Why I Love: Clara Engel on Down By Law

Clara Engel is a musician and artist living in Toronto who writes songs that have been described as “minimalist holy blues” and “chamber folk.” Clara also make visual art, which often features as the cover art for albums that she releases. If you’re a fan of artists such as Emma Ruth Rundle, A.A.Williams or Chelsea Wolfe then you will probably love discovering Clara Engel’s music.

Clara brings us another first in our Why I Love column as she writes about the influence of a film. Down By Law contains music from John Lurie and Tom Waits.

Down by Law movie review & film summary (1986) | Roger Ebert

When I was a young adolescent there were still many video rental stores open in Toronto. My father would often rent films from the ‘cult’ section, which my family would then watch together. This resulted in some memorable and occasionally awkward family viewing sessions. It was during one of these movie nights that I first saw Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law.

At thirteen, I don’t know if I “got” it (whatever that means), but from the first playful and ecstatically unhinged peals of Marc Ribot’s guitar, I was under its spell. The film opens by ferrying us through what I now know are streets of New Orleans, past a beautifully weathered looking cemetery, old buildings, houses. A rich and palpable world, ripe with history, sails slowly by as Tom Waits sings:

Edna Million in a drop dead suit

Dutch pink on a downtown train

Two dollar pistol but the gun won’t shoot

I’m on the corner in the pouring rain

I didn’t absorb the meaning so much as the rhythm, cadence and off-kilter beauty communicated in the music. It gave me a shiver of delight. The simultaneously mischievous and lonesome sounds paired with the stark visuals were an invitation into another world.

On the surface Down by Law is about how two wrongfully convicted prisoners (John Lurie and Tom Waits), and one not-so-wrongfully convicted prisoner (Roberto Benigni) escape from jail together, and embark on a somewhat formless journey. The quietly expansive feeling it gave me was more like a poem come to life than a conventional narrative film that has you wrapped up in the predictable dance of plot, ie “this happens” so that “that” can happen, which brings us to the grand climax, denouement, etc. THE END.

Up to that point, movies seemed to me to be about always anticipating what’s coming next, never lingering too long without a purpose. Lingering without a purpose is what this film does, with gusto. What is now is everything. This was a revelation to me as a musician who had just started to write songs in an era (similar to now, I suppose) when everyone seemed to want a song tethered to the grid of an electronic pulse, with a loud chorus, quiet verses, a bridge, and for the whole ordeal to be over in four minutes. Not a very romantic or seductive experience.

I had already begun to question and resist this formula, to the dismay and frustration of various teachers. My interests and sensibilities clashed repeatedly with those of my teachers as well as my peers, and a loneliness entwined with stubborness took root in me. Down By Law was one of the first signposts to elsewhere that I can remember seeing — it felt like a beautiful and playful “fuck you” to tired conventions that had ossified into rules.

I did not have the language to articulate any of this at the time, and I think my gut response was in a way more honest than anything I can write. I found it both curious and refreshing that it wasn’t another film with a romance or a tragedy (or both) at its centre, and that the characters could all be described as interesting failures who don’t undergo any sort of Hollywood-style personal transformation. The music in the film is not a means to an end, i.e. a vehicle to enhance romance, sex, violence or suspense; it is full-bodied presence of its own, bristling and moving in symbiosis with the ambiguously-structured narrative through murky space and time.

Something I took away from both the story of the film and the film’s existence in and of itself, was that veering away from the popular forms and into the wilderness of imagination and experimentation could be enchanting and fulfilling. It helped me to tune in to my own internal voice and compass, and it gave me permission to have more faith in the courage of my convictions.

I think you can’t ever fully explain love with language; you can express it with action, partake in it, and that is something that makes life worth living. My main mode of being in the world and “partaking” is writing songs. As a very young person, newly in love with music and just starting to write my own songs, Jim Jarmusch’s film was a revelation to me. I could never disassemble the whole and tell you what it is that I loved so much. The spaciousness and silences, and the improvised but also intentional performances were something I had never seen before. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni seemed less like actors and more like musicians improvising, with a lot of humour, and deft timing.

I also remember wishing I could find a pair of plaid pants like the ones that Tom Waits is wearing at the beginning of the film. A superficial adolescent longing, but it speaks to how when you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood, and perhaps especially if you lack a sense of belonging in your surroundings, a haircut or an item of clothing can become a glowing talisman from another world, something that could somehow transmute your reality.

(I never did find those pants by the way.)

Many thanks to Clara Engel for her words on this brilliant inspirational film.

Clara has an extensive catalogue of brilliant music that you can sample over on Bandcamp. If you like what you hear, be sure to support her. Her latest album is called Hatching Under The Stars and is available here.

Clara Engel: Bandcamp / Facebook / Twitter / Patreon

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