Extract from
Independence Within Limits
The Influence of Alternative Cinema on American Independent Feature Filmmaking

Persistence of Vision 6 (summer, 1988), 91-100.

By Steve Barnes

While Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law are certainly not strictly conventional films, they are never bluntly assertive or confrontational in their divergences from the mainstream. They are friendly, comfortably “off-beat” films that, for all their charm, are not unusual in any way that challenges the assumptions of mainstream narrative filmmaking. The sequence shots of Stranger than Paradise (in which every scene is one shot long) can be related to the tradition of 1950s television comedy as easily as they can to the stylistics of a filmmaker like James Benning. An audience attuned to late-night reruns of The Honeymooners should have little trouble dealing with what is essentially the blackout structure of Jarmusch’s film. This is not a condemnation of the film, but rather serves to indicate the reason for its success and the inappropriateness of placing it totally within the realm of avant-garde filmmaking. Even though Jarmusch’s first film Permanent Vacation, is closely akin to the work of the New York “punk” filmmakers (Amos Poe, Scott and Beth B, etc.), it displays little of the aggression of these other filmmakers. Jarmusch, in spite of his differences from someone like [Susan] Seidelman, still seems guided by the rules of feature filmmaking more than by the aesthetic aims of the structural or the avant-garde film. Those aesthetic aims do form a significant influence on his work, however, and this is what differentiates his work from that of more conventional feature filmmakers. The formal devices of structural filmmaking allow Jarmusch to put a new spin on the traditional format of film comedy, making that format seem totally new by stripping it down to its most basic elements.

Jarmusch’s reliance on a straightforward narrative structure becomes even more pronounced in Down by Law. In spite of this, it remains stylistically diverse compared with the rules of Hollywood filmmaking. The editing structure of Down by Law, while [page 99 / page 100] obviously less idiosyncratic than that of Stranger than Paradise, is still quite different from what one could consider the norm of mainstream narrative. Sequences are rarely photographed from more than two camera set-ups, and the placement of cuts is not cued to dialogue or shifts in character point of view. The lack of subjective camera angles, while less pronounced than in the earlier film, still gives most of the film a distanced, deadpan air. Down by Law also exhibits connections to traditions of mainstream film comedy as seen in Stranger than Paradise. Both films underscore certain similarities between the rules of structural filmmaking and those of slapstick comedy. Just as the structural film consists of the initial assertion of a set of parameters followed by the highly materialist working out of the possibilities of those parameters, so does slapstick consist of the initial framing of a situation, followed by its rigorous decomposition. One of the strongest arguments in favor of including Jim Jarmusch in the avant-garde camp is that he seems to be aware of this connection in a way that a filmmaker like Seidelman is not.

However, Down by Law brings its various narrative threads together quite early and has a far more closed narrative structure than does Stranger than Paradise. The prison escape provides Down by Law with a source of plainly explainable narrative motivation that the earlier film does not exhibit. It is a smoother, altogether less idiosyncratic film than its predecessor and indicates a step by Jarmusch, although perhaps not a large one, toward the mainstream.