It’s Not Where You Take Things From…

«Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”»

Jim Jarmusch
The Golden Rules of Filming

 
 

 
 

His films have often included foreign actors and characters, and (at times substantial) non-English dialogue. In his two later-nineties films, he dwelt on different cultures’ experiences of violence, and on textual appropriations between cultures: a wandering Native American’s love of William Blake, a black hit-man’s passionate devotion to the Hagakure (Hidden by the Leaves or Hidden Leaves), a practical and spiritual guide for a warrior. The interaction and syntheses between different cultures, the arbitrariness of national identity, and irreverence towards ethnocentric, patriotic or nationalistic sentiment are recurring themes in Jarmusch’s work

Jarmusch’s fascination for music is another characteristic that is readily apparent in his work. Musicians appear frequently in key roles – John Lurie, Tom Waits, Gary Farmer, Youki Kudoh, RZA and Iggy Pop have featured in multiple Jarmusch films, while Joe Strummer and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins appear in Mystery Train and GZA, Jack and Meg White feature in Coffee and Cigarettes. Hawkins’ song I Put a Spell on You was central to the plot of Stranger than Paradise, while Mystery Train is inspired by and named after a song popularized by Elvis Presley, who is also the subject of a vignette in Coffee and Cigarettes. In the words of critic Vincent Canby, “Jarmusch’s movies have the tempo and rhythm of blues and jazz, even in their use – or omission – of language. His films work on the senses much the way that some music does, unheard until it’s too late to get it out of one’s head.”

In the early 1980s, Jarmusch was part of a revolving lineup of musicians in Robin Crutchfield‘s Dark Day project, and later became the keyboardist and one of two vocalists for The Del-Byzanteens, a No Wave band whose sole LP Lies to Live By was a minor underground hit in the United States and Britain in 1982.

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An Effort to Recapture What is Lost

Lord Jim is a novel by Joseph Conrad originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine from October 1899 to November 1900.
An early and primary event is the abandonment of a ship in distress by its crew including the young British seaman Jim. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past.

 
 

Lord Jim (Richard Brooks, 1965) It’s the second film adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad. The first was a silent film released in 1925 and directed by Victor Fleming. The film stars Peter O’Toole (Jim), James Mason (“Gentleman” Brown), Curt Jürgens (Cornelius), Eli Wallach (The General), Jack Hawkins (Captain Marlow), Paul Lukas (Stein), and Daliah Lavi (Jewel).

 
 

Peter O’Toole and Paul Lukas

 
 

After Jim rejects Marlow’s suggestion that he go to America, Marlow decides to consult Stein, the proprietor of a large trading company with posts in “out-of-the-way places” where Jim could more easily live in peace. Stein, according to Marlow, is extremely trustworthy and wise. We learn a little about Stein’s past: he escaped Germany as a young man after getting entangled with revolutionaries, then came to the East Indies with a Dutch naturalist. Stein remained in the area with a Scottish trader he had met, who bequeathed him his trading empire and introduced him to a Malay queen. Stein became an adviser to the queen’s son, Mohammed Bonso, who was battling several relatives for the throne. He married Bonso’s sister and had a child with her, and began to collect beetles and butterflies. Bonso was assassinated, and Stein’s wife and child died from a fever. Stein tells Marlow an anecdote about a particular butterfly specimen in his collection. One morning, he was tricked into leaving his compound by an enemy of Bonso’s and was ambushed along the road. After feigning death, he attacked and dispatched his attackers with bullets, but a few escaped. Suddenly, he saw a rare butterfly glide past him. Moving quickly, he captured it in his hat, holding a revolver in his other hand in case the bandits should reappear. Stein describes that day as one of the best of his life; he had defeated his enemy, possessed friendship and love, and acquired a butterfly he had long desired.

Stein collects butterflies, which may seem like just a passing hobby. But we think there just might be something more to it. Let’s take a look at Stein’s description of his favorite pasttime:

“When I got up I shook like a leaf with excitement, and when I opened these beautiful wings and made sure what a rare and so extraordinary perfect specimen I had, my head went round and my legs became so weak with emotion that I had to sit on the ground. I had greatly desired to possess myself of a specimen of that species […]”

He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams. (20.10-5)

 
 

 
 

Each time Stein captures a butterfly, he must kill it. He both admires and destroys these beautiful bugs, because each time he gets his hands on one, he takes away its freedom, and the beauty of the insect in flight. It’s a bit of a contradiction, right? If you love butterflies so much, Stein, perhaps you should leave the poor things alone. But he can’t. For Stein, all beauty is fleeting and all perfect moments must come to an end. His own personal history seems to confirm this: his wife and daughter were tragically killed, and live on only in his dreams and memories. He spends the aftermath of that tragedy tracking down and capturing butterflies, perhaps as an effort to recapture what he has lost.

Aside from personal considerations, Stein’s butterfly hunting is also a powerful symbol of the British Empire (and other European empires). Stein goes tromping around foreign places, capturing these things of beauty so he can study them and show off his trophies to his admirers. That sounds eerily familiar when you consider that European imperialism was all about traveling to foreign places and capturing their resources for European use. Perhaps these butterflies represent what is lost when Europeans colonized these far-flung foreign lands.