Night on Earth
If you were ever to consider taking a world tour, it probably wouldn't look like Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. This quirky tour of urban underbellies around the globe doesn't take in any major tourist sites, and all of the action occurs at night. It's subtle, a little gritty, and, far from acting as a tour guide, each vignette offers you the chance to sample the character of each city.
The movie is divided into five segments, one for each city: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. Jarmusch starts each with row of five clocks, homing in on a different clock each time. Then his camera circumnavigates a man-made globe until it finds the city in question. After this, video snapshots from each city (which are by no means pretty or predictable) give us an overview of where we are, setting the scene for the short story that is to follow.
The opening snapshots from Los Angeles are the only ones in daylight, and as such are the most colorful in the movie. As I watched it, they reminded me of how the city I live in must appear to the outside world. A little too much concrete perhaps, lots of neon signage and strip malls – kooky, creative and multicultural. A taco truck, a diner, acres of low-rise square buildings. Palm trees, of course.
The rest of the movie is shot in darkness, yet you can still catch glimpses of each city, in small detail shots. Each segment is a taxi journey, with a dialogue between driver and customer. Each is a tour of the city, a chance to get to know its inhabitants, as well as a little challenge to preconceptions. In LA, Gena Rowlands' Beverly Hills talent scout encounters Winona Ryder's grungey cab driver and casually expects the latter to be dazzled by the prospect of Hollywood. In New York, a taxi driver (newly arrived from East Germany) surrenders his cab to a young man from Brooklyn who has a better idea how to drive it and takes him on a journey of discovery.
In Paris, a cabbie picks up a young blind girl and asks her endless questions about her lack of vision. Beatrice Dalle's character is petulantly defiant of his conventional sense of sight – or lack of it. In Rome, Roberto Benigni's hyperactive driver literally overwhelms an unfortunate Catholic priest. It's a wildly irreverent segment, shot as the cab hurtles through one-way streets and past the Colosseum. The movie ends with a bleak tale of loss in Helsinki, where the streets are coated in snow and the taxi driver has a handlebar moustache to envy.
Night on Earth may not have you booking a flight to Finland right after you watch it, but it's a great way to see the five cities it portrays. A chance to see them in ways you probably won't as a tourist. As Jarmusch said in an interview on its release, 'I love cities, they are almost like lovers. I'm attracted to many cities I've been in, often cities other people don't like at all. I like Detroit and Gary, Indiana, cities other people would avoid like the plague. The cities become characters even though they're enclosed in a cab, the atmosphere, the colour, the quality of light in each city is very different and has a different effect on the people who live there and on your emotions when you are there.– Roshan McArthur