Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 09, 2005 1:31 pm 
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New again and still himself

Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, his deadpan-meets-deadpan adoption of the newly serious minimalist Bill Murray, is certainly one of the American auteur films of the year.

Jarmusch is more conventional than usual in Broken Flowers in its focus on life, love, and loneliness and its use of name actors. Murray's character is named Don Johnston, and the movie jokes around with the similarity of the name to the Miami Vice glamour boy's, a reference that's poignant since Johnston is, or has been, a Don Juan. Still a bachelor, he's rich from computers. Depressed when Sherrie, his latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy), leaves him, he receives a typed letter on pink paper telling him he has a nineteen-year-old son who's gone traveling and probably aims to look for him. Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don's Ethiopian neighbor with a beautiful wife, three jobs, and five nice young kids, is an amateur detective, and he persuades Don to write down the names of the women who might have written him the letter. Then he sets up an itinerary, complete with plane and car reservations and MapQuest directions to the ladies' present addresses.

Unwillingly, the still-depressed Don takes several claustrophobic, deadpan Jarmush plane flights and, "a stalker in a" (rented) "Taurus," visits four women, Laura, Dora, Carmen, and Penny, played respectively by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, following Winston's instructions to take them pink flowers, look for pink things, and ask them if they have a typewriter or a son. (The focus on pink indicates that the director, who hitherto seemed most at home in black and white, has adopted a more delicate and complex use of color than previously.)

It's all really just a shaggy dog story: it goes nowhere, though several possible sons appear, and each of the visits is specific and droll.

Since Murray's reluctant character's typical gesture is to stare into space, perhaps moving his eyes or lips slightly, Jarmusch accordingly has adopted much longer static takes, and the action drags a bit, by previous Jarmusch film standards. Broken Flowers is a new departure, and feels like mature work. Some of the sardonic hipness has been dropped in favor of quiet resignation, but the movie's still heavy with Jarmusch style and wit. The director's just as feisty and observant as he was in Stranger Than Paradise, but for the time being he's found an ironic alter ego in the hilariously neutral Bill Murray. Like all Jarmusch's movies, this one is sliced into discrete segments, conveniently delineated by the visits to the four women, which become the main episodes, book-ended by opening and closing passages in which Winston appears. As in Stranger Than Paradise, a new character turns up toward the end, only to disappear. This time he leaves no windfall.

You could see Broken Flowers as a jaded reversal of the classic Tom Jones search for the lost father. Instead of ending in a happy reunion and discovered identity, this time the son (Mark Webber), who's probably not, runs away when Don alludes to his fatherhood. But he doesn't say he's the young man's father. He says, "You probably think I'm your father," and the youth appears to think he's mad.

Broken Flowers is about jadedness, ultimately expressed in a feeling that past and future are equally irrelevant, but Jarmusch isn't too bored to provide funny observed behavior rich in contemporary artifact. As always in this director, the action is borderline absurd, but it's more specific and believable than ever, with an outsider's awareness of specifically American absurdities. Since that was equally true of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, one of our best writers and keenest delineators of American kitsch (he naturally preferred the Russian word, poshlost), it's not surprising that Sharon Stone's daughter -- a voluptuous and giggling young charmer who eagerly exhibits her body to Don -- is named Lolita.

Another brand of pervasive American kitsch is the jolly capitalist, and this is where Frances Conroy as shy Dora comes in as one of a husband-and-wife team of real estate agents specializing in prefab mansions. Best and most absurd of all is the girlfriend whose dead dog, Winston (more play with names), turned her from the law to a profitable practice as an "animal communicator." Jessica Lange and Chloë Sevigny are terrific as communicator and receptionist/secretary, who turn out to have a very special relationship.

Jarmusch's early movies were a string of deadpan hilarious zingers. He kept up the pace through the Eighties when he was America's prince of cinematic hipness. He took a few side trips, notably his haunting (but always absurd and hilarious) masterpiece, Dead Man, which was Johnny Depp's most recessive and also his greatest role; the Neil Young tribute Year of the Horse; and Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai.

Broken Flowers confirms Jarmusch's ability to grow while remaining pristinely sui generis. Don Johnston might seem his most sympathetic portrait except that we know so little about the man that he winds up being more neutral than sympathetic. But that's the point. Don Juan or not, in the end Murray's a male everyman, bumbling with women, out of touch with his past, miserable and unmotivated and essentially confused yet soldiering on, curiously self-possessed -- ultimately alone. (Broken Flowers won the grand prize at Cannes this year. This is at once a tribute to a very fine screenplay and directing job, and recognition of twenty-five years of outstanding and consistently original work.)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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