A Gun Up Your Ass: an Interview with Jim Jarmusch

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A Gun Up Your Ass: An Interview with Jim Jarmusch. (Cineaste 1996 ) By Jonathan Rosenbaum

A dozen years ago, when his second feature, "Stranger Than Paradise", catapulted him to worldwide fame, Jim Jarmusch seemed at the height of arthouse fashion. Having already known him a little before then, I could tell that the extent to which he suddenly became a figurehead for the American independent cinema bemused him in certain ways. Given the aura of hip, glamorous downtown Manhattan culture that seemed to follow him everywhere, how could it not? I can still recall a New York Times profile a few years back that was so entranced by his image that it suggested that, simply because Jarmusch chose to live in the Bowery, that neighborhood automatically took on magical, transcendent properties.

When "Dead Man", his sixth feature, premiered at Cannes last year, it suddenly became apparent that Jarmusch's honeymoon with the American press was over—although his international reputation to all appearances survives intact. There are multiple reasons for this, including "Dead Man" itself, and before getting around to this visionary, disturbing black-and-white Western—which I regard as his most impressive achievement to date—it's worth considering what's happened to the American independent cinema over the past decade, which has a lot to do with Jarmusch's changed position in the media. When thinking about today's ambitious American filmmakers, one of the easiest ways to distinguish between Hollywood employees (current or prospective) and those with more creative freedom is to look for logical and consistent developments from one film to the next—a clear line of concerns that runs beyond fads and market developments. Though it's possible to see a director such as Alfred Hitchcock developing certain formal and thematic ideas in his Fifties movies, there's little likelihood of such an evolution being possible in a studio director today, what with agent packages, script bids, multiple rewrites, stars who get script approval and/or say over the final cut, test marketing, and so on. Within such a context, it's significant that Jarmusch as a writer-director, virtually alone among American independents who make narrative features, owns the negatives of all his films. This means that, for better and for worse, all the developments—and nondevelopments—that have taken place in his work between "Permanent Vacation" (1980) and "Dead Man" are of his own making.

This provides one model of American independent filmmaking, but not the one that most of the media are currently preoccupied with. Their model tends to gravitate around the Sundance Film Festival, where success in the independent sector is typically defined as landing a big-time distributor and/or a studio contract—the exposure, in short, that goes hand in glove with dependence on large institutional backing. And though it would be wrong to assume that Jarmusch isn't himself dependent on such forces to get his films into theaters (Miramax is distributing "Dead Man"), the salient difference between him and most other independents is that he's strong enough to afford the luxury of brooking no creative interference when it comes to making production and postproduction decisions. ("Dead Man" has been trimmed since its Cannes premiere—without apparent injury, in my opinion—but all of the recutting was done without Miramax's input.) So where does Jarmusch belong in the present, reconfigured independent scene constructed around the Sundance myth? One disheartening clue is offered by Sundance star Kevin Smith, the director of "Clerks" and "Mall Rats", who was recently quoted as saying, "I don't feel that I have to go back and view European or other foreign films because l feel like these guys [i.e., Jarmusch and others] have already done it for me, and I'm getting filtered through them. That ethic works for me." Another clue is provided by the mixed response of the American press to "Dead Man" at...
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