Night on Earth (1991)

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

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Night on Earth is a collection of five short films set almost entirely inside five different cabs across the world.  Cab drivers and their passengers are the only thing these shorts have in common, well, that and the fact there is a nice lesson learned at the end for one of more of the characters.

An interaction between a cab driver and his or her passenger provides a lot of material for a story.  The passenger could be anyone (a casting agent, blind, a priest, Gus Fring, or simply a drunk), and the interaction is based on an unspoken agreement or transaction.  It’s an opportunity for different people to mix when they otherwise might never cross paths.  Of course, the cab drivers in this film are all more or less open to these encounters, even though most of the cab drivers I’ve run into are of the silent type.

But in the case of this film, Jarmusch has a chance to play with wildly different characters as they bounce off of each other and come away with a new perspective.  Some of his earlier films (Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law) dealt with a small group of characters, or even just one character, in what felt like isolation even though they sometimes found themselves traveling many miles together.

Night on Earth literally isolates these characters, removing them from their regular lives and creating an entirely separate universe inside the taxi, where they can be more open than they probably are most of the time.  These films are like little vacuums in which we can really get to know a character.  This is a safe space, in other words.  In one film, Gena Rowlands’ casting agent lets her guard down when she recognizes a little of herself in the feisty young cab driver played by Winona Ryder.  After Ryder ultimately declines an audition to be in a big Hollywood movie, surprising Rowlands, the casting agent takes a cue from Ryder and ignores the next in a long line of endless phone calls that are ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

In another story, a French cab driver asks personal, direct questions to his blind passenger because, as he tells her, he’s never met a blind person before.  The cab is a sacred place, I guess, but it’s at least a bubble in which people can be more direct and open.

In Rome, Roberto Benigni picks up a priest whom he keeps referring to as a bishop, and he decides, without the priest’s consent, to confess his sins.  He feels free to say whatever he wants, and his long story of lost love involving a sheep and his brother’s wife (indirectly) kills the priest.

Another story involves a German cab driver new to New York who can hardly drive his car, forcing the passenger to take the wheel and teach him a little about New York and, thus, America.  The two men, Helmut and Yo-Yo form an unlikely (but in the context of this film, very likely) friendship.  The taxi, in this case, acts as a theater as Yo-yo’s family drama with his sister-in-law (Rosie Perez) unfolds in front of the awe-struck Helmut.  The taxi is a beautiful, innocent bubble floating through the grimy streets of New York, very unlike the taxi in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1975).  This short film ends with Helmut drifting through the streets, struggling to get to Manhattan, and it feels like he might be run over or robbed at any point, yet he doesn’t care or notice.  He just looks up at the bright lights with wondrous eyes.  “New York,” rolls off his tongue like it’s the first word he’s ever spoken.

*It’s interesting that two other characters in this story are played by actors who were both in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), also set in Brooklyn.  Rosie Perez and Giancarlo Esposito play characters not all that similar to the ones they played in DTRT, but I can’t help but think Jarmusch is saying something by casting both of them.  From what little I know about Jarmusch, he likes to borrow things, whether that’s ideas, characters or actors, and to use the audience’s preexisting knowledge to help influence his story.  In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Jarmusch said how much he admires Wu Tang Clan and hip hop in general, in which performers speak, rap, sing and convey something through the use of borrowed language, whether that’s just references to our current society or through sampling.  It’s a beautiful mix and collage of things most of us have some familiarity with already.  So by bringing in Esposito and Perez, Jarmusch knows the audience will already have a sense of who these characters are.  He may have done a similar thing with Rowlands and Ryder, though I’m not as familiar with the perceptions of those two actors at the time of this release.  In the Rome story, Roberto Benigni plays Roberto Benigni (similar to how Woody Allen is always playing a variation of Woody Allen), and these performers, in a way, act as a shortcut.  After five seconds onscreen, we feel like we know Benigni’s character already just because we know the actor.  So I’m guessing he does something similar with Perez and Esposito.

The final story is set in Helsinki as a stoic driver named Mika picks up three drunk men standing outside a bar that looks like it’s been closed for hours.  They tell Mika about how the third friend, passed out in the backseat, has had a very tough day.  They seem very sympathetic to their friend’s struggle yet decide to pay the driver with the third friend’s recent severance pay.

Mika goes on to tell them how their friend’s problems aren’t that bad.  The man was recently fired, found out his daughter is pregnant, had his car badly damaged, and his wife just left him.  But Mika isn’t phased.  He begins telling them a story about how he and his wife wanted a child so bad but then had her taken away after a few weeks and a premature birth.  Mika lights up a cigarette halfway through, as do the captivated two passengers (the third is still passed out), as he begins to get subtly emotional recalling this story.  It’s a very tragic one, as Mika explains that, in order to be strong for his wife, he couldn’t let himself love this child because the pain of losing her would be too much for both of them to bear.  The baby continued to survive, however, and his wife told him that their child needed love from both of them, and Mika decided he was ready to give it to her.  When they returned to the hospital, however, the child was dead.

The other passengers agree that their friend, relative to Mika’s story, doesn’t have it bad at all.  They hug Mika who hardly returns even their gaze, and they leave.  The third passenger is left to pay the driver with part of his severance pay, and he sits outside in the snow as his former coworkers leave for the next day’s work.  The film ends with this man alone, and we’re meant to feel for him but to also understand that there is no pity for him, not from his friends (who left him), nor from Mika (who still expected him to pay) or even from the audience, as we’ve just heard a story that towers over this man’s pain.

In each of these films, a character realizes something.  In the first story, Gena Rowlands’ casting director realizes that her job isn’t as important as she’s been led to believe.  The young cab driver, full of passion and conviction for what feels like a thankless job, convinces Rowlands to rethink what she wants in life.

