A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)

At the end of Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989), his young Japanese tourists set out for New Orleans, where the writer-director had been three years earlier to make Down by Law. As he did with Memphis for Mystery Train, Jarmusch imagined the city and wrote his screenplay before he ever set foot in New Orleans, and the resulting film is a kind of fleshing out of his imagination. Jarmusch's New Orleans is a construct of legend and myth, then, not to be taken literally any more than one would a fairy tale -- which is what Jarmusch has called Down by Law.  He imagines New Orleans as a city of musicians, prostitutes, and tourists, and he casts his three central characters in the mode of each: Tom Waits as Zack, an out-of-work disc jockey; John Lurie as Jack, a small-time pimp; and Roberto Benigni as Roberto, or Bob, an Italian wandering the city to soak up American idiom, which he dutifully writes down in his notebook. But if Jarmusch's New Orleans is an imaginary construct, it is grounded in a kind of visual reality, provided at the film's beginning by Robby Müller's camera as it roams the streets of the city, showing the signs of decay it exhibited even before Katrina. And the scenes that establish Zack and Jack are rooted in a sordid poverty, as Zack is kicked out of their apartment by his girlfriend, Laurette (Ellen Barkin), and Jack is lured into a trap in which he is arrested with an underage prostitute he has never met before. (Bob makes a kind of cameo appearance in a scene with Zack, thoroughly stoned and out on the street, who tells him to "buzz off" -- a phrase Bob records in his notebook.) After Zack is tricked into driving a car that has a body in the trunk, he joins Jack in the Orleans Parish Prison, where things look like they can't get any worse. But then Bob joins them in their cell, having been arrested for killing a man with a billiard ball in a pool hall fracas, and the film turns on a dime from a noirish study of the underclass into an off-beat comedy that, among other things, validated Benigni's Italian reputation as a comic genius. Here he's a catalyst, stirring Waits and Lurie into performances that raise their characters from sleazy to endearing. But the real star of the film for me is Müller, whose black-and-white cinematography also elevates the sordid into the beautiful. It becomes a film of textures, from the silken skin of a nude prostitute to the etched graffiti on a prison cell wall to the layer of duckweed on the surface of a bayou. In an interview, Müller has commented on how black-and-white has an effect of subtraction: Color gives you more information than you need, while black-and-white helps you concentrate on particulars. Down by Law has been criticized for its slowness, and Jarmusch certainly lets the tension slack a little, but even when there's nothing much going on, Müller's images keep the pulse of life steady.