© 2016 by James Clark
Many of the best and the brightest exponents of cutting-edge films approach us from out of formidable cinematographic, optical skills. Several—like David Lynch, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Ridley Scott, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Jacques Demy, Spike Jonze, Wong Kar Wai, Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glaser, Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami—began their transaction as producers of paintings, graphic design, architecture, photography and fashion. As such their evocation of energies not appropriately recognized in mainstream history tend to unleash virtuoso visual impact (infused with aural complement). Jim Jarmusch, quite to the contrary—describable, I think, as Antonioni for extroverts—though far from inept as to visual and sonic excitement, has a playwright’s appetite for the revelatory range of dialogue and its precinct of interpersonal situations.
Near the outset of his second film, Down by Law (1986), we are treated to a piercing clash of bristling verbiage between a DJ, Zack (all but silent), and his girlfriend, Laurette (quickly living up to her born-to-lose name in the born-to-lose city of New Orleans, where nothing is new and the aura of being burned at the stake carries a lot of weight). As the episode catches fire, we have Zack in the Maid’s role and Laurette adding fuel to the fire in the form of pelting him with swatches of his CD and vinyl collection. “It’s just you… You don’t take care of me!” she declares. “I’m ashamed of you, Zack… I’m finished with you! I’m completely finished with you… I’ve had it with you and your fuckin’ stupid radio show” [with its myriad voices]. Then she skids into a zone where a recognition of glories notwithstanding have to be given some due. Laurette, an avatar of keeping the faith, comes down on her knees to reason with a beau sitting on the mattress on the floor but also thousands of miles away in his own (far less demonstrative) dilemma. “OK… Everything’s OK,” she whispers with tears forming in her eyes. “Why can’t you stay with one station? Why are you fuckin’ your own future? [He looks away] … What are you so afraid of, Zack?” By way of explaining himself, the music man offers, “Yeah, well that’s alright, Laurette… We can’t live in the present forever…” She, taking his in fact possibly complicated consideration to be a sign of welcome simplicity, points out that he could reapply to stations in the far-flung cities which he walked away from. “There’s nothing wrong with asking somebody for somethin’… [Frustration rising] Why is it always so fuckin’ hard for you?” The camera angle has her standing looking our way while Zack crouches on the floor, looking away. From out of this seeming channel of compromise she bids: “You’re a good DJ, Zack. All you gotta do is jerk people off a little… That’s all they really want, you know…” How wrong her hope was, however, is not long in blowing up in his face. He nods, in assenting to her awareness that to get ahead (and thereby take care of her sentimental priorities) you have to be comfortable (as she is) being a peasant. Then he explodes this mismatch by quietly and painfully wheezing, “Well, I never jerk people off… And you fuckin’ know it, Laurette…” Her reaction, predictably, involves more noise and violence. But, this being the work of a film aristocrat, she shows us much more than that. In the first seconds of this clash, she races about tossing those little black flying saucers, and her visage is as much a smile as a grimace. From out of that shaky passion she challenges his interpersonal pedigree. “I’m not talkin’ to you anymore… because you don’t want to fuckin’ be here! I hate you and I’m an idiot for being with you… You’ve made me embarrassed of my own time.” The final step of this honky-tonk refinement comprises her attempting to throw his Louboutin-vintage steel-toe Paris buckaroo boots over their wrought-iron balcony and into a desolate street of dreams. “Not the shoes!” he uncharacteristically yells. Her retort—“No? Go on, hit me, motherfucker! Hit me!” The full thrust of this strangely civilized freak-out involves a cut to that gutter and the wall setting it off with its torn beverage poster saying, “And don’t forget to bring Granddad…” Sitting on the curb, as he does, Zack momentarily seems a letdown. But then he tosses away the loafers he had put on to go downstairs and he slowly puts on the kickers Laurette did manage to violate, brushing them off with a rag.
