Victoria Segal - Something missing

Film - The master of deadpan goes on a tortuous journey to nowhere, writes Victoria Segal


It has been claimed that Broken Flowers marks director Jim Jarmusch's ascent - or descent, depending on the cut of your beret - into the mainstream. With a cast that runs from A to B list, a plot that, on paper, fits the romantic comedy genre, and a post-Lost In Translation cachet thanks to Bill Murray's deadpan presence, Broken Flowers is being marketed as an arty date movie. Unless you want to use it as a warning about un-planned pregnancies, however, that's rather misleading. Neither particularly romantic nor wildly comic, it is a wistful meditation on the passing of time, the mechanics of dislocation and the random connections that complete the circuit of life. Yes, nothing says good times like a film highlighting the failures of commu-nication between men and women. It's enough to make you keep your popcorn to yourself.

From the moment he appears, it is clear that Don Johnston has something missing. Murray could convey alienation while being tickled with feathers on a bouncy castle, and Johnston, a wealthy computer executive with endless leisure time, has the expressive energy of a toad on a rock. The film starts with his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) walking out, announcing "I just don't think I want to be with an over-the-hill Don Juan any more." Most men faced with Delpy's departure would weep bitter tears; Johnston sits on his sofa watching TV. His next-door neighbour Winston (the charming Jeffrey Wright) tells him he is sorry. "Yeah. Me too. I think," responds Don.

His missing something isn't just emotional, however - Johnston has also apparently mislaid his DNA. The morning Sherry leaves, he receives an unsigned letter on pink notepaper informing him that he has a teenage son and that this boy is coming to find him. Encouraged by the optimistic Winston, he lists the five women who could potentially be the mother (they turn out to be Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and one woman who was killed in a car crash but who was probably big in the Eighties as well), and reluctantly sets off across America to solve the mystery.

Punctuated with gaps and spaces, this is a film missing something itself. The half-lit rooms and half-spoken words may be atmospheric, but any more shots of Murray rifling through maps or driving down generic roads and it would be an AA infomercial. Rather than embarking on the mythic American road trip of big sky and boxcars, Don makes a slow journey through Nowheresville in economy class and hire car: this is an America of grubby highway greenery, soulless upscale estates, nameless airports, ramshackle bungalows. Meanwhile Murray, the master of understated anxiety, is blanked out even further by the dark glasses he wears for much of the film.

It takes the performances of the female leads to give shape to this blankness, and Jarmusch, with admirable economy, sketches their lives with precision. There's Laura (Stone), the sexually needy "closet organiser" who named her nymphet daughter (the gleefully naked Alexis Dziena) Lolita. There is ex-hippy Dora (Conroy), a real estate agent whose sterile domesticity is captured in the ornate turrets of food she serves Don during an excruciating meal with her husband. Jarmusch is merciless in showing such details - never more so than in Don's encounter with Carmen (Lange), an "animal communicator" possibly having an affair with her ferocious secretary (Chloe Sevigny). A man leaves her surgery cradling a rabbit: "It takes a lot of courage to say what you said," he whispers. Lange's sensitive face conveys long-buried pain - but there is more literal pain in the scenes with Swinton's smouldering biker-chick Penny, whose butch male companions fiercely object to Don's presence.

It is Winston, however, who is the film's real life-force, blessed with numerous kids, a beautiful wife and an energetic work ethic. He is also the source of its guiding music - wonderfully incongruous Ethiopian jazz from Mulatu Astatke - and it is his mystery- solving hobby that gets this weird little show on the road. Considering that Jarmusch is such a big-hitter among the indie film set, it is striking that Broken Flowers could be interpreted as having a profoundly conventional message. For all the eccentric twists and cool detachment, its central lesson seems to be that a happy man is a settled man.

The film flirts with closure in the enigmatic final scenes but, like Don, it refuses to commit. He has, it seems, learned a lesson about living a good life, but it is impossible to predict what he will do with this knowledge. You remember instead the opening sequence, which followed the fateful letter from postbox to sorting office to postman. Whatever you send out, you don't know what you're going to get back. A son, a lover, nothing at all. Similarly, Broken Flowers, coming from a postcode of its own, doesn't quite deliver.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy and demons

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide