I want to preface this post by saying I am not a student of film. I am not a professional film analyst of any kind and have no pretensions of being anything other than a novice. Lately, I’ve tried to use NetFlix to follow my film-nerd friends’ suggestions and watch some artsy independent films. I did, they’re right, these movies are in a different class. This is my first real foray into treating films as an art form worthy of serious analysis, I’m sorry I didn’t figure it out earlier.
I just finished watching Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers – NetFlix instant view is better than microwave bacon. I’ve liked Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes since I saw them, so when Limits of Control came out with that awesome trailer, I wanted to brush up on the director’s work. An interview he did with Andrew O’Hehir of Salon made him sound interesting and so I picked him to be the first art-film director I would study. Let me say at this point that I haven’t made my way through all of his films, I’ve seen the ones I’ve mentioned plus Dead Man (probably my favorite of his) and Down By Law. If my forthcoming analysis breaks down when compared to the four movies of his I haven’t seen, then that’s how it goes.
By the middle of Broken Flowers I was a bit disappointed. It seemed a bit strained and hokey compared to the rest of Jarmusch’s stuff. Bill Murray plays a retired tech guy who is so close to Murray’s character in Lost in Translation that it verges on intertextuality. His neighbor Winston, a Jamaican mystery-enthusiast played by Jefferey Wright, can’t decide if his accent is Caribbean or East Indian. But the part that really bugged me was the way Jarmusch formed the female roles. The plot of Broken Flowers has Don Johnston (Murray) visiting all of his ex-girlfriends after receiving an anonymous letter saying that he has a teenage son. Despite being ostensibly about the women in Johnston’s life, it becomes far more about Johnston’s relationship with himself and the idea of progeny. Each of the four women operate as half-mirror half-uterus. Even when Don visits the women, he ends up interacting more with their boyfriends or husbands. The women are not in good shape without Don, one is a desperate single-mom with a daughter named after and written as Nabokov’s Lolita, one lives in suburban McMansion hell with her dull husband, another talks to animals professionally and the last is white trash with a toothless mechanic boyfriend. None of them have very many lines and they seem more like rest stops on a beautifully shot and scored road trip than central characters. The only characters Don actually engages with are Winston and a young man he thinks might be his son, not with all these women who have supposedly played important roles in his life.
Of course all of these women are younger and more attractive than Don. I don’t know what the deal is with older men in movies not being able to date women their own age. Maybe old white men in suits are really invested in films portraying sexy young women coming on to old white men in suits. Every female in the movie with the exception of Winston’s wife has either slept with or wants to sleep with Don. Or both. And there’s not a lot attractive about the droopy-faced go-with-the-flow Don in the first place. The women in the movies are the objects to Don’s subject, so their two-dimensionality doesn’t really matter.
I started thinking about Jarmusch’s other films and the roles women play in them. I have to say, as much as I love Jarmusch, there seems to be a pattern. He is incredibly good at scripting and directing male friendships. Wright and Murray’s relationship is the best part of Broken Flowers besides the pretty incredible ending. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog and Haitian ice-cream seller Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé) have one of the best-written and directed friendships in any film ever. There are complex male relationships in every one of Jarmusch’s films (caveat: one’s I’ve seen). Yet the women in these movies act only as foils and plot devices. There are no leading women in his films. Paz de la Huerta is stunning in Limits of Control, but for god’s sake she’s credited as “nude.”
Jarmusch is still one of my favorite directors, I think he both writes and directs on a different level. His movies’ scopes and his terrifyingly complicated relationship with genre make him both innovative and fascinating. But this reflection on his use of female characters is disconcerting. His range is extensive, but without strong female characters, it’s severely limited. Although I haven’t seen all of his films, I’ve seen the last five, which is the last decade and a half of his work. If it’s not a pattern of his whole filmography, it’s definitely a part of his recent work. Jarmusch is clearly an artist who likes to challenge himself – he made a prison-break comedy that barely had one laugh and it was good – so why not take this one: make a movie without men.
Alternative suggestion: anti-buddy-cop film starring any combination of Jarmusch mainstays Bankolé, Johnny Depp and Tom Waits. That would be awesome.