Stranger than Paradise (1984)

January 6, 2009

What I absolutely love about Jarmusch films is the fact that he shows bored people doing nothing and it looks so fucking appealing.  Way before the Richard Linklater/Kurt Cobain/Grunge slacker fad of the 1990s, Jarmusch was filling the screen with slacker icons.  Only in way cooler threads.

I watched Down By Law for the first time the other day and, reviewing the storyline on here, used seven words.  This film takes nine: three people drift together, drift around then drift apart.  The narrative idea- to take a staple dramatic device (chancing upon a stash of criminals’ cash and taking it) and place it at the climax rather than the outset- is interesting but downplayed.  Plot is not important here.

There are lots of still, silent shots of people sat doing nothing.  It is a beautiful film of dull subjects.  The mundanity of the protaganists’ lives, their lack of direction or aspiration is writ large.  If I could have anyone make the film of my ridiculous, nondescript life I’d want a Jim Jarmusch film.  His style and vision would make the rundown, grime of West Bromwich look like the place it still is in my head.

The main character of the three Bela/Willie is played beautifully by John Lurie.  He looks great, like Belmondo in ‘À Bout de Souffle’, but his hipster style is betrayed by his bemoaning the repeated airings of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put A Spell On You’.  The style is superficial, it doesn’t matter to him.  Nothing does.  This is reinforced by the aping of his style by Eddie (Richard Edson) he wants the look to be like Willie, but he’s not like Willie.  The third main player is Eva, a recently arrived Hungarian emigree, played by Eszter Balint.  She is the coolest of the three, but that’s no great praise really.  She looks square but is a bit more self-assured (though this is only once acknowledged, by Willie when she’s- presumably- shoplifted some groceries) while the other two protagonists look cool but lack any verve or drive.

Stylistically, thematically, visually this is a classic.  The character arc I’d have hoped for doesn’t happen though, dragging this back to a still impressive 7/10.

An interesting note: the music of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins plays a big part in this film and, entirely by chance, he had a cameo in the film I watched immediately prior to this ‘Perdita Durango‘.  I’d have got good odds on that coincidence.

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Down By Law (1986)

December 31, 2008

Entirely by chance, the second film I watched this evening was contemporaneous with the first (Howard the Duck).  I’m not sure that I can think of another similarity between the two.  And that is the wonder of this film in a nutshell.  This film is excellent because there is nothing here that there should be in a conventional movie.

The plot is as follows: three men are imprisoned together and escape.  That’s it.

You don’t even see how they escape, one of the guys says that he has thought up a plan and in the next scene they’re free.  The most dramatic part of the story happens off-screen.  It doesn’t matter how they did it, after all, all that matters is that they did.  The film is about how they feel- a dramatic Steve McQueen motorcycle jump would have been superfluous.

This film isn’t episodic, dramatic, exciting, colourful, full of surprise twists or complex snappy dialogue.  The trailer must’ve been a bitch to cut because for long periods literally nothing happens.  Tracking shots or silent footage of characters ignoring one another set to a gruff musical soundtrack take up a huge proportion of the film.  There are three lead characters and one barely appears until about halfway in.  They are very real and grounded characters in a fearful situation desperately trying to hide their fear.  They don’t like each other, they don’t really learn to get on, they don’t especially develop, Jarmusch simply allows the audience to gradually share their deeper emotions.  A great director placing his trust in the actors, giving them time and space to deliver: it is a marvel of understatement.

The intelligence that shines through repeatedly (the first example that springs to mind is the shack that the three men find following the jailbreak being a replica of their shared cell) isn’t self-indulgent or self-serving, but delivered with warmth.

This is a dark, slow, visually striking, engaging, atmospheric and thought-provoking modern day fairytale.  A real feast. 9/10.