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Toronto: Explore the Dark Side of Jim Jarmusch at TIFF

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ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE might be maverick director Jim Jarmusch’s only legitimate horror film—in that it tells the tale of genuinely undead, fanged vampires—but a closer look at the New York-based filmmaker’s eccentric, personal body of work, exposes the kind of dark observations about humanity that every good genre movie trades in. And while TIFF’s new retrospective STRANGE PARADISE: THE CINEMA OF JIM JARMUSCH (opening today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto) doesn’t pretend to distill that darkness in the director’s work, a casual look at key films screened reveal how much horror actually hides within his witty, meandering and stylized work.

PERMANENT VACATION (1980)

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Jarmusch’s first low-budget offering sees a man wandering the strangest streets of New York, having dialogues with random strangers, rhapsodizing on Nicolas Ray cinema. The world in which he wanders is haunted, lonely and scattered, mirroring our protagonist’s state of mind, a metaphor that comes full circle, when the man reaches his destination: a mental institution. Melancholy, messy, atmospheric and amusing, PERMANENT VACATION set the template for much of Jarmusch’s work.

DEAD MAN (1995)

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An almost pornographic exercise in tone, this ultra slow black-and-white western is Jarmusch’s stab at Jodorowsky. Johnny Depp gives one of his greatest performances as William Blake, an accountant in a dismal frontier town who is shot, escapes and spends the rest of the film wandering the plains, a native mystic named Nobody (Gary Farmer, who is brilliant) at his side. Blake bleeds and bleeds and as he slowly spirals into death and delirium, he achieves a kind of spiritual transcendence. Minimal dialogue, maximum psychedelia, and washed over by a Neil Young’s fuzzy, beautiful and transcendent guitar noise. A dark, strange cinematic experience.

GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999)

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Forrest Whitaker plays an ace hitman, rescued as a boy from the streets by the mafia who matures into one of their most accomplished killers; a man who literally lives and dies by the sword as he imagines a Samurai code by which he must live. A standard tale of urban crime gets cross-bred with Japanese Bushido cinema and is laced with ultra violence. But what makes the film so special, outside of the usual Jarmusch sidebar details (the film is broken up by on-screen proverbs and voice over) and meanderings, is the absolute seriousness in which Whitaker plays the role. He believes he is a samurai trapped in an urban jungle, so we believe it. It’s like GOODFELLAS by way of Kurosawa.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

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A typically divisive, uniquely Jarmusch-stamped work, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL once again sees a lone assassin (played by the steely Isaach De Bankolé) wandering a beautiful and yet abstractly hostile landscape, this time across the Spanish countryside. This leads to some stunning scenic location work as well as music and, most relevantly to FANGORIA fans, an eye-opening performance by NURSE 3D actress Paz de la Huerta who does what she often does on screen: flaunt her impossibly perfect, naked body. Erotic, confounding, elliptical and existential, this one is a slow-burn like DEAD MAN, and almost as rewarding a view.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

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Jarmusch’s most recent offering is indeed just as pure a film as any of his work, save for the fact his beautiful outsiders here (Tilda Swinton and Tom Huddleston) are blood-sucking, ancient vampires living on the fringes of the world. Adam and Eve take great pleasure in each other’s company and slow, meandering strolls across the strange surfaces of Tangiers and the ruins of old Detroit. Read our review of this Jarmusch gem here.

STRANGE PARADISE: THE CINEMA OF JIM JARMUSCH runs deep into August. For more information, the complete screening schedule and film selection, head here. And if you have yet to experience its magic, see ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE as soon as you can. It’s the best vampire film of the year.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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