American Film

What's your favorite film? Is there a movie that changed your life? Send us an essay of 500 words or less about that film you can't forget – classic or contemporary – and we'll consider it for publication in these pages. In addition to your short essay, send your name, occupation, hometown, phone number, jpeg headshot and e-mail address to [email protected]. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

READER REVIEW: DOWN BY LAW

By Nicholas Laskin

DOWN BY LAW displayed to me for the first time the virtues of character development over plots and payoffs.

The film opens with two very different men undergoing a similar set of circumstances: Jack and Zach, a small-time pimp and a cranky DJ, respectively, are both down on their luck, hard-pressed for work and on the outs with the women in their lives. Both men take up offers from strangers when they should probably know better and end up sharing a jail cell in the worst part of New Orleans. In spite of a shared sense of laconic cool, these men can't stand each other. They bicker, brawl and over time come to a sort of begrudging understanding when Jarmusch throws us a curveball: they are joined by a third cellmate in the form of a cheery, pidgin English-spouting Italian tourist named Bob ("Roberto") who has a violent past and an affinity for card games and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Together, these three forge an unusual friendship that is tested when Bob decides that he will spring his friends from prison, leading to a surreal odyssey through the ominous swamps of Louisiana as our heroes hurtle toward the possibility of redemption.

In another film, the prison-break scene in DOWN BY LAW would have been an elaborate set piece, designed to elicit thrills as our hapless heroes escape. In the finished film, the scene takes up about forty-five seconds of screen time. Anyone familiar with the cinema of Jim Jarmusch knows that plot isn't big on his list of concerns: this is the man who followed three drifting hipsters from Brooklyn to Cleveland all the way to Florida in the sublime STRANGER THAN FICTION and re-defined the modern western with the morose, existential DEAD MAN. Jarmusch enjoys watching people hang out, and he has an unparalleled ear for the poetry of ordinary men.

DOWN BY LAW is a ramshackle cocktail of jazzer cool, poetry as black as coffee and the unmistakable growl of Tom Waits. Set in some of the grimiest neighborhoods of the Big Easy, its aesthetic is pure noir: bad broads, tough guys, grim villains and American muscle cars. Once our heroes embark into the woods, however, the film begins to take the shape of a meditative fairy tale. Jarmusch's film taught this aspiring screenwriter that films do not need to subsist on busy plots to be compelling. He is content to simply observe the behavior of these men, an act that grows more admirable and compelling the more you allow yourself to think about the film. After viewing Jarmusch's film, I came to realize that it is texture and attitude that give a film its defining shape; that audiences are not always thirsty for tidy, predictable three-act structures and classically defined heroes and villains. DOWN BY LAW is a weird, wild ride of a film but listening to its languid rhythms and surrendering to its laid-back, poetic vibe, I almost found myself wishing I could crawl inside this odd little masterpiece and live inside of it.

Nicholas Laskin studied Creative Writing at UC Santa Cruz and now spends his time writing screenplays and working for the LA Opera.



READER REVIEW: ALTMAN GOES GRASSROOTS

By Andrea Passafiume

Robert Altman's brilliant 1975 film NASHVILLE opens with a striking opening title sequence in which the film sells its assets like a hammer-over-the-head TV commercial, which is exactly what it intends. This epic study in grassroots politics and the perils of show business comes together through a layering of intricate relationships to create an absorbing, hilarious and often touching film set to the memorable strains of original country music written by many of the stars themselves. Welcome to NASHVILLE.

It is an incredible achievement in itself that even with dozens of characters sprinkled throughout, NASHVILLE manages to paint each and every one of them vividly and memorably. This is a testament not only to Altman's shrewd casting and direction, but also to the terrific actors themselves. From the sly pomposity of Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton to the smug arrogance of Geraldine Chaplin's Opal ("from the BBC!") and the heartbreaking sincerity of Ronee Blakley's country music queen Barbara Jean, there isn't a false or vanilla performance in the batch.

With multiple character-driven storylines intersecting and crackling, overlapping dialogue, NASHVILLE unfolds like a natural vérité observation. The colorful characters are linked by the never seen and always heard Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker, whose platform includes changing the national anthem and removing all lawyers from government. It's at the climatic rally for Walker at Nashville's Centennial Park that life will forever change for some of them.

NASHVILLE is full of so many wonderful scenes, and the film's shocking conclusion exceeds the satisfying total sum of its many parts. From Barbara Jean's on-stage breakdown, to Linnea's (Lily Tomlin) quiet exit from her one night stand with Tom (Keith Carradine) and Sueleen Gay's (Gwen Welles) humiliating striptease in exchange for a spot on the Hal Philip Walker rally lineup, the film's narrative is rich, human, refreshingly unpredictable and never ever dull, even at the nearly three-hour running time.

Altman famously encouraged his cast of mostly non-professional singers to write and perform their own songs, presumably to capture the homespun quality of the country music at the time. The music throughout is a catchy mishmash of their best offerings. Keith Carradine and Ronee Blakely, two legitimate singer/songwriters in real life, come off best with Carradine's Oscar-winning breezy folk tune "I'm Easy" and Blakely's sincere country-blues tunes, "Dues" and "My Idaho Home." It's a memorable and sing-along kind of soundtrack that still claims the cult-like devotion of fans who lament the fact that the Tom, Mary and Bill tune "Since You've Gone" is nowhere to be found on a recording (written in real life by actor Gary Busey).

With the city and artists of Nashville once again in the spotlight courtesy of the critically acclaimed television series NASHVILLE, it is clear that Robert Altman could see long ago that America's Music City was ripe for drama. The rivalry between TV's fading country music queen Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and young up-and-comer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) is not unlike that of Barbara Jean and Connie White (Karen Black) in NASHVILLE. The dresses may have gotten slinkier and the hair may have deflated a bit since 1975, but Altman put his fork into a slice of Americana that has never lost its flavor.

Andrea Passafiume is serving her fourth year as Associate Programmer for AFI DOCS in the Washington DC area. She holds a B.F.A and M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU and also writes regularly for the Turner Classic Movies website.

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