© 2016 by James Clark
The films of Jim Jarmusch tend to entail bemusingly limited figures harboring what they believe to be a passport to the fabulous. Many of the interactions pertain to travel in the public domain, where protagonists make their moves in face of people they are meeting for the first time and are unlikely to ever see again.
Having mined within such structures three amazing veins of contemporary concerns and whimsy, in the fourth vehicle, Night on Earth (1991), he felt it was time to convene an array of urban regulars giving an account of themselves in that quintessential sounding board, a taxi on a long run.Attentive to the varied and rich disturbances such a site can reveal, our guide has put into play a series of 5 cabs in 5 modern cities, shaking things up on the same shift. (A first of many caveats as to the many revelations is that whereas the customers may blurt out self-disclosures in the rather unfamiliar venue as something they seldom run with, the complement of drivers may not infrequently tend to let those on the paying end hear about pet concerns distilled by solitary and stressful lives. A second alert catalyzing the front-seat/ back-seat dramas is the graphic design framework of an atlas showing many lands, many cultures, as coming to close-ups introducing, in turn, each region of the specific sagas, along with itemization of the correct time from one of five identical clocks arrayed on a wall.)
Added to the zoom from the general to the particular, the city itself is represented as a flashing light bringing to mind old radio-show movies (this first centre being LA, after all) as well as ushering in the far from old verbal magic of this cinematic windfall. Before loaded words hit the fan, however, there is the first driver, Corky, a young LA woman trying to derive enjoyment from smoking and chewing gum at the same time, with a couple of stoners in the back seat and power chords on her tape deck. Also on display, at the Executive Terminal of LAX, where the brain-dead rock stars were to be shipped out to thrill the nation, is incoming nation-thriller, Victoria Snelling, checking in by phone to the film studio for which, in her capacity of casting agent, she has found (would the term promiscuously be apt?) 10 hitherto middling young lovelies, one of which headed for silver screen sublimity. Victoria is not simply promiscuous for the sake of impressing her studio bosses but she is ballistically promiscuous on hitching her Grace Kelly-blonde, white (and black)-tailored, middle-age presence to Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), whereby the actressGeena Rowlands’ Victoria becomes stalked by Angie Dickinson’s promiscuous Kate (another Grace Kelly-blonde in a white suit that doesn’t stay white very long). This leaves Winona Ryder’s cabby, Corky, having the very tough act of Nancy Allen’s hooker, Liz, to follow, inasmuch as the latter traces to the inspirational better-half of Giuliana (played by super-tailored, super-blonde, super-cool, Monica Vitti, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964).
Reeling back to Corky’s scuzzy drive to LAX, Victoria’s executive jet power-trip and the strip mall red desert of the fabrications, not to be overlooked amidst this thematically peppy talkathon, there is the formidable commitment to adolescence—not merely as preferential style but love-it-or-leave-it clannishness. Victoria boards Corky’s cab, and the conversation of Corky is 95% cliché and 5% bona fide. That of the arbiter of movie effectiveness is virtually 100% scripted by irresistible powers-that-be. In the course of measuring her aspirations with those of the driver, Victoria (after shooting herself in the foot by remarking, “Boy, it sure gets dark fast in winter, doesn’t it?”) marvels at Corky’s being able to operate in the dark with her cool shades on. “For me it’s a big problem. I have night blindness…” Junior High forever, the clear-sighted one quips, “Is that something that happens when you get old?” Brushing off the familiar sit-com, Victoria persists in being an easy target: “It has nothing to do with age. I’ve had it all my life…”
