Friday, September 09, 2005

broken flowers (jarmusch, 2005)

One might wonder why Jim Jarmusch is interested in an aging lothario of any kind, but after Ghost Dog (in which his focus is on mafia and samurai culture), Dead Man (the Old West), and Mystery Train (Elvis Presley and Memphis TN's place in rock & roll history), it's clear that the unique and less-than-prolific writer-director is keenly interested in dead things, or things of the past. In this regard, with Broken Flowers he manages something like one of those checkers moves in which you or your opponent capture several pieces in one turn of play. Bill Murray's unfortunately-named Don Johnston (yes, he's constantly forced to point out that he is not the "Heartbeat" vocalist and sometimes-actor) is not only post-love-life but post-everything, professionally and personally. The industry that made him rich no longer interests him and the mysteries of his life, real or imagined, manage to slip through his fingers as he approaches them.

How the checker metaphor applies: realizing that he's reached some sort of terminus, after yet another girlfriend walks out the door, and at the same time, a potential mystery has been dropped in his lap, Johnston embarks on a journey to figure something out about his life - a something that may be a nothing, but who knows. (Spoiler: he never figures it out, and neither do we.) Johnston's pursuit of his big personal history-mystery leads him through a maze of past women, all of whom have conquered their past, or at least think they have. Either way, they signal to Johnston, in bold-faced type, that he might consider leaving well enough alone.

Each of the women wears her own all-American freak-show style on her sleeve - a conceit so calculated that the movie occasionally comes off as a very, very truncated tour of American life, seen through the eyes of a very amused and caustic foreigner. Sharon Stone and her big-titted progeny aren't so much Kubrick's Lolita, times two, as an 'oughties update of Lolita, if she'd turned 45 and had a barely legal of her own to look after. Frances Conroy is the 87th frigid perfectionist housewife in as many years of cinema and literature. Jessica Lange gave up a law practice in order to pursue a (thriving!) pseudo-medical/-mystical profession, wherein she talks to people's pets. Tilda Swinton is unwashed trash from the dark heart of the Appalachian foothills, one of those yards with auto parts everywhere.

The raison for this gallery tour remains elusive, since there's zero evidence that Johnston puts it all together the way Jarmusch has (and the way we're meant to). In fact, he had to be pushed and goaded into searching for his son-who-may-not-exist,-anyway in the first place by his mystery-loving/amateur-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright). In fact there isn't much evidence that Johnston sees much form in anything, but picks up on occasional threads that go nowhere.

Which ultimately seems to be the point. A red herring is useful not simply for misdirection attention but redirection, and as soon as we realize the search-for-the-son is just that, a redirect, Johnston becomes interested in the search and the viewer focuses on Jarmusch's multivalent vision of American Woman, Middle-Aged (i.e. the caustic freak-show), a vision that neither attracts nor repulses Johnston, if it occurs to him at all. The only thing holding it all together is a gaze of cool detachment, as Johnston has towards everything he sees (with variations in eyebrow-ascension), as Jarmusch has towards everything Johnston sees, and then some, and as we are encouraged to have, watching the moving, having first a chuckle, then a contemplative silence.

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