There is a cut to a second Crescent City guy disappointing a lady of note who has even less respect for him than that shown in the previous unhappy axis. She being a long-term hooker under the auspices of this Jack’s pimping, her displeasure is far less incendiary and complex than that we’ve just witnessed. But, it too, bends to the business of curbing unprofitable instinct. “You know, Jack, we could get some [real] money together, except you always blow it… You know, gambling… showin’ off…” He maintains, in face of this sensible advice, “I have to have fun, you know, Bobbie…” She, certain that physical laws back her up, brushes off that emotive consideration with, “You always makin’ big plans for tomorrow, and I know why—because you always fuckin’ up today… You don’t understand any kind of people… I can sit here and talk and you don’t hear a single word, like you can’t understand English…”
Not only do Zack and Jack fail to instil confidence in the women they sleep with, but the assaults by Laurette and Bobbie take the form of insisting that strictures of material advantage (devolving from strictures of immaterial advantage) not be disobeyed. Those demands can also be termed laws—true and sacred rules for life as it should be lived. The first person on earth to fully take to heart this line of endeavor was Plato (428 BC-348 BC). Though he’d have been aghast if called a jerk-off artist, his canny prescriptions have the fingerprints of Laurette and Bobbie all over them. Aristotle (348-322BC), an adherent to Plato’s way of smartening up the Blue Planet, etched that groundwork of sensibility to read, “reasoned discourse” [Laurette, had she been there to hear that phrase, would have said, in fulsome praise, “That’s all they really want, you know…”]. But the lawful groundswell of creative initiative (otherwise known as the principle of divine reason), booking as logos, the word of God, has, unfortunately for feckless Plato, a far less tame tempo—that tempo, in fact, nagging at Zack and Jack.
So far we’ve only seen nuisance-level rough treatment toward them by Platonic disciples. Very soon, however, each falls prey to more virulent exponents of advantage. Zack, drunk on a mickey of bourbon and still in the gutter, is approached by an acquaintance to drive (for $1000) a deluxe-predator Jaguar across town. Attempting to circumvent that clutter when in fact he needed the right simplicity far more than bourbon, he, still, as ever, inhaling his flow of words, tells the unbelievable benefactor, “Just leave me alone… I’m in a bad mood…” “Zack, baby, I got somethin’ real good for you…” soon unwinds to an interception by a couple of promotion-hungry cops opening the trunk of that killer-car and finding a killed crook. About the same time, Jack listens to a competitor tell him, “I’m serious as cancer,” about letting him take possession of a beautiful nineteen-year-old “piece of chicken… a Cajun goddess, man” [to make up for a previous injury he caused]. He’s pounced upon by a team of Vice Squad predators as he tells the thirteen-year-old he’s “someone who will treat you like a lady.” “Get this pervert outta here!” the captain orders. The latter assures the impassive 13-year-old going on 22, “Don’t worry about anything, because the law will take care of you…”
Before being seduced by that K, Zack is encountered by a man who, after regarding the DJ’s disarray on the street of broken dreams, pronounces, in a thick Italian accent, this anathema to everything Plato represents: “It’s a sad and beautiful world…” Though after acknowledging that the disturber of his non-peace has a point, he tells the foreigner, “Buzz off!” Before long he, previously joined by Jack in a New Orleans jail cell, is joined by that whimsical Kalashnikov bearing down on Plato’s law. As if that’s not bemusing coincidence in itself’ what follows—the easiest jail-break ever filmed—pulls us smack into an appointment with beholding some damage to a law meant to last forever. That setback to narrative realism should, I believe, increase an alert about Roberto, the sanguine representative of the Old country. Within days of having the barred door slammed on him, he has induced a measure, far from perfect, of steady companionship within the other two; and, not long after, he has planned and engineered their return to a freedom far from a wonder drug.
The lead-up to this visit by that magician provides a tasty dish complementing the early instances of oscillating integrity on the part of Laurette, Zack and Jack. In face of the little girl in that hotel bed—her facehaving been cued to face away from him—Jack’s voice digs down to districts of tenderness and ambition not in evidence with Bobbie. Accordingly, on entering the cell already occupied by Zack, he evinces some skill in rallying a figure whose imprecise pride has undergone a close to death-dealing blow. That effort is strewn with false starts. From a top bunk Zack childishly makes it hard for Jack to proceed to his adjacent bed. Then, when Jack loses it, having his own panic attack by repeatedly screaming “Guard!” from behind the intractable portal, Zack is quick to dish out a superior-sounding rebuke to his maintaining his innocence. “You are not the only innocent, Ass Hole… I was set up too…” That pushes Jack into his top-dog game face. “I’m not [in any way] like you. I’m so far from what you are, you don’t even exist…” (During the treacherous rival’s suckering Jack to walk into a police trap, the sucker argues, “You want to be my friend because you know I’ll be Big!” The voice of treachery, a goofball named Fatty, does, in the course of his conning the self-styled superstar, nail one important truth: “You’re too serious!”) A few days after that declaration of a chasm, Jack is paradoxically disturbed by the meaningless nobody’s protracted silence (while being absorbed by the mess he’s in). “What’s the matter with you? You haven’t said a word in three days.” Zack breaks the silence with the unpromising, “Fuck you!” This prompts Jack to run by his imagined disadvantageous neighbor the claim that on walking free from this temporary embarrassment he’ll be met at the jailhouse door by a Lincoln (big name in diplomacy) limo full of beautiful, nude girls. After the customary obscenities from Zack about this fantasy, Jack—partly to return that contempt with contempt of his own, but also in hopes of entering into a more mature line of perception—draws out the producer of bad moods with, “What did you do for a living? A garbage man, right?” Then, on hearing the retort, “DJ,” he challenges Zack to provide some evidence. On hearing that he had been for many days in the presence of “Baby Sims,”— “the Baby Sims?!”—Jack (apparently an R&B radio regular) brightens up as we had never seen him. “That’s unbelievable! Why don’t you do a little talk…” Zack pulling out his pro-voice-timbre and chattering about the nasty winter weather and its driving peril, Jack is invigorated by the current of skill and by the potential for mutual creativity in his hitherto dead companion. “Some more… Do some more…”/ “Here’s a little something for the Wild Boys…Trip Bags!”