Although a lot of tone-deafness—on the order of Corky closing her eyes to see what night blindness feels like, and then only able to say, “That’s fuck!”—transpires, there is more to the pleasantries (to come), a “more” being sustained by desire for equilibrium confusedly expressed in their physical presence. Victoria calls the office and asks if “Mr. Kincaid” has called. Finding that he hasn’t, there is a moment of letdown which Corky, cutting to the chase, jovially caps with, “Guys—can’t live with them. Can’t shoot them!” Cigarettes come out and, in lighting Victoria’s there is an overarching edge which they appreciate but don’t understand. (Roberto, inDown by Law, asking in the jail cell. “Do you have some fire?” has become another passenger by which to test the viability of this good-as-it-gets moment of a remarkably dark film. Tracking by way of “Mr. Kincaid,” is the Jerimiah Kinkaid [doing his best to raise a black lamb in Disney’s So Dear to my Heart ]. Tom Waits’opening song includes a line which could be a warning— “Back in the good old world…”)
In the midst ofquietly spectacular and breathtakingly self-destructive duality in a place to clear up an everyday massacre, the night proceeds to become unnavigable. The heart-to-heart about men melts down to Victoria fretting about Corky’s chain-smoking and hearing her young adversary mock, “OK, Mom…” The expert about charming the masses wonders if the taxi work explicitly cherished— “Fuck, yes… It’s a cool job!”—is the girl’s “whole goal in life.” Corky admits she’d rather be a mechanic, a twist (from a corkscrew sensibility) sending “Mom” into some more guarded dismay. With that declaration and its ardent body language, the cabbie has a shot upon rewards of design in all its splendor and other aspects of physical discovery. On the other hand, Victoria goes into reverse. However, with the boast, “… practically know all there is about it” [mechanics], Victoria, sensing a vulnerable puerility, presses “the good old [mechanical] world” and shows us what she’s really made of. “What about marriage,” the maternal one thinks to be check-mating an insubstantial improviser. “Definitely,” the master of mechanics insists, as they pass by a sign reading, “Untrendy… 382 years in a row.” (During the speed bump about Kincaid, cannily trendy Victoria gazes sadly toward another sign: “Largest Transmission Specialists” [transmission dynamics leaving her as lost as with night blindness].) On the crest of that dubious domestic wave, Corky plunges deeper into transmission trouble. “Definitely want a family… boys, though, lots of them.” Mom eggs her little overkill on. “No girls? Girls are nice too…” And she gets all she wants from this line of gratification burying what puzzlement the ride evoked; and irrespective of hard fact. “Yeah, maybe some girls, too…But that’s all beside the point. The real problem is to find a good father… I don’t care what he does, as long as he loves me right [straight off the tape deck] … with his soul…” She crowns her sense of deserving ongoing love—damn the torpedoes when it comes to betraying transmission—with a saying by Popeye: “I yam what I yam…” [a distant but still-functioning echo of the jingle-quick Roberto, as to, “We all scream for ice cream’” in Down by Law]. So pumped by this meeting of minds, Victoria wants to add Corky to the ingénue harem. (The cab passes “The Cameo—Bikini Dancers.”) The budding mechanic gently acknowledges the offer, but explains, “I really wouldn’t want to lose my job” [a deft evocation of a seeming going concern going to pieces]. Victoria actually says, “Everyone wants to be a movie star,” and in addition to the Lauren Bacall touches throughout this far from straightforward meeting of minds, to match her quasi Tudor wood-frame house, she adds a cute early sit-com segue to the last ad, replying, “OK, Mom,” to Corky’s, “Take care.”
