Anyone who’s ever improvised a piece of music, character bit or comedy skit knows it’s mind-over-matter magic when it works. This seems to be what gets acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch onstage with producer pal Carter Logan in the formation of SQURL, an enthusiastic-if-intermittent two-man act. As a part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series hosted by the School of Art and Design, the two visited the Michigan Theater last Tuesday to perform a score featuring drums, electric guitar and a range of synth and reverb devices over ’20s short films by the surrealist Man Ray.

Jarmusch was the main draw for most folks. His movies have captivated U.S. audiences with their seemingly foreign glimpses into American life. His suave appearance and triangular prism-shaped hair indicate a young, metropolitan sensibility, hiding any trace of his rural Ohio upbringing.

Considering his films and music, though, it makes sense that such an upbringing would be used as fodder. “Stranger Than Paradise” is a minimalistically-compact demonstration of our inability to ever connect to one another. A 20-something New Yorker, his friend and an initially unwelcome younger cousin spend days idly running errands, watching TV and sharing thoughts. The cousins warm to each other in subtle ways as they commit to breaking from their daily malaise, but end up even further apart by film’s end. 

This lack of understanding could also be what draws Jarmusch to Man Ray’s surrealist films, which feel like automatic manifestations of his subconscious mind. Newspapers rustling in the wind, an indistinguishable man tucking a woman into bed, a closeup of some fibrous material splitting down the middle. All these interrupted by intermittent slides of stream of consciousness thought: “if the flowers were in glass,” “a throw of the dice will never abolish chance.” Sitting through them puts you in a trance, unable to grab onto any one detail over another until the screen reads “You are not dreaming” and you snap out of it.

At the end of the live show, Jarmusch explained that these shorts were never scored and typically supplemented by jazz tunes of their time. Though both art forms were experimenting with improv and chance, he and Logan saw much more potential for the films in the powerful combination of analog and digital music tech. 

Really, though, they saw an opportunity to have the same fun Man Ray did in making his films. With nothing too literal on the screen, it seems hard to make mistakes. Logan explained their process after the show: one initial watch-through to internalize a reaction, and several more with instruments to establish maps of where to change keys and so on. 

For the three minutes of eclectic moving shots of clocks, nails, and paint splatter that is “Le Retour a la Raison” (The Return to Reason), Logan pounded his bass drum while adjusting some static-inducing knob. Jarmusch sent long notes off his electric guitar into the ether.

The slower-burning “Les Mystères du Château de Dé” professed to be about two Parisians’ visit to a castle in the countryside. This “castle” was really just a Le Corbusier-esque Modern home Man Ray dubiously labels “prestigious.” The plot is just a group of characters playing in the pool and with various toys they find throughout. They often roll dice to decide whether or not to do something. The effect really strips the meaning of much of what bourgeois living was about. 

As this film, the last of the show and the longest at 27 minutes, played, Jarmusch often turned to face the screen on his guitar. Completely absorbed in visuals and sound, he lunged back from the screen, openly reacting. “Music is a real release for me,” he said at the end of the show.

The meaning-stripping done Tuesday night is a theme in Jarmusch’s body of work. For the next three Tuesdays, the Michigan Theater will be featuring some of his most acclaimed films: “Down By Law” on the 11, “Gimme Danger” on the 18, and “Only Lovers Left Alive” on the 25. Though often deadpan and desolate, these films acknowledge the difficulty of representing the multitudes contained within their characters, and leave an impression on audiences well after their reels have run.

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