It's been a Jim Jarmuschy week for me; not only did I see him on the street talking on his cell phone, hoping we wouldn't bother him, but I've been digging back into his early black and white work with Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Both deal with similar themes: miscommunication, a stranger in a strange land, people forced together who would normally interact… and while Jim (my husband) is a bigger fan of Stranger (which is highly recommendable), I've always loved Down By Law the most.
The film's opening shots of early morning New Orleans streets, photographed beautifully by his long time DP Robby Muller, set against Tom Waits's Jockey Full of Bourbon is timeless and evocative. Someone on The Sopranos team was clearly inspired by it when they pit together their own title sequence. Jarmusch is an influential guy. Watching his independent movies (independent in the way that used to mean something pretty great) awakens creative ambitions.
He's also just so cool, surrounded by cool people. Tom Waits is lean and all drunken charm as a misunderstood radio DJ railing against the world. Dreamy John Lurie is smooth and smirky as a pimp with big dreams. Even Roberto Benigni joins the cool crowd in Jarmusch's movies, his adorable and energetic performance almost compensates for the tedious clowning the star of Pinocchio would later become known for.
While watching the movie I could vividly imagine Lurie kicked back in suspenders watching the Academy Awards smiling and muttering “Jesus, Roberto” then laughing into his saxophone. Rounding out the hip cast are Ellen Barkin, looking as good as she ever has in a black slip, dripping mascara; and the infamous, possible “real” killer of Nancy Spungeon, Rockets Redglare.
Down By Law, like all of Jarmusch's films (which, I might add, are all worth a look), is slow and thoughtful — but it's also quite funny, with a lot of the laughs coming from Begnini's character, Roberto (“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!“); and the chemistry between these three dynamic actors is a delight to watch.