The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
I’m sorry I sound calm. I assure you I’m hysterical.
—Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands), Night on Earth
Get into the car/ We’ll be the passenger/ We’ll ride through the city tonight/ See the city’s ripped insides/ We’ll see the bright and hollow sky/
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright/ The sky was made for us tonight
—Iggy Pop, from The Passenger
Five cab rides, five cities, and one night on Earth. The simplicity of the film’s premise belies the exuberance and profundity of Jarmusch’s portmanteau, and the logistical difficulties of this technically ambitious, globally located, multi-lingual shoot. A stream of recognizable international faces (each part written specifically with that actor in mind) become our focus; shot head-on as passengers and drivers.
Despite the containment the sense of outside space is pivotal; these are stories born of their cities, specific to their culture and complementing their locations, whilst betraying a common humanity and universal humor which transcends language barriers and binds them. The use of rhyming shots and recurring references lends it further consistency.
Each of the chosen cities was assigned its own color-code. In the film’s, almost exhaustingly informative, technical commentary director of photography Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin describe how lighting rigs were attached to the cars with colored gels illuminating the participants through the windows.
Characteristically for Jarmusch, action takes a backseat with the brilliantly conceived set-up contriving to make this so. Each episode is set almost entirely within its cab. In an interview included on this DVD entitled Alice: Magazine Europeen, Jarmusch describes the appeal of filming this common, fleeting yet spatially-intimate relationship where nothing is invested; there is no past and crucially no future giving one, in theory, total conversational freedom.
It begins in LA with Corky (Winona Ryder) as our unconventional cab driver. Diminutive, with a gawky tomboyish manner, she prodigiously smokes and noisily masticates gum as she curiously probes and proffers her wisdom to glamorous casting agent Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands, in her first role after her husband director John Cassavetes’ death). Dressed ostentatiously in a yin-yang effect dress Victoria seems, initially at least, every bit the Hollywood power-player who’s constantly interrupted by the incessant ringing of her mobile phone. Sitting aloft a phone directory to facilitate her view over the wheel, Corky is distinctly unimpressed by her fare’s vocation. It paints a fascinating picture of the two-sides of Los Angeles that co-exist; the humdrum and the sparkle, with the film’s allegiance weighed heavily on the side of the former.
After the relatively sedate, reflective opener it bursts into full vibrant bloom with the second segment set in New York. Giancarlo Esposito, as the delightfully monikered YoYo, turns in a warm, infectiously energetic performance. We find him, appropriately enough, bouncing up and down on the side of a busy road desperately trying to hail a cab. As they zip past, the racial prejudice YoYo is experiencing is not explicitly mentioned but heavily implied. Incidentally the sequence was filmed for real with genuine NY cabs leaving the mixed-race (African American/Italian) actor out in the cold. To add insult to injury, when a taxi does stop for YoYo and he announces his destination as Brooklyn, the driver immediately, and with a cartoonish pedal-to-the-metal ferocity, speeds off again. The mixture of humor and pathos is both distinctly of the city and a portrayal of bigotry recognizable to a wider audience.
Finally, a car jerks and lurches toward him and thus we are introduced to YoYo’s ‘saviour’ Helmut Grokenberger (the wonderful Armin Mueller-Stahl) an ex-clown and woefully incompetent novice taxi-driver. The encounter is based on an actual incident (disclosed in the audio Q&A which complements the film) where Jarmusch found himself being driven by a man with a pitiful mastery of his automatic vehicle, and eventually persuaded him to hand over the wheel. And so YoYo finds himself in the driving seat, with Helmut imitating his “ten to two” style beside him.
Helmut has a poignancy, which transcends his limited English. Speaking of money he remarks, “I need it. It’s not important for me…I’m a clown.” The two men are joined briefly on their journey by serial screen motor mouth Rosie Perez as YoYo’s sister-in-law Angela. Helmut is gently amused by the pair’s frenzied and often profane bickering and is enamored with Angela’s beauty, bidding her a romantic “Goodbye to you, Angela” as she exits the car. Ultimately the coupling of the sad East German clown, alone in a daunting city, and the streetwise kind-hearted YoYo makes for a fascinating learning curve for both.
The Parisian episode begins with an unnamed driver (played by Isaach De Bankolé), unfortunately lumbered with two incredibly rude, shady, African businessmen. They mercilessly taunt him by observing, “We’re not from the same jungle are we?” When they manage to extract that he hails from the Ivory Coast they cruelly make the infamous French joke that as an Ivorien il voit rien, “he can’t see a thing”. Eventually he dumps them in an obscure locale and fate plays him an ironic card when he picks up his next customer, a blind lady, played by iconic French actress Béatrice Dalle.
The commentary reveals that, rather than opt for white contacts, the idiosyncratic Dalle remarkably spent the duration with her eyes rolled back into her head, to give the effect of loss of vision. Although blind, as Bernard Eisenschitz, editor of Cinéma, remarks, she is a “seer” and the short journey proves something of an education to the driver. Dismissive of the significance attached to the color of a person’s skin, since she herself has no conception of it, Dalles’ character (again unnamed) is self-possessed, defensive and, as the punch line to the sequence reveals, equipped with a devilish sense of humor.
Jarmusch changes pace dramatically when the location shifts to the narrow back streets of Rome. The divisive Italian actor Roberto Benigni is in his element performing, with abreathtaking gusto, bravura, and semi-improvised, comic monologue. As “Gino” (the name a group of prostitutes assign him, he is credited merely as “Driver”) he recklessly rattles along the dimly lit cobbled streets entertaining himself with selection of quotes, songs and assorted ramblings.
Stopping to pick up a priest who he insists on referring to as “Bishop”, he takes the unsuspecting clergyman on the ride of his life, hilariously regaling his captive audience with bizarre sexual confessions relating to a pumpkin, a sheep and his brother’s wife. Predominantly a broad parody of the Italians’ perceived ‘romantic’ nature and the contrastingly staunch and prudish religious influences that pervade; it also features a repeated visual gag featuring a couple brazenly making love in the street.
The final episode is set in a wintry Helsinki with Mika (Matti Pellonpää) transporting a trio of drunkards to their rest. The most inebriated of the three spends almost the entire duration asleep, after experiencing what the others describe as the “worst day of his life”. Mika, whose handlebar moustache enhances his already dour expression, trumps the unfortunate gentleman’s tale of woe with his own story, which recounts the loss of his child.
The two passengers who remain conscious are greatly saddened by what they hear, eventually conceding, rather fickly, that their friend really hasn’t had it that hard by comparison and they abandon the poor man to his own inadequate devices. Finnish film historian Peter Von Bagh, in an article included in the film’s accompanying booklet, describes how Jarmusch (who himself astonishingly speaks no Finnish) “shows us things that no Finnish film has ever thought of, and yet, by a strange intuition, he almost provides a synthesis of the sense of Finnish film and its history”.
Night on Earth consists of a pleasingly varied collection of tales yet each is infused with the director’s own brand of subtle affection, offbeat musings and wit. The characters are both imaginatively and believably drawn, brought to life by the stellar cast. Insightful articles and a detailed commentary appositely accompany this DVD release, with contributions from Jarmusch himself in the lengthy Q&A, where he responds to letters from fans, and short interview. Something of a cult gem, this is a worthy piece in Jarmusch’s impressive portfolio.