'Sad and Beautiful World'
Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law, now out on a Criterion Collection DVD,
may have captured New Orleans better than any other film.
By David Lee Simmons
|The stars of Down by Law, from left: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Tom Waits and John Lurie.
|Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
It took an outsider telling a story about three outsiders to make a film that crawls inside the underbelly of New Orleans. For Down by Law may well be the hippest New Orleans movie ever made.
A Streetcar Named Desire may be more iconic, Panic in the Streets more thrilling, Interview With the Vampire more historic, Angel Heart more erotic, The Big Easy more musical. But there's no question which New Orleans movie oozes with the most postmodern cool: Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film, Down by Law. It's there in John Lurie's post-bebop soundtrack, and in Tom Waits' whiskey-drenched songs that bookend the film. It's there in Robby Müller's crisp black-and-white cinematography that only adds to the mystery.
And it's there in the performances from outsiders and locals alike: Waits' washed-up DJ Zack, who with his steel-toed shoes and bed-head hair looks like he stumbled out of a Ninth Ward corner bar; Lurie's self-delusional pimp Jack, with his half-puckered lips and '50s-era suits; Roberto Benigni's joker-in-the-deck Italian drifter Roberto (or just plain Bob); Timothea's whacked-out hooker Julie; and Vernel Bagneris' slithery hustler Preston. Together, they provide an assemblage of street-level characters grasping at the fringes of New Orleans -- lovable losers too hip for their own good.
Down by Law had attained such a cult status among locals that for years, the New Orleans Film Festival screened the movie on its closing night. Müller's cinematography was worth the price of admission alone. Simply put, Down by Law begs to be viewed at least on a bigger screen. Now, 16 years after its release, The Criterion Collection -- which specializes in releasing master film works on DVD of everyone from Hitchcock to Kurosawa -- has produced a two-disc version of the movie. Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that was supervised by Jarmusch, the film's look is razor-sharp and ideal for viewers with one of those gargantuan home-entertainment systems.
Special DVD features are all over the map and highlight the acerbic Jarmusch, who provides his own thoughts, answers emailed questions solicited for the disc by The Criterion Collection, and conducts phone interviews with his three stars. Other bright spots include a rather rambling interview with Müller and two snippets from the Cannes Film Festival -- one from the press conference held after the film, the other a hilarious interview of a clearly hung-over Lurie by a clueless French journalist. (Lurie provides an even funnier optional commentary of the interview.)
Jarmusch once called the movie a "neo-beat-noir-comedy," and it feels just like that: a hodge-podge culled from different genres and ideas floating around in a young, hot-shot indie filmmaker's head. There are references to poets (Walt Whitman and Robert Frost), prison breakout films and even the French New Wave, but more than anything, as Tom Waits points out to Jarmusch on the DVD, Down by Law" crawls forward in its own odd way. "In retrospect, Jarmusch and New Orleans were a perfect match; his early films seem unstuck in time and rhythm, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a film about city that long has marched to its own beat."
Jim Jarmusch's New Orleans is, as Roberto says in his patched-together English, a sad and beautiful world.
"In a way, [Roberto's line] describes the whole world, "Jarmusch says in a phone interview from his office in New York City, adding that Benigni was supposed to say "sad and beautiful song" but kept botching it. "But being in New Orleans, I thought it just struck the right note cosmically, by accident -- especially for New Orleans, and the movie being in black-and-white, and what was going on with the story."
Influenced by everything from The Defiant Ones to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, the almost-plotless Down by Law is the journey of three mismatched losers who wind up in Orleans Parish Prison. Jack and Zack hate each other from the get-go, but save their true venom for Roberto, who, ironically, is the one who provides the trio's means of escape into the swamps.
Shot entirely in and around New Orleans, Down by Law adheres to Jarmusch's fixation on threes in its basic three-act format: the first act is played out in city streets and apartment dwellings, the second in Orleans Parish Prison, the third in bayous around Slidell. Jarmusch had never been to New Orleans before writing the script, but was inspired by three things: his love of New Orleans culture (particularly its rich R&B music), his friendship with Waits and Lurie (whom he'd met in the New York art scene), and Benigni (a fellow jury member at an Italian film festival).
