166 Down by Law

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Martha
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166 Down by Law

#1 Post by Martha » Sat Feb 12, 2005 8:36 pm

Down by Law

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When fate lands three hapless men—an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits), a small-time pimp (John Lurie), and a strong-willed Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni)—in a Louisiana prison, their singular adventure begins. Described by director Jim Jarmusch as a “neo-beat-noir-comedy,â€

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Fletch F. Fletch
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#2 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Wed Jul 13, 2005 12:56 pm

For the longest time this has been my favorite Jarmusch film. I love Robby Muller's richly textured black and white cinematography. Right from the opening tracking shots of desolate areas and the run down slums of New Orleans (accompanied by that great, atmospheric Tom Waits song, “Jockey Full of Bourbonâ€

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#3 Post by ando » Thu Aug 25, 2005 11:08 am

I've had my love affair with this film a year or so ago and now I couldn't bear to watch these three screwballs again. It's like listening to the song (or worse, looking at the video) which partly inspired Jarmusch's title, Grand Master Flash's New York, New York again, seriously. Forget about it. It's all novelty now. I think that Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes or say, Dead Man elicits repeat viewings in a way that this film simply cannot. None of the characters are strong enough to warrant a review of their respective or collective situations. Simply put, they're boring. None of them seems to have the slightest inkling of that which is vital (and basic) in any dramatic structure: motivation. They spend the entire film attempting to get out of situations, whereas, in the two films I mentioned above, the characters are placed in situations for a purpose - there is an intention behind them being there.

Don't gt me wrong, I'm not hung up on purpose, but I do think that a filmmaker should keep the audience interested in the fates of the characters. Character, actually, is fate, and these wandering wastrels are defined merely by the precepts of the film's title. The rest (as one well known filmmaker put it) is photography.

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#4 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Thu Aug 25, 2005 1:00 pm

ando wrote:None of the characters are strong enough to warrant a review of their respective or collective situations. Simply put, they're boring. None of them seems to have the slightest inkling of that which is vital (and basic) in any dramatic structure: motivation.
I disagree. Initially, they have little motivation to go anywhere. True, these guys are wasting their lives away as the first third of the movie shows. But once they all get together in prison, Benigni's character inspires them, gets them fired up about something even if it is too chant "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." And then this leads to their prison escape. Their motivation is pretty simple: to not go back to prison and, I would imagine, get back to their previous lives -- altho, now that they are on the lam would be impossible so they have to forge new lives for themselves -- Benigni hooks up with the women working at the diner while Waits and Lurie go their separate ways, their fate left up to us to imagine.
They spend the entire film attempting to get out of situations, whereas, in the two films I mentioned above, the characters are placed in situations for a purpose - there is an intention behind them being there.
That merely shows Jarmusch's evolution as an artist. Early on, he was merely interested in depicted what happens in the margins of movies, what happens when most movies cut to the next scene and move on. His characters were all about their aimless, pointless existence and how there can be beauty and something interesting even in that. At least, for me, that is part of the appeal of his early films.

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#5 Post by ando » Fri Aug 26, 2005 10:56 am

Fletch F. Fletch wrote:
Their motivation is pretty simple: to not go back to prison
This is a situation, not a motivation. I think the distiction is important. Granted, the dramatic structure (and requirements) of the cinema is different from that of "the theater", nevertheless, any dramatic form involving a character must include motivation. Why don't the three characters want to return to prison? Specifically? Could you provide an answer for each of the three that would make for a compelling story if you were telling it in any other way other than through film? As it is, it doesn't make a terribly interesting story on the screen.

And that's the crux of my point. What's the story? There is no story. Three hapless dudes go to jail and escape. I'm not saying there's anything wrong in mining the depths of this scenario but unless the writer creates strong (or at least, urgent) motivations for each of the characters involved there isn't much to tell.

Why would you recommend this movie (in all honesty)?

