WHAT'S GOOD: Night on Earth (1991), a Film by Jim Jarmusch
I like all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, but Night on Earth is probably my favourite.
It is not so much one film as a collection of five shorter films set in five world cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki.
Each vignette is linked only by the fact that all of the action takes place in a taxi in the course of one night.
In LA, Corky (Winona Ryder), a brash young tomboy driver is uninterested in the career propositions of a well-heeled Hollywood casting agent (Gena Rowlands). In New York a circus clown fresh from Eastern Germany (Armin Mueller-Stahl) finds common ground with Brookyln native YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito). In Paris Isaach De Bankolé picks up an enchanting blind passenger (Béatrice Dalle). Roberto Benigni dazzles as an eccentric driver in Rome, and Mika (Matti Pellonpää) has a tough night with some drunks in Helsinki.
This is the extent of the plot.
But, as in most good films and nearly all good books, the stories here are character, not plot, driven. The film’s success rises and falls with the authenticity of its dialogue and the quality of its acting, both of which here are excellent.
In an interview about the film, Jarmusch said that taxi rides intrigue him, because in one sense you are alone with a stranger, putting your life in his/her hands, while in another you are engaged in just another commercial transaction, an experience during which you could say or do anything and it wouldn’t make a difference.
For a passenger, the relevant points are arrival and departure. But, as in life itself, there are no destinations, no individual moments but an amorphous perennial whole in which everything, theoretically at least, has the same significance.
This is what I like most about this film: the way it makes those supposedly banal, transitory experiences the central focus.
The film also demonstrates how we place barriers between ourselves and others based on characteristics such as age, class, sex and race, and how these are wholly irrelevant to whether or not we have a basic human connection. It does not say this in a righteous or even conscious way, but the fact that in all cases the characters are (on paper) fundamentally unalike is key to the magic evoked by the bonds established between them.
Another intriguing aspect of the film is the interaction of the characters with the cities in which they live and vice versa. The film utilises captivating still shots to capture each city’s energy, and through these images the cities themselves become characters in the film.
At other moments, however, you get the sense that in fact the characters embody the city, that Corky is Los Angeles, that YoYo is New York, Roberto Benigni is Rome, Isaach and Dalle are Paris and Mika is Helsinki.
You’re left to wonder: does the city make the person, or do the people make the city?
With all of the action confined to a car, Night on Earth is in one sense a simple and unambitious film. But on another level it is profound. It is an exploration of what attracts us to cities, or on a simpler level, to people, the limitless possibilities for fascinating and life-changing interactions that flows from so many of us from so many different places cohabiting one relatively small place.
I recommend watching this film alone and at night, so that you can be fully absorbed—maybe even feel like a silent, invisible extra passenger—as a series of ‘normal people’ negotiate some of the world’s great cities during one night on earth.
Edit: ...and music by Tom Waits. How can it not be good?
What's Good are short reviews of under-appreciated or misunderstood works.