"There's a certain mystique about New Orleans," Jarmusch says on the DVD's commentary. "It really is a country unto itself, a culture unto itself."
That statement might be a cliche unto itself, but Jarmusch, even with his limited knowledge of New Orleans, conspicuously avoided so many clichés typical of New Orleans movies. For instance, Down by Law is completely devoid of shots of Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, streetcars and jazz funerals.
"In all the films that I've made, I'm not so much interested in landmarks or the expected icons of a particular place," Jarmusch says in his commentary. "I'm not so interested in seeing a big riverboat chug by. But at the same time there are details of New Orleans that seep into every frame of Down by Law that are just there: the quality of decay on the wooden railings of balconies, or certain views down streets or the empty sidewalks in certain neighborhoods. It's very haunted there, and you can find things almost anywhere."
Jarmusch shot the film in the fall of 1985. The director was still fresh off the success of 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, which won him Best New Director at Cannes. In Down by Law, Jarmusch again used Lurie both as a lead actor and the film's composer. Jarmusch scored a deal with the old Bayou Plaza hotel (formerly the Fountainbleau) on the corner of Carrollton and Tulane avenues. The hotel had once been a temporary home to Lurie and his family when they briefly moved down from Minnesota.
Jarmusch loved the old hotel. "There were a lot of student nurses living there at the time, which was kinda weird," he says. "I remember on Tom Waits' birthday, I remember him having a bottle of champagne in each hand and drinking alternately from each bottle, and he would go around knocking on doors saying, 'We're a party on wheels, let us in!' And the nursing students would open up the door with the chain still on, and they'd take one look at Tom and then slam the door."
|'There are details of New Orleans that seep into every frame of Down by Law that are just there,' director Jim Jarmusch says of his film. 'It's very haunted there, and you can find [details] almost anywhere."
|Photo by Jay Rabinowitz
Jarmusch hooked up with film-savvy locals, including Janet Densmore, who served as the movie's production designer and scouted out the scenes and found several props.
"Right from the start, she saw what I was looking for," Jarmusch says by phone. "Everything she found was in the right direction."
Densmore offered up two key locations for the first act, both in the not-yet-gentrified Faubourg Marigny: the corners of Burgundy and Touro streets (where Zack picks through his tossed-out clothes courtesy of his girlfriend, played by Ellen Barkin) and an old gas station at the corner of Port and Chartres streets (where a drunken Zack encounters Roberto and then Bagneris' Preston).
"That was so spooky because we went to shoot there at night, and there was nobody there," Jarmusch says. "It was beautiful and haunting in a way."
In another scene that became a part of the film's magnificent opening tracking shots of shotgun houses, wrought-iron balconies and the bayous, Jarmusch had recruited two New Orleans Police Department officers to pat down two African-American males for a brief shot. "We had done a run-through," Jarmusch says, "and I told the cops, 'OK, that was good. Now, we're gonna shoot one.' And the cops looked at me, and one of them said, 'Well, which one do you want us to shoot?' And the one guy, a Mardi Gras Indian chief, he has his hands behind his head and he just rolls his eyes at me as if to say, 'Damn, man, y'all see what we're up against down here?' We just started laughing. And the cops were like, 'What'd we say?'"
In keeping with his search for the offbeat onscreen and off -- and to quench his thirst for R&B -- Jarmusch asked Densmore to help him scope the local scene. Her choice: the now-defunct Dorothy's Medallion Lounge on Orleans Avenue, where Johnny Adams was performing along with Walter "Wolfman" Washington and singer Timothea. "I remember a couple of times they had a chick come out in a leopard-skin bikini with this afro, dancing to the jukebox," he says.
But what really grabbed Jarmusch was Timothea, whose raspy voice seemed a perfect fit for his film. He had Densmore call up her friend and offer her an audition.
"My audition consisted of walking across the room," Timothea says, then adds with a laugh, "That was it." Timothea knew why; Densmore had told her the audition was to play a hooker, "So I was walkin' across the room!"
"He was cute," Timothea says of Jarmusch. "He was all gray-haired, had his black sunglasses on, daytime, nighttime -- he was always wearing those sunglasses. He was mysterious."