The fizz of fizzle in the opening LA episode leaves the other four mishaps in roles supporting its copious sense of what night on earth has in store. Corky, in addition to her dependence upon the soothing features of cigarettes, sports a partially-concealed bruise under her left eye. The Ivory Coast cabbie in stage 3, at Paris, has a band aid on his forehead. The forcefully chipper magpie driving about the streets of Rome at 4 a.m. in episode 4 loves to hear his own snappy and risqué patter; and his vocal delivery is a form of blackjack. The Helsinki driver, sober and lost as a Socialist judge, bringing up the rear, as dawn breaks while it’s still around 7:07 p.m. in Corky’s capitulation in LA, flashes the story of his premature baby, soon dead, like those Paris street vendors in “the good old world,” selling violent porn. And before we take a flyer on their visions of being at the summit with lots of company, we’ll contemplate a recent émigré to New York City (being in action at 10:07 and thus part of our second nocturnal school of hard knocks). How, you might ask, does a doe-eyed, middle-aged former East German circus clown speak volumes about Gotham’s wiseacres? A black dude on a freezing night frantically tries to connect with one of the City’s seemingly countless yellow cabs; but his race, age and apparel leave him out of luck and dancing on a curbside to antidote the cold. (His cool white sneakers leave him juxtaposed with a DJ on a New Orleans curbside fetching his divine cowboy boots and headed for trouble with a motor vehicle, in Down by Law. Along comes Helmut, driving a stutter-motion yellow cab and pretending to be behind the wheel for the first time. He welcomes the non-subway-user into his workplace and pretends he doesn’t know that the P, set to the apparatus, means Park. After taking deadpan instruction as to D: Drive, he resumes that rodeo bucking pace which somewhat alarms the denizen of wall-to-wall panache. This so-called Yo Yo gets his blasé and ready for anything mojo back and settles in for some important fun. Helmut induces Yo Yo to take over the wheel, all the while seeming to be worried about losing his job. “It’s not allowed…” Yo Yo declares with pride, “Yes, it’s allowed. This is New York!” “But don’t tell…” the clown clowns. Much more clowning around in that vein and much hearty laughter from the customer/ driver headed for his home in Brooklyn sprays forth a spirit of anarchy conveying a promise of some singularity. But, Helmut, describing himself as a former citizen of Dresden (site of massive wartime destruction), broaches a level of violence leaving his whimsy—accentuated by little pan pipe flourishes—perhaps more ominous than fluent (but still sending Yo Yo into gales of laughter). Approaching Brooklyn, Yo Yo urges him to savor the ambitious sweep and chromatic silkiness of the Brooklyn Bridge, which leaves the hard-core European touched but also troubled. This upbeat chauvinism deserts him when he catches a glimpse of his sister-in-law, Angel, dressed for combat on a hooker track. “There she goes, fuckin’ up again, as usual!” is the statement turning a sort of page. Parking mode not nearly so funny now, Yo Yo and the thirtyish, still cute but rather hard-boiled, live-wire skirmish on an unruly street-corner, every second word being “fuck.” We see, perhaps to our surprise, that pacifistic Helmut is quietly amused by the sudden and rancorous chaos, its affinities to the Dadaist friction he has precipitated since the moment he came to Yo Yo’s inflected rescue being not hard to spot. Yo Yo having managed to throw Angel into the back seat and locked her in, the two locals proceed to disclose the ins and outs of NYC irreverence and—most importantly—its being a wide ocean apart from the stunts of the gentle German shit disturber. “She’s really beautiful,” the latter praises. From between funky crucifix earrings, she snorts in disapproval and then laughs loudly about her brother-in-law’s picking up such a loser. Far from an attention-getter, an elevated railway line shows up for a couple of seconds. Such an overpass in Memphis, in Mystery Train, meant a lot. With the current crop (impervious to the “really beautiful”) it means nothing. An ebullient Helmut mines in sync with Yo Yo’s hands on the steering wheel, and she barks from behind the security barrier, “Will someone tell me what the fuck is goin’ on?” Depositing the relative to her block, Yo Yo is far from surprised to have her turn his way and say, “Hey, Yo Yo, fuck you!”Helmut had told his new acquaintance (and long-shot friend) that he had no family, Dresden having been hard on family continuity. Any wild ideas that Yo Yo and his anarchic sense of humor might become family are ditched unequivocally by the winding down of the vignette. He pays the fare and then reproves the official driver for not counting the cash, which happens to be a dollar short. “It’s Noo Yook, Helmet!” The poet-clown insists, “The money isn’t important to me! I’m a clown…” He persists in the role of not knowing what all cabbies there know, namely, how to get back to Manhattan, and caps off his show by popping on a red ball of a nose (touching off the Emmett Kelly moment in Mystery Train, for consideration of where cool lives), which sends Yo Yo into more peals of laughter he would never be at a loss to put into play as antidoting a not intrinsically carefree scene. First there is Helmut doing that stutter-move as a farewell; then he nearly comes to grief getting squashed by a recklessly speeding bus; then he slowly passes a crime scene; on a dark street furtive figures go through debris on the sidewalk; he takes off his red nose and his face registers a long night.
