This morning, Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival announced its GEMS 2016 Lineup. Like last year, the mini film festival will offer an array of films that will satisfy connoisseurs of world cinema, fans of music and those looking for a sneak peak at films that will surely go on to be Oscar contenders.

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travelling posterIn all his years making movies, director Jim Jarmusch has never allowed anyone to shoot him at work. That is, until he met Léa Rinaldi, a French filmmaker who brought with her a distinctive eye for capturing the man in his process. Rinaldi’s first study of the indie film legend is available as an
extra on the DVD of 2009’s The Limits of Control. Entitled “Behind Jim Jarmusch,” the film has a natural, fly-on-the-wall feel. From actors waiting on their cues, to fingernails pressing on a camera, Rinaldi focuses as much on the equipment on the set as she does the people. She truly gives the sense of the complex team effort needed to capture a few moments for the editing room. As Jarmusch says, while walking in the tight streets of Seville with Rinaldi, “You really make the film when you edit it.” There are many of these moments between scenes on set, as the director tosses casual insights over his shoulder to Rinaldi’s camera. She is never heard, however.

There has never been a so-called “behind-the-scenes” documentary as a supplement to any of Jarmusch’s movies prior to this, and he liked Rinaldi’s work enough to invite her back for his next movie. Her second and latest documentary on Jarmusch at work will have its American premiere at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa today. “Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch,” captures the nocturnal shoot of Jarmusch’s brilliant vampire movie — and my favorite film of 2014 — Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ presents complex, enthralling portrait of the jaded vampire).

travelling still

It was not easy for Rinaldi to get this access. The two struck up a friendship at Cannes, about eight years ago, she says. Speaking via Skype from Paris, the filmmaker recalls, “I met him in the Cannes Film Festival … I started like a local journalist for Canal+, and I was working for MK2, a distribution society, and I was making, every night, for Cannes a reportage about Cannes by night, and one night I met Jarmusch, and it was very fun because I said, ‘Hi, Jarmusch. How are you?’ and I gave my microphone to him, and I directed him. I told him to go to interview Isabelle Huppert, go to interview Iñárritu, and he was like ‘OK, OK!’ And it was a lot of fun and after he called MK2’s boss to get my number, and he called me and said, ‘Hey, Léa, I saw on television what you did, and it’s such a great video, and I like the way you use your camera.’”

They did not bond over making movies, however. “I never studied directing,” offers Rinaldi. “I studied literature, and so when we met next we talked a lot about poetry. Jarmusch loves poetry and loves French poetry and surrealist poetry, and so he talked to me on the phone. He called me two times to talk about poetry,” she adds with a laugh.


During this second telephone call, he mentioned he was shooting The Limits of Control in Spain. She says that’s when she took an opportunity to ask a bold question. Here’s how that conversation went, according to Rinaldi:

Rinaldi: “OK, you know, Jim, I’m a journalist of cinema, but I’ve never been on a shoot except my own short movie … OK, so you like my work, so can I propose you something? I would like to come to your movie not to make a making-of but a portrait of you working.”

Jarmusch: “Oh, I never let anyone film me while I’m shooting because I hate that. I’m shy. I don’t like to talk about my movie while I’m shooting. So, no.”

Rinaldi: “OK.”

Jarmusch: “What else would you like to do?”

Rinaldi: “OK, I’d like to be your assistant camera because I love to shoot.”

Jarmusch: “Ah, no. It’s not possible because I’m working with Christopher Doyle, and he’s a crazy guy, and it’s not possible. What else do you want to do?”

Rinaldi: “Me? I can make coffee.”

At the end of the conversation, she says Jarmusch told her, “‘OK, but you know, Léa, maybe I can change my mind,’ and he called me on the last day of the shooting, like nine months after, he called,” she pauses for a laugh, “and said, ‘OK, you want to come? Come in three days in Sevilla.


His assistant then wrote to Rinaldi with details of her trip to Spain, and she asked for a script, as she had no idea what the film he was shooting was about. “But I never received the script,” notes Rinaldi. “I didn’t know the characters. I didn’t know nothing, and it was the greatest present for me. When you do a documentary it’s great to have a problematic character. It is great to adapt to a situation, and we follow the ambiance, and we start like this.”

