Directed Viewing: Repeated Sentiment and “Night on Earth”

Hey everyone. Welcome to Directed Viewing, where I pick a director and watch their entire filmography for little more than the sake of my own satisfaction and hopefully your enjoyment. I am the trained monkey of film watching.

We’re on week five of Jim Jarmusch, 80s and 90s indie darling extraordinaire, and I have to admit that it’s been more downs than ups so far. This experience has certainly been one of the most edifying directors I’ve done a project on, because while a person can certainly learn a lot from movies they like I feel like thinking critically about movies you actively dislike is sometimes even more informative.

At least, I keep telling myself that.

Night on Earth (1991)

I have to tell you, I’ve seriously considered just copy and pasting last week’s article and replacing the names and some of the details because what we have here is the epitome of more of the same. Night on Earth is a series of five shorts that all take place over a single night each story taking place inside of a cab in five cities across the earth. It’s a simple premise with very simple execution, so you’ll excuse the lack of pictures in this article. There just isn’t anything interesting to show.

The problems with Night on Earth are the problems with the other Jarmusch movies, and at this point I’m perfectly willing to admit that maybe it’s just me, but I’m really just not a fan of his short compilation work. I don’t want to tread water forever repeating the things I’ve said before, but we’re already dealing with a director who seems to delight in avoiding plot as much as possible and when given stories that are too small to even have much of a narrative it all breaks down into extended scenes of affectation and exasperation.

The first short is maybe the worst, which is saying a lot given one in particular later in the movie. This story takes place in LA, and is about a casting director (Gena Rowlands, who is normally great but is given absolutely nothing to hold onto here) who runs into a foul-mouthed, rough and tumble LA cabbie played by … wait for it … Winona Ryder. Only in the 90s would Winona Ryder, looking about 4 feet tall and 70 pounds soaking wet, ever get cast as a character who is supposed to be believably tough and worldly.

No, you can’t do that. I’ll believe it when she self-describes as ‘strange and unusual,’ but I refuse to accept her stupid accent and the amount of swearing shoved into her lines to make her sound ‘tough.’ It puts the whole thing into a tailspin from the beginning, and it never fully rights itself afterwards. I know you’re never supposed to start a show with a showstopper, but you also shouldn’t start it with the worst part of your movie, either.

The second story is the best part of the movie, something that almost makes having watched this whole thing worthwhile. It’s a story of an East German immigrant named Helmut who picks up a loud, obnoxious passenger named Yo Yo (Giancarlo Esposito) who wants to go all the way to Brooklyn. But it just so happens that it’s Helmut’s first night as a driver and he’s absolutely terrible. So Yo Yo takes over the driving duties and the two men have a weird, off-kilter bonding experience. It isn’t much, but it’s sweet and the characters are surprisingly likeable. If Jarmusch had made just this story into a short, it would have been my favorite thing I had seen here thus far. Unfortunately, it’s like finding a piece of candy in the middle of a pile of garbage. Thanks, but you’ve ruined it.

I’m not going to run down two of the other stories because … well, they’re boring and not worth mentioning. Not good, not bad, just mostly there. This is a common problem with short films, but normally each short in a collection of them like Paris Je T’aime or even Jarmusch’s later film Coffee and Cigarettes is under ten minutes. So if one doesn’t work for you, it’s fine. The problem here is that each short is twenty goddamn minutes. Which, in bad movie terms, might as well be the cinematic equivalent of being waterboarded.

The 4th story deserves some special mention, however, as being especially terrible. I’ve gone out of my way to point out in my write up of Down By Law that relic of the 90s Roberto Benigni saves that film through pure pluck, playing off the two somber self-serious protagonists and making the whole thing into a farce. The problem is Benigni is a great example of a little going a long way. And in the 4th story he plays an Italian cab driver who spends 20 minutes talking to a priest he picks up about his childhood, including his first sexual experiences involving a pumpkin and a sheep.

Yes, 20 minutes of this film is devoted to Roberto Benigni talking about how he fucked a gourd and an animal.

I feel like maybe I should get angry about that, to go off on a tirade about how badly this movie wasted my time and how frustrated I am about how I have to write about this bullshit. But in reality it just makes me tired. Bad movies are part of watching movies, and to be honest most of the time they’re fun to tear down. You get to have fun kicking a movie while its down, and then you move on.

Unfortunately Night on Earth is the rare movie that is so bad and in such a particular way that it makes me hate watching movies. I’ve spent the rest of the week doing very little thinking about movies because I suddenly am taken up with the idea that I never want to see anything ever again.

Hyperbole, I know, and I’ll get over it, but it’s frustrating that this director who by all accounts is supposed to be good and important and whatever has spent almost four hours now producing content that can at my most generous be described as ‘middling’. I have a whole bunch of other words for it, but I want to remain civil. I mean, come on, I still have five movies left.

Heaven help me.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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