Friday, November 2, 2007

3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986) [LE]

Down By Law is the story of three men who are presented with the short end of the stick of the universe. Two of them are ready to give up on life and call it a day. But the third one is convinced that if he's going down, he's going down with enthusiasm.

I never pegged myself as a Jim Jarmusch fan. As far as I could tell, he was the kind of director that bored, artsy white kids gravitated toward just so they could feel weird. His movies never topped critics' polls, never got nominated for Oscars, never made it big at the box office. I figured I could go my whole life without seeing a Jim Jarmusch movie and die a perfectly happy man.

I hadn't seen Down By Law.

Now, it wasn't necessarily in the cards for me and Down By Law. At first I was thinking, "Hmm, is this movie going to go anywhere?" A lot of the time it just felt like I could feel Jarmusch sitting there behind the camera letting the scenes go on and on, hoping they would eventually get interesting. His creative choices were too transparent. It was like, "Hey, look, I'm in New Orleans!" "Hey, look, I'm filming in black-and-white!" "Hey, look, I've got Tom Waits in my movie!" Sure, "Jockey Full of Bourbon" was a winning choice for opening song, but was Jarmusch just another one of those directors who spent all his time picking cool songs to put into his movies so that he could pat himself on the back for his good taste in music? Seemed like it. Then he had some guy named John Lurie in the movie, from some hip band that I hadn't even heard of. Bottom line: maybe Jarmusch was just too damn hip for me.

Then Roberto Benigni showed up. Now, Roberto Benigni is probably the least hip person in the entire universe. It was quite obvious from the start that he had absolutely no idea how to speak English and he genuinely did not seem to be aware of this.

In a now-legendary scene, his character shows up out of nowhere, approaches Zack (Tom Waits) on the street, and says, "It is a sad and beautiful world." Zack is obviously thinking, "Who the fuck is this guy?" He takes a breath and replies, "'s a sad and beautiful world pal." Bob (Begnini) then just sort of stands there, saying nothing. Finally Zack waves his hand dismissively and says "Buzz off, pal." Bob responds, "Ah thank you, buzz off to you too." Zack says it again, and finally Bob nods his head in recognition . "Ah...'buzz off'...'buzz off'...Is a sad and beautiful world...'buzz off'..." Then he whips out a notebook and begins jotting it down. "'' Good evening, buzz off to everybody, oh thank you, buzz off to you too, oh, oh, each pleasure, thank you." Then he wanders off the screen.

Hmm. Maybe Jarmusch had more up his sleeve than I thought.

But then the film began sliding back into its same old self-conscious detachment. Suffice to say, both Zack and Jack (Lurie) end up in prison after being set up for crimes they did not commit. With the shift to the prison setting, however, suddenly the story started taking on some real depth. Hey, there's nothing "hip" about serving time behind bars, you know what I'm saying? Watching Zack and Jack sulk in their cell, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the sadder and lonelier direction the film was taking.

As a response to their bad luck, Zack and Jack both lock themselves off emotionally; having been screwed by the world, they decide to offer a "screw you" right back, and it's hard to argue with them. You might think that they would find comfort in their shared misery, but sadly they only see the other man as a target for further hostility rather than as a fellow comrade in arms.

Once Bob shows up in their cell, the movie truly takes off. If Zack and Jack couldn't stand each other before, they both manage to find common ground by absolutely loathing their new cellmate. Bob makes an auspicious entrance: After telling the guards in hilariously mangled English to "go take a flying fuck," he turns to his recalcitrant cellmates, pulls out his trusty notepad, and says, "Not enough swing a cat." His grin is met with dead silence. Little do Zack and Jack know, however, that Bob is their salvation.

You see, Bob has also been screwed by the world, but unlike Zack and Jack, he continues to embrace the world in all its wondrous glory and refuses to offer a "screw you" right back. This irritates the shit out of Zack and Jack. One day Bob has the hiccups, and he asks Jack for a cigarette. Jack, not even bothering to open his eyes, tells Bob, "Cigarettes won't help with hiccups, not in this country." Later Bob steals a piece of chalk from Zack, walks up to one of the walls of their cell, and draws a window on it. Turning proudly to Jack, he asks, "Do you say 'I look hout the window,' or 'I look haat the window'?" Jack, annoyed and yet possibly suppressing laughter, responds, "In this case Bob I think you'd have to say 'I look at the window."

But Bob's magic, much to their consternation, is gradually beginning to work on the other two. One day they lean against the bars, and as the conversation drags on they all end up explaining how they came to be imprisoned. To Zack and Jack's surprise, Bob tells the story of how he killed a man in a bar with a pool ball, but he insists that it was an accident and that despite his violent deeds, "I ham a good egg." Zack and Jack laugh at Bob's attempt at colloquial English, but they are beginning to see how his situation resembles theirs, and how his attitude diverges.

One day, while playing cards, someone mentions the word "scream." Inspired by this, Bob pulls out his notebook and recites with glee, "I scream-a, you scream-a, we all scream-a, for ice cream-a." For some reason Bob finds this phrase absolutely delightful and he says it over and over again. Soon Zack and Jack, aware that Bob is not going to stop any time soon, begin reciting it along with him. After a minute or two, the three of them are dancing around the cell, hollering "I scream, you scream, we all scream at ice cream" at the absolute top of their lungs. The whole prison inexplicably joins in, and as the guards charge in to break it up, Zack and Jack and Bob rush back to their cards with childish glee, hoping to escape the guards' punishment by pretending that they had nothing to do with it.

The "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" scene is the pivotal point in the film, because it represents Bob's victory over Zack and Jack's apathy and resignation. By proving that he can retain the joy of life even in the most miserable of situations, Bob has offered them the secret to freedom. I mean, here are three men, they've all been victims of fate and circumstance, they're stuck in prison, in New Orleans for Christ's sake, for God knows how long, things couldn't be any worse, and yet...they have each other. And once they realize that, the rest is all gravy.

This is my definition of a feel-good movie. Not some cute little romantic comedy where the couple kisses at the end and then the credits come up and we're spared the hideously co-dependent and psychologically abusive relationship said couple is obviously going to have. Oh no. This is a movie where the main characters stare down the absolute worst that life has to offer them, and the universe practically spits in their faces, and yet, and yet...they come out the other end.

So I guess the moral of the story is that, despite my best attempts to the contrary, I discovered that I was the biggest damn Jim Jarmusch fan there ever was or ever will be. What can I say: he had me at "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream."


yoggoth said...

This movie would be on my Honorable Mentions list for the 80's. I like it a lot and would recommend it to others, but I think it relies a bit to heavily on Waits and Benini. Without them the movie wouldn't have much going for it.

Little Earl said...

Yeah you're probably right. Sort of like how without Keanu Reeves, The Matrix wouldn't have much going for it.

yoggoth said...

Yes, sort of like that but the exact opposite.