Night on Earth

Night on Earth
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Gena Rowlands (Victoria Snelling), Winona Ryder (Corky), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Helmut Grokenberger), Giancarlo Esposito (YoYo), Rosie Perez (Angela), Isaach De Bankolé (Paris Driver), Béatrice Dalle (Blind Woman), Stéphane Boucher (Man in Accident), Roberto Benigni (Rome Driver), Paolo Bonacelli (Priest), Matti Pellonpää (Mika), Kari Väänänen (Man #1), Sakari Kuosmanen (Man #2)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1991
Country: U.S. / U.K. / France / Germany / Japan
Night on Earth: Criterion Collection DVD
Night on EarthJim Jarmusch's idiosyncratic humor and insightful, but subtle observations of human life were given their first jolt of star power in his international coproduction Night on Earth, an ambitious five-part anthology film that travels along with five different cab drivers in five cities on a single winter night--a sort of art-film Taxi Cab Confessions. Jarmusch had already experimented with multiple storylines and languages in 1989's Mystery Train, but Night on Earth extended the logic by denying any overt narrative linkages between and among the stories. If Night on Earth holds together, it is because we recognize the shared humanity among the various characters, despite their vast differences.

The film opens in Los Angeles with a tough, chain-smoking young cabbie named Corky (Winona Ryder) who looks like she's 12, but dreams of being a mechanic. Her fare is a cell-phone-wielding, high-powered casting agent (Gena Rowlands), and although the two are worlds apart socially and economically, over the course of the ride they find certain commonalities. Similarly, in the second story a newbie German émigré named Helmut Grokenberger (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a former clown, picks up black Brooklynite YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) and then YoYo's aggressively feisty sister-in-law (Rosie Perez). The theme here is culture conflict, and although there isn't exactly a sense of resolution, there is, like the first story, the idea that connection across great social valleys is possible.

The third story moves the action across the pond to France, where an Ivory Coast émigré driving a cab in Paris (Isaach De Bankolé) first picks up a couple of dignitaries, who playfully, but cruelly deride him, and then a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) who proves that her lack of sight is more than compensated by her attitude and vigor. From there we go to Rome and the most broadly comic of the five tales, which stars Roberto Benigni (who had previously appeared in Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law) as a motor-mouth cabbie who takes advantage of his fare being a Bishop (Paolo Bonacelli) by running off a list of increasingly hilarious confessions that have a rather unexpected, blackly comic effect. Placing this story right before the final tale, which takes place in Helsinki, seems to have been a conscious act of conflict by Jarmusch, as the film finishes with the saddest of the five stories. The Finnish cabbie (Matti Pellonpää) picks up three men, one of whom is so drunk he cannot stand, and they spend the cab ride exchanging tales of woe, which allows Jarmusch to end on a note of profound melancholy, suggesting that the fine line between laughs and tears is a fine one indeed.

Like any anthology film, Night on Earth has its strengths and weaknesses, with some stories cohering better than others. Yet, the cumulative effect of Jarmusch's nocturnal journeys through the chilly city streets is what makes Night on Earth work. As a fascinating study in human observation, it is never dull, despite the fact that very little actually happens. Jarmusch's dialogue, whether in English, French, Italian, or Finnish, is consistently engaging--by turns witty, deft, vulgar, and insightful. His characters are mostly sketches (their limited screen time of about 20 minutes apiece doesn't allow for much more), but he works enough depth into the shading to make each memorable in his or her own way.

The camera remains confined to the inside of various taxicabs for most of the film, with only static shots of each city to define the locations (after that, they become an interchangeable blur outside the windows, again suggesting a connection across the stories). Jarmusch's deft balancing of humor and pathos has always been one of his assets, and here he has a larger canvas on which to spread his act. Like a great collection of short stories, Night on Earth works in both the micro and macro, giving us brief snapshots of humanity and then assembling them into a meaningful collage that puts each story--funny or sad--into a shared human context.

Night on Earth Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director of photography Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin
  • Q&A with Jim Jarmusch, in which he responds to questions sent by fans
  • 1992 Belgian television interview with Jarmusch
  • Insert booklet featuring new essays by Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh, and the lyrics to Tom Waits's original songs from the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 4, 2007

    The director-approved high-definition transfer of Night on Earth, which marks the film's DVD debut in the U.S., was taken from the 35mm interpositive and digitally restored. The image is clean and maintains its original grain structure, which gives it a pleasingly film-like appearance. Because the entire film takes place at night, the image is naturally dark and just a tad murky, which, given Jarmusch's approval, must reflect the intended look of the film. Colors are also very muted, with skin tones looking somewhat pale, which again is in keeping with the film's restrained visual approach (this was Jarmusch's second color feature). The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the magnetic tracks, also sounds good. The majority of the track is dominated by dialogue with minimal, but effective ambient noise.
    The audio commentary on Criterion's DVD is provided by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin, both of whom have worked with Jarmusch and each other on multiple films. Recorded together, they have some fascinating insight into both the film itself and working with Jarmusch, although the commentary oddly stops dead twice during the film for extended periods of time. While Jarmusch doesn't have any input in the audio commentary, we get the next best thing, which is an hour of audio in which Jarmusch responds directly to about two dozen questions sent in to him from around the world (you can listen to them all together or you can pick from the various locations from which the questions were sent, which range from Poland to Indiana). In his wonderfully droll voice, Jarmusch answers the questions to the best of his memory (apparently, he never watches his own films after they're completed, which explains why he doesn't participate in audio commentaries), and we learn some fascinating tidbits, including the fact that the Helmut-YoYo story was based on actual experience Jarmusch had in New York City and Benigni's monologue was based on jokes he and Jarmusch came up with together. Jarmusch also appears in a six-minute interview from a French TV show called Alice from 1992. (Much of the interview is done in the back of a taxicab, natch.) Finally, in keeping with the film's structure, the thick insert booklet contains five essays on each of the five segments in the film written by a critic or scholar from the respective location--Thom Andersen (Los Angeles), Paul Auster (New York), Bernard Eisenschitz (France), Goffredo Fofi (Italy), and Peter von Bagh (Finland)--as well as the lyrics to Tom Waits's songs.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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