The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
The Greatest Movie Set in Louisiana Ever
Several years ago, just after the Christmas holidays, when a dozen or so of my friends were visiting from their scattered stations around the planet, we sat for a huge, family-style breakfast at IHOP. A French woman, an acquaintance of some Alabama friends living in Paris, was at the table with us. She had some concerns about ordering eggs. She pulled out a small spiral notebook and asked, “When I want the yolks soft, what do I say?”
“Over easy,” a friend instructed.
“And hard?” she asked, making notes.
It occurred to me that these were particularly strange expressions that I myself hardly understood. She peered at me above her notebook and said, almost reassuringly, “I’m like Roberto Benigni in Down by Law. Have you seen it?” I nodded placidly. She laughed. “I can’t speak English without my notebook!”
Really, I had been force-fed a viewing of Down by Law a couple of years earlier by my childhood bestie, who had the world’s most indefatigable crush on actor, musician, and erstwhile Jim Jarmusch collaborator John Lurie. This was during my high-on-Scorsese days; I didn’t much care for plotless pacing, or subdued, improvised dialogue; nor did I—and I think this was my greatest shortcoming—know anything about Louisiana.
The fact of the matter is, Down by Law (1986), which was directed by Jarmusch, might be the finest love letter to Louisiana ever set to celluloid. In his early films, Jarmusch, like most creative types hailing from that great American no man’s land of Ohio, obsessively explores the identities of other storied cities he’s not from. Truly, it could be said that until his comically existential Western, Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch only made films about places, with people in them tottering about as scenery.
As is characteristic of Jarmusch films, the premise of Down by Law is thin: Two men with rhyming names, Jack, a pouting, smooth-talking but markedly un-enterprising pimp (Lurie), and Zack, a ne’er-do-well late-night radio DJ (Tom Waits, whose songs on the soundtrack helped confuse everyone forever about whether or not he’s a New Orleans musician), are convicted on false charges and end up sharing a jail cell. These are men who could easily exist anywhere outside of New Orleans (and, as we hear Zack’s disgruntled girlfriend, played by Ellen Barkin, shriek as she throws records into the street, Zack has been basically everywhere), but the sweeping cinematography unmistakably paints them in this singular place. The very opening is a drive-by tracking-shot montage of a hearse perched in front of one of those iconic mausoleum-filled graveyards, and then a block of shotgun houses, and then sprawling brick low-income housing. It’s like a miniature tour of all the more distressing enclaves of the ancient American city. And, when legendary cinematographer Robby Müller’s landscape portraits finally show us the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter and the imperial live oaks of the Garden District, it’s too late for any kind of touristy enchantment, because the viewer already has a pretty good idea of where this thing is going.
Jack and Zack, who pace around and ignore each other like expert house cats, soon find their domestic tranquility interrupted by a chattering Italian man named Bob, played by Roberto Benigni a decade before he’d earned notoriety in the states for his WWII escapist fantasy, Life is Beautiful. Bob speaks hilariously terrible English peppered extensively with idiomatic phrases he’s collected in his pocket notebook (many of them far more ridiculous than just how to order your yolks—e.g., “If looks could kill, I am dead!”), and his cheery disposition belies the fact that he’s the only guilty criminal in the bunch. He confesses good-naturedly to the men that he’s a cardsharp who killed a man in self-defense. As much as Jack and Zack delight in aligning their apathy in openly disliking Bob (in one amazing scene, Jack sits with his head wrapped in a towel like a Carmelite nun while Zack, wearing a knotted hairnet, averts his face in almost coquettish passive aggression), Bob is the only one of the group with any gumption, and his endless scheming eventually earns them a way out of prison.
This is Louisiana, though, and if we know anything about prison there, it’s that it’s bad. But Jarmusch kind of playfully departs from the gritty truth of the matter. The three convicts disappear into the surrounding swamps, still clad in their boldly-labeled Orleans Parish Prison garb. They have no plan other than to run, which soon becomes impossible in the sludgy, knee-high water. Eventually they steal a small skiff and schlep through the duckweed in what becomes a classic ensemble comedy scene—like something lifted from The Three Stooges. And this is the success of Down by Law: that its seemingly overly serious black and white hues hearken back to a different kind of adventure, from a different kind of silver screen. Sure, it’s a prison-break/chase film (a genre pretty closely associated with the South), but it’s not three disparate numbskulls shackled together as much as it is three complete weirdos who have no interpersonal skills, or a niche in society to begin with. Their resistance to befriend one another, despite their circumstances and Bob’s cloying affability, feels like a realistic quirk rather than fuel for dramatic tension. One gets the feeling that if the three stooges were more plausible personalities, they’d be like these men.
But what does all this have to do with Louisiana? It kind of doesn’t. Apparently, Jarmusch wrote the film—even bedecking it in all of its regional glory—without scouting for shooting locations. Everything just sort of fell into place. Louisiana has always been a strange and tense mix of cultures and nationalities. And New Orleans, in particular, leaves nothing to the imagination, so there’s a documentary quality to the tribulations of a moronic white pimp, or a grumbly hipster DJ, or a sub-lingual Italian tourist wandering around talking to himself in the middle of the night. As I've said before, it’s easy to want to make art about New Orleans—but where Down by Law becomes a true Louisiana film is when it steps away from the city and flings itself into the roaring, empty wilderness. Despite Benigni being the only real comedian, the visual and physical comedy in those long, harried, claustrophobic shots would almost make Down by Law work wonderfully as a silent film.
Miraculously, there are fewer clichés in Down by Law than possibly any film made about the South, much less made about Louisiana. (I mean, I love Steel Magnolias as much as the next guy, but why the hell do they talk like that? Dolly Parton is the only normal-speaking person in that movie, probably because Dolly Parton is the Truth.) Thankfully, only one single person in Down by Law attempts a garbled, gumbo-fied patois, and it’s the diehard New York punk scene fixture Rockets Redglare, in his two-minute scene as a wheezy, handkerchief-daubing business associate of Jack the pimp—and it actually ain’t so bad. It should be said that there are certainly fewer black people in this film than one might expect, but their small roles are thrilling—the most notable being the best-delivered monologue in the entire film, by Jack’s girl, Bobbie, played by Little Rock native Billie Neal. Jarmusch seldom ignores the necessity of black characters as part of telling a wholly American story.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time Jarmusch devoted a film to a Southern city—1989’s Mystery Train deals heavily with Elvis mythology in the streets of an accurately seedy-looking Memphis. And while the film marks the beginning of Jarmusch’s largely unfortunate predilection for vignette-driven films, it’s worth watching for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s role as the unflappable motel owner. (Waits also appears again, in voice only, naturally, as the omnipresent radio DJ.)
And as for the Frenchwoman, a couple of years later, I saw Down by Law again, with French subtitles, at her cozy apartment in the Marais. It became a thing that we bonded over—one of those immediate signifiers of a relationship beginning to catch fire. A year after that, I’d take the Crescent Line from Birmingham to meet up with her in (where else?) New Orleans, where we’d visit a mutual friend living Uptown. And now, so many years later, I bumble around a foreign country where I flush and sputter as I tear through my small notebook, looking for the right thing to say in Italian. I just can’t speak Italian without my notebook.