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#6 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Fri Aug 26, 2005 1:20 pm

ando wrote:This is a situation, not a motivation. I think the distiction is important. Granted, the dramatic structure (and requirements) of the cinema is different from that of "the theater", nevertheless, any dramatic form involving a character must include motivation. Why don't the three characters want to return to prison? Specifically? Could you provide an answer for each of the three that would make for a compelling story if you were telling it in any other way other than through film? As it is, it doesn't make a terribly interesting story on the screen.
I guess my point is that Jarmusch is not concerned with telling a story per se but rather presenting these characters in various situations. The enjoyment (at least for me) in watching Down By Law is the performances of the three leads and how their distinctive personalities bounce off one another and the situations they find themselves in. There may not be a compelling reason for why these guys don't want to return to prison but I always felt that that was immaterial to the simple pleasure of watching these characters in various situations.
And that's the crux of my point. What's the story? There is no story. Three hapless dudes go to jail and escape. I'm not saying there's anything wrong in mining the depths of this scenario but unless the writer creates strong (or at least, urgent) motivations for each of the characters involved there isn't much to tell.
I disagree. I think that exploring the personalities of each character and/or how they interact with one another is just as valid and interesting -- if done well, which I believe it is in this case.
Why would you recommend this movie (in all honesty)?
Yep. Actually, for awhile this was my favorite Jarmusch film but I prefer Dead Man now.

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#7 Post by bunuelian » Fri Aug 26, 2005 1:47 pm

After thinking about Broken Flowers for a while and revisiting his early work, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Jarmusch is purely cinematic, in the sense that his films aren't necessarily telling stories worth talking about (Dead Man excepted) but rather exist entirely for their images, sounds and personality. Many of the people in his world exude restless boredom, and many of the situations we see them in are, at root, naggingly dull. But in his editing, he transforms these dull moments into something profound. Although it's overused, I think the label of poet aptly applies to Jarmusch. The story isn't the thing for him, it's the way he structures the film and composes his shots. He doesn't need to stand by traditional narrative obligations like motivation because the story is what's on the screen, not what's in the heads of his characters.

The characters in Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise have no goals in life. They're listless, trying to find something satisfying but never quite grasping it. It's when some small gesture of life arises that they are suddenly liberated from their malaise, and the audience is lifted with them.

Personally I think DBL is wholly dependent on the viewer enjoying watching the three leads breathe and listlessly move around. If they aren't inherently interesting people to you, it's easy to see why someone wouldn't especially like this movie. There's a lot more going on in, say, Dead Man.

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#8 Post by ando » Mon Aug 29, 2005 7:40 pm

Oh, I think that presenting anything (three dull characters included) on the screen is valid. Interesting is a matter of opinion, obviously.

I don't understand how lack of motivation in characters is equated with the evolution of a director. Again, these characters have no motivation. Their desire not to return to prison is not clearly delineated in the film. The desire to escape and not get caught (which is markedly different in that it reflects their situation) is what drives the narrative, but this is not character motivation. Motivation tells us why a character desires something. The desire, however, is what propels the narrative, not motivation. (For example, a character wants to steal a car to impress a would-be lover. Why? Because he's lonely and he really wants attention. Fairly silly plot, but let's face it, we've all seen much worse, right? His lonliness, however, motivates the guy to steal a car. The desire to steal puts the narrative in motion, not his lonliness. If an actor told you My character steals the car because he's lonlely it would make no sense! But our empathy (or sympathy) with the character's condition holds our interest. We can relate to what motivates him. In DBL I don't know where the three screwballs are coming from psychologically or emotionally, and because of that I'm a bit bored.)

And it's true, we don't necessarily need to know why a small town pimp, a gypsy disc-jockey and a wayward tramp are running away from any substantial relationships or responsibilities, but it would far more compelling if we were given a glimpse. As it is, Jarmusch relies on the charms (if you must) of these three actors to carry the narrative forward. I suppose it left him free to play with sumptuous compositions but beautiful photography simply isn't enough for me to remain interested. It's not my intention to director-hate (as I've said I was once very taken with this film), but at least with Coffee and Cigarettes, there is an interesting premise; namely, what lies behind the modern social ritual of coffee and cigarettes? With DBL, everything's up for grabs, which isn't a bad thing, just not a very compelling thing.

