166 Down by Law

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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Michael
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 12:09 pm

#26 Post by Michael » Wed Sep 07, 2005 5:34 pm

I just looked up numerous sources and ando, you're absolutely right about Eraserhead. Apologies for not double checking before bringing up Eraserhead in the first place.

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ando
Bringing Out El Duende
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#27 Post by ando » Wed Sep 07, 2005 5:45 pm

Not a big deal, Michael, but the point is that there was a script (with a significant vision) to begin with - whether or not it adhered to any standardized formula for screenwriting is beside the point. That said, it's doubtful if any other director could take Lynch's script and produce the same film, but a talented director could probably pull off (at the very least) something interesting to watch.

LeeB.Sims

#28 Post by LeeB.Sims » Thu Jul 27, 2006 5:41 pm

Well, I can see that this has been a somewhat dead thread for a while now, but given my username/avatar combo, I thought it would be an appropriate place for me to begin posting. Though I'm obviously a little late, I'd like the chance to respond to Ando's claims that the character's lack motivation and development and offer my two cents to the healthy debate taking place here last year (how time flies eh?).

I feel that the characters in Down By Law (my favorite Criterion by the way) are fully developed in their own rights, though it may require some imagination. If I may:

Zack (Tom Waits) is the cynical idealist. He fancies himself as somewhat of an underground hero of the airwaves, a nomadic maverick DJ who has very strict rules regarding “selling out”. His main concern in life is remaining true to himself, and true to his art. As far as what this personal code entails exactly, it is unclear. All we know is that certain studios and radio stations occasionally require him to compromise his standards and when he refuses (as he always does), he gets fired. This causes a serious lack of stability in his life and in the life of Laurette, who wishes to God that Zack would just kiss a little ass now and then. Zack however lives in the present (“…can't live in the present forever right Laurette?”) and is concerned solely with his own integrity, be it in his DJing career, his unique sense of style (the only thing he got passionate about during Laurette's blow up was the shoes) or in his cynical mistrust of others. He feels put upon by the world, the consummate rebel who believes it is him against The Man and who is constantly sacrificing his own self interest to operate outside of a system he believes is oppressive to his personal cool. This is what motivates him to escape from prison (remember, he was the only one who didn't actually do anything illegal to end up there and this wrongful imprisonment is the ultimate affront to his soul) and this is what presumably motivates him as he remains on the lamb long after the film has ended and the exquisite strains of “Tango Til They're Sore” skip playfully over the closing credits. He absolutely must keep on keeping on no matter what, for Zack believes he is the lone warrior in his fight for personal freedom.

Jack (John Lurie) is the selfish hustler with the heart of gold. The fact that he is a pimp speaks more to his true personality than a mere title or career choice, he lives and breaths for the hustle. When he is in the beautifully noirish hotel room with Bobbie, she tells volumes about his character while she lounges on the bed and watches him count his money. She talks of his grandiose dreams and financial aspirations, his constant talk of a better future in contrast to his consistent failure to prepare for one. He is motivated by money, plain and simple, and everything that is entailed in looking out for numero uno. He is essentially the true “bad guy” of the trio and probably the one with the shadiest dealings in the past (though Zack's association with the snake-like conman who get's him to drive the stolen Jag across town indicates he's got some skeletons in his closet too…). And yet, he doesn't smack around his prostitutes in the typical pimp fashion, he gives people second chances, and more than once during the film he reveals his need for the companionship of others. This is where he reveals the “Heart of Gold”, albeit on rare occasion. His experience with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans society only makes it more painfully insulting when he walks into the trap set by Gig (aka. the Fat Man, does anyone else suspect Bobbie might have been in on this?). He can't stand the fact that he finally got caught. Jack wistfully dreams of the long, white, stretch limo with naked ladies inside, all the while wasting away in the jail cell and becoming increasingly erratic (the deleted scenes add more to this aspect of his character). His motivation to escape and not look back is, by my estimation, simply a need to return to the hustle, to get back to work on his five-year plan, which is looking more and more like a thirty-five year plan. He wants to make as much money as possible, own as many women as possible, and live as fat and as high on the hog for as long as he possibly can… that is, until the money and the women are all gone.