Episode 3 begins with a Guimard Art Nouveau Paris Metro entranceway and flashes in stately progression some girl-can’t-help-it gorgeousness in the areas of texture, color and industrial and architectural design. I think the juxtaposition thus in place tempts us to think Helmut moved to the wrong city. But we’re about to have put in play how the tone of handsomeness of Paris overestimates the City of Light and thereby sustains its own picturesque benightment. We meet a young cabby from the Ivory Coast (that name suggesting its own burden of beauty), with a band aid above his right eye and being joylessly conscientious in fielding customers who feel an imperative to disclose a supposed spiritual edginess and loftiness. It’s 4:07 at night and a couple of tipsy African wheeler-dealers (agents, perhaps, of one of the Metropolitan’s corporations) dispense with diplomacy and loudly brag at the back end of the vehicle, “In the bag…We sure impressed the Ambassador… the way we suckered him!” Not approving of their style, he speeds up to get it over and one of them complains, “We told you to drive carefully… We’re important men…” [unlike you]. When they subsequently turn to ridicule (“Little Brother, are you from Benin?” Then, hearing he’s from Cote d’Ivorie, turning that name into a pun about blindness), he dumps them on a dark area of the periphery only to meet a blind woman with much more and inflexible attitude than that of the sad sacks. Unlike Jerimiah Kincaid devoting endless love to his very-out-of-place black lamb (a song of the south the likes of which only lacerate the Paris night-worker in his present circumstances), the new fare, a picture of studied, hard-won poetic accomplishment (with her white staff, she recalls blue-chip, ruthless, ballet tutors), would only consider herself so dear to her heart. He had made a noisy stop from out of the aforecited dismay, and she addressed him, from out of unbridgeable alienation and unchangeable flatness, “Nice driving, asshole! You nearly flattened me!”They joust about the route (she cleverly using the Braille signage therein to press her rights to follow her preferred route; he snapping back, “Don’t tell me how to do my job”); she adds to her lipstick (reminding us of the solicitous take on such a theme by Mitsuko, in Mystery Train), accentuates her dress’ leeway for cleavage and assimilates the pose of a must-see attraction at the Louvre; and, taking up the endless fascination of her own brilliance, she displays her fretful acuity about the choice of a tunnel route which she had demanded he avoid. He lights her cigarette, a gesture giving off none of the promise of that between spinning Corky and of-the-past Victoria. Having many reasons to change what he calls “a fucked up day,” he hopes to nail her pride and prejudice (she impressing him when picking up from his accent that he’s from that inferior land) by asking: why she exposes her nearly all-whites of the eyes, disconcerting to a certain attitude of delicacy— “Don’t blind people wear dark glasses?”; how she can make any sense of love-making; how she can enjoy colors. She replies, with a storm of state-of-the-art disdain: “I’m glad I can’t see you, because you must be an ugly bastard;” “Listen, Jerk-Off [a keyword in Down by Law, and now a signal of his lack of pertinence], I can do anything you can!” [Apropos of the shades] I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen a “blind person;” “I listen to music. I feel music… I go to the movies; I feel them;” I don’t give a fuck about colors. I feel colors;” “When I make love, I love with every centimetre of my body… I can smell a lover a block away…”
His response to that latter boast, “A block away! He must really stink!” had led to, “Fuck you!” and then the “ugly bastard” characterization. This (not surprisingly, in view of the fragility of his body language) leaves him with wounded eyes and acknowledging, “That’s right…” Thus the last moments of a drama that lasts long after we see it speak to not only her distemper, but his own standing out as a secondary but equally viral infection delivered to world history, to planet Earth. He reaches her destination and, with the meter saying 49 (francs) he is somehow compelled to add a touch of populist sweetness, claiming, 40. Night, though, being not a problem solved by small kindnesses, he hears next, “Listen, asshole, I’ve been trapped in here longer than that … And I don’t need your fuckin’ charity … Here’s 50…” (Largesse with no heart, no cogent grandeur.) She treads along the St. Martin Canal, her whitesceptre giving her the air of a grandee. He ponders her incomprehensible energies and, while thus weighted down, the camera back on her with a fixed sneer of triumph on her face, a collision is heard. Her joyless pleasure increases. She hears, “Don’t you look where you’re going? We’re not in Africa here…” Then, “You’re a racist!” Then again, “No, I’m not a racist, but you drive like a fuckin’ black… Are you blind, or what?” The cabbie—we see this altercation from a distance, already a trivial statistic—places his hands on each side of his head and cries out, “It’s not my fault!” Then we see in close-up the customer’s nodding in her kind of gratification, being also a personal distaste for her, however unacknowledged; but evidence of a wider deadliness.
