Monday night I slept in an air-conditioned room accompanied by V’s dog Taffy, whose head is easily turned away from any loyalty to his owners towards their guests. He’s a total floozy, snuggling beneath the sheets and licking you without ceremony. Tuesday morning while everyone else had gone to work, Taffy alternated between chewing various toys and snaffling an apricot pit which he then proceeded to eat! I let him have the stone thinking he’d lick it a few times and then reject it as inedible, but no, he crunched right through it. I thought after he’d broken it up I’d have to pick pieces of it from all corners of the room, but no, there is nary a skerrick remaining! He’s sleeping on the floor at the moment, but probably only because he’s exhausted himself by charging into the yard and barking at the slightest passing butterfly. Although, if I get up to go to the toilet or check the progress of my toast, he follows me and regards me with big eyes. In the instance of my visit to the toilet, and later the shower, when I emerged from those small rooms he was sitting in front of the door, patiently waiting for me to reappear.
Rather than dwelling on the cause of my involuntary exile—I’m sure you’re all over hearing about it—I thought I’d make better use of my energy and review the various additions I’ve made to my sidebar. I’ve added the section, ‘Now Screening’, which, following the template of the ‘Reading Order’ list, is a chronological record of the films I’ve watched lately at the cinema, where 1. is the most recently viewed. If you didn’t blink, you may have noticed that for a brief moment I’d included a couple of DVDs in the list, Mystic River and 21 Grams. I have owned both of these films for what must be at least six months now, but before the Christmas period I hadn’t felt compelled to watch them. I suspect my reluctance derived from the fact that I prefer to watch films at the cinema in the conditions for which they were created. Sitting down at home for the amount of time required to watch a feature-length film on a television screen without breaks is not something I like doing. It just feels wrong. An hour long television program, complete with commercial breaks suits the home environment and all its attendant distractions far better. Even when I watch television programs on DVD, there is at least an obvious point at which to stop the program and wander around the house for a bit. Between that respect for the differences in the two media (although the inability to sit still and focus could just be a symptom of a poor attention span) and the fact that I still have episodes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to make my way through, to say nothing of the copious amounts of free to air television I record, I just haven’t had the time or inclination to watch either Mystic River or 21 Grams. When I finally watched 21 Grams, I could see why Dr H had kept asking me whether I watched it yet or not. Since she was overseas when I finally did watch the film, and therefore not around to talk about it with, I included it in the ‘Now Screening’ list as a way of indicating, however minimally, how much I liked it. But then I went to see a few more movies at the cinema and because of that, the inclusion of the DVDs was going to push off the list another film I had yet to have a good discussion about, Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch 2005).
The few people I had encountered who had seen Broken Flowers had not particularly liked it. The criticisms were based on the representation of the women in the film. The argument was that the female characters were stereotypes and satellites to the central male character played by Bill Murray. I know there was a time in my life when I would have made a similar judgement of the film, but I think in the case of Broken Flowers it’s important to consider which actresses accepted the roles of these apparently formulaic women. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton are not stupid; they are smart, talented and successful women whose feminist credentials are part of what they bring to any role. I have loved watching Sharon Stone mature as an actor, I was thrilled to see her in this film and I had the same reaction to Frances Conroy’s presence, since I am a fan of Six Feet Under. Just looking at Conroy’s history of television appearances as well, I notice that she made guest appearances in a lot of the MTM productions of the 70s and 80s, including Hill Street Blues. Jessica Lange’s filmography is peppered with classics of contemporary American cinema; and Tilda Swinton first established herself, as far as I am aware at least, in the film adaptations of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando and Louise J. Kaplan’s feminist classic Female Perversions. I am not naïve enough to suggest that women, especially in Hollywood, are spoilt for a choice of characters who are not accessories to their male counterparts, but it’s important to know that Jim Jarmusch is not a ‘Hollywood’ filmmaker. When I asked the people who didn’t like Broken Flowers if they had seen other films by Jarmusch, it turns out they hadn’t heard of Dead Man, to say nothing of Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog etc, etc. I thought that Johnny Depp’s role as William Blake in Dead Man would have ensured they would at least know one of Jarmusch’s films.
I think the lack of familiarity with Jarmusch’s body of work might offer part of an explanation as to why his new found audience—at least those members I’ve encountered—hasn’t necessarily embraced Broken Flowers. It is recognisably a Jarmusch film, from the episodic narrative structure and the road story, to the shot composure, especially in the awareness of transport in the tracking shots and the general absence of low and high angles. If you’re aware of Jarmusch’s visual style and thematic concerns then your appreciation of this film is amplified by that knowledge. Of course the counter-argument posed to me on this point was ‘But, shouldn’t any film stand on its own merit?’ The short answer to that question is ‘Yes’.
