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Jim Jarmusch and the Poetry of the Mundane

A film’s setting shouldn’t simply lie flat on the screen; it is, after all, a character in and of itself, and must therefore be imbued with a certain degree of texture, color, and atmosphere. In Taxi Driver, for example, Martin Scorsese lends New York City a bleak, hellish, Stygian quality, with gaping sewer grates that belch steam into the night air and neon lights that bathe the streets in an eerie red glow. Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, meanwhile, immerses the viewer in the oppressive heat of a Los Angeles teetering on the brink of explosive violence.

No director, however, shoots locations quite like Jim Jarmusch.

While the camera inherently distorts and transforms its subject, Jarmusch refuses to glamorize, romanticize, or exoticize the cities that he visits; instead, he makes a genuine effort to depict reality as it truly is. Rome, for instance, has never looked as gloomy, barren, and lonely as it has through the windshield of Roberto Benigni’s taxicab in Night on Earth. Similarly, Mystery Train avoids Memphis’ major tourist attractions (with the notable exception of a brief and somewhat... underwhelming trip to Sun Studios), preferring to explore the greasy eateries, smoky pool halls, and cheap hotel rooms frequented by the locals.

Although these portraits might seem unflattering at first glance, Jarmusch actually crafts them with a great deal of care, love, and affection. Indeed, his unostentatious visual style perfectly complements his aimless, rambling plots. His protagonists (especially those appearing in his earlier movies) tend to wander around without a concrete goal, discussing nothing of particular importance—and yet, the dialogue works in perfect harmony with the soundtrack (usually composed in collaboration with such esteemed artists as Tom Waits, John Lurie, RZA, and Neil Young) to create an almost musical rhythm.

The result is cinematic poetry that celebrates the transcendent beauty of the ordinary, the everyday, and the mundane.

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