by: Jared Berkowitz
Melodrama has been the driving force behind narrative within film since film’s earliest days. A shift took root as film began to depict realities such as war and poverty. These real-life horrors bred (and continue to breed) a counterculture which have questioned notions of normalcy. The American New Wave brought forth mavericks such as John Cassavetes to create an independent cinema as an antithesis to Hollywood ideals. Interestingly, the independent aesthetic instead came to define popular cinema. With the popularization of independent film, the works of John Cassavestes and the American New Wave become lost within a torrent of pop culture waste. However, Jim Jarmusch remains as a torch-bearer of the New Wave as explorations in minimalism and realism are re-engaged and expanded upon.
John Cassavetes’ 1959 release, Shadows, employed grainy footage, irregular editing, and improvised conversations reminiscent of the rhythmic qualities of “Pure Cinema” from decades before. For his film, Cassavetes raised $40,000 largely through contributions from friends and family, explored sex and race “within a narrative so elliptical, rambling and seemingly spontaneous it could barely be called a ‘story’”1. This spontaneity, reminiscent of jazz improvisation, was noticed by the New York bohemian Through handheld camera work, and abrasive close-ups, we gain an understanding of the characters and can contrast their experiences with our own. These filmic techniques are early examples of the American New Wave’s dismissal of the cultivated quality of the studio system. Though Cassavetes himself remained in relative obscurity, when Shadows was released it was “nothing less than the precursor to an American cinematic revolution”3.
Shifting gears and giving into the studio system, Cassavetes directed such disappointments as Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1962). A return to independence was manifested with the release of Faces (1968). Cassavetes creates a sense of claustrophobia through low lighting, poor sound, extreme close-ups, and a self-destructive anxiety-laced narrative.
Though Faces was a success at the box-office, Cassavates had difficulty securing financing for his films after the financial failures of Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Markowitz (1971), and was forced to again self-finance what would arguably be his masterpiece. Emptying his bank account and mortgaging his house, Cassavetes finally released A Woman Under the Influence (1974), after a two year production period. Self distributed through Faces International, Cassavetes promoted the film by touring the country, booking theater after theater. The performances by Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands allow the film to juxtapose moments of serenity with explosions of marital chaos, insanity, and abuse.
Cassavetes had a fruitful later career, experimenting with his directorial style through The Killing of Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977). “I have the need for characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all that stuff in that war–in that word polemic and picture polemic of what life is…That’s all I’m interested in–is love”(Cassavetes).
Though Cassavetes offered an alternative to Hollywood’s rigidity, anti-structuralism was beginning to characterize popular cinema. With extreme notions of spectacle and massive production budgets being applied to “abnormal” narratives, the American New Wave transformed an independent aesthetic to a marketable product. Production studios like Miramax financed the films of such directors as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Kevin Smith. As these names moved out of obscurity and into the mainstream, Hollywood’s grasp on independent cinema tightened. Miramax was the first of the indie studios to be bought out, and in 1993, it became a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios. Other major studios followed suit. Sony has Sony Pictures Classics,
20th Century Fox has Fox Searchlight, Universal has October Films, and the list goes on. “Beneath the Indie banner, one is more likely to find a list of studio execs…than an actual filmmaker…discussions revolve around…creative funding–rather than around the once-important aesthetics, or–God forbid–art”2.
Indie studios mirror the Studio system in that spec scripts are given to newly contracted young directors to churn out cliché narratives. Films like 500 Days of Summer (2009) and Lars and the Real Girl (2007) are the modern antithesis of the indie studio. Made by cookie-cutter filmmakers with little to no experience, they’re deemed independent by the passing reference to a Smiths song, or by employing such indie poster
children as Ryan Gosling or Zooey Deschanel. Lacking any form of minimalism, surrealism, or experimentation, these films are not independent but bastard children of the major motion picture.
Despite this unfortunate melding of Hollywood and independent cinema, there still remains an auteur who works within indie ideals. Jim Jarmusch “is the embodiment of modern independent film. Using primarily foreign financing and retaining ownership of his films’ negatives, Jarmusch remains resolutely autonomous”3. Initially evident in his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), his minimalist aesthetic and character-driven style was cemented with the brilliant Stranger Than Paradise (1984).
Reminiscent of Cassavetes’ style, Jarmusch utilizes minimalism in order to ascribe meaning to seemingly unimportant dialogue, and trivial moments of silence. Segmented into three acts, Stranger Than Paradise consists of only 67 shots, all of which are defined by a stationary camera, with the occasional pan. The film is devoid of whips and dissolves, simply fading to black after a scene. “Poetry is very beautiful, but the space on the page can be as affecting as where the text is. Like when Miles Davis doesn’t play, it has poignancy to it” (Jarmusch).
Expanding upon the influence of Cassavetes, Jarmusch is heavily influenced by bohemian culture and the New York underground. Similar to the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 60s, the New York Underground of the 1980s was a junction of film, art, and music, where the avant-garde was melded with popular culture. Jazz, blues, punk, new wave, and rap all complemented new avenues of postmodern surrealism and minimalism.
Jarmusch’s connection to Beat culture is furthered through his frequent collaboration with musicians such as Tom Waits and Joe Strummer. Beyond those two, Jarmusch has worked with Iggy Pop, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, RZA, GZA, Jack White, and Meg White, all of whom are innovators in their genre, whether it be proto-punk, punk, jazz, R&B, rap, or garage rock.
“I always start with characters rather than with a plot, which many critics would say is very obvious from the lack of plot in my films – although I think they do have plots – but the plot is not of primary importance to me, the characters are”(Jarmusch). Though this is evident in all of his films, it is especially true of Coffee and Cigarettes. With actors encouraged to adlib, the film consists entirely of short vignettes of absurdly trite conversations, as if overheard in a café. This allows minimalism to force attention squarely upon the miscommunications of the actors. Like Cassavetes, Jarmusch strips away the Hollywood structuralism which calls for a narrative climax and cohesive dialogue, in order to obtain an aura of absurdity.
It is clear that the American New Wave was born as a complementary movement to the French New Wave. Dually influenced by distinctive elements of the American subculture, John Cassavetes began a film movement which captured both minimalism and humanism in a fashion harmonized with contemporary practices in music and literature. Despite a popularization of the independent model, the New Wave ideals are still being explored within the works of Jim Jarmusch. Through creative expressions of the mundane, humanism is explored and actively reflected upon. His example as a new wave auteur is exceptional considering it exists within a movement which has largely been watered down due to commercial exploitation.