Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.

Criterion Sunday 42: Fishing with John (1991)

The Criterion Collection certainly throws up some oddities from time to time (who will ever forget — or forgive — Armageddon?) but Fishing with John is one of the odder entries, being the six episodes of a TV series made by John Lurie (hence the ‘creator’ rather than ‘director’ credit) and screened originally in 1991. It’s nominally a fishing show, in the sense that he takes a bunch of (male) celebrities out on the water in various places attempting to catch fish, but tonally it feels more of a piece with Twin Peaks or the offbeat deadpan stylings of early Jim Jarmusch (in whose films Lurie occasionally popped up, and who is his guest in the first episode). Things proceed in a laidback manner, as the two men travel to their fishing boat, or eat in cafes and drink in bars, and fall to chatting. Indeed, they tend to have very little success at the actual fishing. The conversations have a roundabout, somewhat surreal quality, but the most overt humour comes from the (extremely unreliable) narration, taking an omniscient viewpoint in the style of such shows, but undercutting it with deadpan drollery. In a sense, nothing much happens, but the journey is pleasantly diverting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Creator [Director] John Lurie; Cinematographers Michael Alan Spiller, Tom Krueger, James Nares and Steven Torton; Starring John Lurie, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch; Length 147 minutes (in six episodes of c24 minutes each).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

Jarmusch’s style is particularly well-suited to these characters, because he’s never really been interested in plot so much as in atmospherics. Here the lack of momentum in the narrative is perfectly suited to characters for whom time is largely meaningless, a constant miasma of experiences that all blend into one another, even over centuries. They occasionally reminisce about the past, casually mentioning classical composers or feuds from the 16th century, and indeed one of their compatriots is Christopher Marlowe (a wizened John Hurt), which at least allows for some amusing Shakespeare gags.

There’s a constant undercurrent of deadpan black comedy that threads through their encounters, Eve with Marlowe, then Adam with the excitable wannabe Ian (Anton Yelchin), who helps him out with his artistic pursuits by sourcing vintage instruments and the like. Ian, like all the other non-vampires in the film, is a “zombie”, the term Adam and Eve condescendingly use to refer to mere mortals. They really are the ultimate hipsters: living a life of devotion to their art, citizens of the world recycling local influences and avoiding the corruptions of global capital (Detroit and Tangier are both places of largely forgotten and crumbling grandeur, and when Eve is booking a flight she is keen to avoid London at all costs), ultimately desirous of nothing so much as cult respect. Near the end, Adam encounters a performance by Yasmine Hamdan in a Tangier bar, and is told by Eve that “she’ll be famous one day” to which he snidely replies “I hope not! She’s too good to be famous.”

Music is a key to Jarmusch’s work, especially in this film. Given the essential stasis in the narrative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the film stops to take in various musical performances, but integrating these is part of its method, whether Hamdan in Tangier, or psychedelic spacerock band White Hills in a Detroit club. Adam is a man after Jarmusch’s own heart, and indeed Jarmusch and his band Sqürl have provided a lot of the sonic textures for Adam’s artistic experimentation. Eve meanwhile is obsessed by literature, and when she travels books are all that she carries; we see her running her hand over their tactile pages as she packs them. Their seriousness is contrasted with Eve’s inane LA-based younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Once you get into its slowly laconic rhythm, there’s a lot to like about the film. Tilda Swinton remains refreshingly disarming on screen and perfectly cast as this otherwordly being (harking back in spirit to Orlando), while Tom Hiddleston is a compelling presence, effortlessly assuming the pose of a debauched, self-serious artist. If everyone here just seems to be marking time, they certainly do it with style.

Only Lovers Left Alive film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014.