Jim Jarmusch: I shy away from sex in my films. It makes me nervous

After almost 40 years in cinema, the director remains the quintessential leftfield auteur. He discusses how his gentle new film Paterson offers a Zen alternative to blockbuster chaos

Theres a line in Jim Jarmuschs 1986 film Down By Law that seems apposite in November 2016. It goes: My mama used to say that Americas the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.

Over tea in a Paris hotel, Jarmusch considers whether hed agree. Kind of appropriate, but also kind of cynical, he says finally. But its a scary and sad time with these creeps coming to the top. I think we all have to be vigilant around the world now with Brexit, and Marine Le Pen in France. Theres a lot of scary shit, you know?

Jarmusch is 63 but looks exactly as he has for the last 30 years. Hes wearing dark glasses indoors and is dressed as if he may at any moment be called on to play guitar with the Velvet Underground. His hair is that crown of pure white that makes him look like David Lynchs beatnik brother. It turned that way when he was 15 due to an inherited condition. Tom Waits once said it must have made him an immigrant in the teenage world, casting Jarmusch as a lifelong outsider.

He made his first film, 1980s Permanent Vacation, with a grant he was supposed to use to pay his tuition fees. Ever since, his meditative stories about societys waifs and strays have blurred the line between mainstream movies and arthouse cinema. Films such as 1995s psychedelic western Dead Man and 1999s Ghost Dog, about a mafia hitman who follows the code of the samurai, established him as a singular voice in US film with a taste for subverting genre. He remains fiercely independent and has never made a film for a major studio. The only thing thats changed over the years are his vices. The director of Coffee And Cigarettes no longer touches either. He quit coffee in 1986, and cigarettes followed a few years ago.

Forest Whitaker and John Tormey in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
I have caffeine in tea and sugar, thats a vice, he says. I drink only dry white wine and very dry champagne, but not daily. I dont drink hard alcohol and I dont drink any other stuff. I love weed, but I dont smoke now. Maybe I will again. Im just trying to be, you know, clear.

That clarity of thought comes through in his latest film, Paterson. In a loud and angry world, it is a soft and still voice. It follows a week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson, played by Adam Driver. He lives and works in the town of Paterson, New Jersey with wife Laura, an aspiring country singer played with manic pixie energy by Golshifteh Farahani. Paterson writes poems, although he has no desire to publish them. Laura bakes and sells cupcakes. They encourage one another and never fight. If this all sounds a little underwhelming, thats sort of the point. Its a celebration of the everyday.

Driver tells me hes such a fan of Jarmuschs work he would have been on board for whatever it was he wanted to do but that he fell for Paterson because its the antidote to movies that are full of action, chaos and crisis. The biggest action is the bus breaking down, and how funny it is that thats the thing that sends people into a crisis. Theyre all talking about it exploding into a fireball, which is kind of hilarious.

There have been so many high-stakes blockbusters where the destruction of the Earth is threatened that its become banal, but Jarmusch says he wasnt consciously responding to that. This is just a quiet story, he says. Life isnt dramatic, always. This is about the day-to-day. It was less intentionally an antidote to all this action, violence, abuse of women, conflict between people, but Im sure thats part of it. We need other kinds of films. With my films, my hope is that you dont care too much about the plot. Im trying to find a Zen way where you are just there each moment and youre not thinking too much about whats going to happen next.

Jarmusch has alluded to poets such as Walt Whitman and Robert Frost in his films before, but here he places the act of writing at the heart of the story. Its not easy to do that without smacking of pretension, yet Patersons poems in fact written by the New York School poet Ron Padgett all seem to rise naturally from the routine of the bus drivers life. Jarmusch, who studied poetry under Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia University, may have turned to film-making early on, but he still delights in incorporating other media into his work. What I love about film is it has all the other forms inside of it. It has composition, music, time, language, everything, he says. Its the closest thing humans make to dreaming.

