Jim Jarmusch and the Art of Doing Nothing
Some of my favorite films, I’ve realized, are about nothing at all. Seinfeld made a $100 million fortune out of a tv show about nothing.
But no one does nothing better than Jim Jarmusch.
In his first independent film, Stranger than Paradise (1984) he told the story of Willie, a Hungarian immigrant who lives in New York City making a living off hustling poker games. His young cousin Eva comes to visit from Budapest on her way to Cleveland, and Willie is none too welcoming.
You’d think the story would be about their eventual bond – maybe Willie will come to terms with his Hungarian heritage, or change his way of life. But it’s a Jim Jarmusch film. Nothing happens at all. While Eva and Willie do get closer, it isn’t the point of the story. There doesn’t seem to be much of a story at all, in the sense that there’s no transformation of the characters. Willie, Eva, and his friend Eddie drift from New York to Cleveland to Florida, doing the same things they were doing in the town previous; watch television, talk about nothing, complain, and spend money. There’s no climax, no lesson learned, no real character development. Nothing.
And yet, it’s a damned charming movie that’s never dull. I found myself fascinated with these thoroughly boring individuals. They felt real, and so did the story. If there’s some formula Jarmusch has cracked, he hasn’t shared it. If any other director tackled this film, it’d be dull.
The same is true of Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989), and pretty much every film he’s ever made. In fact, while he was a graduate student at NYU rubbing shoulders with fellow students Ang Lee and Spike Lee, he was told by a professor that one of his films was dull. There was nothing happening. He told Jarmusch to go back and recut the film. Jarmusch did – only the second cut had even less happening. He had defiantly stuck to his guns. He wanted to make a film about nothing. And his teacher respected this.
Perhaps the lesson here is, the most important aspect of any film is the characters. The plot is irrelevant, but if the characters are unique and real the film will be engrossing. Jarmusch crafts his characters with a boundless empathy and curiosity that’s contagious. You can’t help but smile as you watch two Japanese tourists wander Memphis discussing their love of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. You can’t help but laugh when Eva accidentally comes across drug money. Perhaps Jarmusch is trying to teach us to listen more.
Or perhaps there’s nothing here to learn at all.