The seminal indie director calls himself an 'amateur' who is still learning from killer films like these.
Self-described "film nerd" Jim Jarmusch was faced with a daunting task: the director had to pick clips from only a handful of films to share with New York Film Festival-goers that would encapsulate what cinema means to him. Jarmusch, whose new films Gimme Danger and Paterson were both playing at the festival, fell in love with a cinematheque in Paris while studying abroad in 1975. It was there where he learned that "films are just as varied as literature"—and he has considered himself a student of cinema ever since.
The director of such influential indie films as Down by Law and Broken Flowers joked that if only he were the fast-talking Martin Scorsese, he could get through five times as many films in the same amount of time allotted for his festival presentation. But Jarmusch rose to the occasion. In a conversation on stage with festival director Kent Jones, the filmmaker took the audience on a global tour of cinematic history through his own eyes and experiences—with a strangely unspoken, but heavy, emphasis on films involving murder.
"Get your inspiration from everywhere, because filmmaking has everything in it: music and style and timing and rhythm and acting and writing and photography and color and composition."
Here are his picks, along with some filmmaking insights and personal anecdotes, including which film helped Jarmusch quit smoking.
1. The Naked Kiss (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1964)
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Jarmusch seemed as impressed with Samuel Fuller’s directorial style of as he did with The Naked Kiss itself, a fierce drama about a former prostitute who attempts to reform her life in a small town, only to end up embroiled in a murderous scandal. Jarmusch showed the opening scene of the film, which begins with what he called a “hard-hitting, visceral” dramatic moment that he felt only Fuller, who was known for firing off a pistol instead of calling "action," could pull off.
Jarmusch also championed Fuller as an uncompromising micro-budget director, telling the story of Fuller’s film Shock Corridor (1963). There's a closing scene inside an asylum, where the roof is leaking; reportedly, when Fuller was done filming, he purposely flooded and destroyed the set so that studio execs couldn’t force him to shoot an alternate ending within the low budgets that they provided.
2. In a Lonely Place (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1950)
Probably best known for 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, Ray had a prolific career as a writer, director, and actor. A lesser-known fact is that Jarmusch served as his personal assistant in the last years of his life. Ray inspired Jarmusch to be a proud "dilettante," exploring many creative and intellectual pursuits outside of film.
“He knew a lot about films and the history of cinema and he always would tell me, ‘If you want to make films, don't just watch films,'" Jarmusch fondly remembered. "'Get your inspiration from everywhere, because filmmaking has everything in it: music and style and timing and rhythm and acting and writing and photography and color and composition.'"
Jarmusch had a hard time naming a favorite Ray film, but he mentioned In a Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter who becomes a murder suspect, as a standout. He called it a "really strong, amazing film," featuring "Humphrey Bogart's greatest performance."
3. Branded to Kill (dir. Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
Continuing on the murder theme, Jarmusch paired Suzuki’s film with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), both of which are about hitmen. He admired Suzuki’s film for being "photographed in the most exquisite ways, with all these unusual angles." In fact, Jarmusch credits a couple scenes in the film—particularly one where the main character assassinates someone from below through a sink drain pipe—as direct references for his own film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
"I don't really believe in originality, because there are a limited number of stories, but there's an unlimited number of ways to tell them."
This revelation served as a jumping off point for Jarmusch to discuss his feelings about filmmakers referencing each other’s work in their own projects. "I think expression in any form is like waves in the ocean that you can't really delineate," he said. "They overlap and I don't really believe in originality, because there are a limited number of stories, but there's an unlimited number of ways to tell them."
He added a caveat: "I believe it is only theft if you take somebody's idea before they've realized it and say it was your own, and then you're just a full-on asshole." But, he said, "if you take something that moved you and you make another version, I think that's just beautiful. I think that's just the nature of creating things."
4. Point Blank (dir. John Boorman, 1967)
Calling the film Boorman’s "masterpiece," Jarmusch credited much of the its success to editing, contrasting it to Buster Keaton’s work (which he also loves), where the success lies in the camera setups. Point Blank is a cult classic crime noir that involves a heist, double-cross and—you guessed it—murder.
In addition to fine acting by Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, Jarmusch admired that the film features "a lot of shots through glass. A lot of playing with interior and exterior simultaneously. A lot of exterior shots seem to be shot through a window from a car, or there’s an interior and the camera would move from exterior to interior. It's just a lot of surfaces going on."
In addition to Goodfellas, Point Blank is one of the movies Jarmusch gets most absorbed in. “I've seen it so many times,” he explained but, still, “I'll start watching, saying ‘I'll just watch the beginning,’ and then....aw, man, I can’t. I'm in it till the end.”
5. The Sword of Doom (dir. Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)
Jarmusch capped off a bloody good evening with a massacre scene from the end of The Sword of Doom, a film in which a samurai remorselessly slaughters everyone from a baby to an elderly Buddhist pilgrim. Calling it “beautifully made” but also “very, very brutal” and “the most nihilistic film I think I've ever seen,” Jarmusch chose to share the clip for a personal reason.
Ironically, the Coffee and Cigarettes director used the influential martial arts movie in his quest to stop smoking. After reading the book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Jarmusch stayed home for a week—totally alone—and watched The Sword of Doom twice a day. He claimed that when you’re trying to quit smoking, “you get really tensed up and angry, and [watching this film] relieved so much pressure.”
So as not to place an undue emphasis on Jarmusch's apparent on-screen murder obsession, and in appreciation of his wide cinematic tastes, here are some of the many other films he mentioned throughout the evening:
- The Navigator (Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp, 1924)
- Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise, 1948)
- Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)
- Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959)
- Il Sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962)
- The Bread and Alley (Abbas Kiarostami,1970)
- The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978)
- Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (Aki Kaurismäki, 1994)