City Nights

Some memories of seemingly insignificant origin can last a lifetime. Ten years ago, I took a taxi from La Guardia Airport to Manhattan, and struck up a conversation with an elderly cab driver during the 30-minute ride to my apartment on the East Side. It began almost as a ritualized tension-breaker, and then took on a momentousness I did not expect. He recounted events from his life, and casually told the story of how he survived the Holocaust. This cabbie had been moved from camp to camp, and over the course of five years, he witnessed them all - Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau - where his family had perished, one by one. The Germans kept him alive because he was strong, he claimed, and toward the end of the war, when it was all but a lost cause for the Nazis, he helped load rockets aimed for London. I sat raptly listening in the back, and commented wishy-washily upon the end of his testimony, "You've been through so much. You must feel lucky to be alive." Taking his fare, he smiled ironically, asked "So you think so?" - then drove away. I never saw him again.

Two strangers, like passing ships, meet, trade stories, and move on. Such brief moments of immediacy, intimacy, and truthfulness can take place anywhere, but in my life, taxis - those peculiarly ornamented vessels for transportation and rumination - are where such catharses have occurred most often. And it is these spontaneous connections, cultural, sexual, and psychological, that Jim Jarmusch addresses in his new movie, Night on Earth. Written and directed by Jarmusch, this film is a compilation of five taxi-ride vignettes, each taking place simultaneously in five cities around the world: The first is Los Angeles as dusk falls, then New York, Paris, Rome, and finally Helsinki at the break of dawn. Jarmusch's cultural omnivorousness, the attribute that characterized his traversal of American wastelands in Stranger than Paradise and his remythologyzing of Memphis, Tennessee, and Elvis in Mystery Train, again makes its presence felt. (The American segments are spoken in English, while the others are performed in French, Italian, and Finnish.)

So, too, is Jarmusch's elliptical storytelling approach. While the black-leader, transitional fades that lent Stranger than Paradise a rather formalized structure are missing, the interweaving of seemingly unrelated characters and stories over a specific time frame directly recalls Mystery Train. Jarmusch can be self-consciously elusive, sometimes even condescendingly cool. But his best humor is subtle and amusing, and his cryptic gaze is cumulatively potent as the movie progresses. At first, the stories in Night on Earth are too different in some ways (and too similar in others) to amount to much, but there's more than a mere summing up of individual parts to account for the film's succcess.

The stories begin with shots of familiarly run-down urban vistas. In Los Angeles, Corky (Winona Ryder), a tomboyish cabbie, picks up Virginia (Gena Rowlands), a svelte casting director, and takes her to Beverly Hills. On the way, Corky talks about her dream of becoming an auto mechanic, while Virginia gets an idea to cast Corky in a film. They relate almost on a mother-daughter level, though this isn't made explicit. Finally, Virginia offers Corky the job, Corky turns it down. End of segment.

In New York, Yo-Yo (Giancarlo Esposito), a Brooklynite, gets into a yellow cab driven by Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an East German ex-circus performer who can't drive, among other things (like communicate well in English). Yo-Yo decides to take over the wheel and steers the car toward Brooklyn. On the way, he sees his sister (Rosie Perez), she gets in and they have an extended barriospeak shouting bout ("Fuck you!" "Fuck you!" "No, FUCK YOU!"). The former clown plays amused onlooker and part-time participant. At the end, Yo-Yo, smiling and friendly, returns the car to Helmut, who takes charge of the vehicle as uncertainly as before, and disappears.

The next episode begins with a driver in Paris from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankole) having a fight with two arrogant African passengers. They make a pun about his being an ivoirien - the French word voir means to see, while the word rien means nothing - calling him blind because "he can't see anything." He kicks them out and picks up a blind young woman (Beatrice Dalle). Over the course of their drive, he jokingly asks her about blindness, what it's like, and while their conversation is mostly confrontational, there's an air of sensuality about their interaction, a combination of her indirect looks and his concentrated gaze on her through the rear-view mirror. He chides her about the "blue" color of carrots, she insults him. It's a short ride, and when she opens the car door and leaves, he immediately - and blindly - crashes against another car. She walks away, smiling by the Seine.

In the next - and most obviously comic - scene, the taxi driver, a Roman, is a lascivious slob (Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Jarmusch's Down by Law), and the fare is an ailing priest (Paolo Bonacelli). In an extended monologue punctuated by the padre's ever more-extreme, pained expressions leading to a pronounced death rattle, the driver confesses his sins. First he admits to extended masturbation with pumpkins, about how "moist" and "soft" the vegetables are as orgasmic devices. The father winces. Then (in a clear crib from the Taviani brothers' Padre Padrone) he explains his passion for a female sheep he calls, of all things, Lola. He remembers how her bleat was more beautiful than any moan, and laments how his own father sold the sheep to a butcher for 30,000 lire. The priest begins to hyperventilate. Finally, the cabbie makes the ultimate confession - he sodomized his sister-in-law. By then, the old man of the cloth has heard enough, and croaks right there on the back seat.

The final meter run takes place in Helsinki. A saturnine driver (Matti Pellonpaa) picks up three drunks. As they near their destination, the drunks and their problems are brought into almost lucid perspective as the driver recounts the tragedy of his baby daughter's death. The drunks embrace him, and he takes off as the sun begins to rise. An uncertain, but somehow appropriate, end for the film - multiple contradictions being typical Jarmuschian aesthetic ends.

The performances are variable: Winona Ryder's gum-chewing and chain-smoking are much too excessive, while Rowlands, beautiful as always, is both measured and magnetic in a small role. In New York, Armin Mueller-Stahl is so inside his character, and so poignant, we want more of him and are equally glad we don't get it. (It's reminiscent of Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train, where just laying eyes on his red-suited hotel concierge was enough.) Esposito and Perez, Spike Lee regulars, act up a storm but get away with it. The Paris sequence, the most atmospherically lit and performed of the five, is distinguished by de Bankole's charismatic face and knowing expression. Benigni and Bonacelli are masterful, economic comics in the Roman travelogue - each progressive confession is timed as precisely as a bank robbery. The Helsinki ending lacks tension, though.

What is the meaning of this film, and what, if anything, ties the cross-continental taxi journeys together? Nothing more (and Jarmusch would perhaps point out, nothing less) than a fundamental humanity able to cross language and culture barriers. As much as anything else, Jarmusch looks to delineate complexities of modern world - and bond them, too, - and reach a point of symbiosis the Germans call Zeitgeist. It's an ambitious project, and viewed thus, these delicately comic portraits do come together. The director's legerdemain in conveying anxiety and mirth in urban America is no less impressive than his handling of French, Italian, and Nordic humor.

Night on Earth is not his best film, a distinction still held by Stranger than Paradise (with Mystery Train coming in a close second). But, all the same, Jarmusch's feat of aerial poise, engaging and confounding us in roughly equal proportions, remains a wonderful thing to experience as the meter ticks around the globe one winter night.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; with Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, and Matti Pellonpaa.

Rated R.
Opens Friday.


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