"Jim Jarmusch preferes to let his pictures do the talking"
By Tim Holmes
If success is a pressure cooker, then Jim Jarmusch isn't letting the heat get to him. His last movie, Stranger Than Paradise, walked off with the Camera d'Or (best first feature film) at Cannes in 1985 and snagged Best Picture of the Year from America's National Society of Film Critics. Produced on a hundred-grand shoestring, Stranger wound up grossing ten times that and demonstrating -- like the ballooning real-estate values of its setting, New York's Lower East Side -- the overground viability of underground property.
On the eve of the prestigious premiere of his new movie, Down by Law -- it was chosen to open the New York Film Festival in September -- Jarmusch, 33, looks cool, calm and collected. An authentic underground American film artist who still prefers the declasse comfort of white V-neck T-shirts to trendy unstructured pastels, he seems curiously unaffected by the anticipation surrounding his new movie.
"While making Down by Law, I wasn't thinking at all about Stranger Than Paradise," he claims. "I never even thought of the consequences of having to follow up that film until I went to Cannes [this year] and suddenly realized that people had some expectations."
Stranger Than Paradise resolves around two bohemian deadbeats, Eddie (Richard Edson) and Willie (John Lurie, the saxophonist-composer with the Lounge Lizards and a longtime friend of Jarmusch's). Their lives are an aimless shambles of chain-smoking and card playing until the arrival from Hungary of Willie's cousin Eva (played by the Squat Theatre's emigre ingenue Estzer Balint). Though initially resented by Willie, the unexpected newcomer upsets the balance of Eddie and Willie's shiftless world. Through Eva, they find themselves in a crazy quilt of trenchant comic detail, an American vision that is stranger than paradise.
The commercial success of the film took everybody by surprise. Here was a movie with no sex, no violence, no car chases, no special effects; the minimal dialogue was laconic and deadpan; each scene consisted of a long, single shot from a solitary camera angle. But Stranger had its own rhythm, centering on the almost imperceptibly varying intervals between its punctuating blackout frames and the impeccably droll delivery of its principal characters. The film announced the arrival of a new American comic sensibility that acknowledged pulp while dispensing with camp. Stranger's success revealed the artistic and commercial potential of independent cina, and of course people had expectations.
Down by Law takes place in an abstracted New Orleans, a bayou of the mind that, according to Jarmusch, "came from pulp fiction or Tennessee Williams, films from the Thirties and Forties, your classic prison-break movies where guys run throught the swamps pursued by dogs." First Jarmusch introduces Jack (John Lurie), a third-rate pimp, and Zack (Tom Waits), an unemployed disc jockey: men whose lives are on a parallel descent. "They're not really able to step back from themselves and really understand themselves," Jarmusch says. "They're just going down."
Jarmusch uses plot devices that would serve as premises for whole Hollywood features -- Zack is framed for murder, Jack is set up as a child molester -- as mere expediencies; the real story begins when these characters wind up in Orleans Parish Prison, a claustrophobic dead end. The two hapless jailbirds to little more than bicker until a third prisoner, Roberto (Roberto Benigni), is thrown into their cell. Though they are unabashed lowlifes, Zack and Jack have been incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit, while Roberto, hardly the criminal type, has accidentally killed a man in a brawl. At first the unfortunate Italian tourist -- whose knowledge of English is scrawled in fractured phrases in a notebook -- only irritates the stir-crazy prisoners further. Gradually, though, Zack and Jack warily befriend the foreigner, and it is through his machinations that the trio escapes and flees through the Louisiana swamps.
Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law reflects Jarmusch's interest in the hetergeneous nature of American culture. "America's a kind of throwaway culture that's made of this mixture of different cultures," Jarmusch theorizes. "To make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that's transplanted here from some other culture, because ours is a collection of transplanted influences."
Jarmusch strives for a new comic vision, one that combines a rigorous formal aesthetic with the effable spirit of his characteres. Of his films, he says, "They don't fall into a real genre: slapstick comedy, visual comedy, situation comedy. Often what's funny or moving to me in the films is what happens between moments of dialogue, how people react to each other."
When Jim Jarmucsh graduated from high school in Akron, Ohio, and moved to New York City in 1971, his ambition was to be a poet. "Poets were always the lifeblood of any culture," he says. He attended Columbia University, where he studied American and English literature. In his last semester before graduation, Jarmusch went to Paris and wound up staying a year. He'd always loved the movies, but in Akron, the ones he'd been exposed to were mainly "Japanese monster movies and James Bond." In Paris, he discovered the Cinematheque Francaise, the world's most famous film archive, and spent hours at a stretch absorbing classic films from all over the world.
When Jarmusch returned to New York, the punk scene was erupting on the Lower East Side, and he felt sipatico with the energy and antivirtousity of the music. He joined the Del-Byzanteens, a new wave combo that recorded a three-song EP and an album. Jarmusch played keyboards, warbled and co-wrote conceptual tunes like "Atom Satellite" whose lyrics were composed of New York Post headlines.