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#9 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Mon Aug 29, 2005 8:42 pm

ando, I don't understand what you're saying. A prison escape is a situation. Wanting to escape prison is a motivation. Why do they want to escape prison? Because it's PRISON. Nobody wants to be in prison. Perhaps this situation is too old hat to seem urgent to you but let me ask you this: why does every character in every movie need to have an urgent purpose? Jarmusch has never been about high tension. He's the opposite, in fact. What we have here are two aimless, low key, low lifes drifting through life without taking much notice and one Italian savouring the most mundane to it's fullest. That the latter is able to make the former two do anything at all is a monumental feat. This is the world of this movie.

In addition, these three are fully developed, distinct and hilarious characters. If you don't like them then you're clearly not of Jarmusch's demographic, which is to say, you're still in a majority. This is outcast territory. If they're not your style it ain't no nevermind but I fail to see how anything you've said is a valid criticism of this movie.

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#10 Post by ando » Tue Aug 30, 2005 5:00 pm

That's too bad Doctor Sunshine.

Outcast territory or not, if there is no story to tell - there's no story to tell. I'm fully aware of "the world" of the movie, but the world of any movie must include characters who are motivated to do something. That something propels the narrative. This is basic storytelling. Regardless of the world that is created around the charcaters, without characters who are clearly and specifically motivated to do something, you end up with a pastiche of a film, not a movie. Not wanting to return to prison is hardly a specific motivation for any character in any film to fill a feature length performance with - which is why the film falls flat so often.

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#11 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Tue Aug 30, 2005 11:34 pm

There's no need to condescend.

What kind of specific motivation do you need? Should Waits have a wife and kids at home that need him there to earn the bread? Should Lurie's business be running into the ground with the girls hoping against hope that he'll make it home in time to save the day? Why can't a story just be about characters and character development? As a rule, should slackers, derelicts and loners be excluded from having films made about them? So many questions. Please clarify.

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#12 Post by ando » Wed Aug 31, 2005 11:01 am

I wasn't condescending. I think it's unfortunate that you can't comprehend a simple point: e.g., any protagonist (or antagonist, for that matter) who doesn't have a clear or urgent motivation to do something in any dramatic structure (either as written or as performed) will inevitably contribute to a less compelling narrative than a character, however colorful, who simply inhabits a world - especially, a main character.

This doesn't mean that DBL doesn't have good performances or isn't entertaining. That's beside the point. The narrative isn't as compelling as those in other Jarmusch films because the characters don't have motivations that are clearly defined on an emotional or psychological level. In fact, Jarmusch minimizes the drama inherent in evading the prison authorities, which you claim to be a motivating drive in the characters, by relegating it to a long shot of an underground passageway through which the three characters escape and a few dog barks and whistles just before they cross the swamp. Through this minimization Jarmusch is really poking fun at the cinematic conventions that directors often use in "prison-escape" flicks. It's merely a plot device to maintain the unit of the three main characters. They could just as easily have escaped from a bank robbery - their motivations would have been equally as generalized. The pleasure, as you rightly point out, lies in the relationships between three men who would otherwise probably never hang out with each other for more than five minutes.

Though all of this is (at times) charming, it doesn't make for especially compelling theater, imo.

That's all. You may now resume your unqualified adoration of DBL. :lol:

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#13 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Wed Aug 31, 2005 8:48 pm

Oh, no, I'm not done yet.

First, pitying me because I don't understand your simple point is condescension. Don't make me whip out my dictionary. If I don't agree with you on something I'm not going to understand your vauge point but will need clarification, hopefully with examples--which you've now provided.

