thomas m wilson

Laughing at the Male Ego

April 3rd, 2010


Down By Law is a black and white film which came out nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1986.  This film memorably portrays the late night streets of a long past New Orleans.  But isn’t this blog about culture and the natural world?  Why am I writing about what most people would think of as a resolutely urban film?

I watched the film last night with a bunch of friends and one scene stayed in my mind.  I am talking about the moment in the film when Jack and Zack are walking by themselves through the Louisiana jungle-like forest at night and enacting their urban personas, Jack the slick New Orleans pimp who controls women, and Zack the smooth radio DJ making the world stable and controllable through his flow of interlinked sentences and words.  They have both escaped from jail, along with their friend Bob, and are fleeing through the swamplands.  The camera follows Jack gesturing and talking to himself, then cuts to Zack (played by Tom Waits) also walking alone in another part of the wet dim forest, also talking to himself.  These men are enacting their shark-like urban personas.  Yet as they walk by themselves through the dark jungle their lack of control of the real world about them is gloriously obvious.  Back by a camp fire their friend and fellow prison escapee, the at first apparently naïve Roberto Benigni, is happily cooking himself dinner.  In this part of the film the director Jim Jarmusch has brilliantly demonstrated how the urban, power-obsessed male ego becomes entirely helpless and neurotic when lifted out of the machinery of the metropolis and placed into the chaotic midst of the natural world.  The environment of cars and dealers and women and scams and sidewalks can be controlled by one kind of alpha male, but that apparently triumphant tough guy is shown to be divested of all control and power when he steps far outside the boundary of the city.  A classic moment in twentieth-century cinema is for me the world-weary Tom Waits doing his radio presenter voice while wandering through the tangled night of a southern forest.  We see the male ego desperately trying to reassert control.  Waits voice can’t keep back the night forever and this scene is an instructive and touchingly futile comedy.