Well those Wild Boys are indeed on the brink of a trip, even as they readily deteriorate into a fist fight about Zack’s inscribing on the wall a tally of the days in stir, making the time go even more slowly. The floundering duo is complemented by someone who would not know about the gift of rock and roll but nevertheless would prove to be a source of lyricism both facilitating and complicating their journey. As with the brief encounter with Zack on that city street, he consults his note pad of useful phrases to rise to the moment of the longer term inmates failing to welcome him. “If looks can kill, I’m dead now…” (The local boys had been giving us a clinic as to malignant extents of resentment and over-assertiveness, very much to the point of “bad mood” killing that creative command haunting what is now a trio.) Introducing himself as Roberto, he finds neither of the dragging hipsters up to meeting his bid for a handshake—a situation he sees as an impetus to evoke wide open spaces and their ranges of freedom. “Not enough room to swing a cat…” As we have seen, Jack and Zack tend to bring out the roller coaster in each other. Now, with a figure to deal with who is far more rooted in the right stuff, they find themselves changing, for the better. And yet the thrum of this marvellously engaged eventuation entails hard and delicate surprises. Roberto lays down a register (a tide of expression, a law, a logos) so oddly and rustically candid it wins over a pair of urban renegades on the basis of its purchase upon standing up to basic needs. (Neither Zack nor Jack directly partakes in survival activity, each being exclusively a convenor of entertainment provided by others.) The newcomer comes down with a case of hiccups, asks and receives from Jack a cigarette only to find that matches are outlawed. In this zone of missing parts, he has to ask the basic question overriding the simple question, “Do you have some fire?” He helps them stoke the more important fire by: noting that, unlike them, he is not innocent, having killed, in a brawl stemming from his cheating at poker, an irate competitor (a billiard ball [the 8-ball] being the murder weapon); insisting, nevertheless, “I’m a good egg…”; drawing a window on the wall with the pencil Zack had used to tabulate days of imprisonment (the hitherto joyless Zack lightens up here with the quip—as the three of them begin a card game— “Watch out for Bob!”); sidetracking Jack’s screaming, in a slip into self-pity, by way of the loaded chant, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”—from out of which all three of them chant and dance around the cell, and other inmates join in the chase for something special in that “ice cream”; and, the piece de resistance, he announces that he can crack this jail cell and escape with them (“I discover a way…”). To cap this tear of rough and ready confidence, on the slog through the swamps, they reach the river with beagles howling not far behind. The boys riding on his coattails leave him (a non-swimmer) in the lurch; but Zack sees what has to be done and in an almost unprecedented display of usefulness returns to carry Bob across.
The Louisiana boys have made some progress; but they still lag far behind Roberto’s overachievements. As the trek to a new life grinds on, hunger becomes an emergency; and Bob, true to form, has an answer. It turns out that his mother, back in the Old Country, has instilled in him not only advanced food preparation skills but also hunting smarts—and, more important still, a rural no-nonsense approach to killing sweet woodlands creatures, like rabbits. He goes off into the forest and soon returns with a dead rabbit which he delights in. By then the hipsters are brawling again, and Roberto calls out, “My friends! Stop the fight!” The city slickers don’t like the look of that slaughter and drift off, severally, in hopes of finding an Arby’s. (Left alone they spin their wheels fantasizing that they’re on the right track.) Eventually they get real and enjoy the rabbit roast. “Indulge,” the cook urges. “Yes, stay, stay Jack, stay!” Cut to them moving through nearly paradisal terrain, lovely high grasses and lithe healthy trees—a bit of a shock after miles and miles of blighted foliage. In accordance with that clear-sailing narrative motif they soon come to a road, which leads them to a modest haven with a sign announcing, Luigi’s Tintop. Roberto investigates, while, across the way, Jack fusses, “He walks right into it like an idiot!” After night falls they approach the café (which apparently gets by without traffic) and discover Roberto dining with and having an animated conversation with an Italian woman, Nicoletta, who already has become his mate for life. “Oh, my friends!” he exclaims (almost as if they had flown over to see him in Tuscany, for a vacation). “Come on, sit down, please! I ham in love… This is Nicoletta… Eat!” Zack smiles and says warmly, “Well that’s just great, Bob!” Jack offers. “Congratulations!” Then Zack says, “I propose a toast to Bob and Nicoletta!” Next morning, Roberto is a bit concerned that his friends are leaving already. “Why not stay?” “We have to keep goin’,” Zack maintains. “There’ll be an APB on us…” “Don’t forget to write!” the unflappable fixer calls out as they head down the road to a point where it becomes a crossroad. They split, after Zack suckers Jack into a handshake he pulls back.