Now, Down by Law most definitely partakes of the prison break genre. One of the things I enjoy about it is that it circumvents the formalities of the genre. We don't see how they escape because, ultimately, it's not what this movie is about. It's the same principle as cutting away from the sword duel in Colonel Blimp or even Soderbergh's jump cuts--excising the unnecessary bits in order to maintain focus or even highlight what is important. That being, as previously stated, the characters. We all know they're on the lam, it's present through the entire course of the movie, but toned down by the goofy actions of the protagonists. Such as when Waits and Lurie are too frightened to enter the house, they send Benigni in and hide in the brush for hours. It's clear, it's dramatic, it's true to the characters and it's very silly. I couldn't ask for more.

Clearly, our disagreement is a matter of tastes, Jarmusch is a man of subtleties and you're seemly more geared towards amping things up and strict adhesion to screenwriting class rules.
That's all. You may now resume your unqualified adoration of DBL.
I do love it and when I grow up I plan to marry it.

♥ Doctor By Law Doctor By Law Doctor By Law Doctor By Law ♥

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#14 Post by jorencain » Wed Aug 31, 2005 9:43 pm

Doctor Sunshine wrote:Clearly, our disagreement is a matter of tastes, Jarmusch is a man of subtleties and you're seemly more geared towards amping things up and strict adhesion to screenwriting class rules.
OK, now you're being condescending. I don't mean to get in the middle of this, but it IS a matter of tastes, as you have said, so leave it at that. Ando has done a good job of explaining why he doesn't like it (which I agree with, by the way), and you've done a good job of explaining why you do like it. You're talking in circles now.

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#15 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Thu Sep 01, 2005 3:28 pm

Yeah, I was. But when I do it it's cute.

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#16 Post by ando » Tue Sep 06, 2005 12:39 pm

Subtle. :)

Screenwriting class? I don't know about all that. I know that I agree with Kurosawa (as opposed to someone like Oliver Stone, for instance) who felt that the script was everything. As he once said: With a good script, even a bad director can make a passable film. But with a bad script not even a great director can make a good film.

I think it's safe to say that there's barely any script in Down By Law, and what little there is is not very good, which, again, doesn't make it a bad film, but it's certainly not a great one.

And for all of Jarmusch's subtleties, none of the existential qualities that are attributed to his work in this film are really justified. All one has to do is listen to the commentary track by Jarmusch to discover that the various existential takes on the film are almost wholly unintended. He, in fact, scoffs at all such readings (which does not make them invalid or uninteresting, simply unintended). 8-)

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#17 Post by Doctor Sunshine » Tue Sep 06, 2005 5:48 pm

With the screen writing comment I was implying that strict adhesion to arbitrary rules put in place by teachers--of the "those that can't do" variety--is less admirable than someone who is willing to break a few rules or, better still, use one's own judgement and intuition.

And as much as I love Kurosawa, a great director can make a great film with a single page of scribbled notes. There is no one sacrosanct way to make a movie.

And the subtlety I mentioned has to do with the humour, craft, emotion... I'm just going to say every aspect of his filmmaking. I have no idea why you would arbitrarily slap existentialism into this discussion.

Also, if you're going to continue to use emoticons--especially the one with sunglasses--I'm going to have an increasingly hard time taking you seriously.

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#18 Post by ando » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:05 pm

That's, no doubt, part of the problem: you're taking this way too seriously, though your replies are not necessarily more intelligent because of it. You're even telling me how to post! :)

Again, that's too bad, though (i must admit) I'm having a ball.

I understood what you meant by the screenwriting comment. I also understand your attempt to align criticism with actual fimmaking in order to strengthen your argument. There's no need.

It's true that there's no "sacrosanct way" to make a movie. But that doesn't mean you can make a great movie with a bad script. Please, give us an example of a great film that was made from "a single page of scribbled notes". If, indeed, that is the script from which the feature length film that you have in mind was made, I, for one, would love to view it.

I cited the existentialist readings of this film because it's one example of how many viewers read into Jarmusch's work all kinds of "subtleties" that are not intended.

