Down By Law (1986): An Offbeat Jarmusch Noir

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A raspy vocal emanates from the screen verging on spoken word as it sings to a mambo-infused rhythm. Casual tracking shots lead us by the local architecture at the pace of a car ambling along on a Sunday afternoon. I only confirmed after the fact this is Tom Waits singing his tune “Jockey Full of Bourbon” from an earlier album.

These are the streets of Louisana, and the man helping to capture these glorious, sweeping shots is none other than Robby Muller (probably most famous for his work with Wim Wenders). His partnership with Jim Jarmusch was just being established and it would continue well into the ’90s.

This is the opening prelude of Down by Law if you will. Because the real intimate stretches of humanity — at least the ones dwelling in this story — can be found in the dirty, dilapidated interiors and on the sketchy street corners. It’s these bombed-out, grungy aesthetics giving the film its layers of instant character.

Muller’s cinematography is an immediate asset and no matter the subject matter within the frame, he makes it feel captivating and strikingly beautiful, whether it’s a street corner, a jail cell, or a boggy bayou. We’re drawn to keep watching and relishing his images.

John Lurie is a pimp who feels like a nobody. He tries to act big only to get sucked into the shadiest of business deals. Tom Waits isn’t much better off as a disgraced disc jockey. His girl walks out of him in a fit of rage, and he proceeds to go drown his sorrows.

However, first, he must gather up his shoes from the street below where they have been unceremoniously tossed. The inhumanity of Gene Pitney’s record (I think that’s him) cast out into the street says it all — both the mood and the crispness of the photography.

I’m not sure if Tom Waits is an actor as much as he’s an enigmatic personality exuding something we can latch onto as an audience. Lurie’s not altogether intriguing to me, but with Waits there’s something different — something we want to find out more about.

The manner of this off-beat noir is now fully established because the mood is the key when plot feels almost secondary even tertiary in importance. The dialogue is laughable, but somehow it fits into this world gladly mixing both style and sendup of the past. And yet it’s only the most affectionate homage to bygone years with its chiaroscuro, smoky street corners, and fedoras to fill out a modern underworld.

It’s the kind of movie where a guy will just walk up to you on a deserted street corner and offer you keys to a Jaguar and a wad of Franklins to do his dirty work for him. Sometimes the dirty work has strings attached.

Pretty soon Zack’s in the can and Jack’s with him. What a sorry pair they turn out to be. But there is eventually a saving grace. Enter Bob. Aside from being another tribute to Jarmusch’s wildly diverse casting tendencies, Roberto Benigni holds the film together with his charming personality.

He single-handedly redefines the tone of the movie making it into a kind of reluctant buddy movie. Because his instant good nature, loquaciousness, and limitations with the English language give him the powers to add something radically different to the film’s cocktail.

If he’s ever the butt of the jokes as the foreigner, more often he’s the movie’s champion, a force of joy and goodwill bringing together two bunkmates of the most cynical and standoffish sort. When they start their giddy tirade — yelling at the top of their lungs — You scream, we scream, we all scream for ice cream, it feels like “Moses Suposes” antics taking over the jailhouse.

Even with the introduction of Benigni, there is this sense Jarmusch is once more working in these near-stagnant scenes involving shooting the bull or playing cards much like Stranger Than Paradise. It’s once more observational and altogether content in the idiosyncratic. The elliptical sense of filling the spaces in between is also surprisingly prevalent. The biggest example being, of course, the prison escape.

Tarantino would choose to not show the heist 6 years later in Reservoir Dogs. To some degree, Jarmusch beat him to the punch as far as genre deconstruction with a jailbreak movie missing its most crucial lynchpin. But for what he’s going for, it works wonders. It works far better by throwing away convention because he never rested on it, to begin with.

Soon they are fleeing through the bayou, then canoeing, then getting left adrift without any inclination where they are going. Thankfully, they find a bunkhouse in which to recalibrate (though it looks eerily similar to their cell). However, the real prize is when they happen upon Luigi’s Tin Top. In its own way, the restaurant is an oasis.

