Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Down By Law (1986) - Jim Jarmusch

I’m going through a bit of Tom Waits phase at the moment. Whenever that happens you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll watch Short Cuts and Down By Law. Waits plays a version of himself in both films, but fuck if you’re going to put a Tom Waits like character into your film then you might as well cast the man himself. Right?

Jim Jarmusch first met Waits through John Lurie at a party thrown by Jean-Michel Basquiat. They hit it off immediately, recognizing kindred spirits in each other. Just as he had with Lurie, Jarmusch used Waits again in various other projects - he recorded the soundtrack for Night On Earth, was the voice of the DJ in Mystery Train and appeared in one of the better Coffee And Cigarettes shorts.

Down By Law has been a constant favourite of mine since I first saw it back in the early nineties. I’ve even managed to see it at the cinema - twice. See I told you I liked it didn’t I. It, along with the two films that Jarmusch made either side of it - Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Mystery Train (1989) are (for me at any rate) his best films.

The story itself, like most of Jarmusch’s films is fairly straightforward, three people get thrown together in jail, learn to get along, escape and start their lives over. Separately. It's never really about the plot with a Jarmusch film, it's more to do with the situation and the dialogue. The little things are the scraps that stick in your memory. The film kicks off with some gorgeous pre-credits black & white tracking shots, setting the scene and tone before we’re thrown into the film proper. This was the first time Wim Wenders’ cinematographer Robby Müller had worked with Jarmusch. Something must have clicked since they’ve collaborated on five films and a handful of shorts since.

Set in a run down near mythical New Orleans, that’s seemingly populated only by prostitutes, their customers and various pimps and low-lifes, Down By Law doesn’t try to lay any claim to being an authentic slice of life drama. Instead it heads off on it’s own course, doing it’s own thing with scant regard for the rest of the world. It’s neatly divided up into three half an hour acts. In the first section we meet Zack (Tom Waits), a radio DJ with the handle Lee ‘Baby’ Sims. He’s all pork pie hats and pointy shoes, muttered wisdom and walking like he’s full of bad booze. When we first meet him he’s being dumped by his irate girlfriend (Ellen Barkin). This sends him off on a bender and leads to him being set up for a murder and winding up in jail. Next up we meet Jack (John Lurie) a pimp who takes some stick off a woman (Billie Neal) before being set up for a crime and being hauled off to jail. Sound familiar? The second section of the film finds Jack and Zack sharing a jail cell with Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who as it turns out is actually guilty of his crime. The final section sees our trio on the run from prison through the Louisiana swamplands.

The first thing that strikes you about Down By Law is how good it looks, and just how out of step it was with the other films coming out of America at that time. The acting style is loose but the script is tight. In fact Jarmusch wrote the script with his three leads in mind and it shows. The three characters contrast each another, Benigni is like a puppy full of boundless energy, Lurie is the polar opposite, cool and destracted while Waits is almost simian like, lots of hand acting and grunts. The dialogue is gloriously weird, Benigni in particular is almost Manuel like with his over the top non grasp of English. The scene where our trio sing ‘You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream’ for instance, is the sort of thing that most people would chop from a film, since it doesn’t move the plot forward at all. Yet in Jarmusch’s world it feels like one of the film’s pivotal moments, since it's a bonding moment for our three stooges. Plus in a nod to one of Jarmusch’s heroes (Yasujiro Ozu) the camera is static and set at a low angle.

My favorite portion of the film is the last act as they plunge through the Bayou. It reminds me of Letter Never Sent and Southern Comfort, in the way the natural world is both beautiful but dangerous and harsh. The stark black & white photography being so reminiscent of those Russian man against the elements films. Jarmusch doesn’t bother showing the jail break, and yet you never feel like you’re missing it. You hear the bloodhounds but never see them. Down By Law is low budget film making at it’s finest in that way.

Incidentally it turns out that there actually was a real Lee ‘Baby’ Sims, he was a DJ back in San Diego when Waits was a young ‘un. Funnily enough he wasn’t too happy about having his name pinched for such a scuzzy character. Can't imagine why. Anyway, even after seeing this film more times than I care to remember it still has a shine to it, still feels new every time I watch it. I don’t know why that is. But I’m glad it’s like that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, in particular the last sentence.

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