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From the time he emerged onto the film scene with "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984), writer-director Jim Jarmusch defined the true meaning of independent director. Though he decried being labeled as such, there was no doubt that his steadfast refusal to take Hollywood money in order to maintain creative and financial control over his films made him synonymous with the low-budget indie world. In hip, comic, minimalist films like "Down By Law" (1986) and "Mystery Train" (1989), Jarmusch explored the recurring theme of cultures colliding, typically by using outsiders from foreign countries to examine the cultural wasteland of post-modern America. Creating a visible persona by appearing as an actor in other indies - most notably "Blue in the Face" (1995) - only helped raise interest in Jarmusch by the refined intelligentsia he catered to. Though he occasionally perplexed critics and fans with some of his output, notably "Dead Man" (1995) and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai' (2000), Jarmusch nonetheless retained his own identity - not to mention all the film negatives - even while touching upon more mainstream narratives like "Broken Flowers" (2005), making him a truly independent filmmaker.
Born on Jan. 22, 1953, Jarmusch was raised the middle of three children in Akron, OH, by his father, who worked for B.F. Goodwrench, and his mother, who wrote movie reviews for the Akron Beacon Journal. In fact, it was his mother who first sparked Jarmusch's passion for film by often leaving him in a local theater to watch double matinees of B-science fiction movies while she ran errands. His maternal grandmother had a bohemian streak, introducing the young Jarmusch to gypsies, Marcel Proust and Native American culture; the latter of which deeply influenced his later creative work as much as B movies did. After graduating Cayahoga Falls High School at 17, he scratched the itch to leave Akron, briefly studying journalism at Northwestern University before studying English literature at Columbia University. A few months before graduation, while on a visit to Paris, he discovered the rich treasures of the Cinematheque Francaise and wound up staying for a year.
Upon returning to New York City in 1977, Jarmusch enrolled in the graduate film program at NYU, where he met future filmmaker Spike Lee and became a teaching assistant to famed "Rebel Without a Cause" director, Nicholas Ray. Through Ray's efforts, Jarmusch became a production assistant on Wim Wenders' tribute to the director, "Lighting Over Water" (1980). After Ray died in 1979, Wenders gave Jarmusch some 40-odd minutes of unused stock footage from another feature. Seizing the opportunity, the young filmmaker used portions of the footage to make his first film, "Permanent Vacation" (1980), a 30-minute short about an alienated Manhattanite (Chris Parker) wandering the city, trying to make sense of his life. Largely ignored by the festivals, Jarmusch directed his first feature, "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984), an avant-garde comedy about three people on a road trip to Cleveland that was gritty, minimalist and sharply comic. The film took festival audiences by storm, while on its way to winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes, the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Best Film award from the National Society of Film Critics.
Not a commercial success by any stretch - though it did play in Paris for a year straight - "Stranger Than Paradise" announced the birth of a cool, hipster style of making films previously unseen. Hollywood stood up to take notice and offered Jarmusch numerous projects, all of which he turned down. Better to be his own man than a gun for hire. So Jarmusch went back to work on what he referred to as the second part of a trilogy, "Down By Law" (1986), a talky-heavy comedy about a pair of petty thieves (Tom Waits and John Lurie) who manage to escape a jail cell with an Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) and wander around the backwoods of Louisiana wondering what to do next. Though not as impactful as his first film, "Down By Law" nonetheless helped cement Jarmusch's status as a director comfortable working on the fringe. It also established his penchant for casting offbeat musicians (Waits) in prominent roles. He next offered up the last part of his opening trilogy, "Mystery Train" (1989), another talky comedy from the bleak American landscape that explored Memphis through the eyes of several foreign tourists. Not surprisingly, "Mystery Train" became another frequent traveler on the international festival circuit.
By this time, his early work established certain elements that became regular features of the Jarmusch canon. A typical film would begin with characters who live a robot-like existence, unable to relate or communicate, while a typical Jarmusch shot featured a character staring off-screen until the screen fades or cuts to black. From this bleak atmosphere, another character with a different viewpoint and perspective would enter, exposing the shallowness of the enmeshed character's existence - usually a foreign presence like a Hungarian visitor ("Stranger Than Paradise"), an Italian tourist ("Down By Law") or two Japanese teenagers on a pilgrimage to Graceland ("Mystery Train"). As Jarmusch explained, "America's a kind of throwaway culture that's a mixture of different cultures. To make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that's transplanted because ours is a collection of transplanted influences." It was in this clash that lay the basis of Jarmusch's invigorating originality.
After completing his feature-length trilogy, Jarmusch directed the music video for Tom Waits' song "It's Alright with Me" (1990) and returned to the short-film format with "Night on Earth" (1991). The film told five separate stories, each centering on the relationship that unfolds between various customers and taxi drivers working in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. As with most anthology films, critics felt that the quality varied from segment to segment, though the overall effect was quite powerful. Some customary Jarmusch faces peopled his deliberately confined landscapes, while the tone typically veered from side-splittingly funny to quietly poignant, and ended on a note of despondency. Meanwhile, Jarmusch had also developed a cult fascination, partly stemming from a remarkably visible persona. Though primarily a filmmaker, he kept busy as an actor in independent cinema, playing parts ranging from cameos to fairly substantial roles. He appeared in Alex Cox's "Straight to Hell" (1987), Mika Kaurismaki's "Helsinki Napoli All Night Long" (1988), Aki Kaurismaki's "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" (1989), Raul Ruiz's "The Golden Boat" (1990) and Tom DeCillo's "Johnny Suede" (1992).