As seen on the documentary, though Jarmusch shared thoughts on his film-making process, he preferred not to talk about the film itself and whatever the film was about remained a mystery to her (anyone who has seen the completed work might feel the same way). She says when she and Jarmusch spoke on set, they talked about trees, variations of nature, for example, but not the script or the story.

He loved her final work and invited her back to watch him shoot Only Lovers Left Alive. There was one major difference in this second documentary, however. He didn’t want to be seen addressing the camera at all. Says Rinaldi, “I think it was great. It’s hard to make a movie without interviews and without explanation, but I think it was the best contract. It was a challenge, but it was cool.”


“Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch” ends up being an even stronger work. She says she doesn’t like it when documentary filmmakers explain things for the audience. What you learn while watching this latest film by Rinaldi, for instance, is the collaborative relationship Jarmusch has with actress Tilda Swinton, who also appeared in The Limits of Control. “I think they are very close together,” notes Rinaldi, “and Tilda helped him a lot to make [Only Lovers], in the process of production. I think he was waiting like seven years, and she was encouraging, and now they’re friends. She’s not just an actress. She’s an artist, and she knows every job of the crew. For instance, when she starts the take, she knows that the sound man is here, and she says, ‘OK, it’s good for the sound.'”

Swinton comes across as a confidant collaborator in this documentary, offering suggestions to Jarmusch in how a scene should play out. You wonder if the director could possibly be compromising to the actress at times. “I asked him about it one night,” Rinaldi says. “I said, ‘But Tilda, she never directed a movie. He said, ‘Why are you asking that?’” and she laughs before continuing, “I said, ‘Because she’s like directing.’ He says, ‘Oh, no, no. She knows, but no, no.'” She pauses to laugh some more and adds about Swinton, “But she loves the process of directing.”

Another film festival isolated this scene that will give the viewer a sense of Swinton’s casual collaboration with Jarmusch:

The wonderfully edited scene features, brief close-ups and keeps in mind people’s relationship with the film-making equipment. “I like the choreography and the poetry of the technical crew,” says Rinaldi. “The movie is the crew. I mean, Jarmusch is the director, but the movie is the crew. I like to shoot the choreography of the work because the movie cannot exist without the grip man, and it’s why I think Jarmusch likes my work.”

Her documentary is also very patient, allowing the viewer to watch a shoot unfold to note all the moving parts of the individual people involved, which she aptly calls “choreography.” As if to drive that point home, she ends the film in Tangiers with a beautiful long take of the crew, including the actors and director, marching single file after a long night’s shoot. If the clip above does not give you the sense of how Rinaldi gives equal time to the technology that brings the scenes to life, this clip should:

Asked what she thinks of the final results of Jarmusch’s work on Only Lovers, she says, “I love it. What I saw during the five-day shoot in Tangiers, I saw the sense of the film, so what I see in the film, it’s like I already saw it. Because this movie is very sincere and very personal and so close to Jim, so it wasn’t a surprise. It’s a beautiful gift. That’s what I like about cinema or documentaries. It’s not the technical stuff or the cast. It’s that people are honest and true with the topic. That’s what touches me in cinema, so I think, with this movie, Jarmusch is very sincere.”

She’s not just offering flattery about Jarmusch. Her friendship with him is not based on sycophancy. When reminded about the harsh critical response to The Limits of Control, she does not hold back. Yeah, it’s very weak,” she says and laughs, “but it’s why I love Jarmusch because he doesn’t care. He does what he wants, and Jarmusch is weird, too. He was honest with his art to make a weird movie. He didn’t make a Jarmusch movie that people expect. If he wants to make something, he does it. If he wants to make a vampire movie, he does it. I asked him if I could make a documentary about him, even though I never directed something, he just trusted me, and he lets me do it. He’s a very, very free person, very open-minded, very generous, and I think very courageous to propose his own weird ideas. Even if it’s not popular or people won’t understand. It’s what I love about him. His work says it’s better to just express yourself and do what you want even if people don’t like it.”


