Very few moments in life have the narrative significance of those in Hollywood movies. It becomes the job of the filmmaker to tease out the ones that do, and build them up to serve the film’s broader frame. The moments left out are usually ruled either too distracting or too banal to even merit our attention in the first place.
But Jim Jarmusch has never been one to follow rules. Just a few minutes into his $12,000 debut feature Permanent Vacation, a young man in a barren studio apartment places a needle on a record, letting loose the upbeat jazz melody of an alto saxophone. As a lady in a white sundress sits aimlessly in the corner, the man snaps his fingers, shuffles his feet, and swings his hands over and around his body. The song ends, he looks into a mirror, and says, “you know, sometimes I think I should just live fast and die young, and go in a three-piece white suit like Charlie Parker.” This dance, totally detached of narrative purpose, a momentary release from conflict, was the first of many of Jarmusch’s now-trademark dance interludes.
Jim Jarmusch’s films are known for evoking and distilling moments of everyday life that—like the dance in Permanent Vacation—question where causal significance begins and ends. His films are not without narratives, but as he once said, “I’d rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China”. He chooses coffee and cigarettes, and mundane cab rides as his subjects. Even his vampires are jaded musicians. Without neglecting the more obvious plot points and conflicts to drive his films, Jarmusch takes special care to treat the moments when characters take a break from their arcs to dance.
In Stranger than Paradise, Eva sways back and forth to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” for a full 40 seconds before another character enters the frame. In this brief respite from the narrative, both Eva and the audience have not a care in the world. Likewise, in Down by Law, Bob grabs his newfound love from the dining-room table and holds, kisses, and dances with her to the rhythm of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining”. These dances, brief impulsive moments of creative release, bear us witness to the humanity of Jarmusch’s characters. In no rush to propel forward his narrative, these dance sequences serve as opportunities to simply hang out with his eminently likeable characters.
These moments are more than mindless small talk or mundane chores, though. Impulsive dance has a large capacity for personal expression, and there is a nakedness to these scenes in the way that characters—who the viewer may otherwise only learn about through small actions rife with subtext—expose themselves before the camera. No two Jarmuschian dance scenes are ever the same, and these scenes serve as moments of emotional vulnerability that reveal certain very subtle and critical details about their characters. Bob’s excited and uncontrollable moves bear little similarity to the refrained nature of Eva’s steps. These dances straddle an almost contradictory line between private act and performance, as the viewer is given a voyeuristic glimpse into cloistered moments, with an understanding that these moments only exist because of the presence of a camera. The dance sequences in Jarmusch’s first three features act not only as narrative breaks, but also as testaments to the individualism and essence of the characters.
Jarmusch has not shied away from dance more recently either, with his latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive, including a dance interlude reminiscent of those of his earliest works. These moments are not particular to Jarmusch—as Godard let his characters break for a number in Bande à part, and the non-narrative moment in cinema has been around since its inception. Yet Jarmusch’s moments embody his uniquely non-narrative spirit that persists still within a more traditional framework. The Jarmuschian dance becomes the urge to stay put and hang out against all odds, as Jarmusch, more than any other American director, continues to walk the line between European art-house and Hollywood cinema. When the needle drops in Jarmusch’s frame, the viewer is given license to take a deep breath, and embrace this momentary release from narrative, before the film—and life—resumes its forward push.