Night on Earth
September 10, 2007
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Robert Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Matti Pellonpaa,
Jim Jarmusch began the 1990s with Night on Earth (1991) and would go on to produce some of his strongest work with Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog (1999). However, these two films don’t quite have the warmth and the humanity abundant in Night on Earth. While he does avoid major Hollywood studios, Jarmusch has no problem collaborating with well known actors. His first experiment was with this film, which featured famous movie stars, Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, and Rosie Perez. Jarmusch returned to the structure he used so well in Mystery Train (1989), but expanded its scope. Night on Earth is broken up into five stories that all occur at the same time but in different cities all over the world with the action restricted to taxi cab rides. Jarmusch uses these encounters as springboards for interesting, often hilarious, sometimes tragic discussions ranging from acting in movies to circus clowns to sex with farm animals.
The weakest segment is also the first one, set in Los Angeles with Winona Ryder as Corky, the cab driver who dreams of being a mechanic, and Victoria Snelling (Rowlands), a busy Hollywood casting agent. The problem with this segment is that Ryder is trying too hard to be a streetwise cabbie speaking in clichés. You can see her acting and this is even more obvious opposite such a natural like Gena Rowlands who is superior in every way.
Fortunately, Jarmusch recovers with the next one set in New York City with Helmut (Mueller-Stahl) as a German cab driver who can’t drive. He picks up the energetic YoYo (Esposito) and his sister-in-law, Angela (Perez). YoYo and Angela proceed to get into a very animated and heated argument that gives Rosie Perez the chance to showcase her impressive arsenal of curse words. Giancarlo Esposito looks and sounds like he just came from a Spike Lee film and gets some of the segment’s best lines. The interplay between him and Armin Mueller-Stahl is excellent as we see two people from completely different worlds interacting with each other. Helmut is disarming and manages to charm the abrasive Angela, acting as a peace-broker between her and YoYo.
In Paris, an ignorant cabbie (De Bankole) picks up a blind woman (Dalle) who teaches him a thing or two about human behaviour. She may be blind but he’s the one who makes ignorant observations about her which she has no problem calling him on. This is a much more tense and contentious segment as the fiercely independent woman gives the cab driver some insight into her world.
Rome is the most farcical as Robert Benigni gets to cut loose as a manic and guilt-ridden cab driver who proceeds to confess his sins to a priest (Bonacelli) clearly not ready to hear about his wild past. Jarmusch wrote the role specifically for Benigni and gives him free rein to unleash his finely honed comedic sensibilities that he utilized so well in an earlier Jarmusch film, Down By Law (1986). Once the cabbie begins his “confession,” Benigni delivers an impressive monologue that is funny, tragic and disgusting simultaneously.
The last segment takes place in Helsinki as a cabbie (Pellonpaa) picks up three drunken men, one of whom is unconscious. His two inebriated friends tell the cab driver his sad story – how he lost his job, how his new car was vandalized beyond repair, his 16-year-old daughter is pregnant, and then it gets worse from there. However, the cabbie has his own sad story to tell and Matti Pellonpaa tells it in such an engaging way that his passengers are totally engrossed. It’s an emotionally charged monologue that creeps up on you and is profoundly affecting.
After Night on Earth, Jarmusch’s methodically paced, dry-witted comedies were no longer en vogue, only to be replaced by a louder, flashier wave of new filmmakers with overt pop culture sensibilities. This film manages to avoid the hackneyed cliché of the world weary cabbie to present touching insights into the human condition with situations that run the entire emotional spectrum.
“Q&A with Jim” features Jarmusch answering questions submitted by fans from all over the world (this was also done on the Down By Law DVD). The initial setup of the New York segment was based on something that happened to him. He also tells an anecdote about a scary moment during the filming in Helsinki. Jarmusch talks about his movie-watching habits and about how he works with actors. Other highlights including working with Tom Waits on the film’s score and why he picked him to score it.
“Alice: Magazine Europeen” is a brief interview with Jarmusch on Belgian television in 1992. The interview mostly takes place in the back of a moving car as the filmmaker talks about the origins of his film.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by the film’s director of photography Frederick Elmes and sound mixer Drew Kunin. Elmes talks about how each segment has the same structure stylistically. He also points out that this was Gena Rowlands’ first film since her husband John Cassevetes died. The two men talk about the challenge of moving from city to city and how they had to train a new crew in every place. Elmes and Kunin recount many filming anecdotes, like how no actual cabs would stop for Giancarlo Esposito in the NY segment. They provide fascinating insight into making an independent film all over the world.