The introductory scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986) are fairly quotidian: morning traffic, abandoned gentrification projects, couples asleep in beds. These shots are deadpan and commonplace yet evoke unsettling familiarity, the root of which is beyond the fact the film is in black and white. Moreover, B&W cinematography is no straightaway to artisan but rather the opposite, demanding extra heed and creativity to compensate its drab or at least justify its use. It emphasizes contrast, brightness and saturation: facets typically not noticed in color, like the pearliness of skin drenched in dawn, expose our oblivion to everyday beauty.
Post fight: Zack and his (very, very soon to be ex-)girlfriend. Down by Law. Creative Commons.1
The film is set in dingy Louisiana where Zack (Tom Waits), an unsuccessful DJ and boyfriend, becomes cellmates with Jack (John Lurie), a successful pimp (and boyfriend. That’s not ironic, I don’t think). Both are innocent, embittered, and hostile until Bob (Roberto Benigni), the bubbly and convivial Italian immigrant, joins their cell and forges a friendship. They ultimately bond over a collective goal to escape and before long, they're on the run, clumsily by way of swamp in which they meet Nicoletta who provides them refuge (and for Bob, love). A happily-ever-after for Bob, who decides to stay with Nicoletta, but a bittersweet one for Zack and Jack. Their farewells are awkward, their hug shows restraint and the movie closes on their diametric paths.
Jack and Zack bid farewell in fraternal exchange. Down by Law. Creative Commons.2
Although Down by Law depicts stark human behavior, its gritty settings do not rely on human presence to vivify a scene. Despite every scene's no-frills depiction of reality, the compositions feel eerily contrived. Like when first shown the prison, incarcerated men emit reckless fury, but a sense of order sheathes them as the camera pans across the cell bars, like a geometric grid teasing the tumult within. There's a sleazy pimp transaction that takes place in a quaint bedroom, fixed with satin sheets and florid wallpaper, and the tranquility of Zack’s bedroom is tarnished by the lavatory-style graffiti on the walls of an otherwise charming home. It’s in these paradoxical juxtapositions that the audience can discern the handicraft of film-making, the labored manipulations that strive for that just-right feel.
When the props and sets are not modified, the camera is. As a character moves away, disrupting the perfect composition, the camera repositions and accommodates, rather than forces, the character’s new position within the frame: the Rule of Thirds is naturally eminent when filming the triumvirate. When filming characters in action, or on the run, the importance of composition is transferred from characters to setting, a static focus, and the runaway scene thus serves both as story development and aesthetic opportunity. Incidentally, the aim for balance and symmetry is most showcased in the film’s outdoorsy scenes: the New Orleans bog mirroring its woods, a road slicing its earth in half, and the divergent paths leading Zack and Jack to their respective coasts. When shooting outdoors, the Rule of Halves is consequently most employed just as bilateral symmetry prevails in nature.
But the film’s virtue is beyond aesthetics. The beauty of Down by Law derives precisely from the lack of beauty in the film’s context: set in the dirty South where crime is child’s play, a scruffy movie in which prostitutes and poverty are as Hollywood as it gets. But applied as art form rather than as devices, composure and sentimentality surface, beckoning for attention. “The camera,” Dorothea Lange said, “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” and salvaging grace from clutter is exactly what Down by Law teaches us to do.
1. "Zack and Girlfriend." Creative Commons. Total Film. 17 Oct. 2005.
2. "Zack and Jack Goodbye." Creative Commons. OrganicMechanic. 31 Jan. 2007.
3. "Fugitives Rowing." Creative Commons. Alec Soth. 10 Oct. 2006.