Reason #10 to Love Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Filmmakers; and, More Than You Wanted to Know about My Relationship to “Down By Law”

by jbloodwell

I’m astonished to learn that I’ve never cited Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the local arts organization that provides various kinds of film education as well as showing films in three locations, as a reason to love Pittsburgh. It is way, way up there on my list of reasons that I love Pittsburgh. As a student, they sold me cheap tickets to excellent movies. (I well remember going to the first movie I saw there, Night of the Hunter.) As an unemployed person who still possessed a valid student ID that doubled as a bus pass, busing it down Forbes Avenue to check out great movies (again, I stress the cheap ticket prices) at their Regent Square or Harris branches was a great pleasure, and a relief from a time of uncertainty and, in retrospect, great boredom.

I’ve seen The Warriors thanks to Pgh Filmmakers. I got to see Sunrise, twice, because of them. At a promotion for their “movies of the Great Depression” series, they raffled off Fiestaware and I won this awesome pitcher at a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933:

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Beasts of the Southern Wild was a big stinking turd of a film, but that’s not their fault. Every year they screen a slate of Oscar-nominated short films, including live-action, animated, and documentary. Truly, their programming is inventive and always surprising, and it’s been rare that a month has gone by without my heading to one of their three theaters to check something out.

Among the reasons to love Pgh Filmmakers is their astute balance of newish art-house and foreign films with old repertory stuff. This month, the theme is film noir. Last month, it was Hitchcock’s women. (This Sunday, they’ll show Out of the Past.) The repertory films are always on Sunday nights, and it can be fun to cap your weekend with a well-attended, high-spirited showing of, say, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Great memory from that screening: during the scene when Baby Jane brings Blanche her lunch in a silver tray, and it’s been hinted at that there might just be a dead rat under that platter, someone in the back of the theater yelled out, “She wouldn’t . . . would she?” It’s one of the few times I’ve enjoyed anyone’s heckling.)

Rarely, however, have I been as pumped for a series or a particular screening as I am today, because tomorrow night they are showing one of my all-time favorite films, Down by Law. It’s part of a new series, “Essential Art-House Cinema.” Tickets are–get this–$2! The series kicked off last month with Run Lola Run and I think it is just about the best thing happening right now.

I’ve never seen Down By Law on the big screen. My first memories of it are as a high school junior or senior, catching part of a Bravo mini-marathon of Jim Jarmusch films. I was immediately taken by the black and white cinematography and the beautifully composed images of New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana, as well as the amazing long shot where the three characters run through a tunnel, culminating in an extra-long hold on a puddle reflecting light onto the tunnel’s ceiling. (It’s an effect that always mesmerized me when I caught the reflection of light moving in a fountain, or a pool, and so it stood out as one of those artistic decisions–to take what everyone has seen and represent it in the work–that feels both obvious and ingenious.) Here’s the shot:

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It’s hard to remember now if Down By Law was my entry point into really liking Tom Waits, who plays Zack, a DJ, in the film, or if I’d already been interested in the Tom Waits persona and that drew me into an obsession with the movie. My entry point into the Waits oeuvre is hard to untangle now: it seemed that my dad played Franks Wild Years throughout high school, that I was always hearing Waits’ discordant crooning on songs like “Straight to the Top,” “I’ll Take New York,” and even “Down in the Hole” (though it’s been somewhat rehabilitated in my eyes via The Wire, for which it was the opening music) wondering what the hell this was. At some point the beautiful songs interspersed throughout that album–“Telephone Call From Istanbul,” “Blow Wind Blow,” “Yesterday Is Here,” and most memorably for me, “Cold Cold Ground”–sank in, and I came to appreciate that this was actually a pretty decent album. My appreciation deepened when I went off to college: I can remember getting into Rain Dogs (two songs from which, “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango ’til They’re Sore,” accompany the opening and closing of the movie; check out the trailer, which is pretty much the opening montage of Louisiana places, with “Jockey Full of Bourbon” accompanying it) and Swordfishtrombones heavily once I was at college, and toward the end of that year checking out Bone Machine. Those are still my favorite albums of his–I’ve never gotten very far into the early, barroom troubadour type stuff, though it’s interesting to listen to the clever songwriting and hear the foundations of the weirder, more inventive songwriter who would emerge–and they’ve informed my appreciation of Waits. . . .

Wait, what was I talking about?

Whichever came first, as a late-teenager I was entranced by the Zack character. Embarrassingly, I can remember buying suspenders from Value City and a cheap tweed Totes hat from a thrift store in order to emulate him; I seem to recall being home for the summer from college and picking up my brother, a sophomore, from high school and him demanding furiously that I take that hat off. For me Zack, with some of the movie’s most memorable lines, is the centerpiece of the movie. But it feels like an ensemble piece, with John Lurie as Jack and Roberto Benigni as Robert (or just Bob), the sort of movie where people might reasonably differ on who is their favorite, who seems to be the heart of the film. (Regrettably, identifying oneself as a Zack, a Jack, or a Robert never caught on the way that classifying oneself and others as a Sex and the City character did later.)

The film’s plot is minimal. Looking over the results of my image search, thinking about that semi-obscure title (from a bit of old slang that Jarmusch has said had evolved, by the ’80s, to mean that you were close friends with someone), considering the choice of two musicians and a then-unknown Italian comedian for the lead roles, Down By Law feels somehow like Jarmusch’s attempt to make one of those loosely plotted, kinetic European films, by Fellini or Godard, that would have informed his education as a director. I should also note how glad I am to have come to the movie almost 15 years after its release; reading John Pierson’s great Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes around that time, I got the sense that critics dismissed Down By Law as too similar to Jarmusch’s first feature film, Stranger Than Paradise (which is also great; here is a trailer (with Japanese subtitles); one thing that can never be said about Jarmusch is that he has no sense of how to use music in his movies), and Jarmusch as a one-trick pony. That’s baggage I’m glad never to have had.

 . . . Anyway, at this point I’m rambling. My object in writing all this is to extol Pittsburgh Filmmakers to the extent that it deserves, and to let anyone in driving distance know that they’ll be screening a fantastic film Wednesday night. 8 p.m.

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