The final two drives lacking kinetic progress take us deeper into the jungle that not thinking for oneself leads to. The African in Paris getting nowhere shouts out to the irate driver he T-boned, “But it’s not my fault!” Feeling distracted by agents availing themselves of a clannish leverage can count on no effective ally in world history as it has evolved. Humanitarian immigrant services can facilitate mundane domestic matters; but, being intrinsically ensconced in a questionable and deep-seated status quo, they have nothing to offer to real outsiders. Notwithstanding the verbal knife-fight between the black and the blind, they part with a semblance of solicitude. He calls out to her as she leaves, “Watch out for yourself.” “Watch out yourself,” she calls back. But that singularity fades in a moment, due to deep-seated cultural advantages cultivated aeons ago. The blind tells the black, “I feel things you never feel.” It would come as a real surprise to her that there are, scattered about, those who could, if they felt there were any point in doing so, tell her about her clan’s own appalling deficiencies.
Chapters 1, 2 and 3 show benightment all but complete. Chapters 4 and 5 give us absolute zero. At the same time as the Paris bloodletting, down the way in Rome a smooth- and interminable-talking driver, Gino (played by Roberto Benigni, whom we saw as Roberto the vaguely troubling pathfinder in Down by Law), orates in a stentorian register a return to the days when Rome was—if not a boss military dictatorship, at least a boss religious dictatorship. Although the flip and salacious themes of his monologue telegraph hard-core cynicism, he is as disconcertingly wedded to escapist diatribes as the blind poseur. Leading off with an American cowboy movie theme song (“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy…”), he then passes a place called Hotel Genius which prompts him to piggy-back the ridicule of the Western with a roster of inventive celebrities, in order to bring the latter down to the former. Benigni’s delivery is a riveting mixture of self-sustaining zaniness and anarchic spleen. “I want a room between Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein… If there’s no room in Hotel Genius I’ll take a room in Hotel Imbecile…” Subsequent rushing down one-way streets with dead-ends carries metaphorical digs back to the simplistic wag.Flagged down by a clergyman, he instills a more overt strain of that Dadaism so dear to Helmut(but not nearly so gentle) in leading the elderly, ailing divine back and forth at a roundabout. Underway and being asked by the priest to take off his sun glasses, Gino mocks a frequent miracle and in so doing links to the regal and skeptical blind hipsterof the previous episode. “I feel like a blind man who’s miraculously recovered his sight!” He then launches into a long confession—delighted with the cab’s transom seemingly for transmission of grace—so self-satisfied and self-serving that, though noticing the passenger desperately rubbing his chest, Gino prolongs the bombast for a very long time wherein he is completely indifferent to the fare’s failing health, and the priest dies while the cabbie continues as another ruler of a dying though persistent regime.(During the detailed account of fucking his brother’s wife, we see the priest trying to avail himself of some pills, but they end up on the floor as the clown car lurches around corners far more harshly than the lurches delivered by Helmut.) “Holy shit! I’ve killed him!” rounds out this non-stop Roman Holiday foregoing every trace of mature reflection. (While the priest struggles alone with his medications, the driver, making a sudden stop which deposits many pills on the floor, looks up a couple of gay pals in drag (reminding us of the cruelties of La Dolce Vita, the protagonist there at least having been able to shut his mouth once in a while). “What a darling little bishop,” one of them says.
