The Top Ten Project #8: Broken Flowers
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be counting down my ten favourite films from the last decade. The only way to make a list like this is to be completely subjective. I will look at the films that most influenced my own taste. Without further ado... Number 8: Broken Flowers...
8: BROKEN FLOWERS (Dir: Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
I've long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch. He is a fiercely independent director who has been developing a unique style over the course of many films. While Dead Man may be a personal favourite of mine I find it hard to deny that Broken Flowers is, so far, his masterpiece. It is a profound synthesis of style and substance that shows a masterful director working at the top of his game. I very much appreciate his previous film Ghost Dog but after watching Broken Flowers it felt like Ghost Dog was merely a stepping stone in the development of an aesthetic that he nailed with this film.
Jarmusch has always had a degree of Zen to his filmmaking. His considered pacing can be a turn off for some viewers and Broken Flowers is no exception. This is a slow and measured film but not one moment is out of place or unnecessary. Jarmusch's use of repetition and ellipsis' are perfectly utilised to affectually convey the thematics of the film. This really is the perfect Jim Jarmusch film.
“The past is gone, I know that. The future... isn't here yet, whatever it's going to be. So... all there is.. is this... the present...”
Don Johnston (Bill Murray)
This philosophical realisation occurs late in the film for Bill Murray's character but it importantly offers the viewer a roadmap for understanding not only the stylistic structure of the film but it also helps us come to terms with the story's seeming lack of resolution. Jarmusch essentially structures his film as a mystery. Who sent Don this letter? Jarmusch peppers the film with clues throughout offering potential solutions. Certain motifs recur in each interaction Don has with his ex-girlfriends (pink, typewriters, basketball hoops). Yet Jarmusch leaves this mystery conspicuously unresolved and to understand why he does this we need to look again at how these details are presented to the viewer. Every time we are shown a clue it is accompanied by a matching shot of Don himself noticing that particular detail. This is important as it places all these moments within the subjective perception of Don's character. Jarmusch is not showing us anything from an omniscient perspective but rather he is making it clear that Don is making the observation.
The fact Don notices something in every meeting that could justify each woman being the sender of the letter signals the arbitrary nature of the clues themselves. If you look for something hard enough you will always find it so while the clues are on one level a continuation of the mystery narrative we are trying to solve, they are also a subjective representation of the details Don is constantly caught up on. Jarmusch is brilliantly, through subversive misdirection, teaching the viewer the same lesson that Don is learning over the course of the film. The journey he goes on is what is important here. By leaving the viewer unsatisfied at the films resolution Jarmusch is asking us to re-examine what is important in the journey we have just undertook. These are the same questions that Don is asking himself at the end of the film.
Almost all of the stylistic devices Jarmusch utilizes in Broken Flowers are designed to align the viewer into the subjective perception of his main character. Jarmusch uses the opening act of the film to strongly foreshadow this function. There are virtually no temporal distortions in the cutting of the first few scenes of Broken Flowers. One scene shows us Don leaving his house to visit his friend Winston next door. We see him leave, walk all the way across the lawn and into his friends house, basically in real time. A film more concerned with narrative function would most likely split that journey up into a sequence of shots condensing time but Jarmusch has other goals with this film. We share the fullness of these moments with our protagonist and this experientially immerses us into his subjective perception.
Jarmusch also uses ellipsis' and repetition as a way of continually stopping the film. Each set-piece with one of the ex-girlfriends is bookended with a driving montage accompanied by jazz music. The repetition of these interstitial sequences result in a kind of reset button for the film. Each chapter is designed to resist the momentum of the previous chapter. Again this functions to parallel the philosophy of the film, we are challenged to separate each meeting from each other and enjoy the momentary nature of these scenes. It's a fascinating rhythm Jarmusch achieves through this structural tactic and only adds to the overall meditative quality of the film as a whole.
All these devices function as a way of affectually underpinning the philosophical themes in the film. Don's final realisation, that all we have is the present, is what the viewer learns to experience over the course of the film. This is a masterful use of formal structures designed to give the viewer an experience which mirrors the intellectual content of the film.
Broken Flowers is by far Jim Jarmusch's most perfectly realized film and it is not only one of the best films of the last decade but the most cohesive synthesis of a style that Jarmusch has been slowly developing over the course of several films. I'm barely scratching the surface of this film here. It is a deceptively simple work of art that could only have come from a great artist working at the top of his game.