In the second story, a German immigrant, once lost in the urban jungle of New York, learns to fall in love with the city and the people in it.  His childlike awe might seem pretty naive, and we can be sure someone will take advantage of it, but it’s also a lesson for us to recognize these people and these feelings and to embrace them, as YoYo does.

In the third story, a French cab driver who feels very put upon and labelled (as someone who is Black and from the Ivory Coast, as mocked by two of his earlier passengers), learns to let his guard down when he picks up a passenger with a harder go of things than he.  This blind woman, though, doesn’t see it this way, and her determination and stubbornness teach him to not consider himself such a victim.

In story number four, well, I don’t know if there’s a lesson.  Roberto Benigni is just given another chance to be extremely funny.  From what I read, his story to the priest is mostly improvised, and it’s so animated and hilarious.  The priest dies in his car, and perhaps he realizes that he hasn’t been living a clean life (?) but I don’t think he realizes anything.  The story is more abstract, I think, about the clash of a religious, somewhat outdated lifestyle with a very modern way of living.  Both characters see the world of the other as… other, and Rome feels like the perfect story for this kind of theme.  The city combines the culture of a modern large city (like New York or any other European center) with old architecture and the papacy.  It’s all crammed together in one place, and the priest struggles to sit by quietly with the behavior of the driver and the people he interacts with (including two transvestite prostitutes).  This is the driver’s world, but it’s nothing like the priest has ever seen, even though we can assume he’s been in Rome for quite some time.

The final story, as I described earlier, is about pain and the relativity of pain.  Are we supposed to pity the drunk guy without a job or a wife, as he sits miserably on the sidewalk watching life go by, or are we even supposed to pity Mika who certainly doesn’t pity himself?

The first three stories, I’d reason, are about people learning to be empathetic with each other, while the final story is about how empathy doesn’t guarantee you anything and it can’t be expected.  In other words, the first part of Night On Earth feels unifying.  People can still find ways to come together, even crossing different economic or cultural boundaries, but the fifth story tells us that this might be the perspective of an extreme optimist.  The world is still filled with the complexities of happiness and sadness, and in the end all you have is yourself.

Helmut will carry with him what YoYo has taught him, as will the casting director and perhaps the French cab driver, but there’s no guarantee that it means anything.  I suppose you just open your eyes and ears, learn to give yourself a little more to the world and hope for the best.

Jim Jarmusch has a knack for tuning into someone’s way of life and understanding what it is that drives them.  This film, with five stories in different cultures, feels like a rapper showing off with incredible rhymes and pivots within a song.  Jarmusch, whether intentionally or not, shows you how capable he is to dive into a new world and make you love the characters involved.  Then, when you’re all in, he does it again with a new set of characters.

While many people (I think), consider Act 2 the hardest part of a screenplay, Act 1 isn’t a cakewalk either.  Like in a pilot episode of a tv show, you have to introduce a variety of characters as well as get the story started.  One of the worst things about a bad film is (probably) crappy exposition.  I define crappy exposition as characters talking to each other about information they should already know but which the audience doesn’t, without advancing the story.  But Jarmusch, in each of these films, gets the story started immediately, and we learn about the characters as the story progresses, not before or after, but simultaneously.

In the second story, we see YoYo struggle to hail a cab, and we understand immediately that this is a common frustration, and it’s definitely race-based.  This is a world where he is defined by the color of his skin.  So then the rest of the story involves him and another man who has trouble fitting in this world.  At first YoYo feels like the odd man out, the one who will constantly be looking in from outside the dominant cultural perspective, but then he meets a character who is even further removed than he is, and suddenly YoYo is the authority figure.  That means that the truth of the story is presented from a character outside the dominant perspective, which in turn means that the story’s dominant perspective itself is outside the world’s dominant perspective.  So imagine a large circle, and this circle is called WHITE MALE HETEROSEXUAL, and that’s the story world of most films, particularly Hollywood films.  Then you introduce a very small circle that just barely touches the bigger circle, and this small circle is called BLACK MALE HETEROSEXUAL.  This small circle will actually have some overlap.  But with the introduction of this small circle, a third circle (MOVIE) widens to include both circles.  The MOVIE circle, unless otherwise specified, is the same as WHITE MALE HETEROSEXUAL, but when you introduce a new circle, the MOVIE circle automatically widens to include both.  Then you introduce another character circle called GERMAN MALE SEXUALITY NOT DEFINED, and this circle is even smaller than the previous two circles because it’s even more new to us, an American audience.  But when that circle is introduced, the MOVIE circle suddenly shrinks so it’s just big enough to include both that circle and BLACK MALE HETEROSEXUAL, and this is telling us that we can ignore the biggest circle, WHITE MALE HETEROSEXUAL because it’s not important.  Jesus, I don’t know if that makes any sense, but the point is that every story or movie has it’s own reality which it needs to define to the audience in order to be successful.  Most movies, think Hollywood action movies, have enough of a definition of the movie world just based on the movie poster.  You see the poster for The Hangover and you know it’s set in Vegas with white male protagonists.  You know Las Vegas, and thus you know the world.  But a film like this story from Night On Earth needs to establish its own boundaries.  Sure we recognize New York, but we don’t necessarily know this part of New York.  It’s just like how Scorsese redefined his story world within New York in Taxi DriverAfter Hours, and Bringing Out the Dead.  We know New York, but we don’t know those versions of New York.  So lastly, when Helmut speaks in awe of New York at the end of this story, he’s talking about a very specific version of New York, one in which people can co-exist peacefully if they get to know each other.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, German, Hispanic, etc. but this is an idea of New York, and it’s probably not everyone’s idea of what New York actually is.  I hope that makes some sense.  It’s my theory, at least, and I may be wrong.

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