Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki: Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 film, Night on Earth, takes viewers on a ride across five different cities and multiple time zones, with checkered yellow taxi cabs being the one familiar sight across the anecdotes of estrangement. The stories have no characters in common, except for the vehicle itself. As the taxis pick up passengers, they travel from chaotic intersections to desolate blocks—traversing the literal and metaphorical distance between where people are and where they want to be. The quintet of urban vignettes come together to form a tonal poem of alienation, where the desire for human connection is shared across time and space. The taxi rides manifest the peculiar intimacy of fleeting encounters, giving a momentary purpose to the desultory experience of isolated city life.
The taxi becomes the metonymic representation of the city: fast-moving and faceless with people constantly coming and going. The taxi is a liminal social space somewhere between private and public, affording anonymity, yet also enforcing close proximity between strangers. It concurrently creates physical closeness and emotional distance between drivers and paying passengers—a feeling of companionship, even as the meter assigns a monetary value to it all.
The first vignette in Los Angeles shows a hesitant kinship formed between driver and passenger. The affable cabbie, Corky (Winona Ryder), picks up glamorous casting agent, Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands), at the airport, and together they journey toward Victoria’s home in Beverly Hills. Corky is already at home in her cab: she smokes and plays the radio until Victoria asks her to turn it down. Victoria looks out the window and sits quietly; her stiff uptightness seems to draw an unbreachable line between her and Corky, until Victoria speaks on the phone with the man she is currently seeing. The loneliness and deep desire for intimacy in her voice cannot be contained in the backseat—instead, it reverberates through the cab, leaving Corky unable to resist sharing in the conversation. After a silence, Corky breaks the ice, striking up a conversation about the misdeeds of men, and soon enough she is lighting Victoria’s cigarette. By the time they arrive at their destination, a stately Beverly Hills house, Victoria is eager to hang onto Corky, telling her she thinks she could make her a movie star. This turn briefly gives their chance encounter the shimmer of a fateful meeting—a moment when both of their lives could be changed forever—except Corky has no interest in any of it. She wants a “real life,” and will remain on the road, saving money and driving toward her dream of becoming a mechanic with a big family of boys. The two women share a transient, temporary friendship, even imagining futures together… and then they go their separate ways into the night, each in search of their own destiny.
If Los Angeles is a city that sparkles with the remnants of shattered dreams, New York is cool and cold—a city coated in a veneer of aloofness. But the city that never sleeps still has its fair share of lonely nights. We open on YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito), who desperately tries, to no avail, to hail a cab to take him home to Brooklyn. But each one simply passes him by as if he is entirely invisible. Potential salvation finally arrives when a cab pulls up and the sweet old face inside reaches out: “Hello, how are you?” Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is an immigrant from East Germany, as well as a circus-clown-turned-taxi-driver. He is even more adrift than YoYo, and much further from home: he struggles to speak English, fumbles with the car’s automatic transmission, and barely knows where Brooklyn even is. YoYo becomes skittish at the sight of Helmut’s halting driving, but Helmut begs him to stay. In response, YoYo proposes he drive instead, showing the cabbie how to turn the meter on and how to drive the car smoothly. In this story, the taxi allows for a suspension of the temporarily upending social rules of everyday existence through the collapsing of labor divides. Both men feel overlooked or neglected by society in their own ways—YoYo as a Black man and Helmut as an immigrant—but as they take on each other’s roles and escape the island of Manhattan together, they’ve found someone that understands them, if only for a brief ride.
Not all divides can be overcome, however, and the Paris story unveils sharp class distinctions and a pervasive feeling of Otherness. The unnamed driver (Isaach De Bankolé) from the Ivory Coast finds a seemingly untraversable chasm between himself and the people who pass through his taxi. First, he picks up two drunk African diplomats, but he tosses them out after they mock him for his class and country of origin. Next, he picks up a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) who responds coldly to his attempts at making conversation. A blind woman and a foreigner both feel like misunderstood outsiders in Paris—each subject to their own scrutiny and stereotypes—yet they also house their own prejudices, and their conversation is filled with misjudgments and misunderstandings about one another. Blindness becomes a metaphor for our frequent failure to truly see people as they are, and to connect with the company we keep. The characters’ names are never uttered within this taxi, remaining more or less anonymous. They are ships (or cars) passing in the night after a brief moment of proximity, sharing a conversation that brushes close to intimate understanding, but never quite gets there.
With each vignette, Jarmusch disrupts our desire for neat happy endings or moments of transcendence. The composite structure fragments the narrative, prohibiting us from getting too familiar with a single setting or storyline—impeding our chances to ever know a character fully. Yet, musing on the overlooked moments and missed connections, Jarmusch still manages to create visual poetry out of these fleeting encounters and brief interactions. The sweeping cinematography and wide shots allow the audience to feel as if they are passengers as well, idly watching the cities pass by. In constant motion while we watch from the backseat or out of the window, the cities whiz past in a blur—blending together as we are witnesses at a slight remove, disconnected from the people on the streets. As neon signs and nocturnal wanderers fog themselves into a haze, the urban scenes are made increasingly unfamiliar and alien. We all become strangers in a strange land: outsiders inside the taxi, isolated from the world altogether.
While all the passengers have particular destinations in mind, the drivers often ride around aimlessly, in search of someone to bring them business—someone to break up the silent darkness. They search for ways to cope with the quietness felt even in the noisiest cities, and the monotony experienced among exciting nightlife. In Rome, the quirky cabbie, Gino (Roberto Benigni), talks even when he does not have passengers, keeping himself entertained with incessant chatter as he narrates his own thoughts and comments on the world around him. The Rome chronicle sounds like the setup of an old joke: Gino picks up a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and starts to confess his sins, going into graphic detail about his sexual awakening (involving pumpkins and sheep) and ends up shocking the poor priest into cardiac arrest. He dies right there in the backseat, but swept up in his own one-sided conversation, it takes Gino some time to notice. Talking at his passenger rather than with him, the taxi is rendered as a grimly hilarious twist on the confessional booth. Gino has a captive audience, perhaps making the discussions within the cab his only chance to talk to someone who has no choice but to listen.
Jarmusch’s mosaic of metropolises interweaves idiosyncratic humor and insightful humanism, bringing lonely souls together and then scattering them to the wind. The jumps between cities and scenes serve to further underscore the impermanence of all of life’s interactions and transactions. The absurd tragicomedy in Rome is followed by a scene of quiet melancholy in Helsinki, in which Mika (Matti Pellonpää) picks up three workers after their night of heavy drinking. He tells them a sad story, recounting a heartbreaking tale of loss from his past, and this time around, the passengers actually interact with him as he talks. If not quite a therapy session, the taxi ride becomes a shared catharsis—searching for the antidote to pent-up torment. The car’s occupants have a chance to voice their woes to somewhere other than the void, venting about the miseries and mysteries of life.
The taxis take us on a ride through the dark night of the soul, exploring moments of crisis or endless ennui on the path toward a semblance of real closeness—some form of divine union—or perhaps just the path toward home. The city streets, stripped of most of their life and noise, take on an almost spectral quality: as though drivers and passengers are journeying through a dream or embarking on a mystical journey towards enlightenment. As the passengers reach their destinations, though, the drivers return to the night—cocooned within their anonymous cars on the round, marked only by their yellow exteriors. For those that are working, the night is not for dreaming, and its darkness prevails for a little while longer.