Film: Cinema of Allusions

Indie icon Jim Jarmusch returns with Broken Flowers, another ode to mysterious characters with deadpan deliveries

Aug 17, 2005 at 2:06 pm
David Lee

Bill Murray (left) and Jim Jarmusch confer on the set of Broken Flowers

LOS ANGELES Broken Flowers, the contemplatively quiet, quintessentially indie film by writer/director Jim Jarmusch, has the kind of cast you might expect to see in a splashy, big-budget Hollywood comedy.

Bill Murray plays an aging, taciturn bachelor, Don Johnston. Spurred by the arrival of an unsigned letter that says he has a child, he reluctantly goes on the road to visit old girlfriends with whom he has lost touch — Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange among them. Not always sure why heÕs doing this or whether he should, heÕs egged on by his boisterous Ethiopian neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright).

With such a cast, as well as the fact it won the Grand Prix at this yearÕs Cannes Film Festival, Broken Flowers has elicited tremendous interest and big audiences in the few cities where it already has opened.

But for those unfamiliar with the 52-year-old Jarmusch, an Akron, Ohio, native and New York filmmaker who has determinedly gone his own Beatnik-minimalist way with films like Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train and Dead Man, Broken Flowers takes some getting used to.

Like MurrayÕs deadpan performance, there is a mysterious quality to the film that shields its characters from their own (and each otherÕs) insights, motivations and remembrances of things past. The viewer must work to understand them and figure out their histories. This is not to say the film lacks action, humor or surprise. Indeed, 19-year-old Alexis Dziena, playing StoneÕs daughter (named Lolita), has one of the most surprising movie scenes of the summer.

The mysterious quality is intentional. In a Zen kind of way, not understanding is key to understanding the World According to Jarmusch.

¨I love the fact that with the Lakota Sioux, or maybe itÕs the Ojibwa, when you translate (the word for "GodÕ) from their language to English, itÕs "Great Mystery,Õ Ó Jarmusch explains. ¨"Higher PowerÕ is not explainable; itÕs not some God that sits in judgment of us. It is the universe, which is not understandable. That is its strength, know what I mean?Ó

ItÕs a late Friday afternoon and the white-haired Jarmusch, who has the deep voice, lean muscularity and calming gaze of the actor Lee Marvin, is seated in his room at HollywoodÕs funky, aging Chateau Marmont Hotel. ItÕs a typically sunny summer day, but the room exudes an autumnal feel with its shadows and pale-green colors. Like its occupant, it seems out of place in Hollywood. Jarmusch wears a cowboy shirt, green jeans and boots and keeps his American Spirit cigarettes nearby.

¨I hate back-story,Ó he explains. ¨I will try to imagine some element of a back-story only if an actor IÕm collaborating with wants to have a precedent for their character. Otherwise, I avoid it. It seems simplistic to me.

¨Like BillÕs character has a hole in him somewhere,Ó Jarmusch continues. ¨Are we supposed to do the clich/d thing where we say, "LetÕs start the film where heÕs with his mother and she inflicts some neurosis on him that will inform what he does later?Õ

¨Well, life isnÕt that simple,Ó he says. ¨And as brilliant as Freud was, a lot of his ideas donÕt work that way. TheyÕre very beautiful, and I donÕt say I donÕt enjoy FreudÕs mind, but I donÕt take it as the gospel truth because a lot of that is just horseshit. It doesnÕt all come from an oedipal universal subconscious thing, although those things are very important and interesting.

¨I donÕt like the simplicity of pinpointing the origin of things because people are complex and all of our lives are different,Ó he says. ¨ItÕs all a sequence of events, and some of the things that are most mundane and minor might ultimately have the greatest effect on our later reactions.Ó

With such an attitude, one can see why JarmuschÕs movies constitute a cinema of allusion — beautiful allusion thanks to his work here with cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) — rather than one of explanation. Even the title of Broken Flowers has an allusive meaning.

¨ThereÕs a famous D.W. Griffith film called Broken Blossoms which, while itÕs not a direct reference, may be a semiconscious allusion from me,Ó he says. ¨I always thought that was a beautiful title — you donÕt think of broken blossoms.

¨I like the idea we donÕt use the term "broken flowers.Õ ItÕs not like wilted flowers or fresh flowers. ItÕs taking things that donÕt quite rationally go together yet seem evocative to me. Is it something in BillÕs character? Are these women the broken flowers? Is it that maybe he missed out on love early in his life because he didnÕt recognize it? I wanted something poetic.Ó

Jarmusch doesnÕt make many movies — just six narrative features, one documentary and one collection of shorts since 1984Õs Stranger than Paradise. He doesnÕt have the easiest time arranging financing and rarely gets major box-office returns, even by commercial art-film standards. He has a devoted following, but itÕs a limited one. ThatÕs why Broken Flowers, with its big-name cast, represents what could be a breakthrough of sorts. (Murray had a small part in JarmuschÕs Coffee and Cigarettes, last yearÕs collection of short films.)

Not that Jarmusch is about to go Hollywood with its demands for back-story and character motivation. HeÕs out to work his way, no matter how many flowers he breaks in the process.

¨You canÕt fight against that in any other way than to make my own stuff the way IÕm going to make it,Ó he says. ¨I donÕt get the big bucks, and I donÕt have a swimming pool, and I donÕt drive a Bentley, and I donÕt give a fuck.Ó ©