Down by Law - Jim Jarmusch - USA 1986 - John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni
Viewed: Side Cinema, 19 June 2005 - ticket price £3-00
Haircuts at dawn
Down by Law opens with a series of floating tracking shots of a series of facades shot upwards from a acute low angle. Filmed as if from a Venetian gondola the buildings glide through the lens the camera as a particularly flat perception of the world. Slum tenements, industrial units, middle class lawn-girt spruce white detached houses, roccocco mid town 19th century blocks with ornate caste iron balconies, no man’s land all slip by and out of sight as we listen to a latino Creole fusion of complex cross rhythms laid over the picture.
In this opening Jarmusch assembles the American South as a world of facades. Like an opera set on a proscenium stage it is a land populated by two dimensional stick figures, a world defined only by its surface. In Down by Law surface is all there is in the world and the narrative is but a device a for movement across this surface. In this it shares some characteristic features with opera where plot is also a simple device, a narrative welded together out of non sequiturs and improbable coincidence that serves to cue a series of emotional states driven by the music. Whereas Opera uses music as an intensifier of the emotional affects and responses, in Down by Law, Jarmusch uses film as a deintensifier of emotive and affective states. A world in which in a similar manner to opera the narrative line is essentially overblown and episodically implausible; different to opera in that there is no associational emotive linkage. Down by Law works through an integral disassociation of emotion from image What matters here is what you see and hear in the now. In Down by Law there is no back story, there is no front story, there is no story: there is only what you see at and on the surface. This is a world of flowing disassocation.
Moving into the first act of his opera bouffe, Jarmusch utilises a high key American gothic style of lighting. The point here is not to use this lighting rig as an intensifier of whatever - character, emotion, plot line. The lighting serves to amplify dissonance between the lighting frame and what we actually fills frame - in particular the characters. As the sequence of scenes setting up Jack and Zak unfold, it is evident that Jarmusch is not interested in any sort of Hollywood acting style - method, deep characterisation or anything like this. The acting style is a put on. In a film comprising layers rather than the illusion of filmic unity, the acting is another detached layer in the film, a spoofed playing that goes through the motions of action and reaction only in so far as they are surface bound. Its an act - not acting.
As with the Marx Brothers or Jean Harlow hair style undercuts and underlies the affect of the performance. The performance is always now. In Down by Law it is the haircuts that are the central gestural pivot of the act. Not faciality; not body language. The hair in the film is all thick black greased up stuff devoid of certain line or form, that falls about the head and moves according to its own rights. It is the New York punk style de rigeur of the early ‘80’s. Its deterritorialised shift to New Orleans not only heightens the alien quality of the 3 stooges but it is the edge to their occupation of space and their dialogues(brilliant written) which layer into the space impermanence vulnerability dissonance and anarchy. It all happens beneath the hair line. Wherever that is.
The delimiting surfaces are intrinsic to the look and style of Down by Law. The wall, whether of gaol home or fantasy accentuates the idea of containment within a two dimensional world. The idea that what we living here is a two dimensional culture that has the illusion of depth that is created by an accumulation of layerings. The walls are covered with graffitti - cumulations of words images calculations which build up deeply patterned milieus. There is one moment of formation of the set surround that points to core of the film and its relationship to the spirit of America. Roberto in the prison cell, picks up a pencil which Zac has been using to mark off the days spent in custody. He goes to a wall of the cell draws the outline of a window frame complete with cross pieces. It is a blank window endowed with the complete quality of intense opacity. Looking at nothing. It is an idea. Its complete functional uselessness suggests the joke of there being nothing to see except what is on the surface. Later in the narrative after the 3 stooges escape and find the fairy tale cottage, they are eating a meal in the house. Behind them as they eat is the same window: blank empty smiling looking out to nothing. From gaol to home from containment to freedom, its all the same view. There’s nowhere to go.