Down by Law was the hippest film I’d ever seen when I was around sixteen years old, until I explored the rest. I’m yet to see Jim Jarmusch’s debut effort, Permanent Vacation, which is supposed to be just as good, but a little less known. Down by Law gave me a kind of official introduction to Jim, and I’m glad that it was this one. Telling the tale of three convicts who find a way out of their cell and onto the open road, in his trademark black-and-white and starring Roberto Benigni, John Lurie and Tom Waits, it gave me a good indication of the director’s style.
Down by Law was actually his third project following his thesis-turned-film Stranger than Paradise. By this point, Jarmusch has established himself well as a big name in independent cinema. His work had developed a reputation for being broody, contemplative and highly focused on a deliberate mood. Each piece of work was unusually dark, humorous and poetic. He announced, once, that he felt like he created American films through a foreigner’s eyes, a unique sort of world cinema. This idea was added to by friend, musician and actor, Tom Waits, when he said ‘the key to Jim is that he went grey at fifteen, he always felt like an immigrant in the teenage world and he’s been a benign fascinated foreigner ever since’.
Waits might be right in a way, but Jim’s films and the foreign, noir feel that each one effectively carries must be the result of something more than premature greying. For example, his final year at Columbia University was spent in Paris – where he lived for ten months. Here, he spent almost all of his time at the ‘Cinémathèque Française’ devouring hundreds of European and Japanese films. He once stated ‘that’s where I saw things I had only ever read about and heard about’. He is also known for his close affiliation with the renowned film noir director, Nicholas Ray, who is sure to have been responsible for a great amount of influence.
Jarmusch is such a fascinating filmmaker because you almost know for a fact that he’d much sooner write a film about an evening spent in a café, or a walk in the park than a secret agent, a hurricane or a giant ape. His films always have a near non-existent plot while delving into character development, interactions and subtle observations. His work possesses a unique poetry while an absurd sort of philosophy resonates throughout. It’s easy to tell that his former ambitions lay in poetry, studying literature at university initially, and not film.
Within independent and arthouse circles, he has consistently increased his reputation as one of the most adventurous and rebellious filmmakers in America and elsewhere. This adventurous and experimental nature has been present since the very beginning, and shone through even during Jim’s university years. On eagerly bringing his script to be reviewed, his friend and mentor, Nicholas Ray, put it down as having a lack of action. Jim responded to this criticism by reworking the script and returning it with even fewer events than the original.