Jim Jarmusch is great at small stories. He is able to capture in a single sentence or a single gesture just how this character is thinking and feeling. When he is at his most pared down, he really shines. My favorite film of his has got to be Coffee and Cigarettes. I saw the film when I was a young college kid. I had never seen a film that was essentially an ensemble piece done so well before. Simple conversations can pack way more punch than grandiose ones. Even silly conversations about how Elvis is real or how caffeine can kill you capture more of how we are feeling at a given moment than serious conversations. In Night on Earth, Mr. Jarmusch is able to capture the same feeling that he had in Coffee and Cigarettes. (Yes I know this film came first, but I saw the other one first… give me a break invisible reader)
Night on Earth is set in five different spots during one night. Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Paris, and Helsinki all get their time to shine in this film. But to tell you exactly what happens in each segment is, I think, to ruin the film for you. So I am going to instead talk about how Jim Jarmusch is able to capture the dirtiness and the loneliness of a place. Before the action takes place, we get several establishment shots of the town. But these shots aren’t the typical shots of these cities. Instead you see boarded up businesses, abandoned streets, a couple making love on a scooter, and snow. This is how the town is seen by the locals. The people who have to work late into the night taking people wherever they want to go. It isn’t what the tourist sees or what the idealist sees. These are stories of strife, improving your life and of absurdity. A city of wonder is no longer a city that serves these circumstances. This is actually something that Mr. Jarmusch does in his films quite a bit. He takes a town like Memphis in Mystery Train and shoots the streets that the citizens of the town go down, not the tourist traps. He is able to find the beauty in the abandoned and the rundown. He uses these places to set a mood. In the Los Angeles short, you see a bright and energetic landscape. He shoots a Rocky and Bullwinkle statue like it is the Statue of Liberty. This short is about hope and about ambition. The ambition is small, but it is there. To contrast this, his last short is set in Helsinki in the depth of night and winter. The city is aglow with this blue atmosphere that is achieved when street lights are reflected off of snow. This story is about one of loss and depression. The snowy atmosphere and the blue hue reflect this story’s structure.
When you are in a confined space with a stranger for a prescribed amount of time, it is hard not to talk to the person you are with. The conversation that results in these types of situations can be mundane but can also be the most intimate you will ever get. Mr. Jarmusch took this everyday situation and reveled insights into the human mind. I just wish that other directors would be able to do these same things.
The man who plays Yo Yo in the New York City segment is the same actor who plays Gus Fring or the guy with the chicken restaurants in Breaking Bad. My suggestion for you is to watch this movie then watch your favorite Breaking Bad episode with him in it. It will blow your mind that it is the same person.