He calls the New York School poets his aesthetic godfathers and is full of praise for Frank OHaras Personism manifesto. They said: Make a poem to one other person, dont make a poem to the world. Dont take yourself too seriously. Allow humour, he explains. Their poems are very funny and have so much exuberance. Why shouldnt poetry be that way?

A perfect example of such a poem is William Carlos Williamss This Is Just To Say, read aloud in the film and undoubtedly the loveliest lines ever written about nicking your wifes plums. Williams was a Paterson native, and Jarmusch first conceived the film when he visited the town in the early 90s on a pilgrimage to understand the poets home. Much as Down By Law was a prison-break movie where you didnt see its leads break out of prison, Paterson is a love film where you dont see its leads fall in love. Jarmusch has been with his own partner, the film-maker Sara Driver, since they worked together on his first movies almost 40 years ago, and says he wanted to make a film about the mutual understanding needed to make a relationship last.


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Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson

If you love somebody, if it works, its because, most often, in my opinion and observation, you let that person be who they are, he says. You dont try to change them. Of course, you have to make compromises in any kind of relationship, whether its a love one or a working one, but as soon as you start telling the other person why you want them to be some other way thats the beginning of the end. Thats conflict. How does that feel to the other person? That theyre inadequate.

In the film, the couple live independent lives. Paterson goes out every night to the same bar, and at the weekend when Laura goes off to sell her cupcakes Paterson doesnt go with her. For me, its incredibly important to have space, says Jarmusch. I need time always in my life to be alone. Its when I work things out and get ideas. They allow each other that.

Paterson is an adult movie, in the sense that its about grownup love and work and routine but its not X-rated. Quite the opposite: Paterson and Laura are affectionate but chaste onscreen. Some critics have argued that the idyll of the film would be broken by the friction of sex but Jarmusch doesnt see it that way.

Theyre very tender, he says. I just didnt need to show them fucking. I shy away from it in films because I find it very cliched. Sex is very varied. Sex can be funny, tender, a little rough, wild, soft, frustrating, incredibly satisfying so when you isolate a sex scene between two people, are you going to define their sexuality in that one way? It makes me a little nervous as a storyteller.

If he ever makes a film about sex it would have to represent that totality. I have an idea for a script that Ive been carrying around for a long time, he says. Its about two young lovers, and if I make this film they will have sex a lot so that I can show the variations and permutations.


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Ready to offend… Jarmusch and Iggy Pop

Its not hard to imagine why he hasnt got round to the project yet. Paterson is the second Jarmusch film to be released this month. The other is Gimme Danger, a documentary about another American poet, Iggy Pop. It tells the story of the formation, self-destruction and eventual redemption of the Stooges. In it, Iggy describes his desire to write short, reductive lyrics and to never, ever write like Bob Dylan. Jarmusch believes hes being self-effacing. If you <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrR-TFZmwuk” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>listen to China Girl, I bet Bob Dylan would love to have written that, he says. [Iggy]s an unrefined intellectual, but totally intellectual. Its like Mark Twain said: Dont let school get in the way of your education.

Iggy has appeared in two previous Jarmusch films, Dead Man and Coffee And Cigarettes, and has always seemed at home among his cast of drifters, hustlers and down-and-outs. Compared to the nervous energy of those films, Paterson is a departure, being about a couple whove found a measure of contentment.

Often my characters are outsiders who are against conforming to the world, says Jarmusch. In Paterson they are within the world and yet they find their own outlets to be creative. For the last 10 or 20 years Ive been studying tai chi and qigong, and Ive learned that when I was young I wanted to stop the thing. He strikes his fist with his palm: Thats hard, and harsh. In martial arts you realise that you can let that energy carry it away from you. You dont go against it. You move it, and control it if you can. Maybe the secret of the universe is to go with the grain.

Paterson is in cinemas now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/25/jim-jarmusch-paterson-adam-driver

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