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The Secret Sharer

Jim Jarmusch makes movies to put the things he loves onscreen. With his two 2016 films, ‘Paterson’ and ‘Gimme Danger,’ he is feeling the spirit of giving.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The Auteur Twofer is a relatively rare phenomenon: It occurs when a brand-name director drops two features in the same calendar year. Hall of Famers include Alfred Hitchcock, who released Rear Window and Dial M for Murder three months apart in 1954; Akira Kurosawa, who conjured up Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths circa 1957 (the same year Ingmar Bergman somehow released Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal); Francis Ford Coppola, who got Best Picture nominations for both The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II in 1974; and Stevens Spielberg and Soderbergh, who double-dipped with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List and with Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 1993 and 2000, respectively.

Not all of the films on this list are classics, and some of these pairings are nothing more than flukes of studio distribution and exhibition patterns. The Auteur Twofer is not likely to catch on as a general metric for gauging greatness. Rather, it’s an opportunity to evaluate a director in a period of evidently peak productivity, and also to collapse the space that usually separates titles in a filmography; viewed in this context of near simultaneity, the important similarities and differences between them are placed in even sharper relief. It shows you where somebody is at.

Jim Jarmusch has put out two movies in 2016, and considering his industriousness over the last 37 years — 14 features as a writer-director, including two documentaries — it’s a bit surprising that it’s never happened before. In May, Jarmusch was invited to Cannes with Paterson, a minor-key drama named for, and set in, Paterson, New Jersey, starring Adam Driver as a bus driver (also named Paterson) who spends his spare time scribbling poems inspired by William Carlos Williams’s five-volume modernist epic entitled (you guessed it) Paterson. At the same festival, he also unveiled Gimme Danger, a documentary portrait of Iggy Pop and the Stooges that gamely traces the inception, stardom, dissolution, and reunion of a genuinely legendary rock band.

Taken together, Paterson and Gimme Danger not only compose an Auteur Twofer, but they reinforce and clarify their creator’s unique position in American film. Like no other director, Jim Jarmusch makes movies to put the things he loves onscreen or else find a spot for them on his soundtracks. His is a cinema of passionate advocacy for people and places rather than plots or complications; his artistry is often predicated on foregrounding the creations and craftsmanship of others, whether they’re his generational peers or his longtime heroes. Novels, pop songs, films, paintings, dance performances, and poems — all have been given their pride of place in Jarmusch’s filmic universe, which remains open and permeable to new enthusiasms even as he approaches his 64th year on earth.

A suggestive moment among many: immortal inamoratas Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton declaring their undying affection for young pup Jack White in the wry 2013 vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive, proving that even those who’ve seemingly seen and heard it all can still be excited by the sound of the new.

A terrifically clever exploitation of the current vogue for supernatural romance — think of it as an aged hipster’s version of Twilight — Only Lovers Left Alive is the hinge point in a recent trilogy of films bookended by 2009’s The Limits of Control and now Paterson: Each offers only the faintest pretense of a story in order to serve as an inventory of sounds, images, and epigrams that Jarmusch wants to share with an audience that has followed him loyally since his dingy 16mm debut, Permanent Vacation (1980).

One change with Paterson is that where its predecessors both flirt coyly with genre — Limits … is ostensibly a thriller tracking an ascetic assassin (Isaach De Bankolé) as he prepares to execute a shady American power broker; … Lovers adopts the vestments of horror — its minimalist, episodic construction makes it especially difficult to pigeonhole. Divided neatly into seven parts, encompassing a typical working week, it’s essentially a series of scenes essaying the different, scrupulously compartmentalized components of its protagonist’s professional and private lives.

But where the contract killer in The Limits of Control and the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive are more or less ambulatory aesthetic objects — posable figures against shifting, meticulously controlled pop-cultural backdrops — Driver’s Paterson longs to be a creator, rather than a curator. The tension in this uncommonly placid film — in which the nominal villain is a sad-eyed bulldog who has a bad habit of chewing on his owner’s property — is between the modest surprises he faces on his bus route (a flat tire here, a rude passenger there) and the sweetly forlorn sense of predictability that comes with stopping and starting at the same exact spots day in and day out. Does Paterson’s staccato, lead-footed grind through his hometown’s superficially undistinguished streets stanch his creative flow? Or is it a wellspring of inspiration?

Jarmusch’s films are filled with idealistic wanderers, from the escaped convicts of Down by Law (1986) and the ghostly hero of the acid Western Dead Man (1995) to the wizened ladies’ man played by Bill Murray in Broken Flowers (2005); he likes to send his characters on wild-goose chases for meaning.