Hans Morgenstern

“Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch” plays at Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, Florida, today, Thursday, March 26, at 9 p.m. Rinaldi will be present to introduce the film and entertain questions after the screening. For Tickets visit this link (that’s a hotlink, jump through). For those who cannot make the screening, the documentary is available as a special feature on the Only Lovers Left Alive blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link).

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

only-lovers-left-alive-poster1Only Lovers Left Alive, the long-awaited vampire drama by Jim Jarmusch, has to be one of the better date movies I’ve seen in a long time. There is something beautiful yet romantically slippery about the exquisitely matured bond between the vampire couple at the heart of the film. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) may be the first vampires of time immemorial. With so many centuries behind them, Jarmusch, who also wrote the script, presents this couple as the antithesis to the naive lovers in the Twilight Saga.

Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving/suffering vampires in only the way he can, with brilliant wit and heartfelt respect. Beyond jokes like the characters’ names, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures, both positively and negatively. Eve can speed read Infinite Jest, and thoughtful Adam tends to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics: “Spooky Action At a Distance.” She lives more in the moment, taking up residence in an opium den in Tangiers and in the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who apparently faked his death in 1593 to carry on living as a vampire (he’s still bitter about Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Adam languishes in a big old house in the appropriately ghostly city of Detroit. He surrounds himself with dated electronics and uses rare instruments to compose experimental music on reel-to-reel tape to be released on limited edition 180 gram vinyl with no label. To stay in touch with Adam, Eve uses Facetime on her iPhone while Adam uses a low-resolution webcam attached to a PC tower.


As with any romance movies involving mature individuals, love can get complicated, even with this decidedly progressive couple. Over the ages, Adam and Eve have developed a becalmed relationship. They don’t raise their voices at each other and despite the huge geographic gulf and differing lifestyles, their affection for one another does not waver. Still, a sort of tired undercurrent runs below the surface of their relationship despite a magnetism of shared experiences and an emotional investment that goes back centuries. They don’t just have chemistry, the have a fusion as deep as old bones calcifying to become one. They are tired, old souls incarnate.

Ultimately, Adam’s loneliness becomes palatable to Eve from across the globe, and she books a red-eye to fly to Detroit. He’s gone a tad mad and depressed, turning into a hoarder of sorts. Once at the cluttered mansion, Eve stumbles across a wooden bullet Adam had obtained from his human connection to the black market, Ian (Anton Yelchin). It upsets Eve with a quiet frustration, yet she handles it delicately, recognizing it as a call for attention more than a threat. The real kink comes in the unexpected arrival of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed. She’s the most troublesome of the quartet. While the other vamps prefer anonymity, Ava’s rather reckless. Wasikowska plays her with a wide-eyed precocious smile. She’s like a mischievous elf hiding in the shadows ready to pounce with a prank. Her character adds a colorful bit of comic relief to the mostly dour proceedings.

"only lovers left alive"

Still, all of the film’s characters are a delight, even if the film’s plot is spare and ambling. As it is with most Jarmusch films, it’s all about the dynamics between the characters, and he keeps the narrative focused on the nighttime activities of the vamps. The entire movie appropriately unfolds in the shadows, against a perpetual nocturnal backdrop. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, working with Jarmusch for the first time, delivers varying scenes using diverse degrees of focus and colored filters for different shades of atmosphere.

It’s all about the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, and they are ironically soulful characters. Humanity has somehow lost touch with slowing down and savoring life, unlike these undead culture vultures. Jarmusch places humans in the periphery. Some human characters are only shadows in the distance. "only lovers left alive"They roam the world on a diet of junk food and junk culture to the point that their blood has grown literally unpalatable to the vampires. Adam and Eve don’t dare bite anyone’s neck for fear of contamination by impure blood. Instead, they look for pure Type O-negative on the black market to sip out of sherry glasses. The vampires don’t even refer to mortals as human. Instead, they call them “zombies.”

