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Friday, May 20, 2016

Down by Law

Back in the '80s I spent a lot of time in New York City art houses, and one of the biggest names in indie film back then was Jim Jarmusch. Somehow I missed his 1986 film, Down by Law, which is having it's 30th anniversary, and I finally watched it last night.

Like Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, Down by Law is driven by music, this time of New Orleans. Jarmusch, though a New Yorker, wrote the film having never been to New Orleans, but guided by the music. I can't speak to its authenticity, having never been to New Orleans, but it has its own sense of place that exists only in film.

The film is about three men in prison. We meet two of them--Jack (John Lurie), a pimp who is set up by rivals and arrested for procuring a minor, and Zack (Tom Waits), a DJ who is thrown out by his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) and takes some money to transport a car from one side of town to another. He's set up, too, though, when the cops stop him and a body is in the trunk.

They share a cell and grudgingly form a relationship that may not be a friendship but is at least tolerant of each other. Then they are joined by an Italian (Roberto Benigni), a strange little man who killed someone with a billiard ball ("You throw the ball at me, I throw it at you," he says in broken English).

Trios are an interesting subject in literature and film, because one person is usually the tipping point and changes the dynamic of the arrangement. Benigni is that person here, as the two Americans grow to like him, despite his penchant for reciting American poetry in Italian (a recitation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" will have special meaning). He also figures out a way to escape, and in a brilliant segue, Jarmusch does not show us the escape or even how it's done, just a cut to the men running down a tunnel. In all other prison movies the emphasis is on how they do it, but Jarmusch audaciously just leaves that out, realizing it's not important.

The three men trudge through the Louisiana swamp, eluding dogs. Lurie and Waits feud, and go there separate ways, but come back when they realize Benigni is cooking a rabbit. The finally find a small Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where Benigni falls in love with the proprietress.

Down by Law is a little time capsule of '80s indie cinema. Jarmusch has often used nonprofessional actors, and here he does with Lurie and Waits, both musicians (Waits has had a respected acting career since then, while Lurie has turned to painting). At first the amateur acting showed, but as the film wore on I grew to get used to it and the characters grew on me, especially when Waits did his radio patter as "Lee Baby Symms."

This was Benigni's first international film. His first line, to Waits before they are arrested (they don't remember that they've met before) is "It's a sad and beautiful world," which he pronounces with the rounded vowels of the Apennines. He then basically takes control of the film and Lurie and Waits come along for the ride, and it's a nice ride.

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