Jim Jarmusch’s Some Collages
The tactics create fresh narratives out of overdetermined symbols, personae, and visual paradigms.
With texts by Luc Sante and Randy Kennedy
(Anthology Editions, 2021)
Jim Jarmusch’s Some Collages opens with a black-and-white photograph of two men and a dog outdoors. Based on the men’s clothing—black pants, a white shirt, and a tie blown askew for one, a rugged work coat for the other—we are looking into an image of the past, perhaps set in the 1930s. Strikingly, the faces of all three figures have been removed, leaving head-shaped voids like those in a carnival cut-out. Despite this seeming act of visual violence, an air of droll humor pervades the composition, an impression compounded by the following two collages, in which the faces of the cast of The Wizard of Oz and three diminutive snowmen have been similarly removed. Who are these figures now, and who could they be?
Known as the director and writer of Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Dead Man (1995), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), among other films, Jarmusch has made newsprint collages for around twenty years. Some Collages features recent selections from the past three years of his production, reproducing 146 collages in a compact, album-size compendium. As the scholar Juan A. Suarez describes, Jarmusch’s work as a filmmaker “fuses the experimental modernist repertoire with street styles—punk, new wave club culture, and hip-hop” and this kaleidoscopic, DIY spirit comes across in his droll rearrangements of newsprint clippings.
Jarmusch’s modus operandi as a collagist is to cut out the faces in the original newsprint photographs, most sourced from the New York Times, and replace them with others, newspaper text, or negative space. The seams of this transposition show: colors don’t match, resolutions are out of whack, and scale is distorted, imparting a cartoon-like sense of textured unreality. Jarmusch’s compositional tactics create fresh narratives out of overdetermined symbols, personae, and visual paradigms; as Luc Sante 1 writes in the foreword, “You could say that Jarmusch, ever the director, is engaging in exploratory casting.” The collages, which are reproduced in the book at a slightly smaller scale, are marked by an impression of movement and distinguished by ragged, feathery edges, caused by Jarmusch’s use of an empty ballpoint pen as a cutting device. The main body of the book is printed on textured brown paper, reminiscent of the kind used for lunch bags or wrapping material, complementing the casual, spontaneous feeling of the works within.
The sequencing of the collages appears somewhat random at first, but as the book goes on, it becomes essential in conveying Jarmusch’s artistic rhythm and absurdist humor. Animal heads, a smiley face, Picasso portraits, and even a Brillo box are transposed upon human bodies in action and repose: staring in a mirror, speaking to a gaggle of reporters, reclining in a chair. The heads of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Albert Einstein, Prince, David Bowie, and Andy Warhol appear in new contexts and time periods, untethered from their typical backdrops and behaviors. As the viewer becomes accustomed to the sly tone and altered domain of the collages, the facial expressions of the cut-out faces seem to correspond with the body language of the appendages below. It’s not necessary to know exactly who or what is contained within the compositions to appreciate their wry mood of possibility, as Jarmusch explained in an interview in Vogue: “I’m more interested in variations and repetitions—in all the things I create: in films and music, but in these things [collages] especially so. In a lot of these pieces, I don’t know who the people are, and some of the ones I think are the best are the most abstract.”
The collages’ mischievous use of ephemeral media is a key element of their impact. In his introductory essay, Randy Kennedy describes how “the simultaneous significance and worthlessness of newsprint—a practically negligible distance between knowledge and garbage—has always constituted its chief allure,” citing Walter Robinson and Edit DeAk’s Art-Rite magazine, Tristan Tzara’s newspaper compositions, and William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s poetic collaborations as influences on Jarmusch’s approach to the newspaper as raw material. Despite the strangeness of the world Jarmusch presents in these works, we recognize their visual modes from the conventions of print; this is a sort of imagery “where the photography conveys not so much a slice of life as a sense of ritual,” as Sante puts it. The tropes of events that merit photographic documentation and textual explication in the newspaper are recognizable, like thrusting microphones to represent an article about a news conference, a solo shot of a reclining individual to accompany an interview, or a zoomed-in image of a guitar to be paired with a concert review. But by virtue of Jarmusch’s novel “castings,” the figures undertaking these activities are entirely unexpected, funny, and peculiar. Instead of a dour commentary on the proliferation of “fake news,” Jarmusch’s collages unlock the more imaginative, joyful capabilities in the scrambling of photographic codes, historical moments, and everyday materials.
- Lucy Sante (she), heretofore Luc Sante.