Following a reunion with Tom Waits for the songwriters music video "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (1992), Jarmusch filmed the third in a series of short films, "Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California" (1993). The first two installments - "Coffee and Cigarettes" (1986) and "Coffee and Cigarettes: Memphis Version" (1988) - made ripples at various festivals. But the third made a splash at Cannes, where the director won the Palms d'Or for best short subject. Jarmusch continued eschewing the Hollywood establishment for European financing and the attending hands-off policy that allowed him to bring his vision uncorrupted to the screen. He next helmed "Dead Man" (1995), a black-and-white revisionist Western that featured a mix of offbeat younger actors (Johnny Depp, Crispin Glover) and legendarily idiosyncratic faces (John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Robert Mitchum) that focused on the cultural collision between a Cleveland accountant (Depp) and the West of 1875. Pursued as a murderer by bounty hunters, the accountant befriends a Native American (Gary Farmer) who believes that he is the reincarnation of the poet, William Blake. Though panned by critics at the time of its release, "Dead Man" underwent a startling re-evaluation, receiving praise from such quarters as Film Comment which declared it one of the representative films of the 1990s.
After making an amusing cameo with Lou Reed in Wayne Wang's "Blue in the Face" (1995), Jarmusch shot Neil Young's music video for "Big Time" (1996), which led to "Year of the Horse" (1997), a documentary about Young and his band Crazy Horse. Filmed in Super-8 during the group's 1996 tour while incorporating footage from the 1970s and 1980s as well, the feature was both a concert film and a revealing look at the daily life of a working band. Returning to narrative filmmaking, Jarmusch directed the Zen-like "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (2000), described by the writer-director as a "gangster samurai hip-hop Eastern Western." Starring Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who follows the precepts of the Hagakure, an early-18th-century Japanese warrior code book of the samurai, "Ghost Dog" possessed Jarmusch's signature zany humor, in that it pictured America as a place of crossed cultural wires. But it ran afoul of some mainstream critics who abhorred its length and what they felt were incomprehensible plot twists. It did possess intriguing thematic content which was underscored by the high-voltage, hip-hop soundtrack composed by The RZA, which undoubtedly reached a wider audience and added new fans to the legion of Jarmusch aficionados.
Jarmusch next decided to remake his three-part short series into a feature, "Coffee and Cigarettes" (2004), perhaps his most minimalist film to date. He filmed a wide array of actors and celebrities (Iggy Pop, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and The RZA) talking about 1920's Paris, caffeine popsicles and using nicotine as insecticide over coffee and cigarettes. The series of seemingly inane vignettes was a convenient excuse for Jarmusch to put interesting people on camera while using variation on a theme as a formal structure for the film. With his next project, "Broken Flowers" (2005), Jarmusch went back to a more formal narrative, while at the same time, keeping with his traditionally low key approach. Bill Murray starred as an aged Don Juan who receives an unsigned letter with a blurry postmark from a woman claiming to have had his 19-year-old son. The man lists all the women he slept with 20 years prior and goes on a cross-country trek to find his offspring. While much of the attention focused on Murray's endearing performance, critics hailed Jarmusch for his integrity in continuing to make thoughtful independent films. Jarmusch and Murray reunited again for "The Limits of Control" (2009), a crime drama about a distrustful and mysterious criminal (Isaach DeBankole) who attempts to complete a job in Spain.
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Worked as a production assistant on the epochal Nicholas Ray/Wim Wenders collaboration, "Lightning Over Water"
Provided sound recording for Eric Mitchell's "Underground USA"
Directed, wrote, edited, and composed the music for "Permanent Vacation", his first feature; Tom DiCillo served as director of photography; on its completion, Wenders gave him some leftover film stock which he used for part of "Stranger Than Paradise"
Wrote and directed the short "New World"
Worked as an actor in Lothar Lambert's West German feature "Fraulein Berlin"
Provided sound recording for "Burroughs", a documentary about the writer William S Burroughs
Directed, wrote, and edited the breakthrough feature "Stranger Than Paradise", an expanded version of his short film "New World"
Helmed the music video "The Lady Don't Mind" by Talking Heads
Worked as a camera operator on Sara Driver's "Sleepwalk"
Directed "Down By Law", starring Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits and John Lurie
Wrote and directed the first in a series of short films titled "Coffee and Cigarettes"; Benigni co-starred with Steven Wright
Wrote and directed the second "Coffee and Cigarettes: Memphis Version", featuring Steve Buscemi, Cinque Lee and Joie Lee
Won acclaim at Cannes for "Mystery Train"
Filmed his 1991 feature "Night on Earth" on location in Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome and Helsinki; project reteamed him with Benigni and Waits who composed music, as well as writing, producing and performing several songs
Helmed "It's Alright with Me", a music video of Waits' single
Reteamed with Waits as director of the music video for "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"
Made third short in the series, "Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California", featuring Tom Waits and Iggy Pop as themselves; received Cannes Palme d'Or for short films
Wrote and directed the revisionist "Dead Man", a hallucinatory black-and-white period Western starring Johnny Depp as a fugitive befriended by a Native American (Gary Farmer), Neil Young's haunting score greatly enhanced film's atmosphere; Jarmusch subsequently directed the videos for "Dead Man Theme" and for "Big Time", a track from Young's 1996 album "Broken Arrow"
Made cameo appearances in Billy Bob Thornton's feature directing debut, "Sling Blade", and Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's "Blue in the Face"
Helmed the Neil Young concert film "Year of the Horse"
Wrote and directed "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai", about a hit man who finds he's been double-crossed; film featured a highly-charged soundtrack by The RZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan) ; debuted in competition at Cannes
Wrote and directed "Coffee and Cigarettes," a comic series of 11 unconnected short vignettes built on one another to create a cumulative effect, and centered around various people chatting while sitting around sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes
Helmed the more mainstream film, "Broken Flowers," which stars Bill Murray and includes appearances by an array of actresses including Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy