August 21, 2005

Broken Flowers (2005)

written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

This was my first Jim Jarmusch movie.

The whole first section of the movie felt ultra-low-key, as though nothing was really happening, despite the various things that happened. At the time I was worried that the entire plot would slip past this way, like less than a shrug; but of course that’s not how the movie proceeds. In retrospect, the lazy stasis of the first act of the movie served a valuable function: it was the boring level ground of the present, below which the character digs and finds remnants of his past. It gives the audience that feeling of mild malaise that haunts the character, and to which we (and he) refer later, trying to find a way to connect that long, slow blandness to his other experiences. That is to say: that portion of the movie gave me a feeling for “what it’s like to just be at his house” that was crucial for the emotional impact of the whole. And any kind of unconventional pacing (that ends up working) appeals to me. So I thought that was a cool aspect of the movie.

I thought it was interesting that the movie got one of its biggest laughs out of the fact that the Lolita character is in fact named “Lolita.” Or rather, it gets the laugh out of the fact that Bill Murray’s character amusedly recognizes this to be outlandishly blatant of the movie/his universe. A lot of the laughs came from his character getting to observe the oddities that have been placed in his path, but I thought this one was particularly unusual, since the oddity is not really that he’s in the company of this girl named Lolita, but that Jim Jarmusch has been so bold as to write Lolita into his script. When the character chuckles, that’s what we take him to be chuckling at. Except that for him, we have to assume, it’s an existential chuckle.

I also suspected that there was a larger nod to Nabokov and to Lolita going on. I think Nabokov probably would have enjoyed this movie. It shared with Lolita that sort of dry-wet sense of whimsy and a melancholy fantasy of driving around the backroads of the USA. It also, like Nabokov, relished both the absurdity and the mystery of symbols and correspondences – the pink, the typewriters, the dog named Winston – and kept lightly pulling the drama around in unexpected circles rather than in a straight line. I think Vladimir would have identified with both the milieu and the dramatic aims. And I have to assume, given the presence of Lolita, that Jarmusch had something like that in mind.

The other literary connection that occurred to me during the movie came at the very end, which instantly called to mind of one of the best bits in City of Glass by Paul Auster. Those who have seen the movie and read the book will know what I’m talking about. The concept is slightly different (more stark and magical) in the book, but a comparable impact is still created in the movie – to greater emotional effect, I think. Anyway, with this rolling around in my mind, it happened to jump out at me that in the final “thanks to” credits, there was a thanks to Paul Auster and his wife. Somehow that felt like confirmation that I’d made the “right” connection. I want to at least assume that Jim Jarmusch has read it.

The driving scenes – especially the scenes of driving down wooded roads – were somehow extremely vivid to me and called up the sensation of being a in car better than any movie I’ve seen before. I don’t know whether it was the sound editing or the cinematography or the accumulated atmosphere or my mood that day, or what, but somehow the “yeah, it’s just like that!” factor was high. There was a shot of the map on the front seat that seemed absolutely perfectly true to life. Then again, why wouldn’t it be? I really don’t know why I was having that kind of response. Maybe it was just because those woods looked like the woods where I grew up. I wonder where they filmed it.

Anyway. Of these movies where Bill Murray plays this character (Lost In Translation, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, and, really, Rushmore), this seemed in some ways the most monotonous character study, because he was called upon to do almost nothing other than just be this guy, going about some business. But it also, cumulatively, offered what might be the most convincing emotional experience that this character has had in any of those movies: he is ultimately slightly jostled. This is interesting to compare with Lost In Translation, where he is ultimately invigorated by real emotional contact. In Broken Flowers, he is ultimately invigorated by a real fear of having no emotional contact. That’s at least how I read it: in the final moments, his vague, distracted ennui breaks through into actual fear that his lonely life truly cannot be made sense of. To me, that seems like the most valuable thing that can be done with this character – peel back his veneer of world-weariness and show the living uncertainty that defines him. I think that’s actually one of several things that Wes Anderson was trying for in The Life Aquatic, but all as seen in the mind of an 11-year-old boy, which is emotionally sort of an impossibility (11-year-olds aren’t world-weary and they wouldn’t understand world-weariness if they tried), and I’m not sure why he thought it could work. It worked here. By comparison, Lost In Translation seems hopelessly romantic. Not that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s what she was going for. But this seemed like a more mature viewpoint.

Of course, this is an over-confident reading, on my part, of a fairly enigmatic ending to a fairly enigmatic movie. I liked the vibe and I liked the ambiguities; even if they meant nothing in particular, they were pleasant aesthetic food to chew on. (Isn’t that, in fact, what Nabokov believed in?) That’s my review right there.


  1. I haven’t seen Broken Flowers, so I can’t comment on any of the observations here. But since this review is started by the explicit statement, “This is my first Jim Jarmusch movie,” I thought I would recommend a much earlier Jarmusch film that really touched me, Stranger Than Paradise. Probably Broken Flowers will be a first Jarmusch film for most people, since it’s his first to star someone as marketable as Bill Murray. But many of Jarmusch’s earlier works also deal wonderfully with issues like alienation, miscommunication, and the desire to belong, in ways that are both painfully realistic and amusingly contrived. Perhaps somewhat like having a Lolita in Broken Flowers, Stranger Than Paradise also includes a stock movie plot device that is blatantly so, almost to the bemusement of the characters that such a thing has actually happened in, what to them, is their real life. Stranger Than Paradise is one of those shoe-string budget B&W independent films that is not to everyone’s taste. But I can forgive all its technical crudeness because of its wonderful characters–endearing yet annoying, and oh so very “real.”

    Posted by Mary on |
  2. I have wanted to see Stranger Than Paradise for a while, but it looks like my next Jim Jarmusch movie will be Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I actually had out from NetFlix prior to finding out about (and seeing) Broken Flowers. Still haven’t watched it. I guess I’m saying this so that I get credit for not just being drawn in by Bill Murray…

    Not that you said that. I clearly recall that back in 1998, when I went to see Rushmore at an indie-oriented theater, the ticket taker was angrily speaking aloud to the line of people entering the theater, saying, “yeah, sure, you’ll all come to see Bill Murray, but none of you even care who Wes Anderson is, great young director. Where were you all when we showed his first movie, Bottle Rocket? That was a great film and none of you came to see it.”

    I’m betting that today he’s less proud of his knowledge of Wes Anderson.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. I’m certainly not criticizing you for not “jumping on the Jarmusch bandwagon” early enough. Watching Broken Flowers because of Bill Murray and good reviews makes a lot more sense and is a lot less irksome than when a bunch of my friends all went to see the recent re-release of Coffee and Cigarettes because it was the too too cool thing to do. I only saw Stranger Than Paradise in the first place because it was required viewing for a class on independent American filmmaking. That class taught me that a lot of what’s considered “cool” or “art” in the film world is actually pretentious and boring. That’s part of why I fell in love with Jarmusch’s work. After watching hours upon hours of Andy Warhol garbage, the Jarmusch stuff looked like genius.

    Who gave you grief about Rushmore? Those Church Street theater dorks? That’s just ridiculous.

    Posted by Mary on |
  4. That was actually at Kendall.

    I’d be angry at that guy for being so unpleasant, but I think the fact that he was living life as an bitter ticket-taker means he deserved only pity. Also it was 7 years ago so I’m mostly over it.

    Posted by broomlet on |

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