An Homage to Diversity: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991)

By Michaela Keck

Released in 1991, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth is clear­ly not an Amer­i­can clas­sic in the sense of belong­ing to the gold­en age of Hol­ly­wood. As an art film that aims to counter com­mer­cial Hol­ly­wood films, how­ev­er, Night on Earth has acquired the sta­tus of a clas­sic inde­pen­dent film by now. While the film’s pro­duc­tion was com­par­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive, it nev­er­the­less impress­es with a top-class cast of actors, includ­ing Winona Ryder, Gena Row­lands, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Rober­to Benig­ni as well as its reas­sur­ing­ly weird film music by Tom Waits.

In the film, five short scenes of cab­drivers and their pas­sen­gers from Los Ange­les, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsin­ki are loose­ly con­nect­ed through the banal recur­rences of dri­ving and rid­ing taxis. In L.A., the tomboy­ish Corky (Winona Ryder) non­cha­lant­ly resists the offer of Ms. Snelling, the ele­gant cast­ing agent (Gena Row­lands) to become an up-and-com­ing film star in order to pur­sue her dream of becom­ing a mechan­ic. In the New York episode, the African Amer­i­can Yo-Yo (Gian­car­lo Espos­i­to) and the East Ger­man Hel­mut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) change posi­tions, so that Yo-Yo dri­ves and Hel­mut rides in order to make it safe­ly to Brook­lyn on a winter’s night. Along the way, Yo-Yo ini­ti­ates Hel­mut into the beau­ties of New York both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly as they ride through the lit-up city and pick up Yo-Yo’s resis­tant sis­ter-in-law, Angela (Rosie Perez), to take her back to her husband.

A taxi to Brook­lyn: Hel­mut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and Yo-Yo (Gian­car­lo Esposito)

In the Parisian taxi-encounter, a name­less dri­ver (Isaach de Bankolé) throws his two African cus­tomers out, annoyed by their patron­iz­ing air towards his Ivory Coast her­itage, only to annoy his next blind female pas­sen­ger (Béa­trice Dalle) with his own patron­iz­ing and judg­men­tal ques­tions about what it means to be blind. In Rome, a padre’s (Pao­lo Bona­cel­li) ride with the viva­cious taxi dri­ver Gino (Rober­to Benig­ni) ends fatal­ly for the man of God: While Gino con­fess­es his past illus­tri­ous sex­u­al sins, the increas­ing­ly agi­tat­ed padre drops his med­ica­tion and suf­fers a heart attack at the very moment Gino’s sex­u­al con­fes­sions reach their cli­max. The final episode in Helsin­ki has dri­ver Mika (Mat­ti Pel­lon­päa) trans­port three friends (Kari Väänä­nen, Sakari Kuos­ma­n­en, Tomi Salmela) back home after they have drowned their sor­rows over Aki’s loss of his job, wife, and home. Mika, how­ev­er, has been through worse, he says. Thus begins his sto­ry about the pre­ma­ture birth and death of his daugh­ter, bring­ing tears to his pas­sen­ger’s eyes. All of these five sto­ries are linked by a repeat­ed use of extradiegetic film mate­ri­als, which show a bank of clocks and a rotat­ing globe, sug­gest­ing the simul­tane­ity of the events.

These sum­maries sound like spoil­er alerts, but let me assure you that they can in no way pre­empt the plea­sures of watch­ing the film – its vari­a­tions of sub­tle and rau­cous humor along­side the film’s melan­choly, dark­er insights about cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences on the one hand and com­mon­al­i­ties of human expe­ri­ences and sor­rows on the oth­er. Nor do my sum­maries cap­ture the film’s poet­ic cin­e­matog­ra­phy of the select­ed, rec­og­niz­able West­ern cityscapes by night, the out­stand­ing act­ing of the con­flicts and inti­ma­cies that devel­op among dri­vers and pas­sen­gers, or the repet­i­tive and moody, yet upbeat music by Tom Waits.

I have always read the film as an homage to diver­si­ty. Even though each of the scenes heav­i­ly relies on region­al and nation­al stereo­types, it also sub­verts them. For instance, the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive of the expe­ri­enced busi­ness­man meet­ing the work­ing-class youth whose dreams are not to be cor­rupt­ed by fast mon­ey, is here re-enact­ed by two women. What is more, the expe­ri­enced cast­ing agent Ms. Snelling, who seems wed­ded to her phone as a sym­bol of show­biz made in Hol­ly­wood, turns out to pos­sess a sense of humor and sin­cer­i­ty, which belies the stereo­type of the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ist dri­ven by ambi­tion and mon­ey. Corky’s lan­guage and man­ner­isms, on the oth­er hand, demon­strate that this young taxi dri­ver is far from an ‘inno­cent’ young woman.

The L.A. episode: Corky (Winona Ryder) and Ms. Snelling (Gena Rowlands)

I like the Paris episode for expos­ing that racism comes to us in all shapes and skin col­ors and, what’s more, for the char­ac­ter of the name­less, sexy, self-con­fi­dent, and won­der­ful­ly quick-wit­ted name­less blind pas­sen­ger. But my all-time favorite encoun­ters take place in New York and Rome. In New York, the humor­ous cin­e­mat­ic por­traits of the unlike­ly pairs open up fleet­ing moments of inti­ma­cy among strangers who relate to each oth­er across their class, gen­der, and race dif­fer­ences as well as their lan­guage bar­ri­ers and indi­vid­ual experiences.

Although a taxi ride of a padre in Rome is per­haps the most banal of all things, Rober­to Benigni’s bril­liant act­ing and out­stand­ing com­i­cal tal­ent ren­der this scene the cli­max of unlike­ly transat­lantic encoun­ters and exis­ten­tial absur­di­ty in this 5‑episode tragi­com­e­dy. By now, the dri­ving has become riski­er and the action has gained a faster pace – if one can speak of fast action at all in a film in which action exhausts itself in changes from close shots to two-shots, wit­ty dia­logues, and extreme long shots of dri­ving taxis, which alter­nate with some­what shaky views from inside the taxi out into the var­i­ous cityscapes by night. The con­trast between Gino’s vivid imag­i­na­tion, exu­ber­ance, and pecu­liar erot­ic expe­ri­ences with the ail­ing, tight-lipped, and but­toned-up padre is repeat­ed in Gino’s affec­tion­ate greet­ing of the trans­ves­tites in one of Rome’s red-light dis­tricts, whose curi­ous gazes at his pas­sen­ger great­ly ele­vate the padre’s unease and blood pressure.

Roman taxi ride: The padre (Pao­lo Bona­cel­li) and Gino (Rober­to Benigni)

The final episode in Helsin­ki pro­vides not only the anti-cli­max, but per­haps the most haunt­ing of all five sto­ries. Here, Roman mat­ters of love and death evolve into Finnish sto­ries of human tragedy, includ­ing Aki’s loss of job, home, and fam­i­ly as well as Mika’s loss of his new­born daugh­ter. In the end, Jim Jarmusch’s cin­e­mat­ic taxi alle­go­ry seems to sug­gest, we are all pas­sen­gers on a both riv­et­ing and sor­row­ful, but ulti­mate­ly tem­po­rary ride on this planet.

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Michaela Keck teach­es Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg. Among her major research inter­ests are eco­crit­i­cism and nature writ­ing, women’s lit­er­a­ture, and visu­al cul­ture. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.