Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Down by Law

Just saw this for the first time in some twenty years, I guess, or more, and it's still just as fresh and funny and beguiling and sweet as ever -- Jim Jarmusch has never been lighter on his feet than here. It's a wonderfully, smartly spontaneous film that starts as an ironic sort of tale of a pair of down on their luck losers, and winds up, as Roberto Benigni's Italian character -- who tends to speak in American non-sequiters he never really understands -- like "inna booka for children."

One thing I love about it, and which I think really works in its favor, is that Jarmusch is very much of a mise-en-scene kinda guy. He's not one of those hyper-editing types; he's closer in style to someone like Bergman or Renoir, who sets the camera on a scene and lets it play out in its own loose, funky, inspired fashion, trusting three perfectly-cast actors to pull rabbits from their hats, which they do. I have no idea how much of it was scripted, but I strongly suspect that Waits' radio deejay patter was all his own, and Benigni I suspect understood his character so well from the inside -- this luckless Italian who winds up in a Loisiana jail -- that he brought an extra edge to every line. And John Lurie is, well, John Lurie, the perfect laid-back straight man for every set up.

Need I tell you what it's about? God, how I hate recounting plots. Jack (Lurie) is a radio deejay who can't hold on to a job; Zack (Waits) is a none-too-smart pimp. Although nerither know each other, they have a lot in common, mainly in that they are a pair of doofuses who imagine they have their act totally together, and are completely surprised by their own cmplicit stupidity in getting framed for crimes they didn't commit. They wind up in a Louisiana jail, where they mostly get on each other's nerves until the arrival of Roberto, a.k.a. Bob (Benigni) who is an absolute force of life. He, too, has had a run of bad luck -- accidentally killing a man in a poolroom fight -- but he's born to look on the bright side. He carries around a little notebook full of phrases he barely understands, but which he recites with great joy. He has read Walt Whitman and "Bob" Frost in Italian, and he has something of a clown poet's soul. He seems committed almost by his very nature to the idea that life (even life in a filthy cell) is what you make it.

I know, it sounds like horribly sentimental stuff. But the triumph of this film is that it works, that it adopts such a comfortable feel to the situation that you find yourself just kinda going with it, right down to it's deliberately fairy tale ending with its own Italian princess (Nicola Braschi) -- in which, by the way, two roads really do diverge in a yellow wood.

I first saw this picture at a long-gone little art theatre in Columbia called The Bijou. It was on Harden Street, and it was a gorgeous little place. Unfortunately it couldn't survive against the Nickelodeon -- Columbia can barely support one art theatre, let alone two -- but I remember leaving the theater just completely, totally jazzed by it. It was such a cool movie, cool in the best sense of the word -- with-it, independent, original, spirited, like a great sax solo. I even went out and bought Waits' Rain Dogs album, which has the songs which bookend the movie.

I think this is a movie I maybe ought to see once a year.

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