Be Caring, Be Honest: Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law

By Daniel Garrett

Down by Law
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni
Black Snake/Grokenberger Film Production , 1986

Among my most favorite things to do in New York are visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), visits I find both restful and stimulating, ideal. I saw Jim Jarmusch’s film Down by Law at the MoMa. The mid-1980s film Down by Law is set in New Orleans, Louisiana, and it was an interesting film to see just days after the anniversary of hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, and with my own plans to move back south. The opening sequence, featuring the neighborhoods of the city, was wonderful: a documentation of real places. In fact, throughout the film, the locales—whether in the city or the country, with its woods and swamps—add something persuasive and strong to the film. This is part of the American reality, the American circumstances and heritage, that frequently we do not see.

It’s funny: I had been thinking of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley shortly before seeing Down by Law, wondering if they were giving us stories that were more true than that of many other film directors; wondering if their work was more important than we would be led to believe by the celebration of other directors. (It was pure speculation, as I am not a master of either’s work.) I did not know the Jarmusch film was playing at MoMa until hours before I saw the film—and I’m glad I did see it, though I have questions and reservations about it.

Down by Law is the story of a three men—a leisurely pimp, a talented but failed music disc jockey, and a card cheat—who are arrested, jailed, and escape. There were points in the story when the film seemed to ramble, and the lack of a specific goal for the characters—other than “escape”—seemed to diminish the drama for me. What is the point of freedom if you have nothing significant to be free for? Before that question begins to loom, which is a question that says something about the lives they have lived, and about their character, I was troubled by the men’s relation to women: in one of the opening scenes, a woman is in hysterics, berating her lover the disc jockey about his failure at work and for how he treats her (and yet goading him to hit her, which he does not do). Another woman, a prostitute, offers, while naked, with her breasts showing, a critique of the failure of her pimp to be commanding (she is filmed similarly to how certain male painters showed odalisques; and she says that if he was all he should be he would have slapped her by now). There is also a silent, sensuous young girl who is part of the set-up that is used to frame the pimp so he can be arrested; and the disc jockey, like the pimp, is framed, but framed for driving a stolen car and murder. Why frame—accuse of a false crime, creating evidence—someone who is actually guilty of something else? Why not arrest the pimp for being a pimp? Or arrest the disc jockey for being a vagrant? Anyway, the women in the film are not fully or respectfully human, as far as I could see. Conflict is at the root of their relation to men as well. (Is this an immature view of women? Is there some intentional critique being suggested about male/female relationships? Is the conflict, with its expectation of violence, a reflection of class?)

Once the men get in prison, there is some conflict, but they also bond, and bond in ways that are nearly flirtatious and suggestive. I found myself wondering if the story, the entire film, wasn’t an excuse to show male intimacy. (Where, other than prison, can one be so easily intimate with other men? A terrible question; and not entirely a facetious one.) The card cheat, who defended himself and unintentionally killed a man, is the most humane: once the men escape, he finds food for them, he talks to them, he tries to create some kind of conscious, honest bond among them; and it is he who becomes involved with a woman they stumble upon in the wilderness, thinking he has found love. Is there a lesson here? Be caring, be honest, and you will facilitate friendship and find love?

I liked the performances—each very different: and, as the pimp, John Lurie—who has been featured in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, and Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and the television show “Oz”—was not very interesting to me when the film begin, but I liked him more as I watched. (He initially seemed a shallow peacock—and then one notices his pride, his humor, his simple assumption of decency.) The musician Tom Waits was the surprise—I loved his disc jockey voice; and I found his acting first dull then truthful. Waits has acted in a bunch of films—Rumble Fish, Ironweed, Mystery Train, Dracula, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Wristcutters, among them; and several of these—Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes—are Jarmusch films. Roberto Benigni, who won a film industry academy award for Life is Beautiful, was the card cheat, and was both amusing and touching, a kind of classic film figure—stumbling through English from Italian, wearing his heart on his sleeve. Some of the film compositions—the framing of shots and scenes—were very attractive. It was interesting, too, to notice how a group of people—or a lamp post—might be at the center of a shot, pulling everything else together. I was fascinated to realize that by the time the film ended, I had become very concerned about the fate of the men in the film.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Garrett’s commentary on Jarmusch’s Down By Law first appeared on his blog “City and Country, Boy and Man” (September 2008). Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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