He decided to apply to New York University's three-year graduate film course just to see what would happen. "Having never made a film," he says, "I had no expectation of there, but I submitted some writing and an essay about cinema and some still photographs and was admitted." When director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) was brought in to teach, Jarmusch got work as his teaching assistant and as a production assistant on Lightning Over Water, a film Ray was to have directed with Wim Wenders. He eventually made his own film, Permanent Vacation, as required by the program, but, he says, "it was frowned upon by the school" because it was too long (eighty minutes).
Jarmusch shot the first part of Stranger Than Paradise over a weekend, but it took him another two years to obtain the money to complete the film. “I personally thought he was out of his mind,” says Lurie about Jarmusch’s dogged determination. “I anybody had gotten the flu during the shoot, that would’ve been the end of the movie.”
For Down by Law, Jarmusch constructed the main characters with Lurie, Waits and Benigni in mind. He says he and Lurie met Waits at a party, and the three of them “spent that whole night going out all over New York, from bar to bar.” Waits himself has a vivid recollection of meeting Jarmusch: “We are both members of an organization called the Sons of Lee Marvin. . .It’s a mystical organization, and they have a New York chapter, and we met at one of the annual meetings. It’s somewhere between the Elks Club and the Academy Awards.”
About his character, Zack, Waits says, “We decided it would be more interesting if he were not a muscian but a disc jockey, Lee Baby Simms – he’s one of those guys who moves all over, those guys who live in hotel rooms and change their names every six weeks.”
To American audiences, Benigni will seem like a real wild card, but Down by Law has the potential to make him a big star here. “You can’t imagine what a star he is in Italy,” Lurie says. “I can think of an equivalent star, and that’s the pope. When he came to pick me up at the airport, all the people that handle the baggage stopped what they were doing and crowded around him.” Roberto’s broken English and unquenchable imagination act as a liberating force on Jack and Zack. “He’s not equipped with the language, the most elementary form of communication,” Jarmusch says. “Despite this, he’s still able to communicate to these guys the sense of optimism that he has. He’s able to partially resurrect their spirits. They’re basically dying until he comes.”
The women in Down by Law act as emotional barometers for their male counterparts. Their roles are brief but essential. In the beginning, Jack gets a dressing down from Bobbie (Billie Neal), one-half of his low-rent stable. Zack gets thrown out of his apartment by Laurette (Ellen Barkin), who just can’t take his rootlessness another second. Jarmusch uses these parallel situations to point up Jack and Zacks’s spiritual bankruptcy. “These women give them fairly accurate critiques of their problems that don’t even sink in,” he says. They lose these women and end up in prison.”
Down by Law is a logical step forward in Jarmusch’s creative development. While there is a reprise, of sorts, of Stranger’s theme —a lowlife duo transormed by a foreign point of view – there’s no attempt to repeat the visual style of the earlier film. Instead, Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller (who worked on Paris, Texas, Repo Man, and To Live and Die in L.A.) have given Down by Law a fluid composition of horizontal and vertical movement. In Muller, Jarmusch found genuine support for his ideas. “His concerns seem much closer to that of a painter than a photographer,” says Jarmusch. “He would try to transalte the emotional essence of the scene into the photgraphy, lighting from the inside out, very intuitive, yet precise.”
One of the most resonant effects of Down by Law emanates from the metaphoric use of light. While the opening shots of New Orleans zip by in kinetic daylight, the story really begings at night – literally the abyss of Jack and Zack’s lives. From there, the film describes and arc upward toward some kind of faith. Again, it’s Roberto who represents the illumination of new ideas, as when he draws a window on the wall of the jail cell.
While Down by Law is bracketed with two songs from Waits’ Rain Dogs album, it’s Lurie’s score that sustains the mood. “I was unhappy with some scenes,” Jarmusch says, “and John was able to change their tone by the music he composed. He has such a delicate sense of composing, something that will not take over the image but will underscore what’s happening.”
“I loved his score,” says Waits about Lurie. “He can pick up anything and play it. He picked up an old drainpipe out in the swamp and started blowing through that. John Lurie is really kind of a dinosaur Belmondo. He buys his clothing at Super Bad. He’s as meticulous as a mobster. It’s like ‘My suit is my office, so I keep it clean’ – that school.”
One reason Jarmusch chose New Orleans as a milieu for Down by Law was his love for the rhythm & blues of the late Fifties and early Sixties. His inclusion of Irma Thomas’ heart-stopping “It’s Raining” during Benigni’s mushy dance with actress Nicoletta Braschi weaves together all the romantic notions cinema and pop music ever conjured.
Connotation to the contrary, the phrase down by law is street jargon that translates roughly as “in control”. With his new film, Jim Jarmusch is plainly in control of his medium. In Down by Law, the characters are given control over their own lives, even at the point of bleakest despair. Waits calls it “a fugitive burlesque film. It’s about Jaguars, luck, Italian food and the beauty of misunderstandings.” Jarmusch sees it as the beauty of possibilities, “that there’s not just one way of looking at your life, yourself or life in general. One can have different perspectives.”