The Films That Made Us: Jim Jarmusch

With Paterson opening in Curzon Cinemas on 25 November, the idea of a Films That Made Us featuring Jim Jarmusch seemed obvious. If you haven’t seen Paterson when reading this, I implore you to go and watch it today (or tomorrow, if that works, honestly that’s still OK). Man-of-the-moment and all-round Beacon of Gravitas Adam Driver plays a bus driver-poet in Paterson, New Jersey, a city with which he also shares his name. It’s a simple and mature film from an old yet very hip master, with a cooled meditative quality that draws you in and an immaculate attention to detail. In a world of ads that heighten in volume between segments of TV, and higher frame rates and 3D effects that cannonade the viewer to be noticed, Paterson is quiet, stealthy and brilliantly original.

[Warning: this feature contains awkward clues to the writer's age]

I did consider Jarmusch’s 1989 tri-part Mystery Train as a candidate for a 'Film That Made Me'. The teenage growing pains of adolescence in Blackpool included, unsurprisingly, limited access to a world of cinema beyond the local ABC and Odeon (think Michael Keaton standing on a box in the Tim Burton mid-period Batman reboots). I remember the only way to read Sight & Sound was to fill in an order form at WH Smiths, because nowhere stocked it in the seaside town. I'd proudly take the tram along the Promenade each month to pick up my special personal copy, with glossy cover and tightly packed print.

But our local Blockbuster video rental shop would occasionally, in grave error, order in some gems, which would inevitably end up for sale in the bargain basket after a month or two of neglect on the shelves. That's where I chanced upon my VHS of Mystery Train, with a flaked plastic case and tacky grey patches from peeled-off stickers. I picked it up because of the cover, because that’s what people used to do. When I watched it, I loved the fact that I didn’t immediately get it; it felt aloof and hard to please, like a club you’re desperate to join but who have no interest in signing you up. I watched it regularly in the 'new room' to improve my membership chances (the new room was a converted garage set up with a portable TV to protect my parents from my taste). I screened it to friends. I stored it in a small tower of other basket rejects, like Luc Besson's Subway, Jean-Hugues Anglade's Betty Blue and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  

Later, I scrimped for a motorbike, and graduated from grainy video shop rejects to cold country lane runs to Lancaster and to the UCI in Preston, which screened a 'Director's Chair' arthouse movie once a week. I wrote to the cinema manager to suggest titles, and - although no reply came - I was made up to see the full list reproduced, in order, on their following season’s pamphlet. It was this first uncredited stumble into film programming that led to me to see Jarmusch's Night On Earth (1991), on a dank Tuesday night in Preston in the company of three or four Lancashire Polytechnic students and my bike helmet on the seat beside me.

From then on I saw every Jarmusch as it came out, in the cinema, evangelising the great ones, forgiving him for the softer ones. And, although his films have endured in my cinema-going life, I never realised until Paterson that I was a Jarmusch fan: like the films themselves, he’s come in under the radar to make a lasting impression. He’s like someone you’ve hung out with for years, shooting the breeze about nothing in particular, like one of his Coffee & Cigarettes pairings; until you realise what a great old friend they’ve been. Although, given that he’s possibly the coolest person on the planet, he’s way out of my league as far as a potential friendship is concerned!

Then I remembered that I never saw Down By Law (1986), usually considered his best film. It’s partly by design that I haven’t seen it, in a way, because I knew I’d love it: I’d been saving it for a special occasion, as you would a pricey bottle of wine - or a packet of biscuits in the cupboard in case someone pops round. I had a similar sense with Citizen Kane. When I came to London to study (and to buy Sight & Sound spontaneously from proper newsagents), I was desperate to see it, because it featured unchallenged as No.1 in the magazine’s best-film-of-all-time lists. But I still held out for a few more years to see it on the big screen, until I spotted it in a rep programme. But it was a disappointing experience, because the anticipation of finally seeing Orson Welles’ cinematic monolithic for the first time evaporated when some old fella on my row snored like a train throughout (in our national theatre too!).

Perhaps that very rare bad experience of seeing a great film in a cinema was in my mind when I decided to watch Down By Law at home before I wrote this – after all, this is 2016 and people are watching films in more ways than ever (not an inappropriate moment to plug Curzon Home Cinema, which currently boasts a Jim Jarmusch collection!).

And I loved it. Of course I did – it’s the 'Film That Made Me' that I never saw – until now. I was gobsmacked at how fresh and funny the performances are, given that this is its 30-year anniversary – a triumph of casting relative non-actors with a Beat sensibility, experts in other creative fields; who are awkward and real and lovable. It felt a little like opening a time capsule, only to discover the contents bang up-to-date and relevant to today. The poetic is out in the open in Paterson, but in Down By Law it saturates the picture, a strange you-couldn’t-make-it-up fable, fairytale even, of three unlikely pals conspiring to break themselves out of the New Orleans clink. Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s crispy black and white photography is jaw-dropping, finding an unlikely beauty – with elegant tracking shots – in littered city streets, dilapidated buildings and the Louisiana swamp. If you haven’t seen Down By Law, see it today (or tomorrow, after you’ve seen Paterson, that’s OK too).

[Damian Spandley, Head of Programme at Curzon Cinemas]

By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, Curzon Bloomsbury is playing Dead Man (Friday 25 Nov), Stranger Than Paradise (Saturday 26 Nov) and, of course, Down By Law (Sunday 27 Nov) across Paterson’s opening weekend. And if there’s a snoring old fella in there, come out and ask a member of the Curzon team to sort them out!

This piece is part of our ongoing series The Films That Made Us. Follow us on twitterFacebook and Instagram to discover more!