Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Down by Law"

Jim Jarmusch, 1986, b/w, US
This year, Joe Sangre and I saw Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive”, and we liked it but we decided that there was something about Jarmusch’s aesthetic that left the actors looking bad. Was it the dialogue where the vampires couldn’t last a scene without referencing how they had met some renowned artist in history? The final image showed that Jarmusch could do Horror if he wanted to. Perhaps he is least successful when trying to be clever and poignant? Perhaps he was unaware that vampires meeting Famous People In History is a stale Horror conceit, although having high art the domain of hipster vampires was a decent gag. The film is most successful when just travelling around deserted streets in a car, or poking its camera through a bar door to listen to a deliciously haunting singer.

Perhaps that is why his early feature “Down by Law” works so well: it just rambles, and therein lies its magic and realism. I don’t mean that anyone would mistake the compositions and atmosphere for realism, but the sprawling and open-ended agenda feels akin to the unresolved relationships and dramas of life. “Down by Law” certainly feels bluesy and jazzy, loose-limbed and funny because people are naturally funny, but it’s also true whenever Roberto Benigni turns up citing from his book of English the film is a full blown comedy, not just an amusing slice-of-life tale about three guys thrown together in a cell that make a jailbreak. I have seen “Down by Law” many times and it always exists in my memory as a scratchy, pock-marked feature, as amateurish as it is sublime in its modesty. But watching the blemish-free Critereon edition reveals not only gorgeous black-and-white but that perhaps I misremembered the amateurish elements and that in fact Tom Waits and John Laurie’s performances are equally as strong as Benigni: Waits is deadpan but no less funny in a different manner and Lurie holds his own as the straight man. They know that Benigni is there to steal the show – that’s his character, after all – but the film is no weaker in Benigni’s absence. It’s the other characters that stop this from being just a funny film, because “Down by Law” is so much more. Like Malle’s “Lift to the Scaffold”, “Down by Law” seems to capture that blues and jazz mood, that sense of life as a series of coincidences and small dramas that remain relevant to maybe two or three people. But that’s all. It is the smallness and the ellipses that the truth of life comes through.

There is indeed something appealing in the scratched-and-warped vinyl feel of the well-used prints I’ve seen before, but the Critereon print shows “Down by Law” in its best light yet.

"Black Water"

| David Nurlich & Andrew Taruk, 2007, Australia, 90m
Excellent streamlined killer crocodile horror. Amazingly, directors David Nurlich and Andrew Taruk decide that crocodiles are terrifying on their own: you don’t need them supersized, mutated or CGI-ed. And you don’t need them to be seen all the time either: that old adage that what you can’t see and what you imagine is scarier than what you do see. Our fated protagonists are a couple with a sister in tow who jump in a boat and let the guide take them way, way out into the Australian rivers. Before there has been any time to set-up, the crocodile has attacked and our protagonists are stuck up the winding, brittle looking trees. Two thirds of the film is what they do when trying to escape out of those trees. As writers, Taruk and Nurlich don’t try to be too fancy with characterisation: in fact, these may well be some of the most average and relatable characters ever put in a b-movie. Oh, I am sure there are those who would want something showier, but the ordinariness of our imperilled characters strikes me as exactly the winning presentation. It is easy to care about them without having to treat them as heightened archetypes.

This is a prime example of a low budget film using its limitations and restrictions to its advantage. It sets up a near impossible scenario and doesn’t cop out with easy solutions and implausible behaviour. In fact, what truly makes “Black Water” stand out is the convincing mental shifts, the deterioration and the resourcefulness of our characters. It is properly concerned with terror, but also the effects of it; for example, the women’s initial denial of what needs to be done, then their growing courage out of necessity without any recourse to obvious heroics. The ending is unusually bold in deploying the more mundane and heartbreaking effects of experiencing such horror on a person.

The show pieces are vivid: the most beautiful being the electric storm at night. More importantly, the reveals and appearances of the croc are all chilling (slowly coming into view) or terrifying (the fast attacks). Nurlich and Taruk also don’t overexpose the croc and execute brilliant and brief digital trickery to put it at the scene  leading to a finale that doesn’t rely upon a big grand showdown, but rather simply relying upon the frighteningly intimacy of an attack.