Jim Jarmusch: An Unconventional Filmmaker
In 1984, director Jim Jarmusch went to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time and won the Camera d’Or for Stranger Than Paradise, a film that would define modern American independent cinema.
This year, his latest film, The Dead Don’t Die, opened the festival. In the thirty odd years between, Jarmusch (originally from Akron, Ohio) has never bowed to the conventional system of filmmaking. As Dennis Lim, author and director of programming at Film Society of Lincoln Center notes, “He has never been interested in making a big film. He’s made his films on his own terms. He’s insisted on working the way he wants to, with the people he wants to, and that’s quite unusual.”
A hallmark of a Jim Jarmusch film is slow, deliberate pacing, which some refer to as casual. His films are generally told in fragments, like post-it notes, that add up to a story. If you can imagine hanging out on a stoop or a bar stool and having conversations with interesting neighbors and passers-by, you get a general idea of what to expect in a Jim Jarmusch film. For those willing to go along for the ride, you become surprisingly attached to his characters.
Still, The Dead Don’t Die seems an unlikely film for this uncompromising independent director. It’s a zombie movie populated by all-star cast, many of whom have previously appeared in the director’s previous work. Bill Murray and Adam Driver play two cops in a small everytown, aptly named Centerville, where the inhabitants begin to notice changes in the environment, possibly due to polar fracking, which turns into a zombie apocalypse.
The director introduced his film at a sneak-preview screening on June 13 in New York City. When asked how a movie about a zombie apocalypse came about, Jarmusch responded, “Well, for years after we made Only Lovers Left Alive, every time I talked to [Tilda Swinton] on the phone after that for a number of years, would say, ‘Jim, when are we going to do the zombie movie?’ We made Patterson and Gimme Danger in between, and then I started writing this. I like genre [films because] they are a frame, as Sam Peckinpah said, within which you can kind of do whatever you want. Zombies are a very broad metaphor, and The Dead Don’t Die is a kind of broad or blatant film. They aren’t controllable and they aren’t tethered by identity or even meaning really, so it’s an obvious metaphor, and our film was intentionally embracing that kind of obviousness.”
Jarmusch describes the film as not exactly a horror film. “It’s a character-driven comedy. It’s not a horror film. I like horror films, but to be a horror film you need to employ a certain formulaic device, which is, and I am not against it, but it’s tension, tension, tension, scare! And I have absolutely no interest in that. It’s not that I don’t like that in other films, but that was not our intention.”
Jarmusch went on to talk about Romero’s groundbreaking use of zombies to tackle social issues like racism and consumerism. He also stated that in the fifty years since Night of The Living Dead, these social issues still haven’t changed much. So if the film isn’t very subtle, it’s because the time for subtlety is over.
When asked about the environmental issues used as a device that possibly causes the zombie apocalypse, Jarmusch said, “I know a lot of people don’t want to hear about the problems facing us in terms of environmental issues, but the people in power—they can hide that, they can deny it, they can run away from it, but you can’t change science, you can’t change the facts. So dealing with them is important. I’m from a generation that is not afraid of questioning authority or the establishment, but in the last fifty years I’ve seen a lot more reluctance to speak out against things that are bad. This is not a political film. It’s a kind of comedy. But as George Romero is not afraid to put these things in, neither were we. I’m not an activist, but I’m not afraid to say what I think or put it in a film.”
See It Now
As with nearly all Jarmusch films, The Dead Don’t Die features characters that are outsiders. Most notably, a man who lives completely off the grid in a forest and who also quasi-narrates parts of the film (Tom Waits), three teenagers who are in juvenile detention, and a kind of homage character to David Bowie (Tilda Swinton).
The Dead Don’t Die has been given a larger release than any film Jim Jarmusch has ever made. The packaging of the film is somewhat conventional on the surface, and that could be deceiving to general audiences not familiar with his work. Stay open to one of American’s cinema’s greatest outsider voices, and enjoy the “slice of life” approach he takes with his films. You won’t be disappointed.
The Dead Don’t Die stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Waits.
Playing at The State Theater; AMC, Livonia; Emagine, Novi; and Emagine, Canton.