Bob (Roberto Benigni) is the naïve romantic. His character has the most obvious personality traits of the three and is the one who really wears his strengths and weaknesses on his sleeve. His motivation is quite simply love. He loves this strange and beautiful world and everything in it is instantly fresh and exciting, presenting him with a much appreciated learning opportunity. His face lights up and becomes sincerely inquisitive when he hears a new turn of phrase which he thinks is worth writing in his little notebook. It is with passion and love that he recites passages from Walt Whitman and Bob Frost, and in fact, this love of poetry is enough to hint at the romanticism that bubbles below Bob's surface. He killed a man in a passionate action of self-defense. He speaks lovingly and nostalgically about his family and his homeland, but doesn't ever give the impression that he wishes he were there, he is too busy loving life and learning from his wealth of quintessentially American experiences (what's more American than getting thrown in jail after all?). It is love of freedom and experience that motivates Bob to hatch the plan of escape, to continue through the woods and the harrowing swampland (which present more of a challenge for him than the other characters), to intervene in the conflicts of his companions and attempt to hold the unlikely triumvirate together, and it is love that ultimately saves him in the lovely form of Nicoletta. For me there is no sweeter moment than when they forget the rest of the world, block out any uncertainties they may have about their future, and press their cheeks together for that most stirring, and strangely comforting dance at the breakfast table. It almost makes me cry just thinking about that scene. Love makes Bob stay, and love is in Bob's voice as he calls out “Wish-a you were heeah!” to his first real American friends as they traipse off down the road, and he means it I believe, he really wishes their amazing dynamic could last for many more adventures.

alfons416
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#29 Post by alfons416 » Tue Sep 04, 2007 3:58 pm

Does the Criterion disc and the one released by Madman in Australia have the same extras? How about the picture quality?

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ando
Bringing Out El Duende
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#30 Post by ando » Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:45 pm

It's been two and a half years since this discussion took place and I simply can't believe I had the time for such quibbling. Frankly, I don't think I could sit through another viewing of it, though one of the more memorable passages is the bayou sequence which I've seen replicated in a dozen or more films since.

Image

I hesitate to give illustrations because I'm not really sure I know the difference between a bayou and a swamp (if there's any). But the most immediate example that comes to mind is the passage from Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood, where Ivan and his two soldier compatriots have to cross enemy lines, the line being, in this instance, the swamp itself.

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scene from Ivan's Childhood

Not having seen the Tarkovsky film I believed Jarmusch's film contained one of the most poetic uses of the swamp. I still think it's pretty but its use, from what I remember, seems to be without specific context, other than featuring the strange locale of New Orleans. In effect, as a plot device, it seems more akin to Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, particularly in Alice's escape from the authority of The Red Queen than any crime or escape film genre.

Image

Like the three eccentric main characters in the film the swamp sequence seems to be more of a quixotic episode than poignant metaphor.

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Antoine Doinel
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#31 Post by Antoine Doinel » Fri Nov 07, 2008 2:54 pm

Just read through your posts ando, and I'm just curious: why does a film have to have a story with clearly defined character "motivations"? With this film (and much of Jarmusch's work), he's not so much concerned with story, as he is with mood and character. I'll agree his films are a matter of taste, but as Fletch mentioned, why they don't want to go back to prison is really immaterial. It's just a reason to put his characters on the road. I think it would do the film a great disservice to box these three personalities into the firmly defined story arcs. What makes the film so much fun and fresh is that you really don't know what these guys are going to get up to. Jarmusch just asks the viewer to submit and be taken along for the ride. And why does the swamp or episode need to be a metaphor for anything? Down By Law is all about mood - three lackadaisical characters, whiling their time away in the humid, swampy south and bumping into fortune or misfortune as it comes along. I don't think there is much to be read in the film beyond that, but for me, it's a wonderful world to spend a couple of hours in.

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ando
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#32 Post by ando » Fri Nov 07, 2008 10:33 pm

A film doesn't have to have any of these attributes. But if I'm going to sit down and focus on a feature film for two hours it needs to have some substance. Otherwise, I could watch television.

And I do think there's something behind the surface beauty of the images in this film despite Jarmusch's own claim that the project was really one great party. It's like the answer Jimmy Baldwin gave when asked, "Will you ever write anything that has no meaning?" His reply, naturally, was there has never been a writer who sat down to write without having something to say. And the same can certainly be said for filmmakers, who have to expend far more energy, time and money in creating something that they desire to convey.
it's a wonderful world to spend a couple of hours in.
Agreed. But creating a world is just what I alluded to in the above comparison to Carroll's Alice In Wonderland. If that's what he's up to - and if that's all he wished to accomplish - cool. But there's something to be said even about the way he creates this world, no? I guess my assumption is that artists (of every kind) have a certain responsibility to reveal the truth of whatever they're considering in some manner, particularly the truth of the society in which they are a part - even if it is mere entertainment. Frankly, I think there's a certain deadpan earnestness (at least) in the way Jarmusch presents his world that is his truth for the moment, at any rate. If this isn't an artist's domain, what is?

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Re: 166 Down by Law

#33 Post by greggster59 » Sat Nov 08, 2008 11:32 am

It always seemed to me that Jarmusch's films keep a certain ironic eye on events and characters. If you relate to this perspective his movies are quite amusing and easy to identify with. I've always enjoyed watching all of Jarmusch's movies, including Permanent Vacation, and never gave much thought to why they held an appeal for me. I once had a roomful of people fall asleep during Stranger than Paradise and I was so into the film I didn't notice until it was over. Says something about my oddness, I suppose.

My brother often refers to unusual situations by saying "sometimes life feels like a Jim Jarmusch movie". That about sums it up for me.

