Whether due to cultural, linguistic, generational, or racial barriers, Jim Jarmusch’s characters often find themselves talking around rather than to each other. It’s no wonder that in Night on Earth, the director’s 1992 omnibus film consisting of five stories set in different international cities on the same night, the taxi cab provides the perfect visual framework, placing a spatial barrier between characters that makes communication even more challenging. Characters banter, bicker, ramble, and philosophize as they shuttle through various cityscapes like ghosts in the night, catching only fleeting glimpses of the other as reflections in a rear-view mirror. There is a natural yin/yang dynamic to each vignette that uses the dialectics of argumentation as well as visual rhymes, word play, starkly contrasting character types, and class conflict to deepen the audience’s understanding and empathy for the characters and the environment in which they live.
As is the case with most of Jarmusch’s work, every city takes on a distinctive life of its own. The look, feel, and mood created by moving through each locale during nocturnal hours helps to crystallize our perception of the culturally and geographically specific behaviors, language, and social conflicts that play out in the film. While Jarmusch lovingly depicts each city, it’s unsurprisingly in his beloved New York City where he presents the richest cultural flavors. From its melting pot of cultures and impassioned but short-tempered natives to its cabbies with their tendencies to pick up neither black people nor passengers making the long trek to Brooklyn, the Big Apple is so precisely rendered in its idiosyncrasies that it stands above Jarmusch’s more touristic portrayals of the strip malls and palm trees of Los Angeles, the eerie nighttime romanticism of Paris and Rome, and the frozen tundra of Helsinki. Jarmusch balances the oftentimes intense and contentious conversations inside the cabs with exterior shots that offer scenic reprieves and further marry the ongoing dialogues to the larger spaces in which they take place.
The opening vignette follows Corky (Winona Ryder), a grease monkey cum cabbie as she drives Victoria (Gena Rowlands) from LAX to Beverly Hills. Jarmusch astutely pits Ryder and her internalized Gen X indifference against Rowlands, playing a casting agent, and her sophisticated charm. The divide here is both generational and class-based as Corky sees Victoria’s business suit and expensive briefcase as a sign of her suffocating and restrictive ties to corporate entertainment while Victoria grapples with Corky’s unwillingness to set goals higher than becoming a car mechanic. Unlike the subsequent stories, much of the disconnect between these two women is expressed through stinging glances and eye rolls, yet Jarmusch bridges the divide with Victoria humbly acknowledging the limitations of her own perspective, which has surely been warped by years of working in the Hollywood system.
Where the ending of the otherwise wonderful first vignette is a bit too neatly tied up, Jarmusch gives the remaining segments a bit more room to breathe and head toward more unexpected and uncharted territory. With the second, and finest, vignette, Jarmusch has Giancarlo Esposito’s Yoyo, a fast-talking, street-smart New Yorker, play off of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s amusingly against-type performance as Helmut, a kind-hearted but greenhorn immigrant cab driver. After experiencing Helmut’s jerky driving as he mistakes the brake for the cab’s nonexistent clutch, Yoyo offers to take the wheel and proceeds to educate Helmut on the rougher side of New York, giving him an insider’s tour of the city from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Once Rosie Perez’s hilarious and feverish histrionics as Yoyo’s sister-in-law are thrown into the mix, we’re left with a trio as memorable as those at the center of Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law—a wondrous symmetry of Brooklynite attitude and fervor and deadpan outsider insouciance. From the humor they find in each other’s names to their near-matching hats, Jarmusch paints a hysterical yet thoughtful portrait that examines the folly of two men whose vast cultural differences ultimately reflect their hidden similarities.
When Jarmusch finishes lovingly capturing the feverish, melting pot that is the Big Apple, he moves on to scrape off some of the superficial charms of Old Europe, revealing the warts left behind from its transition into the modern age. In Paris, Isaach de Bankolé’s appropriately unnamed driver, another immigrant and the only cabbie whose passengers never empathize with him, is repeatedly mocked and mistreated by African diplomats, only to be further challenged by a sexy and feisty blind woman (Béatrice Dalle). In the next story, it’s the passenger rather than the driver who’s the victim of mistreatment. Roberto Benigni, as the hedonistic modern Italian male, darts recklessly through the streets of Rome and confesses his past sexual liaisons with a pumpkin and a sheep, oblivious to the fact that his passenger, a priest, is slowly dying in the back seat. In these vignettes, Jarmusch is able to tackle the deeper issues of the immigrant crisis and the clash between traditional religious power structures and the modern decadence of younger Italians in ways that are both moving, hilarious and subtly ingrained as subtext.
Beatrice Dalle’s response to de Bankolé’s quip about all blind people wearing glasses essentially sums up Jarmusch’s unique approach to otherness in Night on Earth. When she responds by saying, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen a blind person,” the miscommunication and misunderstanding between two perspectives reaches its peak, but in this case, who can even be declared the Other: the immigrant or the blind woman? Jarmusch shows his patent affinity for the outsider and those whom society has thoughtlessly shoved aside, but he also offers a gentle compassion to Rowlands’s stuffy businesswoman as well as the obnoxious drunkards in the final Helsinki-set vignette.
Jarmusch playfully blurs the line between driver/passenger, servant/customer, and native/immigrant, presenting these divisions as virtually meaningless social constructs which merely breed unnecessary contempt. As the film pulsates to the musical interludes of Tom Waits gravelly crooning, it gradually evolves into a nocturnal dance about the globe where characters of all walks of life converge ever-so-briefly before scattering apart and returning to their own lives. The myriad ways in which Night on Earth casually and effortlessly break down the boundaries that divide us and conveys the potential for connection between even the most radically different people, remains inspiring and sadly is even more urgent now than it was 25 years ago.