Don't let his impeccable indie-film cred or his shock of Einstein-like white hair fool you: Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is no hipster. He's too curious, too open-minded, and too smart to deserve that pejorative-to-some. It's far more flattering and accurate to call Jarmusch one of America's greatest living filmmakers. This week, you have a chance to check out two of his best films, 1995's Dead Man and 1986's Down By Law, which will be shown at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Dead Man, Jarmusch's funny, bewildering period Western, is also his masterpiece. It's the story of a mousy accountant (Johnny Depp) who, after suffering numerous insults and humiliations in the Pacific Northwest town of Machine, takes a bullet to the chest. While staggering aimlessly in the woods, Depp falls under the watchful eye of a portly, pithy Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer, in one of the best performances of the 1990s), who helps guide him through to his final resting place. Jarmusch's apocalyptic imagery is inspired by the William Blake proverbs Nobody constantly quotes, but the film's sudden, ugly outbursts of violence and its matter-of-fact portrayal of American grotesques — menacing industrial barons who appear out of thin air, incestuous cannibal bounty hunters, cross-dressing hillbilly preachers — also connect it to early Cormac McCarthy novels like Suttree and Blood Meridian.
In contrast to Dead Man's novelistic scope and subject matter, Down By Law, made a decade earlier, feels like a warm-up. Down By Law (its title is slang that's supposed to express a close relationship between friends) is part fable, part blues lyric, and part tall tale. The film follows the luckless travails of three marginal men (John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni) who meet in a New Orleans jail cell, kill some time, escape from prison, and eventually steal away on a less-traveled road straight out of a Bob Frost poem.
Down By Law is easily one of the peaks of American independent film. Time has caught up with Jarmusch's style as well: His stubborn, stoned long takes now feel like the last remnants of classical technique, and his actors' perennial understatement now looks like the blueprint for most modern indie-film performance. Similarly, Robby Muller's exquisite black-and-white cinematography for both films looks better than ever.
Thursday, January 5th
Down By Law
Saturday, January 7th
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
$8 or $6 for museum or Indie Memphis members