Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Down by Law

In Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law we follow the adventures of three down and out men in New Orleans. The black and white film falls neatly into three parts. In the first we meet the three main characters, Zack (played by Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni). Lurie and Waits we see in arguments with their girl friends, who find various ways to explain to their lovers what losers they are. Benigni is visiting from Italy. He can't speak English and keeps a notebook in which he writes down idiosyncratic English expressions, such as "not enough room to swing a cat in." The three men end up in prison, Lurie and Waits accused of doing things they didn't do. We don't see why Benigni ends up in prison, though he later tells Waits and Lurie that he is there for killing a man by hitting him with an eight ball. The middle section of the film takes place entirely in the New Orleans prison. Lurie and Waits are sharing a cell when Benigni is put in with them. They try to ignore him, but gradually he charms his way into their graces. This section for me was the most entertaining part of the film as we see the gradual chemistry developing between the cell mates. There are several comic scenes, including one in which Benigni incites everyone in the prison block to shout "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." The prison cell scenes suggest the Marx Brothers or even the Three Stooges, though Jarmusch's characters are far more understated and subtle that these predecessors. In one scene the three cell mates hang on the bars of their cell, gazing outwards, as if there is something to see other than a cell on the other side of the walkway. The scene is as hilarious as it is confining and oppressive. The faces of the three cell mates, staring through the bars, tell the whole story.

Benigni tells Waits and Lurie that he knows a way to escape. We don't see exactly how the escape occurs—we simply see the three running down an underground culvert, laughing. The third section of the film follows the convicts as they flee their pursuers through the swamps and forests surrounding New Orleans.

There is no plot to this film, which simply follows the path of the three companions. Jack, Zack, and Roberto are introduced individually early in the film, and it's only in the prison section that we realize their fates will intertwine. Fates is not the best term to use. There is no fate per se in this film—nothing final happens to the three characters. They just make their way through the various situations that confront them, and we wait to see what happens. Despite the absence of conventional plot, the film is entertaining and Jarmusch wins our attention by his attention to the three characters and the excellent actors he has chosen to portray them. Waits plays a character that might have come straight out of one of his songs, while Benigni seems to play himself, or at least a character that incorporates many of the manic and comic elements of other roles he has played, such as the father in Life is Beautiful.

Jarmusch says in the commentary that accompanies the DVD version of the film that he had never been to New Orleans when he decided to write a script set in the city. He compares New Orleans to New York and says that both are like other countries separate from the United States. The film is shot in beautiful black and white, and images of architecture from some of the more weathered and run down districts of New Orleans predominate in the first part of the film. In the DVD commentary Jarmusch explains that he doesn't like to use the stock iconic images to characterize a place like New Orleans. He doesn't do that in Down By Law, but the buildings he does show are easily recognized as part of the city. I don't know exactly where Jarmusch managed to film the middle portion, but he contrives to present a run down and dreary prison. The film is not really about Louisiana or New Orleans—it's just set there—the film's real interest is in the three main characters. New Orleans and the sections of the city Jarmusch uses in the film provide a context of decay and hard times that are appropriate backdrops for the three down and out main characters.

Roberto talks constantly, even though he can hardly speak English. He manages to tell Jack and Zack that he likes the poetry of Walt Whitman, and later he mentions Robert Frost, whom Jack refers to as Bob Frost. The Frost reference provides a context of sorts for the closing image of the film, where Jack and Zack wander town two diverging roads, headed off towards separate future adventures.

The title would seem to suggest the film's interest in three characters who for various reasons have fallen on hard times because of real or fictional conflicts with the law. We would consider them "oppressed by the Law," as Jarmusch explains in the commentary. But he suggests that the real meaning of the title comes from its use as prison jargon that describes friends who are dependent on each other. The dependency of the three characters on each other in the film gradually grows and then wanes, as they go their separate ways.

One of the most unlikely elements in the film comes in the third section when the three convicts stumble on an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the Louisiana swamps. A young Italian woman lives and works there and takes the three men in, feeding and clothing them and giving them a place to sleep. Roberto ends up staying with her.

The film ends without warning, though given the logic it follows one can sense the ending coming at the fork in the road which the restaurant owner Nicoletta describes to Jack and Zack. Nothing is resolved, and everything is resolved.

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