Jarmusch didn't give Timothea much direction as Julie the hooker and even took a suggestion to change one of her few lines, when she is visited by Lurie's Jack (her pimp) while working the angled corner of Felicity and Orange streets. "When John Lurie walks up to me and asks me if I'm making any money, [Jarmusch] wanted me to say, 'Oh, we're not doing too well tonight,'" she says. "And I said, 'That sounds too straight. We gotta change it, and say, 'Ain't nothin' happenin'.' It was a simple little change, but he let me change it."
"Do you know that people come up to me in Europe and say that they've seen this movie 33, 43 times? And they know every line in the movie, they knew all my lines, and I must've been in it for four minutes! Like a Rocky Horror Picture Show kinda thing."
"He wanted slick," Vernel Bagneris says of Jarmusch's demand for the role of Preston, who sets up Zack by paying him to drive a stolen Jaguar that contains a dead body in the trunk. "He was really interested in my walk. He wanted me to kind of sail through (up to Zack). You know, somebody that could really slip you up, but make you think, 'Well, it can't be all that bad,' but it is that bad."
Already on his way to a career as an accomplished musical playwright, director and performer (Jelly Roll, Stagger Lee, One Mo' Time), Bagneris had bit parts in a handful of films including 1980's Pennies From Heaven. He knew enough about film to see Jarmusch's talent right away.
"I'd seen Stranger than Paradise, and I thought, 'Wow, what a director,'" Bagneris says by phone from New York. "One of the things that I love about his stuff is that he writes it and he directs it, so he knows exactly what he wants out of a line reading."
|The Criterion Collection, which releases DVD versions of films by master filmmakers like Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Fellini, dedicated two discs to its excellent release of Down by Law.
|Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
But more than anything, Bagneris was impressed with the way Jarmusch captured the feeling of the city.
"One of the things that thrilled me was the opening sequence, where he pretty much stated the whole New Orleans idiom in one rolling shot, from the lush balconies, the plants, away from the street ... yet the minute the camera gets to the street, you see the old cars, the poor people, the projects where people are playing ball, and back up to the balcony where life can be grand."
Besides getting rather seamless performances from his mixed cast of outsiders and locals, Jarmusch also created a wonderfully textured film in terms of mise en scene. So much of the film's beauty and sadness is in the black-and-white cinematography of Robby Müller. The Dutch-born cameraman was well-known for his work with Germany's Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), but Jarmusch snatched him up when Stranger Than Paradise cinematographer Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) decided to pursue a directing career. While Paradise was also shot in black-and-white, Down by Law has a completely different look to it.
"We wanted a very wide range of gray-scale tones with a good, rich black-and-white," Jarmusch says by phone. "I wanted all of those details, like in the bayou, because it wasn't going to be in color and because I didn't want the extra information that color gives you, but not too reduced, either, like in Stranger Than Paradise. I wanted all those little details within the black-and-white because the landscape and the city were so vivid."
Müller, who has since worked both with Jarmusch as well as Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves), was drawn to Jarmusch's intuitive shooting style, which eschewed storyboarding. "I had no idea what style or photography I should use," Müller says in the DVD interview. "And Jim said, 'Well, Robby, it's just a fairy tale,' and that was the only direction I got. And I was very happy with that. ... I suddenly felt free to do what I like."
Jarmusch also saturated the film with a musical sensibility that transcends the score. John Lurie's music featured a stellar band that included guitarist Arto Lindsay, trumpeter / banjo player Marc Ribot, and Bob Dylan's bassist, Louisianian Tony Garnier. Jarmusch's cast also was dominated by the musically inclined in Lurie, Waits, Bagneris and Timothea.
"Actors who are aware of music, they're good," Lurie says by phone, "but musicians, they make pretty good actors because their rhythm of talking has a nicer thing to it."
Add it up, and the result is something viewers hadn't previously seen, a movie that feels like the city, even if most of the people involved had only a passing knowledge of it.
"I think [Down by Law] captured a certain vibe and a look of New Orleans that's particular to how you look at it," Jarmusch says. "I think of the film as partly a fairy tale. It is atmosphere, but all that is a part of New Orleans. We hardly dressed anything up. We'd just find it how it was: sad and beautiful."