DOWN BY LAW by Jim Jarmusch
Magill's Cinema Annual, 1987


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference. 'Bob" Frost "The Road Not Taken"

In a central scene in Down by Law, the three fugitives-Jack the pimp (John Lurie), Zack the disc jockey (Tom Waits), and Roberto the foreigner (Roberto Benigni)-are hiding in a cabin in a swamp when suddenly' Roberto recites in Italian the last stanza of "The Road Not Taken" by the poet he calls "Bob" Frost. Roberto's outburst has a wonderful, zany comic effect because it is so incongruous. Down by Last, also ends with an elaborate visual joke which is a literal enactment of the central scene from "The Road Not Taken." Zack and Jack finish their reluctant journey together by coming to Frost's two roads and walking their separate ways out of the picture. This subtle use of Robert Frost is the perfect ending for this marvelously imaginative film that is one long visual and verbal double entendre-a series of deftly wrought literary and film allusions.

Frost's lines are a fitting epigraph not only for Down by Law but also for the filmmaker himself. Jim Jarmusch has chosen the road "less travelled by," which has indeed made all the artistic difference. A young American filmmaker (a Columbia University undergraduate literature major and a graduate of the New York University film school), whose low-budget Stranger Than Paradise (1984) won international and national awards and even popuhr success, Jarmusch resisted multiple offers of directing in Hollywood, choosing to remain fiercely independent in writing, directing, and producing Down by Law. Jarmusch's films thus join the company of a growing number recent American films, such as Alex Cox's Repo Alan (1984), John Sayles's The Brother from Another Planet (1984), and Spike Lee's Shes Gotta Have It (1986; reviewed in this volume) that have traveled their own independent routes across the American landscape. Consistent with his insistence on going his own way as filmmaker is Jarmusch's desire to present alternative American journeys. Both Stranger than Paradise and Down by w are travel stories-but off-beat stories about marginal people who move around the edges of mainstream society, strangers to the American paradise.

Like Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, is a parody of conventional stories taken mostly from American films. The plot is deceptively simple. Two New Orleans fringe people, Jack, a second-rate pimp, and Zack, an itinerant disc jockey, are framed for crimes they did not commit--Jack as a child molester, Zack for a murder. They end up in an Orleans Parish Prison cell as reluctant companions. Jack and Zack spar with each other in bouts of noncommunication, until they are joined by a third prisoner--Roberto, an Italian immigrant who has, in spite of his innocent looks, actually killed a man in a pool-hall fight. With his zest for life, Roberto breaks through the barriers between Jack and Zack, creating some real camaraderie among the three of them. After Roberto discovers a way to escape, they break out of prison and are chased into the Louisiana swamp by hound dogs. After several days wandering lost in the swamp, they finally stumble onto a road to freedom. Following the road, they come to a roadside Italian restaurant in which Roberto discovers Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi), a beautiful Italian woman, who invites him to marry her and take over the restaurant. After Zack and Jack are well fed and outfitted, the two take off again. When they come to a fork in the road, the reluctant companions go off on their separate ways to freedom.

This plot summary reveals little about the film because the meaning resides primarily in the art of telling the story, not in what is told. Down by Law is pure artifice: Every scene parodies scenes from genre films, the speeches use the cliches of American film dialogue, and the film style self-consciously plays with conventional Hollywood genre styles. Three scenes in particular illustrate Jarmusch's subtle art of storytelling.

The opening sequence of Down by Law leading up to the introduction of the title and credits is an imaginative playing with film styles and techniques. Jarmusch parodies the film convention of establishing the setting and characters before the credits. He turns the standard introduction into a kind of shaggy-dog joke, making it inordinately long by using a series of lateral tracking shots of seedy sections of New Orleans. The first shot is a stationary shot of the rear end of a hearse in a cemetery. Rapid tracking shots begin as the camera travels from right to left through the city and out into a shabby countryside and back into the city, the images accompanied by the song "Jockey Full of Bourbon," written by Waits. Suddenly, the camera stops moving and cuts to a room where Jack is in bed with Bobbie (Billie Neal), a black woman. In perfect film noir style of high-contrast lighting, Jarmusch moves his camera in on the woman sleeping for a close-up which conventionally signals a dramatic moment. The woman suddenly opens her eyes. This gesture starts the music again, as the tracking shots of New Orleans reverse their direction across the screen. The camera travels again through town, ending up in a different room but the same situation, this time Zack and a woman in bed. The camera again moves in on the sleeping woman, Laurette (Ellen Barkin)-and her eyes open. The music starts as the traveling camera repeats its movement through town from right to left. Feigning film noir realism, Jarmusch makes the audience very aware of watching a film. Instead of the standard crosscutting to introduce parallel lives of characters, he uses the traveling shots to take the viewer through the city, first to one character and then to the other, who fives in another section of town. When the two women open their eyes, so does the audience.

