Thursday, September 12, 2013

Night on Earth

Considering much of the film concerns intimate conversations between its characters, Night on Earth (1991) opens with a curious shot: a long view of the earth, a tiny, blue ball against the backdrop of space. As the camera slowly zooms in, bringing us closer to the looming planet, the music of Tom Waits kicks in, his polka-folk style reminiscent of a carousel, going around and around. The earth becomes a globe with all the cities and countries marked as we pan around its surface. In a wordless, character-free sequence, the film has reminded us of our place in the universe and how alone and small we can feel as the world turns, unperturbed by our will or problems.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Night on Earth does not possess any overarching narrative or transformation of its characters during the course of its running length as is typical of more traditional movies. In fact, it even lacks any true protagonist or conflict. The film functions more as a collection of five short stories with plots that focus more on a brief moment in the life of its characters than it does showing them confronting and overcoming obstacles that change them as people. Night on Earth is more interested in showing us the common ties that bind these strangers and in turn, all of us.

Each story in Night on Earth depicts a taxi driver and his or her passenger(s) on a fare in a different city around the world over the course of a single night: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. Each story begins the same way: a shot of five clocks (one for each city) in a room followed by a zoom in on one of the clocks and a jump to that specific location with a montage showing the different sights. Each city, as we see them, reminds us of each other: empty, lonely, overwhelming, dominated by artificial light, and yet, somehow beautiful. They're the kind of places an individual can feel lost, both literally by the maze of streets and metaphorically as a small being in the presence of great size, places filled with many people and yet capable of making someone feel alone.

Like a city, a taxi cab, if you think about it, is a place of contradiction. Tax cabs provide a business service to customers who are usually strangers, and yet drivers and passengers are in such proximity to each other, there remains an opportunity for intimacy. In those brief moments of a fare, a connection can develop between people who will likely never see each other again.

Consider the first story, in Los Angeles. Before the cab ride begins, Jarmusch cross-cuts between Victoria (Gena Rowlands), a rich Hollywood casting agent, and Corky (Winona Ryder), the working-class driver. They seem like worlds apart, and yet Jarmusch highlights their similarities, not their differences. Cutting back and forth between them, the film shows both arriving at the airport, calling their bosses on a phone, and meeting when they simultaneously say "Shit!" Victoria becomes Corky's fare, and over the course of the ride, gradually, they bond as women, talking about guys, careers, and goals over cigarettes.

A connection also develops in New York between YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito), a loudmouth African-American trying to get a ride to Brooklyn, and the only person who stops for him, East German émigré Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a former clown who can barely drive or speak English. Despite the culture gap, the two work together to get to YoYo's destination and come to enjoy each other's company.

As indicated by the examples above, the movie mixes the serious and heart-felt with more comical elements. Shot on location in the actual cities, Night on Earth feels genuine. The characters have their quirks and issues laid bare. In the Paris segment, the driver (Isaach De Bankolé), a frustrated put-upon type, picks up a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle), thinking she won't hassle him like the previous passengers, and right from the start, she's busting his chops for his driving and assumptions about what he thinks it means to be blind. The Rome segment (featuring Roberto Benigni as an odd cab driver driving a priest around and who won't shut up in his efforts to shock him) is the most overtly comical while the finale in Helsinki (with a group of passengers explaining the problems of a laid-off to a driver who has greater reason to be depressed) is the most heartfelt.

Jarmusch's camera, with cinematographer Frederick Helmes, captures the characters in a lot of closeups, trapped inside the cabs with nothing but each other and only the occasional shot to the outside world. It almost feels claustrophobic at times inside the vehicles, and yet despite their restricted surroundings, these characters open up, and in the process, they reveal a common truth about themselves and in the process, humanity. Night on Earth is a movie that makes you stop and think about life and your place in it, even as the world keeps turning, like a cab giving a ride.

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