Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004





Cannes 2005: Jarmusch & Wenders

Two films. Two aging men. Two roads. Two different journeys. But both into their pasts, and none too happy memories, at that, to cherish.

Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, “Broken Flowers”, like many of his earlier creations is a road show that takes Billy Murray (yes, the sometimes irritatingly expressionless and quiet guy from “Lost in Translation”, who occasionally reminds me of Marlon Brando and his mumbling) back into his past affairs with four gorgeous women. Never mind that by the time, Murray’s character Don Johnston sees them again after a couple of decades, they are no longer what they were, physically of course, but temperamentally too.

Bill Murray in "Broken Flowers"
These women, Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Tilda Swinton welcome Murray/Don with varying degrees of emotion, sometimes rank anger. At least, one rolls on the hay with him, while another gives him a black eye, and these about sum up the way the pendulum swings in the older man’s little adventure.

When “Broken Flowers” begins, we see a Julie Delphie, the attractive and almost pretty French actress, ready to call it quits with Murray, whose seems relieved at this turn. But the solitude he faces – with television to warm his bed – is the subtle way that Jarmusch gives us a reason for Don to engage in his quest.

There are two overtly compelling reasons though: one, the arrival of an anonymous letter stating that he has a son from one of his past dalliances. Two, Don’s Ethiopian neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright) – garrulous, energetic, married with lots of kids and three jobs to boot – who fancies himself to be modern-day Sherlock Holmes, pushes Don out of this boredom by telling him where each of his former flames lives.

Don agrees to take this journey, not quite knowing where he is headed. Jarmusch's old motto was, "It's hard to get lost if you don't know where you're going", and that is the defining quality of his films. His characters are really wandering souls who finish where they had begun. So does Don, who, though, learns something on the way.

Jarmusch’s work is interesting largely because it is delightfully unpredictable, except for the colour motif. Pink in this case: we see Delphi wearing a pink dress as she bids goodbye to Murray, we see the letter arriving in a pink envelope… And “Broken Flowers” strikes the right balance with mirth and melancholy, and leaves us to ponder over its open end. That I feel is very invigorating.

Wim Wenders – that great director who has given us an endless number of fascinating frames – offers a very different kind of movie in his latest shot: “Don’t Come Knocking”. The most unabstract in his repertoire, this movie brings together Wenders and Sam Shepard 21 years after they did “Paris, Texas”.

Shepard himself stars in this work as an aging Hollywood star specialising in Westerns. His drink and dames -- who crowd his evenings – soon begin to bore him, as does his greasepaint and galloping. So, Shepard, well Howard Spence in the film, escapes on horseback from a set with his producer and a detective hot on his trail. Howard first goes to his mother, who welcomes him after 30 years without a fuss! She also tells him that a woman had called her three decades ago and told her that she was carrying Spence’s child.

So Howard goes looking for her, and finds her easily because she runs the coffee shop where she had once been a waitress. His old love, Doreen (Jessica Lange), quips: "Well, it took you long enough.", and eventually points out to their son, a bad-tempered rock musician.

There are more bizarre twists in the movie, and at one point one wonders why at all Wenders decided to direct this Shepard script. We would never know as we would never get the answer to a question Howard’s mother’s poses: How did you get into such a mess…Don’t Come Knocking.

But, Wenders’ hero like Jarmusch’s fails to look within himself for the way life has gone by. Howard’s debauchery makes him an unfulfilled human being, and Don’s indecisiveness and inability to forge relationships lands him on a cold bed. Both films have interesting highlights, but Wenders’ fans would be a trifle disappointed, unlike Jarmusch’s admirers.

(This story was published in The Hindu dated February 24 2006)

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