Jarmusch is not finished mocking film conventions. The third trip with the camera through the city leads to the credits. The tracking shots stop, the credits move on, and the sound track changes to dogs barking and police sirens. Not content with visual jokes, Jarmusch adds a sound joke as he uses these clich6d sound effects from fugitive films to introduce his title. The barking and sirens get louder and louder until the title appears: Down by Law. The sounds slowly fade away as the credits roll on to their end and the film begins its story in Zack's room.

One of Jarmusch's artistic strengths is his sensitivity to language; he has a keen ear for clich&s, especially the clich6s of film dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Down by Law alludes to what countless stock characters have said in the same conventional situations-Jack and his prostitute, Zack and his girl, the confrontations with the cops, Jack's dreams about his future. The high point of Jarmusch's linguistic cleverness is the scene of Roberto, Zack, and Jack in jail. Roberto is the perfect vehicle for Jarmusch's language play because his knowledge of English is limited to a few stock expressions which he has heard and copied down in a precious notebook. His misuse of his small repertoire of partially understood expressions is the major source of humor in this scene and throughout the film. Anxious to get off on the right foot with his new cell mates, Roberto flips through his notebook until he finds just the right words: "If looks can kill I'ma dead now."

Jarmusch also carefully develops Roberto as the life force that resurrects his deadbeat cell mates. Bob, as he asks to be called, is a constant source of comic reversal of expectations. A small, inept-looking foreigner, Roberto reveals that he has killed a man in a pool hall with the eight ball; recites Walt Whitman's poetry in Italian; and animates the whole jail when he finds the meaning of "scream" in his notebook and begins the chant: "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." Jarmusch's deft comic touch makes Roberto, in spite of his limited language, the most articulate character. With his openhearted broken speech to his withdrawn cell mates, Roberto succeeds in creating a strange kind of friendship among them. The jail scene ends with a final reversal of expectation: Roberto discovers a way to escape which, as he tells Zack and Jack, he learned from watching American prison films. Jarmusch parodies the classic prison break by deliberately not showing how they did it, cutting to the conventional escape through the drainage pipe and flight into the woods. Pursued by the classic sound of hound dogs, Roberto says: "We have escaped like in the American movies."

A final scene illustrating Jarmusch's comic art is the one in which the three fugitives, exhausted from their flight through the swamp, finally stumble onto a road that leads them to a roadside cafd. Again mocking the conventions of fugitive films, Jarmusch has Zack and Jack send Bob into the restaurant to size up the situation while they hide in the bushes. When he does not come right back, they finally peer in the window to discover him eating, laughing, and speaking Italian with a beautiful woman. Here is another Jarmusch joke-an outlandish fairy tale ending for Roberto, who finds all he could wish for at the end of his flight from the law: the love of an Italian restaurant owner. Roberto calls Zack's and Jack's and the audience's attention to the fairy-tale allusion: "She has asked to me if I stay here to live together with her forever and ever like in a book for children." Jarmusch fittingly ends the scene with Roberto sending Jack and Zack off to their rendezvous with "Bob" Frost's two roads by proudly shouting two delightful clichds at the departing pair: "Don't forget to write" and "Wish you were here."

Down by Law is a complex work of comic art that does, finally, have a serious message. Early in the film, Zack is sitting drunk on a dingy street corner when suddenly Roberto enters the scene addressing Zack with words he thinks are a conventional American greeting: "It's a sad and beautiful world." Zack responds to Roberto by repeating his words and then telling him to buzz off. Roberto replies, "Thank you. Buzz off to you too." The world of Down by Law is indeed a sad and beautiful world, a sad and beautifully comic world.

Reviews

The Christian Century. CIII, October 22, 1986, p. 920.
Commonweal. CXIII, October 10, 1986, p. 535.
Fibn Quarterly. XL, Winter, 1986, p. 11.
Filins and Fibrung. January, 1987, Number 388, p. 33.
Los Angeles Tinzes. October 3, 1986, VI, p. 1.
The New Republic. CXCV, September 29, 1986. p. 24.
The New York Times. September 19, 1986, p. C21.
The New Yorker. LXII, October 20, 1986, p. 115.
Newsweek. CVIIL September 22, 1986, p. 84.
Rolling Stone. November 6, 1986, p. 34.
Tinte. CXXVIIL November 3, 1986, p. 82.
The TVall Street Journal. September 18, 1986, p. 30.
The Washington Post. October 8, 1986, p. D7.