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We had been through so much already, it completely slipped my mind that this moment was coming. It feels like a slice of serendipity. Here we have Roberto Benigni playing opposite Nicoletta Braschi as two Italians madly in love in the middle of nowhere. Again, they somehow operate outside the pervasive tone — the underlying stench — of the movie and its other characters.

However, what makes it feel fortuitous comes with context. They would wind up getting married 5 years later and remain so to this day as far as I know. Over a decade later, they would star in their most renowned foray Life is Beautiful, which pretty much bottled up everything disarming and magical about Benigni and enchanted the world over with its abundant good cheer and tenderness.

For now, they dance cheek to cheek in a lonely restaurant out in the boonies. It’s inauspicious while signifying something so much more. We leave them knowing they have a rewarding life ahead.

In the final moments as Lurie and Waits walk down the path, trees on either side, I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest, most atmospheric noirs: The Third Man. Except as Jack and Zack split off at the fork in the road to forge their own paths, we can’t help but be reminded of Robert Frost.

Because Jim Jarmusch might as well be summed up as such. A noir aficionado with the sentiments of a poet. Down By Law is not quite bombastic pop culture pulp in the mode of Tarantino. There’s a distinct artfulness there that still never quite loses its idiosyncratic yearnings and inclinations.

4/5 Stars

Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Jim Jarmusch

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One of the most revelatory aspects about becoming more familiar with Jim Jarmusch is how international his films are. At the very least, there’s this sense of them putting a lens to a broader cross-section of society.

He is unequivocally American, but whether it’s because he’s a cineaste or driven to a global perspective through music or other interests, he paints with a canvass broader than simply the American experience. He also seems to understand the American experience is framed and colored by those who come to us. In fact, we are a melting pot, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, made up of all nations.

As a storyteller, Jarmusch seems drawn to what I’ve heard termed the “mearcstapa” — the border walkers — people on the outskirts. They could be expatriates, foreigners, or people who simply conceive of the world in a different manner than you and me. Although the term is recontextualized from its Medieval connotations, it does take on renewed meaning. In the case of Stranger Than Paradise, it’s a visitor from Hungary.

But if any of this dialogue runs the risk of making the story sound too rarified, rest assured, it is far from that. It’s a picture content in the simplest of moments. The plot as it were is born out of a statement. Eddie (John Lurie) has a cousin arriving and visiting him from Hungary. That’s it right there.

He feels put upon having her stay with him. He doesn’t show her the town. He doesn’t give her food. He’s the most inhospitable person in the world. But then again look at his life. He subsists off TV dinners and beer.

His only friend is Eddie, a shifty-eyed, flighty fellow who’s half-witted in a lovable kind of way. They spend time watching football, playing cards, drinking beer, or going to the races. That’s just about all they ever do. And it hardly changes with the addition of Eva.

Still, what the movie exudes resolutely is a style and an aesthetic, forming something more substantial than the sum of its modest parts. Because it’s certainly humble, and the antithesis of flamboyant production values, and yet it manages to supersede the simple nature of what is happening onscreen.

Take, for instance, the sequence where Eva is walking down the streets with her suitcases in hand to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rumbles across the pavement, and it’s oddly mesmerizing.

Pairing this with the black and white cinematography, dominating the film with a dreary, dilapidatedness leaves a startling impression. It’s both the prevailing sense of the world and somehow complementary to the budget and resources he’s working with.

I am reminded of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder because there is the sense of almost two-dimensional space in many of the scenes — simple but purposefully done. In the case of Jarmusch, there are hardly any cuts, with the shots put end-to-end and void of any other type of true editing. It’s the simplest form, really, cut together by way of black inserted between the sequences.

You could point out Jarmusch is making a kind of glorified short film, and that’s how the narrative began sticking the footage together in three segments. But the black in-between the visuals also function as a kind of ellipsis.

Because pretty soon Willie and Eddy get up and go from Brooklyn and road trip it out to Cleveland. Why? Because Eva’s there. She is a fellow sojourner, and so they take to the road in order to catch up with her. In one of his typically dorky observations, Eddie tells his buddy, “Before I met your cousin, I didn’t know you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American.”

