Major spoilers ahead
We humans love father-son stories: Oedipus and Polybus/Laius, Daedalus and Icarus, Abraham and Isaac, Jesus and “god”, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Broken Flowers is a small epic that reverses the age-old son-quests-for-father myth by setting the father himself (Don Johnston, played by a static and stately Bill Murray) off on a quest to find his son… because he just found out that his son is on a quest to find him. Stupid thing to do, really, but that’s what Jarmusch seems to be saying in this charming poem of a film: men do some very stupid things.
Don Johnston is an empty shell of a man. In his late fifties and still a “bachelor,” Johnston has to correct people who think his name is Don Johnson…someone whose glory he may have embodied in the ’80s but no longer does. Since the film’s focus is on mistakes our Don Juan (more like “don’t want”: don’t want to commit, don’t want to get off the couch, don’t want to do anything) made in the ’80s, namely the mistake of possibly impregnating one of five girlfriends, the name behooves him.
The frame of the story is whimsical: a pink-suited girlfriend takes off just as a pink letter arrives with worse news; a benevolent Ethiopian neighbor with an idyllic family and amateur detective skills books the quest for Johnston. What I really enjoyed were all the little gifts Jarmusch gives the keen viewer along the way. Not the obvious ones that should be the clues, like the pink objects all the ex-girlfriends possess. I’m talking about the streets Johnston’s ex-lovers’ live on having road-signs with heavy-metal band names, like Whitesnake and Danzig; the looping, never-ending Ethiopian CD that, like our protagonist, is perpetually stuck on the same song; the camera’s recurring focus on the images in the driver’s side mirror, as if to say, look at what’s behind you– at your past! It’s closer than it appears.
If I had seen Broken Flowers in my teenage years, I may have walked out thinking it was a misogynistic pile of crap rather than the celebration of all things female that I think it really is. There is a particular scene I may have had a problem with: early on in his quest, Johnston sees a flight attendant doing a crossword as she waits at an airport gate. She has her sexy legs up on her suitcase. Johnston gives her a foot-to-head glance (the first of many foot-to-head glances he will give in the hour to come). He then watches her hold her pen, lead point up, as she erases a mistake. Then with beautiful purpose, she wipes off the deleted pencil marks. The camera finally rests on her lips, as she mouths ideas that may lead her to the right word. It’s a gorgeous series of shots: Johnston’s idiotic gawk followed by her purposeful erasure and her moving on to focused thought. And it’s a gentle foreshadowing of the trip to come: he’ll look for clues, and make mistakes one after another, but he’ll be unable to erase them. For one thing, there’ll eventually be a bruise on his face to remind him of them. And the women he re-meets, they have all erased him, brushed off the remains of the mistake of him, and moved on, with focus. If only they hadn’t, Don’s face seems to reveal; if only one of them had carried his child and reared him, loved some part of him so tenderly, the way only a mother could.
One of my favorite scenes comes right before the film’s first dream sequence (there’re a couple). Johnston is seated on a plane next to two little girls, his head resting on a pillow by the window. As he is about to nod off, one of the girls presses a button on her toy pony, and the pony neighs loudly, three times, and wakes Johnston. Now, while the film is primarily concerned with male fantasy, in this scene, female fantasy – what little girl doesn’t want a real pony?– cuts in and jars the male out of his own. Besides all that…it’s just really funny.
I loved Johnston’s meeting with Lolita, his ex Laura’s daughter, who (this is my theory) calls her own cell phone from her home phone so she can come out of her room butt-naked (I laughed giddily, ecstatically, at the delicious sight of her) and pick up her own call. I also loved the obvious relationship between Carmen, the 3rd ex, and her assistant, played by Chloe Sevigny, who wore a sexy Seventies outfit. Finally, I loved Johnston’s final visit, bandage over eye, to the fifth, and deceased, ex. The camera does a foot-to-head glance of the headstone, and Johston says, “Hello, beautiful.” It’s the movie’s best line.
As the film draws to a close, Johnston glimpses several young men in tracksuits like his own; several men who could be his own son. He tells one of them that life isn’t about the past or the future, it’s about the present, nomatter how broken — a subtle theme throughout the movie has been a vase-ful of flowers which wilt and whither and eventually die; flowers are to be enjoyed in the moment, their presence is so fleeting. The film’s last scene is a dizzying, enveloping shot of Johnston and the roads surrounding him, the camera standing still as we look into his eyes. That’s when we see he was lying about the past and the future not mattering, because his eyes fill the screen, wondering not, “Who is my son?” but “who was I then, and where am I going?”
The quest for father/son/God/self, especially through women (muses?) is a perfect way to frame and (re)tell the oldest story in the world. If father and son myths are the product of and propaganda for a patriarchal culture, then what are Johnston’s women but the Godesses and matriarchs who beckon us all back to an older, better system?