’s book includes 11 interviews conducted between 2003 and 2013 with John Lurie, Roberto Benigni, Eszeter Balint, Ennio Morricone, Jarmusch himself, and the late Taylor Mead among others, some of which divulge important revelations.
This book is an essential companion to the cinema, music and poetry of Jarmusch, and is accessible to both devotees of the filmmaker and newcomers to his work. It will be of interest for film scholars and students, cinema and music lovers alike. The book is accompanied by a dedicated website that includes extra information, images, an original guitar transcript from Marc Ribot, as well as audio extracts from interviews with such figures as Mulatu Astake, Gary Farmer, Nick Zedd and others. 8
Sara Piazza, Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).
- The other four books published in English so far are: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dead Man, (London: BFI Publishing, 2000); Ludvig Hertzberg, Jim Jarmusch: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001); Juan A. Suarez, Jim Jarmusch (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Julian Rice, The Jarmusch Way: Spirituality and Imagination in Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012) ↩
- Jim Jarmusch appeared in and was the sound recordist for Mitchell’s Underground U.S.A. (1980). ↩
- Jarmusch worked as sound recordist for Brookner in his 1983 documentary Burroughs: The Movie, recently restored by Pinball London Ltd, after being lost for thirty years. ↩
- Simon Hattenstone, “A talk on the wild side”, The Guardian, 13 November 2004, www.theguardian.com/film/2004/nov/13/features.weekend ↩
- In addition to these, Jarmusch has directed two rock music documentaries, The Year of The Horse (1997) and Gimme Danger (2016), and a number of shorts and music videos ↩
- Talking to his friend, Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki in 1987, Jarmusch stated: “Whenever I see a new commercial American movie, and I figure out how the story is structured, I would like to see those pieces that they left out of the movie, more than those they put in. I’m more interested in the moments in between, people waiting for a cab rather than people in a cab. I’m always more interested in the small, ordinary things, and that’s why I guess I have a tendency to write the kind of scenes which would be left out in a more conventional or commercial or transparent style.” See Hertzberg (2001), p. 75. ↩
- Presenting his latest film, Paterson (2016), in Cannes, Jarmusch used the adjective “observational” to define the celebration of small things in his cinema. ↩
- See http://jimjarmusch-musicwordsandnoise.com/index.html ↩