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“I liek Wolt Weetman Vedi Match”:
Foreignness and the Renewal of Freedom in Jarmusch’s Down by Law
Mark Cauchi

"Personally I like being in a state of bewilderment....  [I]t opens up my imagination, it makes me interpret things the wrong way, I live in a state where in a way I’m dependent on my imagination....  I like the state of mind when you don’t know for sure whether you misinterpret a culture when you don’t know its language.  I admire poets more than any other artists; you can’t translate their work, it is bound up entirely with the character of their culture and language....  Problems of language make this planet so beautiful and strange.  We all live on the same planet but we can’t all talk to each other....  The problems of language are to me the most sad and beautiful thing.  That we think things in different ways because the structures of our languages are different is what makes everything interesting."
(Jim Jarmusch, “In Between Things: An Interview,” 1987)

Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986) is a quintessentially American film concerned primarily with the meaning of “America” itself and with its cherished value of freedom.  It draws heavily on the resources of American culture: the cinema of westerns, film noir, prison films, and road movies; the literature of the poets Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, the classic stories of Mark Twain; and the outsider ethos of the beats, the hippies, and the punks.  It may come as a surprise, then, that its main character is an Italian immigrant (Roberto Benigni) who very much resembles a clown from the commedia dell’ arte and Dante in the Divine Comedy.  In the film, it is he who truly loves American culture and values, who struggles passionately to understand them, and who liberates the American characters, Jack (John Lurie) and Zack (Tom Waits), from being imprisoned by their jaded taking-for-granted of their own culture and lives.  Using the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt and the poetry of Whitman and Frost, I thus propose to discuss the ways that Down by Law shows how encounters with otherness can reawaken our capacities for freedom.

MARK CAUCHI is an instructor in the Department of Humanities at York University and is a co-organizer of TALKIES.  He has published articles in European philosophy, social and political philosophy, and religious studies.  Contact: mcauchi@yorku.ca