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Broken Flowers – a mystery wrapped in an enigma

who am I today?

who am I today?

Broken Flowers – Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch writes movies: I don’t mean he writes screenplays – though he does. No, he uses images the way a poet uses words. No waste. Every image carries weight. Resonates. Certainly his two most recent movies, Coffee and Cigarettes and now Broken Flowers are visual poems. Broken Flowers, unlike C&C is a narrative poem. It is a short, beautifully composed short story with Bill Murray’s Don Johnston at its heart.

In a sadly now lost interview, Steve McQueen once said a man should feel as much as possible and show as little as possible. This unfashionable conception deserves deeper examination than our contemporary conventional wisdom is likely to give it, but it sums up Don Johnston literally to a ‘t’. However subtle, Bill Murray’s humour is delightfully accessible. The deeper emotions of his more serious characters are harder to read. And his extraordinary, almost unique ‘innerness’ as an actor makes you work hard. In a superb performance in an excellent film, it is a fine judgement as to whether he might have given us just a little bit more colour and shading. We can see only too well why the women in his life kept leaving him but he makes us work a bit to see why they would have been with him in the first place. Murrray has cornered the market in men who can give but not take – Bob Harris in Lost In Translation and now Don Johnston in Broken Flowers. In a key piece of dialogue early on, as current partner Sherry (Julie Delpy), follows the other women in Don’s life – out of it – he asks “what do you want Sherry?” She replies “what do you want Don?” And he’s stumped. One feels Sherry would settle for any answer but not for none.

When Don receives an unsigned letter from an ex-girlfriend, amateur sleuth neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) cajoles him onto a reverse road trip of his life. The distinctive typed missive, addressed in red writing on a pink envelope, excites Winston’s forensic aspirations and informs Don that his hitherto unmarried, unparented life actually created an unknown son 20 years ago. For Winston this is an intriguing mystery to be unravelled. For a reluctant Don it draws him into revisiting his former selves through the women he once either loved, or bedded; or (it is left unclear), perhaps both.

Broken Flowers, although like C&C, visually poetic in form and style, is more short story in content. So simple, pared down and explicitly existential in spirit, it brings Camus to mind. Pretentious though that may sound, Jarmusch’s poetic visual style has all the direct simplicity and philosophical resonance of Camus’ prose. Asked for some ‘fatherly’ wisdom, Don apologetically replies, “The past is gone – I know that. And the future is still to come. So I guess there is just now.” Outside the context of this elusive and allusive film, these remarks sound like a banal tautology. But there’s the art. Jarmusch’s art. His simple film ‘language’ resonates with feeling and, unusually for movies – ideas. Poetic. And if philosophical ideas seem a fanciful allusion for simple words, a remark of Wittgenstein’s comes to mind when he observed that despite its apparent form, the expression “War is war” is no mere tautology.

As in C&C, but to a lesser extent, Broken Flowers has an episodic ‘chapter’-like structure. Or more precisely, series of verses. And Jarmusch’s cinematic style has a distinctive literary feel to it. His editing quietly ‘punctuates’ each scene and sequence precisely and without distraction. The full stops and commas of cuts and fades, provide a clear narrative structure, so that when the camera or the lens move, or the shot is held, it is precisely the contrast that makes it work so well. And like a good poet, Jarmusch likes to leave words, images and phrases hanging in the air. Unexplained. Unresolved. Jarmusch’s great quality as a filmmaker is that his work is participative – a dialogue with his audience and their own experience. And like all good poems Broken Flowers will mean different things to different people even though its basic facts are not in doubt. In his art, the facts are the starting point, not the end. Want facts as conclusion, resolution – an answer? Try science. Or Hollywood.

Broken Flowers is, as the old saying has it, a mystery wrapped in an enigma: Winston’s mystery – Don’s enigma. Its ending is as satisfying, as it is unresolved. Murray doesn’t so much show us Don’s emotional life, still less act it, rather he lets small glimpses of it escape. His tears over the ex-girlfriend who died in a car crash; his sense of failure about Sherry; his warmth and understated friendship with Winston and his family. But poignantly, we see he wants to have had a son, wants them to find each other. Murray superbly insinuates to us a man full of feeling who is bemused by his own inability to find a way to let it out. As in many of his characterisations – a genuinely tragi-comic figure.

(Zettel 2005)

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