Pretty soon they’re staying with the Aunt and back to watching TV and playing card games. Shooting the bull and chewing the fat like they always do wherever they go. Even miles away in the icy tundra of the Midwest they realize, “You come someplace new and everything looks the same.” Restless for some meaningful experience, they head off to sun-soaked Florida to seek something else.

Finally, there’s some action, albeit off-screen and pretty much only alluded to. The boys lose all their dough at the dog races. In her own absurd turn of events, Eva winds up with a mother lode in drugs. That could be a whole rabbit hole all to its own. Instead, they take a trip to the airport to set up another adventure…undoubtedly just as absurd as the last.

It might not seem like much, but that’s the entire charm of Jarmusch’s movie; he’s so very comfortable bending away from Hollywood convention. Where location shooting becomes more of an in-joke than of a particular commodity and characters and story are more likely conduits of style. In fact, to this day, he’s made a career out of it.

Now, Stranger Than Paradise feels a bit like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. They played as important catalysts for subsequent generations of filmmakers because they were unique and of their own time with their own vision. And part of their merit is having done it first — using the world at their disposal and creating something that stays with us however mundane and unadorned.

Part of the paradoxical charm of Stranger Than Paradise is how you could conceivably make a movie like it, and yet you couldn’t ever match its essence because Jim Jarmusch made it just so — distinctly individual and measured to his own personal liking. That’s what it has going for it even to this day. It’s unmistakably him.

3.5/5 Stars

Paterson (2016): Poetry in Everyday Rhythms

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“Awesome. A bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.”

This sincere pronouncement comes from a young girl — a fellow poet — as she leaves to go off with her mother and sister. She leaves behind Paterson (Adam Driver), a pensive bus driver, sitting on the brick wall, having gifted him one of her poems. Theirs is an instant connection. One of appreciation for observation, for words, for beauty.

Paterson is ripe with moments like this ambushing us with an understated resonance. Scenes of kindred spirits seeking each other out and finding some meaningful common denominator that they can relish together.

Jim Jarmusch feels like a man born of a different era — the last bastion of the old way. There are other directors who are older and more storied like Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood perhaps, but he is learned and the disciple of some of the great cinematic artists of the 20th century. We’re talking about titans as diverse as Robert Bresson, Nicholas Ray, and Sam Fuller.

He understands space and framing, how they define a composition. He’s not afraid of time or silence and how they can build into something revelatory. Normally, his creations might be defined as off-kilter and individual. He was very much at the epicenter of the indie film movement that revamped in the 80s. In fact, the true glory of Paterson is how pedestrian and how plain, how ordinary, and how pleasant it feels.

It’s actually not Emily Dickinson but William Carlos Williams who is Paterson’s favorite poet. There’s a self-reflexive nature to it. I know little about Williams work aside from the fact he has an epic poem called “Paterson.” And it’s true our story takes place in Paterson, New Jersey, where our main character acts as a stand-in for the town (and the poem) he shares a name with.

It’s an observational film just as Paterson is a man who watches the world passing by, existing all around him, as he drives his usual route. He is not someone the world normally esteems as an artist; he is a humble blue-collar poet. He fills up his days listening to conversations about Hurricane Carter or between a pair of high school anarchists (a nod to Wes Anderson’s youthful lovers in Moonrise Kingdom).

There’s not an antagonistic bone in the man’s body, and the movie happens to deliver a particularly warm portrait of marriage. As he spends his days working and nights tucked away writing or walking the dog, his wife (Golshifteh Farahani in a marvelous piece of casting) is swept up by dreams of cupcakes and country singing, even as she supports his writing. She is both the antithesis and the utter complement to Adam Driver.

Laura coaxes him to share his work and get it out so people can enjoy it as much as she does. Her palette and interior decorating are dominated by black and white, and she revels in her side hustles. Whether or not she becomes some great culinary or country music star seems immaterial. Paterson gently reciprocates the encouragement abounding in their household and what remains are modest joys.