It’s 5:07 in Helsinki, and after this episode you might never want to go near the place. The cabby, Mika, theobverse of Gino’s declamatory fanfare, is called to a supposed place of revelry which looks like a funeral parlor. (The opening shot discloses the only architectural consciousness to be seen—a severe art deco edifice which crazily brings to mind human sacrifices.) Three drunks stand in the snow, two of them having tried to help the third with an uber-Protestant crisis—loss of job; loss of wife and a pregnant 16-year-old daughter. The sterile physical locale seems to have spawned an outpost where maudlin commiseration for setbacks constitutes the national pastime. The dour cabby (harboring what he imagines to be a bombshellbut in fact another obverse, this time of deluxe and carefree Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly) asks (about the unconscious man of the hour), “Is he alright?” One of the pals, displaying de rigueur facility for mawkishness pules back, “No, he’s not alright!… Today was the worst fuckin’ day of his life! You have no idea how he feels… [Helsinki all about prodigious hurtin’—and not about the branding of the supposed radical of the third story and her rare kinkiness]. The less than charismatic revelers are then taken aback by the driver with the granddad moustache introducing what in Finland would count as “Make my day” friction—namely, “So is that all? …Things could be worse…”
Scandalized, the Lutheran lushes challenge the night-shift drifter, “OK, Mr. Taxi Man, what ever happened to you that was worse than that?” “Do you have children…” [that Black Hole eating up Corky], the amateur prosecutor asks. This leading the pudgy tipplers into a tangent of arguments about best-gender which comes to blows necessitating the anal cabby/ cop to bark out the commandment, “Hold it, or you’ll have a cold walk!” Silencing his lumpen congregation, the preacher—explaining that the photo shining from the back of the front seat is his wife—tells of his and hers earth-shattering pregnancy and loss of the baby. Droning on about every minutiae of the premature mishap he readily wins over his audience to teary dedication. The climax of sorts in this saga consists of, during their vigil as to the infant on life-support, having the idea that “If that baby was going to make it, it needed all my love… The strongest love possible [a dark irony of possible sensuality in this ascetic context]… I felt the love for that baby surge through every pore [ a trope not far from that of the lover-girl in Paris] of my worthless body…” Coming to the child’s soon dying, he’s treated from the listeners to the mushy veneration he was counting on. In the context of hugging the mourner-for-life, they turn on the previous object of their doing good— “Forget about him! He’s a lush, anyway…” [not to mention being habitually late for work].
During the skid through dark and snowy Helsinki there is a quick allusion to a railway bridge. (Asked where he lives, the recent victim flatly pronounces “Helsinki.” A few years earlier, the name “Memphis,” was pronounced with quiet reverence.) The sensual percolation in face of such a form, on the part of Jun, in Mystery Train, seems light years away from that dead homeland. In the earlier film the brevity of its epiphany does not foreclose on the possibility of better things to come. In Night on Earth, we are introduced to a planet possibly beyond hope for a rally. Thought-provoking and scintillating!