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NIGHT ON EARTH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Issach de Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpaa
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  128 Minutes
Release Date:  September 4, 2007

“You called a taxi?”

“No, we called a garbage truck.  But you’ll have to do the job.”

Film ***1/2

Five taxis, five different cities, all dealing with passengers and drivers at the same time of the same night.  From Los Angeles to New York, from Paris to Rome, and arriving in Helsinki, Night on Earth defies typical lines and structures of storytelling.  But as always, in a Jim Jarmusch film, the characters themselves are so striking, fascinating and memorable that the real pleasure of the movie is the time we spend with them, listening to them bare their souls in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking.

The only real light in the film comes at the beginning and at the end, because Los Angeles has the furthest west time zone and is not quite dark as the tale begins, and because Helsinki has the furthest east time, meaning the sun rises on our final characters like the dawning of a new day, or God’s flashlight shining down on them.

In a sense, despite being non-conventional, Jarmusch actually employs a fairly straightforward method to tell his tale.  The stories are not interwoven, but shown one at a time, and after each, we see the clocks of the world wind back to the start to let the next episode begin.  Because of the taxis, we mostly find ourselves watching in confined spaces from within and without, and it means our only avenue of moving forward within the framework of the movie is to settle in with the characters and more or less eavesdrop on some intimate conversations.

In Los Angeles, a troubled casting agent (Rowlands) takes a ride from the airport with a very young, sharp-tongued chain smoking cabbie (Ryder), and finds she may have the qualities she needs for her next big project.  But the girl, who seems to barely be able to see over the steering wheel, has her own life mapped out, and it doesn’t involve Hollywood…probably L.A.’s only cab driver not looking for that elusive break.

The New York segment is the funniest, as a black passenger (Esposito) finds himself in a cab with an East German immigrant (Mueller-Stahl), who has no clue what to do with automatic transmission, so the customer ends up taking over the driver’s seat on his way to Brooklyn.  And, of course, having different backgrounds, each man’s name seems funny to the other.  But an escapade with a troublesome family member (Perez) brings in a little verbal sparring, while the cabbie responds with pleasant acceptance.  The ending may have you feeling more than a little worried.

In Paris, an African cab driver (Bankole) picks up a feisty blind woman (Dalle), and finds himself curious as to how she lives without sight.  She seems unflappable…but why does she want to be let out to walk along the canal at night?

The Italian segment is the strangest, and possibly the most sour-spirited.  The always affable Roberto Benigni picks up a priest, and proceeds to spin the most shockingly hysterical yarns of confession to the holy man, who is in fact dying in the back of the cab.  The driver seems too focused on his immortal soul to pay attention to his passenger’s mortal body.

Finally, we arrive in Helsinki for the most moving segment.  A driver (Pellonpaa) picks up three men who obviously had a hard night of drinking.  One of them proceeds to tell him about how one of them had the worst possible day imaginable.  But the driver quietly responds with a tale of his own that puts their own lives, and possibly the entire breadth of the film, into perspective.

What is it about microcosmic moments such as these?  You watch Night on Earth and can’t help but think of one character to another.  After viewing the Helsinki story, you begin to realize there may be more tragedy at play in the lives of the others, but maybe because of the specific time and place we viewed the people in, they seem more comical.  Maybe the Benigni character is usually a million laughs a night on his shift, but we caught him in his darkest moment.  Maybe the Helsinki driver has more humor in him, but we see him only when life has driven it from him.

Or maybe it’s that we’re all afflicted in one way or another, just some in ways that are far more visible.  Is Gena Rowlands refusal to answer her phone at the end an act or strength or defeat?  Does Winona Ryder play a character of great internal focus, or is she reckless and short-sighted?  We can’t really know the outcomes, because once a cab ride is over, so is the relationship between driver and customer, and it’s on to the next sad, funny or indifferent tale.

Night on Earth was made in 1991, and Leonard Maltin called it Jarmusch’s most fully developed feature to date.  I don’t think one can dismiss his earlier work, but with this film, he found a truly intriguing way to bring his character-driven ideas from smaller vignettes into a much larger picture, and use his stories to contemplate connections, both in tiny intimate sessions and, indeed, as a bigger whole night on earth.

Jim Jarmusch, before and after releasing Night on Earth, would work on Coffee and Cigarettes, an ambitious yet small film that also explored the small connections people make in commonplace settings.  And again, some were funny, some were touching.  But Night on Earth remains a singular vision elevated by a solid cast and even more solid ideas.  This is one of his best.

Video ***

Nothing but night shots pretty much, but as usual, Criterion doesn’t disappoint with this director-approved transfer.  There’s a touch of noticeable grain here and there that’s probably unavoidable given the nature of the movie, but not nearly as much as I would have expected.  Images are generally sharp and clear throughout, and even the underlit Rome comes across with solid clarity.

Audio ***

The stereo soundtrack is better than you might expect, largely thanks to the strange but striking music by Tom Waits.  The opening and closing songs are the same, but for the start, he makes his song into an almost burlesque sounding number, while the repeat at the end is truly haunting and beautiful.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and there are moments that actually give the track a shot or two of dynamic range.

Features ***

The best extra is another of Criterion’s now-famous Q&A sessions with Jarmusch, which is audio-only and lasts about an hour.  It’s as close as we’re likely to come to a commentary track since Jarmusch never watches his films after they’ve been released, but the fan participation always makes for interesting discussions from Jim.  But there IS scene selected commentaries from DP Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin. 

There’s also as short 1992 interview with Jarmusch filmed for Belgian television, plus a typically cool Criterion booklet that even includes Tom Waits’ original lyrics.

Summary:

I sincerely hope Criterion eventually gets the chance to release all of Jim Jarmusch’s works on disc, even ones that have been put out by other studios.  Criterion loves cinema fans, and cinema fans can’t do better than to experience a truly unique American artist’s visions on these terrific DVD offerings.

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