The film’s score and musical sequences deserve highlighting, beginning with the sumptuously absorbing score by lute player Jozef van Wissem backed by Jarmusch’s very own band SQÜRL. The opening scene introducing us to the vampires is a brilliant montage featuring a perpetually rotating camera, turning the image around the screen at what seems to be 33 rpm— the speed of a record player. The detailed art design, augmented with beguiling costumes, all twirling ’round can feel dizzying. The sensation is heightened further with the growling vocals of Cults’ Madeline Follin and the super-delayed echoing of a blues-infused electric guitar weaving around a stomping, slow beat, which is occasionally accented with a single ringing chime. It’s a bit of sensory overload, but it captivates all the same. It could work brilliantly as a music video.

It’s not the only time music takes over for narrative of Only Lovers Left Alive in enchanting ways. When the vampires satisfy their thirsts, they act as if they are slipping away into an opiate high. RZ6A7363.JPGThe shallow focus of the scene allows their faces to drift away into blurs, fangs exposed, maws bloody and half-agape. The scene is scored with Wissem lazily dragging a melody across his multi-stringed instrument, varying each refrain with a high note and a low note. Below, a guitar squeals a low, wash of feedback. It’s an enthralling moment, which thankfully recurs once more during the course of the film.

The film is filled with many delightful scenes, as it strides along at a relaxed pace that never tries the audience’s patience, despite its two-hour-plus duration. Clearly, Jarmusch has spent a lot of time thinking about his version of the vampire. Even when they are troubled, like Adam, or deviant, like Ava, they remain interesting and even endearing. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has created a rich world that also provides a witty jab to the immature, pop-culture obsessed consumer who does not seem to know how to stop and savor the more complex arts. Yet, Jarmusch is not above offering a bit of self-deprecating critique back at his over-seriousness as channeled by these vampires. Despite its quirks, Only Lovers stands as one of his greatest and still entertaining personal statements in a long time.

Hans Morgenstern

Only Lovers Left Alive runs 123 minutes and is Rated R (there’s blood and gore, as can be expected in a vampire movie. They also talk dirty). A shorter version of this review appeared in my recap of the 31st Miami International Film Festival, which invited me to a screening during my coverage of the festival. It opens in South Florida this Friday, May 9, at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Cinemark Palace
Regal Shadowood

It could already be playing near you or be on the way. Visit the film’s website for more dates and locations.

Update 2: More South Florida art houses have announced dates for Only Lovers Left Alive: It opens Friday, June 27 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale (get tickets)and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (get tickets). On July 11, it arrives at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (get tickets).

Earlier Update: In Miami, the indie art house O Cinema has now booked Only Lovers Left Alive. It starts Friday, May 23. Buy tickets here.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With Blank City, first-time director Celine Danhier offers a celebration of the influential art scene of New York City during the late seventies and early eighties, which explored everything from music to movies to art with an almost nihilistic attitude. The movement earned the name “No Wave” because it went against the notion of art. It was the perfect complement to the attitudes in London that spawned the punk scene headed by the Sex Pistols during the same time. One of the many denizens of run-down East Side NYC Danhier interviews notes that her peers of the No Wave movement had felt art had ceased to exist in a “culture of blandness.”

Among those Danhier interviews are: Amos Poe, Ann Magnuson, Becky Johnston, Beth B, Bette Gordon, Casandra Stark Mele, Charlie Ahearn, Daze, Debbie Harry, Eric Mitchell, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O’Brien, Jack Sargeant, James Chance, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, JG Thirlwell, John Lurie, John Waters, Kembra Pfahler, Lizzie Borden, Lung Leg, Lydia Lunch, Manuel DeLanda, Maripol, Michael McClard, Michael Oblowitz, Nick Zedd, Pat Place, Patti Astor, Richard Kern, Sara Driver, Scott B, Steve Buscemi, Susan Seidelman, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Thurston Moore, Tommy Turner and Vivienne Dick.

