By Leonard Klady
"I want to exist somewhere in between the American mainstream and the individualized European style," says New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. "It's a combination of the American facility for narrative and the Europeans' strength with environment."
A lofty, hazily conceived cinematic utopia, perhaps. Yet Jarmusch, the thirty-three-year-old creator of Stranger Than Paradise and the recently released Down by Law, which opened the 1986 New York Film Festival, may come closer to this aspiration than any of his contemporaries. He eschews commercialism, but avoids being part of the so-called underground movement.
Jarmusch describes Down by Law as the story of “a pimp, a disc jockey, and an Italian tourist stuck in a Louisiana prison” and likens the film stylistically to early Antonioni and Buster Keaton. The film stars singer-songwriter Tom Waits, Stranger Than Paradise’s John Lurie, and Italian comic Roberto Benigni (who describes himself as “a little like an Italian Richard Pryor, but not too much”). By earlier standards, the new production was rich: It was a Screen Actors Guild signatory and the crew numbered about fifty. Still, at a cost of just over one million dollars, there was no fat in the budget.
Jarmusch says he can’t write roles for people he doesn’t know; when he hired Ellen Barkin to play Waits’s girlfriend, he totally rewrote her part. “The script is only a sketch until I begin rehearsals,” the filmmaker says. “I start with the characters, the story comes next.” But his editor, Melody London, insists that Jarmusch has “a clear idea of the film’s ultimate shape during shooting. He gives you few options in the cutting room.”
Jarmusch has one of the most distinctive visual sensibilities on screen today. Stranger—which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and was voted the year’s best film by the National Society of Film Critics in 1985—was composed entirely in single, medium-shot long takes separated by blackouts, and was shot in black and white. “Some films are just aesthetically better that way,” he says. “Stranger had one perspective on the world, Down by Law has three, so many scenes are cut from different angles to reflect the different sensibilities. It’s still a direct visual style, almost austere. But there are no classic poin-of-view shots, no close-ups, no inserts.” Jarmusch credits director Nicholas Ray, whom he served as a teaching assistant at New York University, for giving him his best piece of advice: “Every scene has to be considered as a single idea.” Down by Law, too, was shot in black and white (by Dutch cameraman Robby Muller, best know for his collaborations with Wim Wenders), but Jarmusch says he has projects in mind that are right for color treatment.
Jarmusch’s films challenge critics seeking easy categorizations, and the director refurse to give them any help. “I want the critics to find my films themselves,” he says. Ditto his audiences. “Most films aren’t demanding of the audience. I’ve tried to see this supposed ‘new’ strain in American movies. Instead, I see the realities of films like Desperately Seeking Susan and Blood Simple. They’re Spielbergian, a play on accepted television language. They don’t trust the audience, cutting to a new shot every six or seven seconds. Frankly, I feel the whole situation for making films has gotten worse.”
For Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise and, it is hoped, Down by Law, prove audiences respond to and understand other ways of telling stories on film. “There is not a single language to filmmaking. There has to be a place for serious films, serious comedies in the American cinema. Otherwise, we can all pack it in and give away our legacy.”