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night on earth
Jim Jarmusch’s seminal “Night On Earth”

The films to watch when you really cannot sleep

When it’s past midnight and all you can hear is your fridge humming, let these films by Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch and Claire Denis help you drift into dreamland

Films are supposed to be watched at night, in darkness, when the world is asleep and distractions are swept aside. For insomniacs, film is the lifesaver that’s always there, no matter the hour. Any shuteye may be a lottery, but movies can always be relied upon, perhaps to whisper in your ear: why doze for six hours when you can survive on four and squeeze in some Netflix?

But when it’s past midnight, only a certain type of film will do: something suitable for the disoriented mindset of a bleary-eyed zombie probably watching at home alone. With no one to talk to, these late hours lead to self-reflection. What existential quandary is keeping me up at 3am? Did I need that espresso after dinner? And now I’m here, what should I watch?

WAKING LIFE (Richard Linklater, 2002)

Basically Slacker in rotoscoped form, Linklater’s surreal sketches stick one foot in reality and the other floating off into the next reverie. Aided by visuals that question if anything’s actually real, the characters – including cameos from Jesse and Céline – are like calling up your buddy Linklater for a 4am chat on the meaning of life. When Wiley Wiggins (Mitch from Dazed and Confused) soars through the air, his stark wonder evolves into a succession of fake realities and he concludes he doesn’t exist. The various voices distort into a pleasant mess reminiscent of being half-awake, and it’s a trippy headscratcher worth trying to sleep on.

AFTER HOURS (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

Not usually known as the king of comedy, Scorsese orchestrates a wild New York escapade guided by streetlamps and weirdoes who only come out at night. Paul’s journey home is obstructed by unfortunate coincidences, suspicious sculptors and a dead body; all in all, it’s not the kind of outing to document on Instagram. Though bleak, it’s hilarious, primarily for delivering on the paranoia associated with, say, knowingly skipping the last tube to risk the night bus. But watching at home, it’s vindication that after midnight, the mood changes and everything’s more perverse. And only the poor saps still awake know the secret.


NIGHT ON EARTH (Jim Jarmusch, 1991)

When Winona Ryder, playing a grunge taxi driver, learns her passenger dislikes night-time, she responds, “That’s fucked.” Jarmusch slices the film into five chapters, each confined to a late cab ride and the dry conversation inside. That said, the final (and best) segment, set in Helsinki, is a tribute to Aki Kaurismaki’s deadpan musings and even borrows the Finn’s regular cast. Still, Jarmusch surrenders to the cosmic power that fuels these drivers who challenge the notion of antisocial work hours. For any night people bitter we live a morning person’s world, this is for you.

I CAN’T SLEEP (Claire Denis, 1994)

Denis is thanked in Night on Earth’s credits for “advice and inspiration”, but her own tale of intertwining lives is more violent and pessimistic. She shoots Paris as a city free of romance where little happens, except for news of “granny killers” on the loose. A maid catches a midnight film screening; a father and son snuggle in sleeping bags on the rooftop; a guy performs at a local bar’s drag show. Meanwhile, dead bodies are piling up. With such a languid pace, Denis isn’t for everyone, but after dark, when time slows down, her slow poetry is irresistible.

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Guy Maddin, 2015)

Located within an acid dream within an acid dream (and so on), Guy Maddin’s deranged mash-up combines vampire bananas, squid theft and Udo Kier signing up for musical lobotomy to cure his big butt fetish. Thinking too hard about the logistics will induce a headache; it’s best to soak up the kaleidoscopic chaos. For further viewing, its sister project, Seances, is available online: the interactive website’s algorithm remixes the shorts (and many others) that comprise The Forbidden Room, and generates a unique film for your pleasure. The permutations are supposed to be so vast, the viewer can never view them all – which, to an insomniac, is a fun challenge.

CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2016)

According to Weerasethakul, viewers should try falling asleep during his films as it involves surrendering the senses to what’s on the screen. For Cemetery of Splendour, any drowsiness is apt: the Thai drama concerns soldiers struck by an inexplicable sleeping sickness. Sent into an indefinite slumber, these men are possessed by the ghosts of a military past, and the living end up sleepwalking among the dead. When an amoeba crawls across the sky, what’s real is unclear, but there’s one undeniable conclusion: some films are extra magical when you’re drifting off (or at least trying to).


NEAR DARK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

The gothic vampires of Near Dark live the nightlife, and have done for centuries. Celebrating the whole “no daylight, please, we’re bloodsuckers” aspect, Bigelow establishes “magic hour” cinematography, as if’s a sordid western with the lights off. The infamous bar fight takes place after hours, when enough whiskies have sunk in that picking a track on the jukebox is a life or death decision. Caleb didn’t plan on becoming a blood brother, but when the vampires hop on moonlight motorcycles, deep down he knows it’s pretty cool his nights will no longer be for sleeping.

TU DORS NICOLE (Stéphane Lafleur, 2015)

The 35mm black-and-white cinematography echoes the title – French for You’re Sleeping, Nicole – and Nicole observes that everything sounds different at night, as if it’s been slowed down. Done with school for the summer, her to-do list involves hanging out with a band and eating ice cream; such a schedule effectively eliminates morning, at least in mood. The humour is deadpan and precise, but never quirky, and the surreal touches – a neighbourhood kid dubbed with an adult’s baritone voice – will convince viewers they’re happily sleeping too.