In 1989’s wonderful triptych Mystery Train, a pair of Japanese teenagers decamp from Yokohama to Memphis on a pilgrimage to honor their love for pop icons including Elvis Presley, Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty. These tourists are as susceptible to America’s myths as any down-home local. It’s thus very telling that Masatoshi Nagase, Mystery Train’s Carl Perkins manqué Jun, shows up in Paterson with a new transcontinental obsession: the poems of William Carlos Williams. It’s a fixation that transforms his cameo from mere self-referential homage into a reminder of the fluid, generous nature of taste (including Jarmusch’s own). The Jersey boy and the Japanese visitor are united in their admiration for a poet whose uncanny ability to imbue the ordinary with a sense of immanence made him a national treasure, and for all its carefully crafted non sequitur longeurs (including guest spots for everyone from the Moonrise Kingdom kids as squabbling teen anarchists to Method Man as himself, practicing some existentially inflected verses in a laundromat), Paterson exists primarily as a showcase for, and a tribute to, its human and civic namesakes.

No less than his fellow avant-Hollywood peers John Sayles and the Coen brothers, Jarmusch is something of a regionalist: Stranger Than Paradise (1984) indelibly captures post-punk New York City just as surely as Mystery Train etches Memphis, and few films have channelled the swampy beauty of New Orleans like Down by Law, a raucous hothouse featuring Roberto Benigni (whom Jarmusch had scouted from his early Italian TV comedies) that has endured as a modern weirdo comedy milestone (with a brilliant song score by star Tom Waits to boot).

Given its maker’s well-traveled track record, one way to look at Gimme Danger is as a companion piece or even a spiritual sequel to Only Lovers Left Alive, whose wisecracking bloodsuckers relocate from Tangier to Michigan — the stomping grounds of the equally undead-and-loving-it Iggy Pop. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jarmusch described the excitement of hearing the Stooges’ debut album as a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, and the recognition that the rough, sinister voice on the record wasn’t as alien as it sounded: “We were, of course, hearing British stuff like Cream and Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane from the West Coast, but this was something closer to us.”

Gimme Danger gives the industrial vibe of Michigan its due in shaping the Stooges’ hard-grinding sound, and like any true fan, the director defers to his subject. As in his 1997 Neil Young concert film Year of the Horse, Jarmusch would rather sit back and listen to his subjects than try to impose an evaluative argument about their output. Paterson’s stringent minimalism is the result of a highly controlled directorial sensibility, and so, too, is Gimme Danger’s rollicking, picaresque progression. But the documentary has been produced in a more self-effacing way. Even the animated interstitial segments (a staple of most mainstream-aimed nonfiction films) are more about filling in gaps in the archival record than trying to remake the Stooges in a more Jarmuschian image. If anything, Gimme Danger is about the reverse: an extremely distinctive filmmaker just trying to stay in the shadows. The film belongs wholly to Iggy Pop, who famously appeared in Jarmusch’s whimsical black-and-white blackout-sketch revue Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and whose sophisticated analyses of his own songwriting and public persona belie the raw power of his fast-twitch stage act (then and now); he joins the pantheon of great musicians, from Waits and Young to RZA, GZA, and Joe Strummer, who’ve happily lent their presence to Jarmusch’s work.

What’s so lovely about the aforementioned Method Man cameo in Paterson is how seemingly offhand it is, even though beneath that casual surface it’s been carefully woven into the film’s thick, cozy thematic fabric. “No ideas but in things,” raps Meth at the end of one verse, directly quoting Williams’s famous imagist mantra some 90 years after the fact, and subtly reinforcing the m.o. of a movie that turns a lovingly covetous gaze on objects ranging from matchbooks to notebooks to cupcakes (arranged in mathematically precise patterns by Paterson’s live-in girlfriend, Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani, whose apparent status as a muse is complicated by the fact that her own amateur artistic output far surpasses her partner’s in versatility and volume).

At one point, the young lovers take in a late show of Erie C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932) a pre-Code horror movie about a mad scientist who transforms men and women into animals, and it’s obvious that Jarmusch adores the movie even more than they do — that’s why he put in there. Paterson resonates with a sense of fondness that easily outstrips the breezy pastiche of La La Land, while Gimme Danger, with its chock-full selection of choice cuts, might be the year’s sharpest movie musical. As Auteur Twofers go, Jarmusch’s 2016 double bill might seem less than epochal, but as he’s never necessarily been one for grand gestures, the small-scale nature of the achievement feels like it’s exactly the right size.