8-) ando
Last edited by ando on Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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#19 Post by Michael » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:10 pm

Please, give us an example of a great film that was made from "a single page of scribbled notes".
Eraserhead....In The Mood For Love, no?

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#20 Post by ando » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:18 pm

Thanks for the suggestion, Michael. I've never viewed this film, but I will at the next possible opportunity. Who knows, maybe Doctor Sunshine will cure me of my chronic skepticism.

Wait.... you added Eraserhead at the last moment. :) Well, Eraserhead is one of my favorite films, but it can't be true that Lynch scribbled the entire script on a slip of paper, can it?

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#21 Post by Michael » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:21 pm

If I'm not mistaken, David Lynch wrote the whole concept/script of Eraserhead on one page. I don't have the source but I'm sure someone else on this forum will reinforce that.

Wong Kar Wai is known for making films without scripts.

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#22 Post by ando » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:31 pm

Twentyone pages long is the official length of the Eraserhead script, according to Lynch: "Even if I had scripted it out, it would have never been made in that way. So many things in a film like Eraserhead can't really be written down, and when you're forced to write things down, you end up making a different kind of film."

So, the question begs, what kind of film is Eraserhead (or Down By Law, for that matter) that the script is of little importance to the overall experience of watching a film? Or, rather, is the experience of watching such a film equally as powerful (or effective) as a film that has characters with clearly defined motives? How important is the spoken/written word in cinema in the overall experience?

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#23 Post by Ishmael » Wed Sep 07, 2005 1:15 pm

ando wrote:Please, give us an example of a great film that was made from "a single page of scribbled notes".
Fata Morgana. One of Herzog's best films. Also, the last third of Apocalypse Now qualifies, as long as you feel -- as I do -- that the ending is brilliant. Also, I think Fishing with John qualifies here as well. Maybe not as a film, but as a great TV show which involved little to no pre-planning. Oh, and surely Brakhage didn't storyboard his films before shooting and/or painting the material for them.

Also, most documentaries don't have scripts. Some scenes may be staged, but that's probably about equivalent to "a single page of scribbled notes." If we accept that documentaries can be as great as fiction films, then they should really be included in this list.

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#24 Post by ando » Wed Sep 07, 2005 4:15 pm

Actually, Eraserhead doesn't qualify if we're adhering to the description of "a single page of scribbled notes". Nor would most of the films listed thus far. The point is (and let's not get away from it) whether or not a film that has little in the way of a good script can be as compelling as a film without one.

Now, in the case of Eraserhead (for example), though Lynch includes very little actual dialogue, his intentions for the characters and situations are very defined and quite discernable. The written word does not feature well in the film, but there's no need for it to do such. The visual devices Lynch uses to tell the story provide us with the information necessary to discern the motives or intentions of the charcaters within the film and Lynch, the filmmaker.

No such delineation, or should I say, clearly discernible intention of either Jarmusch or any of the three characters exist in Down By Law. Sure, they don't want to go back to jail. So what? What are the implications, specifically, for each of the characters in their possible capture? We don't know. They're simply on the run.

Lynch in Eraserhead, on the other hand, gives us visual representions of the emotional and psychologial states of the characters as they consider their situations and possibilities. The fears of the characters and their horror of the situation (which is a fairly ordinary one, actually) is given, almost literally, a nightmare treatment.

This is a very different approach from the situation in Down By Law (genre differences withstanding), where the situation, though seemingly dire, has all the urgency and dramatic tension of a walk in the park - or in this case, a cruise in the swamp.

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#25 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Wed Sep 07, 2005 4:20 pm

ando wrote:This is a very different approach from the situation in Down By Law (genre differences withstanding), where the situation, though seemingly dire, has all the urgency and dramatic tension of a walk in the park - or in this case, a cruise in the swamp.
Again, as someone stated above, this all boils down to a matter of personal opinion. You may not find the characters or the situations they are in very compelling but there are others (myself included) who do. C'est la vie...

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