Cheers!

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swo17
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#34 Post by swo17 » Sat Nov 08, 2008 11:45 am

greggster59 wrote:My brother often refers to unusual situations by saying "sometimes life feels like a Jim Jarmusch movie".
Is your brother the guy from that Facets ad?

greggster59
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#35 Post by greggster59 » Sat Nov 08, 2008 3:03 pm

swo17 wrote:
greggster59 wrote:My brother often refers to unusual situations by saying "sometimes life feels like a Jim Jarmusch movie".
Is your brother the guy from that Facets ad?
Don't know the ad but he started saying this around the time of Mystery Train. 8-[

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swo17
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#36 Post by swo17 » Sat Nov 08, 2008 3:34 pm

Frankly, I envy you for never having had to see the ad. But for your benefit, it goes a little something like this:

[The scene opens on a nondescript work breakroom, calculatedly dissheveled in order to appear lived in. Three actors hired to play "indie hipsters" sit around a table pretending to play cards. They stare blankly ahead of them, as though both literally and figuratively disappointed by the cards they have been dealt to lead them to this. After about 20 seconds, one of them awkwardly breaks the silence.]

HIPSTER: Do you guys ever feel like you're in a Jarmusch picture?

[The other two hipsters look slowly and stagedly up at him, but say nothing. Cue Facets logo. Fade to black.]

greggster59
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#37 Post by greggster59 » Sat Nov 08, 2008 6:16 pm

Perhaps I should advise my brother to come up with another line. :o

LeeB.Sims

Re: 166 Down by Law

#38 Post by LeeB.Sims » Mon Nov 10, 2008 4:30 pm

Well, for some reason the body of my last post on this subject got deleted, but it was a lengthy rumination on my perceived motivations for all three characters. If you didn’t read it earlier Ando, boy is it ever your loss. No, I kid. It was mostly a bunch of hogwash anyway, and Antoine makes a valid point in saying that the motivations and plot arcs are incidental.

I do however feel that the film offers much more than just mood and ambiance (though it typically displays both with flair). To me the most delightfully sneaky aspect of the story is the touching camaraderie that slowly develops between these three characters. The turning point I think is when Bob asks Zach if he likes Walt Whitman and for the first time, rather than dismissing what he says as nonsense, Zach stops to consider the question. From here we see them gradually start to hate each other less and less until the final moments of the film when Bob is calling out misused colloquialisms in a farewell to his friends and Zach and Jack are pointing at each other and laughing at an unspoken shared joke as they part ways… presumably forever. This growing bond is, by my estimation, what the film is really “about” and in fact what the dead perfect title alludes to.

As a funny little bit of serendipity, I just saw that Facets add this weekend as it preceded Disc three of The Decalog. The thing I that I thought was especially strange about it is that I don’t believe Facets has even produced any DVDs of Jarmusch’s films. Am I wrong? It’s like it was just an annoyingly misplaced namedrop to lend them some weak credibility.

Edit: Kinjitsu restored my earlier post to its entirety. Thanks!

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ando
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#39 Post by ando » Mon Nov 10, 2008 7:35 pm

This growing bond is, by my estimation, what the film is really “about” and in fact what the dead perfect title alludes to.
I'll buy that.

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LQ
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#40 Post by LQ » Thu Jan 22, 2009 3:44 pm

To "prepare" for an upcoming trip to New Orleans, I popped in Down By Law last night to while away some time in the bayous with my three favorite Jarmusch gentlemen. Each time I watch this it grows on me all the more..I think it might just edge out Dead Man in the end. Generally, I quickly tire of Roberto Benigni's antics in other films but here he is endlessly loveable, his Book of English in particular makes me grin ear to ear, as that's one of my own practices. I can't think of another character in Jarmusch's collective that is so full of life and passion and inquisitiveness! Such a charming shimmer of light in an otherwise sultry, deliciously dark and moody film. I always have a different reaction to Down By Law...sometimes I put it on and end up in stasis but other times, like the last, I laugh through the entire film. The characters are so entertaining just as themselves...and the actors each wear their identity so well. Having never been to New Orleans before, my abstract notion of the town is inextricably tied to this movie, for better or worse! (better tied to Down By Law than "True Blood", though!)

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Michael
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#41 Post by Michael » Thu Jan 22, 2009 4:30 pm

LQ, make sure to visit Cafe du Monde for its beignets buried in powdered sugar and chickory coffee, a very lovely cafe.

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kaujot
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#42 Post by kaujot » Thu Jan 22, 2009 4:45 pm

And famous, too.

Make sure you go around the back, as it's fascinating to watch them make the beignets.

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LQ
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#43 Post by LQ » Thu Jan 22, 2009 4:49 pm

Cafe du Monde..with other suggestions made in the Travel thread..have all been penned in :)

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Jeff
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Re: 166 Down by Law

#44 Post by Jeff » Mon Apr 16, 2012 1:49 pm


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