April 24 - May 1, 1997
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Fish stories

Cult hero John Lurie gets reel

by Peg Aloi

"FISHING WITH JOHN," written and directed by John Lurie. At the Harvard Film Archive. Program 1, featuring Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, and Matt Dillon, screens Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 9, Sunday at 7, and Tuesday at 7:30. Program 2, with Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper, screens Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 9, Monday at 7, and Wednesday at 8. John Lurie will appear in person at the April 25 opening-night screening.

[John Lurie] See Dennis Hopper stalk the elusive giant squid in Thailand! Experience the threatening frozen wilds of Maine with ice fisherman Willem Dafoe! Watch Jim Jarmusch battle angry sharks off Montauk! Join Matt Dillon in a shamanic journey through the Costa Rican jungle! Hear Tom Waits croon as he trawls for red snapper in Jamaica!

Perhaps only John Lurie -- star of the Jarmusch black-and-whites Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise and saxist/leader of "fake jazz" outfit the Lounge Lizards -- could have conceived of "Fishing with John": a series of videotaped excursions with friends in remote locales, shot in gritty realistic style with tongue-in-cheek nature-program voiceovers. Lurie says the idea started small: "It was kind of a joke, taping these fishing trips; it was just something weird, just silly art. We were like nine-year-olds playing around."

Then a Japanese production company offered to finance some episodes, and a TV series was born. "I knew who I wanted to work with," says the laconic New Yorker. "I had already filmed Willem and Tom. They wanted Matt Dillon; I was interested in River Phoenix and Flea."

These quirky films -- which Lurie will introduce when they begin screening at the Harvard Film Archive this Friday -- blur documentary realism with surreal story elements developed by Lurie. The trip with Dafoe begins as a robust bonding ritual in the frozen wastes of Maine; it ends in slow starvation. Although Lurie says they were never in actual danger of starving, he adds, "We were definitely in danger of getting frostbite." He relates a few horror stories: "In each of these episodes, someone almost died. In Costa Rica, especially, we were flying on jungle planes; it was complete confusion, someone almost backed into a propeller one day, it was 110 degrees on the runway. That whole trip was incredibly dangerous."

Viewers may also wonder about interpersonal difficulties. The inimitable Waits seems happiest when rowing a canoe, bursting into lusty song, playing poker, or hiding fish in his pants. But he is green with nausea on the fishing boat, and he grows irritable with John on the way home: "You dragged me along on this safari and I have no idea why." Then there's a sugar-gobbling Hopper, whom John warns about having "a hypoglycemic attack," and who incredulously denies having died in Easy Rider. (Boy, is that gonna keep me up nights).

How much dialogue was scripted versus improvised? "I was acting and directing. There was no storyboard, it was low-budget, so we just let things happen. It was hell."

And what about the fish? Were they improvising too? "Those red snapper in Jamaica, they were fake; we bought them from these guys on the river. The giant squid was from a story in the Post." And making the shark episode with Jarmusch compelled Lurie to re-evaluate his views on fishing for sport: "After we caught the first one, I was so grossed out, it was like, `I'm not fishing for anything after this.' It takes two hours to land these damn things, and by the end I was having this big moral dilemma."

But fishing for food is apparently not taboo for the veteran downtowner. So I wonder what other possibilities lie ahead. Smelting in upstate new York with Rockets Redglare? Digging for mussels on the Irish coast with Ellen Barkin? Wrestling Tuscan eels with Roberto Benigni?

Lurie is the thinking man's Clint Eastwood. (I am still considering what he is to the thinking woman.) Those who enjoyed his solipsistic portrayals in Jarmusch's films will love this body of work. Fans of the Lounge Lizards will also groove on the soundtrack (soon available from Lurie's new label). Lurie wishes his band could have accompanied him on his visit to Boston this week; he promises they will play here in the coming year. ("We are better than ever; I'm really excited.") Recently the Lizards played to sellout crowds at Manhattan's Knitting Factory, which has also hosted screenings of "Fishing with John" -- also SRO. Lurie wonders whether Boston audiences will "get it." I think they'll be laughing too hard to care.

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