FILM / Keeping the meter running

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Before he began to cut a figure in his own right on the art-house scene, Jim Jarmusch was regarded as a disciple of Wim Wenders, and his new film, like Wenders' Until the End of the World, looks like a kind of international road movie. But where Wenders' dinosaur wrote its themes large, ponderous and expensive, Jarmusch's Night on Earth (15) is, for all its five locations and grand, existential- sounding title, a modest, character-based, almost chamber piece. All that happens is this: in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki, a motley collection of characters take taxi-rides through the night and connect or clash momentarily with their drivers. Jarmusch declares his interest in 'small details not big events', and his film is full of incidental pleasures.

The taxi-driver has a slight image-problem in American movies (is it because LA is too large and ungainly to support a thriving taxi-culture?). John Travolta's friendly cabbie and surrogate dad in Look Who's Talking is more than offset by the spooky supernatural beings who pilot taxis from hell in Scrooged and Wired, or the generic weirdo, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. The five drivers in Night on Earth are, by contrast, all unremarkable, if eccentric and faintly bohemian (you can see why the London cabbie, resolutely professional, didn't attract Jarmusch to film here).

In Los Angeles, a spunky young woman (Winona Ryder) takes a casting agent (Gena Rowlands) on board and, offered the chance of a lifetime to test for a movie, turns it down to become a car mechanic. In New York, an East German immigrant who can barely drive (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the only cabbie in town prepared to ferry Giancarlo Esposito to Brooklyn. In Paris, a gentle African drives a blind woman home, but his apparent concern masks a patronage and prurience (he quizzes her insultingly about her sex life) which she scornfully brushes aside. In Rome, an exuberant character (Roberto Benigni, who stole the show in Jarmusch's Down By Law) picks up a priest and turns the taxi into a confessional; he has some original sins to confess, and his passenger is accordingly pole-axed. Finally in a deep-frozen Helsinki dawn, a driver hears his three drunken passengers' sad story, then tells them an even sadder one. Each encounter is a tiny power struggle, variously resolved; none of them is exactly violent although there is a car accident and even a death.

The road movie conjures up the prospect of ever-changing vistas and infinite possibilities, but Jarmusch confines his camera largely to the cab interiors. He focuses on the brief but intense intimacies that form in that little space, and scarcely shows the cities. By his standards, the film looks conventional: dialogue- heavy, it turns on standard angle / reverse angle shots rather than Jarmusch's usual languorous tracking camera or long, silent one-take scenes.

Night on Earth shapes up loosely as a dark night of the soul: it begins with a sunset, in LA, and ends with a sunrise, in Helsinki. But it doesn't follow a linear, chronological progression: the international time zones account for the discrepancy. Jarmusch underlines the fact that his encounters are simultaneous: in his film's sole formal mannerism, the segments are punctuated by five clocks, each set to the time of the different cities. As we move to a new location, the clocks all spool back to the same zero hour. There is no possibility of the characters miraculously overlapping (as in Jarmusch's last film, Mystery Train, which slowly developed teasing connections between its three, at first unrelated, parts).

If there are links, they surface briefly and inconsequentially. It might be a witty visual repetition - two Colosseums, one ersatz (in LA), one echt (in Rome), or two taxis running rings round similar statues. Or it might be a theme - two displaced immigrants. One more sustained motif, of blindness, is crystallised in the Paris episode. The driver reveals that he is from the Ivory Coast - Ivoirien - and his fellow African passengers jeer, punningly, 'Il voit rien]' - 'He can't see a thing]' His next fare is the genuinely blind Dalle, and indeed the driver turns out to be impervious to her feelings. Then, in Rome, Benigni cruises the city by night in sun-glasses; warned by his client, he exclaims that that must be why he kept getting lost. Each segment, on a broad level, explores a form of blindness - the inability of one character to see the other's needs. The taxi set-up expresses that idea neatly, for the dialogues are conducted with one speaker, the driver, unable to look directly at the other.

And there is, contrary to one's first impression, a kind of movement in the film, from light comedy (LA, New York, Rome) to the quietly moving tragedy of the Finnish segment; from Los Angeles, the navel of the world, to a city which (one is led to believe from this, and Aki Kaurismaki's work, to which Jarmusch pays homage) more closely resembles another orifice.

In the first scene, Rowlands can scarcely believe that her driver is not a wannabe star; after all everyone in town really wishes they were in the movies. With Night on Earth, Jarmusch might be navigating towards the middle of the road, but the subsequent segments of his film are an affirmation that there is life, and cinema, outside Hollywood.

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