Next Tuesday sees the release of a DVD some film buffs have craved for years, occasionally going so far as to buy foreign editions that require special region-free players: “Night on Earth.” Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 comedy is one of the director’s most accessible fiction features, yet somehow it’s his last to come out on DVD.
It hits stores alongside a reissue of “Stranger Than Paradise,” both discs coming from the auteur-lovers at Criterion. “Stranger Than Paradise” is, of course, well established in the indie pantheon and needs no boosterism here. It’s also been on disc before. This edition might not be very big news (despite the new director-approved transfer and juicy documentary extras), if not for the fact that Criterion throws in a rare movie for free: Jarmusch’s first feature, “Permanent Vacation.”
This makes the “Paradise” set feel like an echo of the company’s “Slacker” release from a few years back. Both packages pair an indie star’s breakthrough film with an earlier one that few fans have heard of, and fewer have seen. As with Richard Linklater’s “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books,” Jarmusch’s “Permanent Vacation” is one of those debuts that admirers call “challenging” and detractors call “a chore”: meandering and ultra-low-budget, it makes the famously laid-back “Paradise” look like a Hollywood thriller. It does, however, offer a great time-capsule peek at grimy turn-of-the-’80s New York and the hipsters who squatted there.
But back to “Night on Earth.” The setup’s easy: five small, self-contained stories, each taking place at the same time, set in taxicabs in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. When the first story has run its course, we watch a wall-mounted clock turn back to the beginning and are transported to the next locale.
I haven’t done a scientific survey, but I’ve always had the impression that people looked down on this one â€” both at the time of release, when skeptics thought casting Winona Ryder as a grease monkey cabbie was a sellout (that’s nonsense: she’s great here), and in retrospect, with viewers’ post-Oscars annoyance with Roberto Benigni contaminating his hilariously profane performance. Or maybe it’s that anthologies of all stripes â€” even those where the parts are conceived and produced together, as opposed to some slapdash, multidirector omnibus movie â€” tend to get a bum rap.
Whatever the case, its critics are wrong. “Night on Earth” bursts with low-key charm, its miniatures reveling in the sparks that fly when interesting characters drop their guard and truly interact with strangers. In the most overtly entertaining sequence, a street dude played by Giancarlo Esposito, frustrated by dozens of cabs who won’t take black passengers to Brooklyn, has to ride with an East German (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who can’t drive to save his life. (Along the way they hijack Rosie Perez, who as you might guess doesn’t hide her displeasure.)
But it’s tempting to say that the best segment is the one in which the least happens: the Finnish episode, where a forlorn Matti PellonpÃ¤Ã¤ picks up three drunks who only think they have problems until they persuade him to recount his own.
Through the early ’90s, I burned the film’s Tom Waits soundtrack into my brain so deeply that it’s impossible for me to comment on it objectively. (If I’d been big on mixtapes at the time, I’m sure every one I made would’ve had at least one of these tracks on it.) But the slowly evolving theme, creepy-crawly here and rollicking there, gives each section its own character while simultaneously gluing them together. Waits bookends the film with dueling versions of the song “Back in the Good Old World,” first as a gypsy romp and then as a waltzing lullaby.
The song gets lovelier every time I listen to it, but when I checked online just now to make sure I had the name right, I learned something horrible: The album appears to be out of print.
When’s Criterion going to start reissuing CDs?