A Critical Appreciation

by Bernd Wahlbrinck


A story is supposed to have a plot: an exposition, a conflict, a climax, an ending, etc.

Or is it?

Here comes Jim Jarmusch, American independent filmmaker, and shoots a film called Night on Earth, consisting only of five vignettes, each of which takes place in a cab in a different city. What's more, none of these episodes have what you would call a plot; they are slice of life stories - no exposition, no classic conflict, no real ending.

Let's have a closer look at the New York episode. What exactly "happens"? Nothing much. A man (Giancarlo Esposito) tries to get a cab. Eventually one stops, but the cabbie is a German immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who hasn't got a clue how to drive a car, let alone find his way in New York . The man has a brilliant idea: "You ride, and I drive." Reluctantly the taxi driver agrees. They swap seats and drive to Brooklyn . On their way they have a kind of conversation, e.g. about their names and their hats. They pick up the man's sister-in-law (Rosie Perez), whose specialities seem to be an unnervingly shrill voice and a marked tendency to use vulgar language.

That's almost the end of the story.

Or rather, the end of the slice. Slice of life story may be a dead metaphor, but it is very appropriate here. It's as if Jarmusch had taken a knife and cut out a slice of the lives of these three people, apparently not bothering at all where the cuts were made. For example, even after watching the ending of the New York episode we still don't know how the driver possibly got his job, why he came to the USA, and how he is going to survive as a cabbie in this big city with his absurd driving style.

In a sense, that may be part of the beauty of the episode: we identify with the characters to a certain extent because they are likable (possibly with the exception of the woman), and so we start to care about their unknown past and their uncertain future. In fact, we might even wish that the man and the driver would meet again and maybe develop some kind of friendship because they started to like each other in spite of their differences.

I sincerely believe this: the more often you watch this episode, the more you will like it because you will notice tiny bits and pieces which escaped you before.

Jim Jarmusch once said, "The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events." In the New York episode of Night on Earth he has shown in a brilliant way that this is true.


  Teaching Night on Earth in the classroom

1999-2012 by Bernd Wahlbrinck, Home of the Wadel, Germany.
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