Jim Jarmusch is the king of cool, but of course we all know that by now. With that shock white hair and ageless appearance, it sometimes feels as if Jarmusch is an alien who came down to Earth to observe us through film. His movies present a slightly off-kilter version of ourselves, somewhat familiar yet noticeably foreign. In reality, he came out of New York City’s No Wave filmmaking scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a ragtag group of counterculture artists situated on the Lower East Side that heavily influenced underground cinema and the American independent film movement of the coming decade.
While Jarmusch was the most prominent director who emerged from the No Wave, it also spawned several other directors, including the under-appreciated Sara Driver, another artist with her own distinct vision. As Jarmusch’s popularity grew, however, Driver unfortunately became largely forgotten.
TIFF is celebrating both of these filmmakers side by side this summer with a pair of retrospectives – Strange Paradise: The Cinema of Jim Jarmusch and Magic, Realism: The Films of Sara Driver – which provide a look at the world from two highly original perspectives.
After his promising no-budget feature debut Permanent Vacation, Jim Jarmusch pretty much single-handedly kicked off the independent film wave in the US with Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. His indelible cult classic won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and is pretty much the place to start if you’ve never seen a Jarmusch film. It follows Willie (John Lurie) and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) as they take in Willie’s cousin Eva from Hungary. She stays at Willie’s drab Lower East Side apartment for a while and they all bond before going to Cleveland to stay with an Aunt Lotte and then eventually making a break down to Florida to try a change of scenery. That’s really all the “plot” that Jarmusch has to offer, yet it remains an absurdly funny portrait of boredom and the yearning for something different, with extraordinary deadpan chemistry between the three leads and an eye for the surreality of the contemporary American landscape. It makes the act of hanging out feel transcendent and introduced the idea of hipsters long before it became an H&M fashion statement.
As a follow up, Down by Law is another dry comedy about three losers (Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni) who end up as cellmates in a Louisiana prison together. They eventually escape and go on the run, but the movie isn’t really as interested in these plot machinations as it is in the banter between the three leads, the chill vibes of Lurie and Waits complemented with the zany energy of Benigni. Yes, I know, it’s hard to imagine Benigni as anything other than an annoying assclown — but he’s hilarious in this.
Unlike most of his indie-film contemporaries who would eventually try their hand at studio filmmaking, Jarmusch has always worked outside the system, free to experiment with whatever captures his imagination. He would indulge his penchant for multi-narrative filmmaking with Mystery Train, a trio of stories set around a Memphis hotel, and Night on Earth, which chronicles five cab rides in five different cities over the course of one night. He would also subvert genre tropes with his mystical neo-Western Dead Man and his hitman-samurai mashup Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
Honestly, every one of his films is a treat and it’s nice to see him having a resurgence right now coming off of the success of Only Lovers Left Alive, which takes his typical downtrodden characters and turns them into thousand-year old vampires that ruminate on mortality and human nature.
While the Jarmusch retro is a celebration, the films of Driver are more of a discovery. She produced Jarmusch’s first two films before moving on to her own directorial efforts. Despite this connection, her work is markedly different than his, opting for a fairy-tale approach. She made two features and a featurette that received minimal releases before vanishing from the public consciousness. A DVD boxset was released a few years back, but this is a rare chance to see this work on the big screen.
Her first film was the bizarre little creeper You Are Not I, about a woman (Suzanne Fletcher) who sneaks out of a mental asylum in the chaos of a car wreck near the gates. Thinking she’s a survivor from the accident, the woman is escorted to her sister’s house. But the sister is clearly uncomfortable with having her back, quickly arranging to have her taken back to the asylum. And that’s when something weird happens. You Are Not I is an effective psychological puzzle that’s often compared to Eraserhead in terms of mood and style, with Fletcher’s eerily calm demeanour and hollow narration sure to haunt you for days.
Sleepwalk, Driver’s next effort, is a strange fantasy taking place in a New York City where children are treated like adults and roam the streets mysteriously, amidst a host of other oddities. Fletcher stars again, this time as a typist who is hired by a couple of odd guys (including Candyman himself, Tony Todd) to translate a precious Chinese manuscript. As she does so, weird things start happening like her roommate’s hair falling out and guys barking at her. Since the whole world is strange right from the start, it’s hard to say what is actually caused by the manuscript. Nevertheless, Sleepwalk is still an interesting dream of a movie, even if it never quite comes together in the end.
Less interesting is When Pigs Fly, a jaunty adult fable about the ghosts living all around us. In a dirty industrial American seaside town (which was actually shot in Germany, and feels like it), Marty (Alfred Molina) is a mopey jazz player who sleeps all day and wears the same rumpled suit. One day, he receives a rocking chair as a gift from the kindly go-go dancer (Maggie O’Neill) at the local pub – a chair that turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of two people who died in it, a little girl (Rachael Bella) and the late wife (Marianne Faithfull) of the surly pub owner (Seymour Cassel). They pester Marty to help them get revenge for their deaths and in exchange, help him feel good about life again. As you can imagine, this is all rather silly, and the fact that Driver plays it all straight makes it collapse under the weight of its own sincerity. There are a ton of neat special effects thrown at us and she accrued a majorly talented cast — but they can’t get you to buy into the strange reality of the narrative.
In the 20 years since When Pigs Fly was released, Driver hasn’t made another film. This is a shame since, like Jarmusch, she has a unique way of viewing the world. Her work just never made enough of a splash to get more financing for further projects. But there is hope on the horizon.
Since there’s been renewed interest in her work over the last couple of years, she’s been spearheading a folk tale anthology film, titled Tales from the Hanging Head, which would see her directing alongside such big-time directors as Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry, Emir Kusturica, and Marjane Satrapi. It still seems to be in the early planning stages — but if this comes together, it should put her right back on the map and maybe give us all some more opportunities to see the world through her imagination.
Strange Paradise: The Cinema of Jim Jarmusch runs from July 24 to August 16, 2014 and Magic, Realism: The Films of Sara Driver runs from July 24 to August 5, 2014, both at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for details and showtimes.