Jim Jarmusch has two camera moves that pretty much define his work: first he turns it on and then he turns it off.
That's a simplification of course; but the truth is not much more complex. Of all our filmmakers, great and small, epic and miniaturist, hack and genius, he's the least interested in "directing"; he's much more interested in "listening." The camera is a dead instrument: it never enters scenes or becomes a participant of the drama and it cuts infrequently. It simply records passively.
Thus his new film "Night On Earth," which opens today at the Charles, is an extended session of eavesdropping; it's for
everyone who's always dreamed of being a fly on the wall. Or on the window: the setting is five taxicabs in five cities on the single most boring night on earth.
A few of these conversations pop to life (one even pops to death); but too often Jarmusch the non-director indulges his performers' vanities, and the pieces roll on and on like a crooked cab ride where the driver hauls an out-of-towner from Towson to Timonium by way of Glen Burnie.
The worst offender is the first, a pale little L.A. anecdote in which working-class cab driver Winona Ryder catches the attention of a swanky casting director (Gena Rowlands) who is her fare. Rowlands is looking for a new face and before the trip is over, taken by the young woman's spunk and unconscious charm, she offers her a major part in a movie. Ryder makes the correct decision, but the movie treats her like some kind of rube who can't recognize what she's just been handed on a silver platter. More likely, she recognizes it very well.
The New York trip is equally irritating: East German emigre Armin Mueller-Stahl, so innocent he must have just gotten off the banana boat from Dusseldorf, picks up Giancarlo Esposito. Mueller-Stahl can't even drive! (This is supposed to be funny?) Nothing much happens as the passenger drives to Brooklyn, where they pick up his sister-in-law, the sprited Rosie Perez, who could wake the dead and even manages to wake the movie for the three minutes that she's in it.
Jarmusch has better luck in Europe; his Paris ride features a nice bit of tension between an African driver (Isaach de Bankole) and a blind beauty (Beatrice Dalle). The best trip watches as driver Robert Benigni, in Rome, decides to confess his hilarious sins to a passenger he believes is a bishop. What he is, is a man having a heart attack. No matter. Benigni, possibly improvising with an elfin genius, spins out one deliciously absurd tale after another of the tangled messes lust has led him into, so focused on himself he neglects to notice the crisis in the back seat.
The last piece, set in Helsinki, made my skin crawl: a driver and his drunken passengers take turns telling sad stories about their screwed-up lives. The driver's is the saddest of all, but you keep waiting for a twist, an edge, a point. It never comes; it's just a festival, an orgy, of self-pity, and quite dreary.
It is beyond Jarmusch to dramatize these stories, and in his stylistic approach, he never tries to find different cutting rhythms or visual schemes to match the varying content of the stories or the cultures that spawned them. Indeed, there's no particular reason all the rides couldn't have taken place in either L.A. or Helsinki and the dreary night photography by Frederick Elmes never brings the places to vivid life.
In all, it's like being taken for a ride.
'Night on Earth'
Starring Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Released by Fine Line