The long answer to that question is, even if you put aside Jarmusch’s body of work, then you have to at least pay attention to his engagement with the story of Don Juan, which is signalled early in the film as a film version of Don Juan is shown on a television (the presence of that appliance is yet another ‘Jim Jarmusch’ moment). In Broken Flowers, Don Juan has travelled, figuratively, to the USA. The relocation of Don Juan has happened throughout various media since he was first created by a monk in Spain in 1630 and so it is in this tradition that Jarmusch writes Don Johnston. Don Juan. org, a website dedicated to the ‘travelogue’ of Don Juan, suggests that in spite of his constant migration, ‘[s]trangely, Don Juan's adventures remain largely unchanged, they take on, with not a little subtlety, different national characteristics and allow the authors many opportunities to express themselves on the morals of their countries and of their times’. And so we have Don Johnston (Bill Murray), the North American Don Juan, who is not to be confused, although he often is, with Don Johnson from Miami Vice. Don Johnston is a contemporary libertine, a bored and wealthy computer entrepreneur who seduces women with little pause until he receives an anonymous letter from one of his former lovers claiming he fathered a child over twenty years ago. While Johnston is not motivated to contact his child, he is urged by his neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), to pursue the mystery, and so he embarks on a journey to visit the women he knew at the time of the alleged conception.
At this point I think the title of the film is significant (sorry for stating the obvious) to the extent that ‘broken flowers’ shifts the subject of the film away from the libertine character towards the women whom he has used and abused and even had mutually satisfying relations/hips with over the years. Don Johnston is confronted with the consequences of his emotionally nomadic life, but the film also presents a portrait of contemporary North American femaleness in all its diversity. Following the ‘women’ link on the England 17th Century section of the Don Juan website, I learned of the playwright, Shadwell’s version of Don Juan, The Libertine. Shadwell was writing in the context of the Restoration Theatre, a movement that saw more opportunities for women to play female roles on the stage. Apparently Shadwell’s Don John was drawn to be critical of noble society and is thus unrepentant as he goes about indulging his every whim which includes a not insignificant number of murders and rapes. Another innovation of Shadwell’s is reported to be the character of Maria, who disguises herself as a man in order to avenge her fiancé’s death at the hands of Don John. In adopting her disguise, Maria is afforded equal status to the principal male character and thus she is a significant portrait in a society where women were ‘often reduced’ to slavery, especially through the institution of marriage as it stood at the time.
In the contemporary North America of Jarmusch’s portrayal of Don Juan then, how can the women characters be interpreted through a more sophisticated lens than the one that renders them as nothing more than caricatures? To begin with, I think that Don Johnston’s crime in this film, more than his fleeting relationships with women, is his initial reluctance to take on board the responsibility a father owes his child. Murray’s character, indeed his whole existence, is shown in stark contrast to his neighbour, Winston, who embraces a whole passel of offspring and just one woman, his wife Mona (Heather Alicia Simms). In approaching Jarmusch’s women characters then, we are potentially encountering a woman who is a single mother, who has over the years assumed all of the care for Johnston’s child and ensured his or her well-being. The first of Don Johnston’s former lovers whom we meet is a single mother, but not to the hero’s child. Laura Daniels Miller (Sharon Stone) is the primary care giver to the very precocious Lolita, who tests her burgeoning sexuality on Johnston by appearing naked before him while he waits for her mother to return home. Johnston goes outside to wait for Laura, who promptly invites him in for dinner and they have sex for old times’ sake. The next of Don’s old flames is Dora (Frances Conroy) who is puzzled to see him; she is now married to a real estate entrepreneur and together they live in curious suburban dream without children from any relationship, current or former. Jessica Lange’s character, Dr Carmen Markowski, an animal communicator, has well and truly moved on from her liaison with Don, claiming not to eat or drink in order to avoid catching up with him over either fare. Further, Don is summarily sent on his way by Carmen’s assistant and current partner (Chloë Sevigny), who suggests he never returns as she flings the flowers he bought as a gift for Carmen through his car window. The final woman that might have sent the letter to Don is Penny (Tilda Swinton) who now lives on a remote and run-down property. It isn’t clear what prompts her reaction to seeing him again, but it can’t have been any fond memory that has her screaming ‘So what the fuck do you want Donnie?’ before calling for back up from a couple of tough looking men. I haven’t mentioned the woman who we see leaving Don in the first moments of the film, Sherry (Julie Delpy), but I think that she, along with all of the other women, demonstrate that none of their lives are defined only through their relationship with Don Johnston.
There is a lot more to say about Broken Flowers but, if you haven’t seen it, that’s probably enough plot spoiling on my behalf, and indeed enough posting full stop. Dr H has returned from overseas (bearing a very nice gift of Venetian glass for me) and I finally got to have a discussion with someone who knows Jarmusch’s work. She said she didn’t like Broken Flowers either, a reaction which she attributed to not liking Bill Murray as an actor; it’s the old Woody Allen conundrum, for her Bill Murray is not credible as a romantic lead. And she found it difficult to believe that one man would be attracted to so many different kinds of women. There is also the fact that she watched it nine times in a row on the flight to Milan because her monitor on the Cathay Pacific flight was stuck on that channel. I still like it and even want to watch it again, but I will draw the line after the second viewing... perhaps the third, at least if it's in succession.