The scene of each of them going into the distance in opposite directions takes quite a long time, allowing us to ponder what will become of them. Significantly, I think, we have no doubts about Roberto’s future. The pop-up chums have given us quite an air show but only one of them is a licenced pilot. Jarmusch gives us the endeavors of one joiner and two non-joiners—one sweetheart and two who pose real difficulties to define.
Fortunately, he embeds two arresting images to guide our comprehension. The first comes at hungover Zack’s initial entrance, awkwardly keeping from falling on his face by means of clutching a doorframe. He turns his face upward (at another era you might have said, to the heavens). And here we have Joan of Arc (getting a lot of static from militant Laurette), the leading light of the first Orleans. Though Saint Joan is now sitting pretty in the eyes of a seemingly inevitable mainstream, it is well to recall that while still alive that hero was widely hated for stepping on many careful toes and continually running off the rails. She had inspirational flashes—sort of like the kaleidoscopic playlists going full-tilt on Zack’s broadcasts—but, at the end of the day, did she really have a clue where it was all headed? She was sure the status quo was annoyingly overrated; but posing an alternative was not that easy. (Later, Roberto-types dispensed with the nebulous factors and enshrined her charismatic stardom in the form of an inspiration for the excitement tolerance of the population at large.
The second infrastructural irony casts Jack as that other eruption of the pyromania of Gallic riskiness, namely, the Marquis de Sade. After the brawl that immediately precedes the arrival of Roberto, we behold Jack in profile with a black eye and a headpiece, exactly replicating the famous record of the persecution and murder of Jean-Paul Marat as enacted by inmates of an asylum for the insane, as directed by its most notorious patient, de Sade. Jack is not only an expert of sorts in staging scenes of headlong sexuality; but he, like Zack, is heavily involved in the sting of ravenous, persecutory advantage, the law of not only the jungle but those, like Roberto, regarded as the salt of the earth.
Down by Law is a whimsical and, at times, even hilarious, film. Its engagement of complications driven by both law-abiding and lawless entities is startlingly elegant for a surface of grottiness extending so far as field and stream. The long pan at the beginning, through districts of New Orleans and passages of the bayou hinterland—pushed by a twangy guitar and end-of-the-line vocals by Tom Waits [aka Zack]—is a cryptic take of the ravages of entropy (beginning with a hearse and an ancient graveyard); but it is also, with its razor-sharp blues guitar, a beacon of hope. Like entropy, the law of world historical efficacy is subject to revision. By accompanying Zack, Jack and Roberto on their adventure of troubles with the law we become far more alert to the monstrosity of full-scale lawfulness. “When Laurette tells Zack, “Go find another girl to be your passion,” we’re in the presence of most lively phenomenology and most witty screenwriting.
Let’s close with a few drop-dead ambitious literary gems. Roberto being a fan of two beloved domestic poets, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, a little dig extending to the latter’s grampa wisdom as to “the road not taken” being all shook up by Zack and Jack going to an easily overlooked war at every turn. Early on we see Jack wakened by one of Bobbie’s colleagues on a rocking chair on the balcony. “Julie, what are you doin’ here?” he asks in a gentle voice. “Just watchin’ the light change,” is her response, the simplicity of which carrying much more weight than the firm of Whitman and Frost. Bobbie, citing her perceptive mother as knowing her way around, tells an inattentive self-styled giant that, “My Momma used to say that America is the Big Melting Pot—when you bring it to a boil, all the scum rises to the top…” Though during the clash with Laurette Zack is far from his best, there are on the walls of his seedy digs a sort of 5-star menu: “It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop.” (Would it be fair to say that Roberto has come to a sudden stop?) “Life is a limbo dance. It’s a question of where you get down, not how low you can get…”