Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to conversation; a story teller who is eager to showcase the minutiae of relationships through seemingly banal conversations, he paints vivid cityscapes of characters that play with the intimate relationships fostered after dark. In Night on Earth there is no sex or romance, but something perhaps deeper and more poignant: the sadness of missed connections and unique brand of intimacy you share with someone you know you’ll never see again.
Last winter I took an Uber home from a bar in Brooklyn. My mustachioed driver looked unbelievably like the Monopoly Man, wore a wifebeater, and talked nonstop. He told me how Brooklyn has changed throughout the years as we made our ascent to Queens, with me listening in the backseat, drunkenly doing a crossword puzzle on my phone. Somewhere between boroughs, our journey was interrupted by a woman passed out in the street. An ambulance had already arrived and we watched collect her under the flashing lights—my driver’s back hair sparkled before me. After the proverbial smoke had cleared, we drove in silence before picking up a couple who squeezed in beside me. The contrast was nothing short of surreal. The love-drunk couple whispered in each other’s ears as my driver struggled to express his feelings about the temporality of life, about how the girl’s mother will certainly cry upon discovering what happened. His monologue filtered through their smacking and carressing. ...In short, the ride was pretty awkward. We pulled up to my house after dropping off the uncomfortable pair and he told me he’d never forget our ride. Obviously, I haven’t either.
The film traverses five cities: LA, Paris, New York, Rome and Helsinki. I’m not going to talk about all of them, because each short really deserves its own write up entirely. Instead, I’ll focus on my favorites, LA and Paris. In Los Angeles, we meet a young and very greasy Winona Ryder. Smacking her gum and smoking one cigarette after another, she is sort of a lone cowboy figure, navigating LA by herself in a dirty taxicab. After picking up a hoity toity casting agent with an impressive luggage set, Winona’s character is offered a starring role in an up and coming feature—a dream hard to pass up for many. Despite the done-up exec’s efforts to motivate Winona to want more of this life, the young girl is perfectly content following her dream of becoming a mechanic, because ultimately that’s her big fish, her dream to make real. It’s this anticlimactic failure to fulfill Cliche Big Dreams that makes this movie magic; it strips stories of their Hollywood glamour and makes them epically (and non-epically) real. A story of a spunky tomboy getting glammed up and making the big time is a dime a dozen. And also boring.
Patiently, however, she answers his questions about lovemaking, her experience at the movies, and we can see as the conversation goes on how he starts to regard her with a certain level of romance. Upon arriving at her destination, he tries to charge her less than her fare; in an act of charity or care or flirting, who knows. The woman, however, refuses to be infantilized and pays him more than what she owes. We see her walk away and hear the cab driver get into an accident off screen, she smiles, knowing it was because he was looking at her. We hear an argument between the drivers—heated and full of racial stereotyping. I like how again, this short backs into what we expect from a film. Had this exchange happened in any other movie, her blindness would have been romanticized, and their connection would have been something else entirely.
The anonymity of night time wraps us up like a confessional. Strangers, especially cab drivers (people we often don’t think twice about), meet countless of other strangers and share countless of awkward exchanges. Even when we’re trying to be by ourselves, in cities it’s impossible not to fumble and rub elbows with someone— consequently impacting each other’s lives. From stories we share at parties to encounters that are deeper and more important, Night of Earth makes real life slightly more beautiful, slightly more emotional, and slightly more real.