Ah the silver screen, how I love thee. Though I’ve seen more than just these two movies these last few months I’m going to just talk about Anomalisa and Down By Law because they interested me the most, and they were the only movies I haven’t seen before.
I’m a pretty big Charlie Kaufman fan. I haven’t seen all his movies – Synecdoche New York and Being John Malkovich have somehow evaded me – but his imagination and sincerity really do something for me. He really has an ability to zoom in on the minuscule moments of everyday existence that form the tragicomic lives of the every-man. In his movies there’s the basic humanness of everyone is laid bare, with all the pettiness and hope that that brings.
Anomalisa could be called the natural progression of Kaufman’s work. It still has elements of his thought-experiment-esque, mind-screwy, reality-warping, style; but its much more understated in Anomalisa. Here there aren’t layers-upon-layers that must be unraveled. The idea is simple: a man sees everybody as being the same – same face and same voice – until he meets Lisa, who stands out. From this concept we see the weight of loneliness, and the cost of assuming you deserve better. In some ways it’s like an understated Fight Club, but if Tyler Durden never really showed up.
This is probably the least laugh-out-loud movie that Kaufman has made. There’s humor, sure, but it never got more than a dry chuckle out of me. It’s a quiet movie, it almost feels like watching life sometimes, but it still held my attention the whole time (the wonderful puppetry and camerawork probably helped). I could definitely see Anomalisa being tedious for some, there’s not much that actually happens in the plot. If you like quiet movies that are willing to explore relationships and characters at the expense of the action, then I would recommend looking into Anomalisa.
I was very excited to discover that Criterion had given Down By Law a Blu-Ray release. As a fan of Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, this seemed like the perfect movie for me.
The plot in a nutshell: A New Orleans pimp and disc jockey are both framed (for completely different reasons) and are sent to prison where they live in the same cell. An Italian immigrant who committed manslaughter is also put in their cell. The three learn to live with each other in prison until they discover a means of escape into the swamps of Louisiana.
Honestly, I was expecting this movie to be funnier, but that was mainly because it’s usually described as a comedy. This isn’t to say that the movie is bad, more that it threw me off-guard. It does have plenty of funny moments – especially once Benigni shows up – but there’s a lot more to this movie than comedy. Though Jarmusch described the film as “neo-beat noir comedy” I think I would say there’s more “neo-Beat” and “noir” than comedy.
The film does have an interesting stylistic arc, beginning with the gritty life on the streets, moving to “odd-couple” style dark comedy in the prison, then dissolving into a fairy-tale journey through the forest in the end. These thematic transitions aren’t always smooth, but they aren’t so abrupt as to lose the viewer.
All the lead performances are great. The characters are understated but understandable, with a quirkiness that reminds me of O Brother Where Art Though. Benigni steals the show though, his physical clowning and his playing with language are charming, but he’s never so cartoonish that the out-of-place becomes otherworldly.
The soundtrack (provided by John Lurie, with a few Tom Waits tracks thrown in) is phenomenal at providing the tone that the movie requires. Robby Müller’s cinematography is also amazing – perhaps being the best thing in the movie. There’s plenty of amazing shots of New Orlean’s streets and bayous in black-and-white, adding to the feeling that this is a movie set in the mind, rather than the real world.
I haven’t checked the extra Criterion goodies yet, but they seem pretty promising. There’s plenty of interviews and Q&As to listen to, and some behind-the-scenes footage as well.
Down By Law is something of an art-house flick, but it isn’t so pretentious or strange that it intentionally alienates. It feels like a film from the 40s or 50s, despite its being released in 1986. If you want something a little like a noir-fairytale-dramedy then you should check this out, because it might be the only movie that fits that description.