By Thom Andersen
A conversation, a misunderstanding. The basic pattern in many of Jim Jarmusch’s films is two characters, sometimes three, bound together by chance and wandering along toward an ill-defined goal, each trying all the while to get to know the other or to make himself understood through the use of words—an attempt that is generally bound to fail. Supposing they speak the same language, they don’t have the same idea of it. In Down by Lawalready, Roberto Benigni was defined as speaking “good restaurant English.” And: “In English, we say ‘It’s good to go,’” Giancarlo Esposito patronizingly explains to Armin Mueller-Stahl, the New York cabbie in Night on Earth.
I first heard of Night on Earth when someone from Jarmusch’s office called to ask if I could translate a pun in the French dialogue. The film was still in production, and Jim was already thinking of his subtitles, but I certainly wasn’t about to suggest a wordplay in English; inventing a—necessarily approximate—equivalent would have caused more damage than using a circumlocution (which is what was done). Although I wrote, in collaboration or not, the French subtitles for most of Jarmusch’s films, I didn’t do Night on Earth. But this pun—which I wouldn’t have had to translate into French anyway—stuck with me as an image for the film. It’s a joke that every schoolboy in France has made or laughed at: a native from Côte d’Ivoire—Ivory Coast—is an Ivoirien, so il voit rien, “he can’t see a thing.” In the taxi of the Paris episode, two outrageously coarse African wheeler-dealers throw this line at the Ivoirien driver, out of a feeling of class superiority rather than racism, but making him even angrier than he already was at the end of a rotten night. Words can hurt and often do.
There is another echo to the Ivory Coast origin of the Isaach De Bankolé character: he says he is a native of Treichville, a suburb of Abidjan and the location (and working title) of Jean Rouch’s Moi, un noir, a film that was arguably the single most important source of a new way of seeing, from the nouvelle vague on, and on. In Moi, un noir, the characters—“real people”—play themselves but identify with film icons, such as Edward G. Robinson and Eddie Constantine. In a reverse movement, Jarmusch writes for and with film personas: each character in Night on Earth has been defined by some of his or her previous movie roles, and the film plays hide-and-seek with their images.
Il voit rien: what, indeed, does a taxi driver see? Far from everything, Night on Earth tells us. He doesn’t, in fact, see his passengers, or only as a reflection. He may talk with them, as happens in all the episodes—there probably wouldn’t be a film otherwise—but not face-to-face. Incidentally, this solves the eternal problem of the field/reverse-field figure that has plagued cinema since its coming-of-age (a predicament I allude to in Godard’s Les enfants jouent à la Russie). The characters look at the street, at the rearview mirror, that is, at the camera, within the frame, instead of looking at each other. Although JJ always eschewed such narrative conventions as the field/reverse-field, here the subject matter itself suggested an alternative—as is the case in most of his films, in fact. This was difficult to put to good use and posed numerous logistical problems, as he has stated in interviews, but the result is elegant and impressive—especially in our Paris night.
A word should be said about Paris here. For more than forty years, Paris taxis were traditionally and monopolistically driven by White Russians, former princes or generals, one secretly hoped, who delivered unending monologues—according to Samuel Fuller, an approving grunt was enough to keep them going—until more closemouthed Vietnamese and Africans took over. They were famous for their winding itineraries. Isaach De Bankolé’s imaginary and impossible route starts in Belleville and ends near la?Villette, with a swerve through the central Châtelet subterranean passage. Mostly we are in the northeast, in the movie a neighborhood that appears to be inhabited by blacks and derelicts only, in real life one of the few places in Paris that maintains some character—not that one should take pride in derelict buildings, but at least some soul seems to remain there.
Halfway through the segment, a new passenger appears, one of the most vibrant characters in any of JJ’s films or in Béatrice Dalle’s career. With her white eyes, her foul mouth, and her double entendres, the girl is something of a mythical character, a Homer or a Tiresias, a Greek soothsayer in today’s Paris. She was born blind, she says, but of course she is a seer, and she does see much more than the unfortunate driver. Incidentally, she gives a good definition of the cinema experience, even though she has never seen a moving image: a film can and should be felt, she says, rather than flatly seen. And the same holds true of lovemaking, she adds, with all her body. One might be tempted to articulate a metaphor from there, except metaphors and good cinema don’t work too well together, and a metaphor doesn’t call the person she’s talking to connard every second sentence. A person is not just what he or she appears to be but is made up of superimposed layers of many characters. Through virtues of homonymy, a renegade Native American might be a character out of The Odyssey, an accountant an English poet, a dreamy dropout a great jazz musician, a pigeon keeper an angel of death. But they are one and all at once and—unlike in Melville’s Le samouraï—their concrete and sensual existences are not sacrificed to a mere fable.
As a nice afterthought to the story, the accident that she foresees and he doesn’t is just a comedy ending, and her laughter confirms it. Just as the Ivoirien driver was called blind at the beginning, so he is again at the end, and rightly so. Play on words, blindness. These two intertwined motifs stand for most of Jarmusch’s films. Not seeing is much less of a hindrance than not speaking the language. His films are sort of a Babel tower, with languages ranging from indigenous to Japanese to, limiting ourselves to Night on Earth,Californian-American executive and teenager lingos, Brooklynese, German mixed with some English, French with a variety of accents, Italian, and Finnish. For a long time, Jim refused to prepare a so-called international version of his films, that is, a soundtrack mix without the dialogue, which is necessary for dubbing in foreign languages. Is there any such thing as a nonforeign language, these films ask? But also this: even if language communication is a failure, are the chance meetings failures, too? It doesn’t seem so, and there may be some magic there. Insults may have been exchanged heartily, but every individual is bound to remain unique, every encounter unforgettable.
Bernard Eisenschitz is a film historian and translator who lives in Paris. He has written, and occasionally made film essays, about Soviet and German cinema, Nicholas Ray, and Fritz Lang, among other topics. He is the editor of Cinéma,a biannual magazine of film history and aesthetics.