I realized the other day that now that I have seen this film, I've seen every Jim Jarmusch movie except his most recent, The Limits of Control (which was very poorly received). This was a bit surprising to me, as I don't consider myself to be a huge fan of the director. In fact, Night on Earth is probably my favorite of his films, one of a number of movies in his career which features a series of short pieces loosely connected through place or theme (I watched another, Mystery Train, earlier this year). Night on Earth's gimmick is that every episode revolves around a taxi driver and a fare they pick up. They also all happen at the exact same moment in five different cities across the world: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.
It's inevitable with films like this that the viewer will compare the quality of each segment, but it's only the films that hold together that are able to transcend this game. Night on Earth did that for me, not just because I enjoyed all five of the segments but because their tones are all so different that they are able to exist as pieces of a whole instead of just vaguely connected vignettes (as was certainly the case with Jarmusch's fun but wildly uneven Coffee and Cigarettes). Though I liked the Los Angeles segment less than the others, each piece balanced the quirkiness of Jarmusch's POV with a well-earned emotional kick - whether it was comedic as in the Rome segment (where Roberto Benigni is actually funny!) or tragic as in the Helsinki finale. Though the ending of the Paris segment in particular is somewhat gimmicky, each story relies almost entirely on the ability of its inhabitants to connect with each other within the confines of the cab in simple and unassuming ways. The randomness of the contact these characters experience within each story serves to conversely reinforce the strength of the connection between all of the characters in the film, regardless of their location. Though this might seem to expand beyond the scope of the film's unambitious reach, the message is one of true humanism, binding all inhabitants of the night.
Jarmusch's work can certainly be like that: quietly impactful. But I think what surprised me most about having seen virtually his entire catalog was the idea that all these little movies I had caught here or there added up to such a staggering presence in American independent cinema. Jarmusch's films remind me that American film doesn't just rely on the overblown ridiculousness of Hollywood and the flashy artistic statements of auteurs like Tarantino and PT Anderson. It's actually not impossible to amass a body of work about human-level characters doing quiet things that, taken as a whole, speaks to the broad potential of the moving picture just as well as any ambitious epic.