Danhier assembles quite a colorful cast characters from the scene, and the film never falls short on illustrative anecdotes that typified the aesthetic of the No Wave scene. Lurie, a saxophonist credited for founding the Lounge Lizards in the late seventies, notes his contemporaries held disdain for any artist who did anything with any skill. Technical proficiency at anything was “not cool,”  he says. If you were a musician, you tried your hand at acting. If you were a filmmaker you played in a band. Lurie even expresses his embarrassment about his ability to play the saxophone, saying he felt so ashamed of his skills he hid it from others. He instead tried directing films and acting, famously starring in Jarmusch’s breakout feature Stranger Than Paradise (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com).

Though Blank City touches on musicians like the Ramones and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Danhier focuses on the filmmakers of the era and offers tantalizing clips of an array of historic and obscure films featuring Buscemi and Vincent Gallo that are hard to find on DVD, if at all. The films of the No Wave scene, which are mostly shot in back and white, are best described as primitive. Danhier does an illustrative job at getting into the directors’ processes: from what equipment they used (more often than not rented Super 8 cameras) to a glimpse at their scripts, which invited improvisation from the actors and sometimes had child-like drawings as directions. Not only did these filmmakers shoot their movies without permits, they often trespassed into unoccupied buildings. Lurie noted how he set out to fund one picture by staging a robbery at his apartment and collecting the insurance money on his saxophone to budget the picture.

Blank City is filled with many great anecdotes like that, and anyone with an interest of a snapshot of the milieu that spawned the No Wave scene will delight in the information packed into this documentary. The only fault I might find in this exploration is that Danhier seems so fixated on the era, she fails to ask the deeper questions of how it fits into the expanse of art history. There is one point where she touches on the appearance of art galleries everywhere, including someone’s bathroom, and how it seemed to bring money into the scene but offers no further detail.

At least she spends a good chunk of the movie highlighting another art movement spawned from the scene. After Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise began appearing in the movie theaters to much critical praise, it seemed like the alternativeness and independence of the artists was over, as they had seemingly sold out. Then comes the sub-underground movement of the “Cinema of Transgression” where drugs and sex take center stage. The directors of these films usually eschewed story lines in favor of offering shocking scenes where some actors would act out their sexual fetishes and/or get high on camera. The filmmakers of this scene emphasized a desire to shock and repulse more than anything.

This post-No Wave scene featured filmmakers like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern whose movies are hard to find nowadays possibly because of their lack of relevance in today’s post-torture porn culture, a commercial Hollywood movement lead by filmmakers like Eli Roth and his Hostel series. Kern has a compilation of his short films from the era covered by Blank City simply titled Hardcore Collection (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com). Zedd’s compilation, however, Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd, seems out of print but seems to be going for a hefty price on the secondary market, at least on Amazon, so there still might be some curious interest in these films, but it would have been interesting to see Danhier explore the relevance of these filmmakers now. Supposedly Kern is still working mostly as a photographer but he also directed some erotic voyeur pictures. Zedd, meanwhile, seems to still be at work in the same lo-fi aesthetic that defined his films, but, from what can be gleaned from the ratings and information on his filmography on the Internet Movie Database, still seems to be working for a small audience with little appreciation for his work.

Danhier sums up the demise of this counter-culture movement with the rise of MTV and its “co-modification of downtown.” If these guys thought MTV was bad in the early eighties, I would be curious what they think of it now. Lord knows I have bemoaned the hypocritical dictates of MTV and its role in the stupefying of today’s youth (see this post). It is for that reason that it would have been interesting to see how the No Wave aesthetic fits into today’s world. Blank City ends with Jarmusch declaring filmmaking has become more democratic now with the Internet and affordable digital cameras. But it would have been even more interesting to explore the “truthiness” of that notion further instead of end the film at that.

In the end, Blank City indeed offers an exuberant look at artists who can care less about culture while creating vibrant works of art. For these people to have existed in the gloom of late seventies, run-down New York City, nonchalantly dealing with routine, sometimes violent muggings and battling rats for a place to sleep, while still producing vibrant art that celebrated living in the moment, offers a testament in itself.

Hans Morgenstern

Blank City has one last screening at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday (June 19), at 8 p.m. It then opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 24) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where it will play through June 15. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check Blank City’s website for its screening schedule.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)