There is something sensual about black and white to me – perhaps it is because we live in a technicolour world, so to view a film purposefully put into black and white, it is easy to gain a sense of ‘pleasure’ from the artistic choice. This is exactly how I feel about Jim Jarmusch’s two early films, Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986), which are both slow-moving, cynical (one more than the other) pieces of cinema about everyday men and women going through life.
When we consider Stranger than Paradise, it is a film which more of less defines existentialism. Jarmusch focuses on our three main (and more or less only) characters: Willie, a Hungarian immigrant trying to lead an ‘all-American life’, his cousin Eva who has come to stay, and his best friend Eddie. They give existentialism a ‘cool’ edge, and the minimalist style of the film suits the unsatisfied lives they all seem to be living. At one point, while road-tripping across Florida (ironically described as ‘Paradise’ despite its boring, dull landscape depicted), Eddie stomps across the snow and exclaims that ‘everything looks the same’. This is the message of the film, and this is what the black-and-white emphasises. Classic, ‘Old Hollywood’ directors were forced into greyscale, but now that it has become an artistic choice, it allows the viewer to ask why it was chosen – in the case of Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, there are a few reasons.
The first is that to strip any film landscape of its colour can, to an extent, force the viewer to look closer for its beauty. For a film like Stranger than Paradise, which is trying to show you the mundanity of the real world, the lack of colour means that either you peer closer and try to find something worth focusing your attention on, or you look away, you turn the film off, and you move on.
But black-and-white doesn’t have to strip the landscape of ‘beauty’, as shown by Down by Law, a film about three men who end up in a prison cell together and decide to break out. There is a restless energy to every shot in this film – I mean, Tom Waits stars, it was hardly going to be dull. This energy is released in large by light, a pleasing shift from the darkness of the monotonous greyscale. We see each of the three men smoking in the cell, cigarettes always having been a symbol of sensuality for the bodily pleasure and ‘chic-ness’ they represent. Once the trio have broken out, we see them light a fire in the woods, and the bright white of the flames seems to represent their new-found, but difficult to maintain, sense of freedom. We feel vindicated watching these men warm themselves against bleached light, and colour would only have ruined the scene – if there is one thing Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law teach about Jarmusch, it is that he does a disservice to himself every time he makes a film in technicolour.
A connecting factor of both these films is John Lurie, who plays Willie in Stranger than Paradise, and Jack in Down by Law. He is perfectly suited to this existentialist-chic, melodramatic ‘nothingness’ or early Jarmusch, an aesthetic the director skilfully recreated in colour with his 2015 Patterson (hello Adam Driver), his own time being spent acting, painting, and playing jazz on his saxophone, a lifestyle that belongs to Stranger than Fiction. Jarmusch and Lurie in their years of film-making clearly had a close relationship, the director even starring in one of the six episodes of Lurie’s parodic reality tv show Fishing with John (which I 100% recommend, episode four stars Willem Dafoe and is eternally rewatchable) – Jarmusch knew what he was doing when he cast Lurie. There is a clear understanding of the sensual in both of these men – Lurie’s acting is sleek and contained, he both melts into the black-and-white, but also distinguishes himself from the rest of each scene. A prime example of this is in Eva’s first night at the apartment in Stranger than Paradise, where the two cousins sit and watch television together in silence. There is nothing going on in this scene, and it, like all in the film, ends fading into black, but you feel what is being unsaid there – you feel ‘fulfilled’, and this is the sensuality of Lurie’s acting.
For Jim Jarmusch, black-and-white does not mean boring or lifeless – it does not there to make the film harder to concentrate on, and really all of these comments are meaningless. Stripping these films of colour brings back a sense of elegance to their plot – they are modern stories of isolation and longing, and if they had been shot in colour, this would have been a disservice to the abilities of the actors, and of the director. The fact that they have such a sensuality to them, and achieve this with such absence, is one of the many reasons they are two of my favourite films to ever have been made.