The story is not beholden to typical structures of narrative. Although it does have something in common with the creation poetry of Genesis, working in the rhythms of the week in an unflustered, unhurried manner. There’s a tranquility to it all, displaying the innate power of habit and routine

Like clockwork, he goes out to walk the dog, a bothered bulldog named Marvin. We never ask to know why he does it. It’s become a kind of established fact. Just as the nightly stop at the bar to chew the fat happens. The conversations cover local heroes like Sam & Dave or Lou Costello. It feels inconsequential but somehow pertinent to the kind of syntax and meter the story is looking to evoke.

The poems read throughout the movie by Adam Driver in a deliberate, partially stunted diction are much the same, exhibiting this kind of straightforward, no-frills lucidity. He rehashes and molds them methodically before jotting them down in his hidden notebook. In fact, they are penned by Ron Padgett, a writer deeply admired by Jarmusch himself.

As someone who has dabbled in the art, you respect people who are brazen enough to become untethered from something so comforting as rhyme. Because rhyme gives you some sense that you are creating something beyond prose. It takes a braver, more audacious soul to strip it down and make it so closely reminiscent of normal everyday language and yet articulated and manipulated just enough that there is recourse but to call it poetry.

Likewise, the dialogue throughout the movie is not realistic in nature. The words feel specifically chosen — very particular — not always right or real but given to their own cadence. There’s something so refreshing and freeing about it because it allows us to live our lives and feel they have meaning and significance in their very ordinariness.

Akin to the security guard in Museum Hours, here is a man living for more than a paycheck, and they both seem to see beyond the normal things that distract us — to somehow come to terms with beauty in the most extraordinary of places. And by this, I actually mean the ordinary places where others fail to look or cannot see.

I realized halfway through, Paterson has no cell phone; it’s part of what plants him into an altogether different era and makes him feel like a man Jarmusch might admire and heartily identify with. He lives a simpler, some might say, purer life without white noise and distractions.

However implausible, the moment that feels like a climax truly does burn deep, speaking as someone who has devoted a lot of time to writing — much of it unseen by the external world. To lose your work is a horrifying thought, but it also serves as a reality check.

It’s not so much devoting time to writing but having enjoyed the process — being able to uncover and appreciate and put words to what you have been so privileged to experience as a living, breathing human being. If we write and create merely to be remembered, it will never satiate. How much more can we relish the process if we enjoy every rhythm?

Because it’s exactly that: a process. As another character who traverses a tough world of his own admits to Paterson, “The sun still rises every day and sets every evening. Always another day.” It’s inevitable and a bit of a final exhortation — to Paterson and to all of us.

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The final scene is the kind of cinematic loveliness you find in a certain brand of movie — the Museum Hours and the Columbuses of the world. Where there are interactions that are amicable, pensive, and beautiful.

They need not be rife with conflict or gargantuan stakes. They are found compelling for the mere fact they drink deeply of the wells of mankind and speak to who we are as people. Crossing cultures and borders and time and space to fuse human beings together.
It could be art, it could be architecture, it could simply be the need for human contact.

Here it’s poetry. A Japanese sojourner (Masatoshi Nagase) sits down at a bench with Paterson, and they share what can only be described as a moment — albeit a cinematic one — and it’s exquisite in all its unadorned subtleties.

We need one another and we can light the fire under others providing inspiration, hope, and subtle encouragement. Far from entertaining angels unawares, it might just as easily be that we can give a lift to a burgeoning artist or at the very least an unassuming one.

If nothing else, Paterson is a stirring reminder and a quiet call to appreciate and cultivate the beauty around us. We are in it together. Art need not always be a profession. Sometimes it fills the spaces in between bleeding out of people’s lives because they know no other way. They cook for sheer passion. They play music because they have to. They write out of some otherworldly compulsion.

This is art at its most elemental form, and we are all better for it. Paterson reminds us about the rhythms of life and how everyday ordinariness can be magnificent and more than worthy of our creative energies.

4.5/5 Stars