Skip to main content

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is.


Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappointment is that Marvin doesn’t get dog-jacked, although Jarmusch undercuts such expectation of eventfulness throughout).


One might see Paterson as something of a pushover, as it’s quite clear he’ll do anything Laura asks of him; he even has the route of his walk dictated to him by Marvin. There’s no urge to confrontation there, though, as if he is the same passive observer of his home life as he is of passengers on his routes “Do you think there are any other anarchists in Paterson?” one student asks another, to Paterson’s wry amusement). His poetry reflects this unswerving, ordered mundanity, focussed on the least arresting of topics, the small details (“We have plenty of matches in our house…”), and yet finding a hypnotic, methodical beauty in them; his routine existence informs and enables his creative life.


At first, I was unclear if Jarmusch intended us to regard Paterson as skilled at his chosen recreational pursuit – poetry is, after all, one of the most subjective of artistic endeavours, particularly given its minority appreciation – being as there are pointers on the way, such as the girl he sits with to wait until her mother returns, whose words affect him profoundly and suggest her as talented and literate beyond her years, making Paterson aware of his own fragile talent. But he is belying in his modesty, and Jarmusch invests in his creative technique as that of a true artist (we experience his developing compositions through repetition and subtitling, as the craftsman whittles his words to their final form, Driver’s tones imbuing them with steady, unmoderated rhythm).


If Paterson is quietly dedicated to his solitary art, Laura is a sexy, passionate screwball alighting on all manner of different endeavours, somewhat reminiscent of Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters; she wants to develop a cupcake business and has interior decorated their home to varying degrees of success (there are several dog paintings on the wall that even Paterson can’t disguise his lack of enthusiasm towards). The sense is of one harmlessly deluded over their abilities, and who knows their other half will capitulate to their every coquettish demand (“You really need this guitar?”), yet she actually is competent at the guitar almost immediately, and her cakes go down a storm (when Paterson doesn’t finish one earlier in the film, you suspect they’re lousy). Laura announces “I have a very strong visual style” which is certainly true, consisting of painting black and white circles on curtains and gradually spreading the same colours everywhere, including her clothing.


Her lack of aesthetic compass is most clearly signified by her decision to make a Cheddar cheese and Brussel sprouts pie on impulse (the effect of which is to send Marvin into a stupor and require Paterson to drink gallons of water). Despite this, Jarmusch isn’t depicting a flawed relationship, requiring the worm to turn; they’re both endless supportive of each other. Paterson isn’t nursing pent up aggression towards Laura, and she’s the one who has been, unsuccessfully, attempting to get him to make copies of his work (as to why she doesn’t copy it for him, well, it’s his work). In his book of poetry, he confides “Pumpkin… if you ever left me… I’d tear my heart out and never put it back


Paterson: It’s okay. They were just words. Written on water.

Perhaps there’s nothing Paterson needs to set right. Perhaps his lack of ambition in any regard is a talisman of fortitude, his contentment with just being. It is only really the loss of his notebook that brings him down, and by the synchronicitous workings of the universe he receives another at the very point when he is sees no reason to continue with his pastime (“Sometimes the empty page presents more possibilities” he is told). Synchronicity and mundanity – and encyclopaedic knowledge of local icons and obscure pursuits of more famous ones – featured strongly in Jarmusch’s last picture, the superb Only Lovers Left Alive (which also depicted strangely barren urban environs). That was through the filter of bored immortality, but Paterson is all about finding satisfaction in the little things.


Japanese Poet: May I ask if you too are a poet?
Paterson: No, no. I’m a bus driver myself. Just a bus driver.

Quite what the twins motif amounts to is unclear – Jarmusch said “the film is about things not being significant” so it suggests pursuing that line of thought would be flogging a dead horse –  but it recurs, from Laura’s dream of their having twins, to the twins in the bar and on the bus, to the poet girl’s sister, to Paterson’s reaction to Kathleen Burke in Island of Lost Souls – “You look like her, you could be twins” he tells Laura – and Jarmusch may be suggesting, consciously or not, a sense of opposition and duality.


At the same time Laura has success with her cakes (making two dollars less than the cost of her guitar), Marvin destroys Paterson’s notebook, announcing his failure. Paterson encounters fellow poets, as if by magic, wherever he goes (the rapper in the laundrette, the girl, the Japanese tourist with the notebook, who has visited the city because of its famous poet William Carlos Williams) who serve to underline the importance of his activity. Paterson, who maintains unaffected acceptance of his unvarying daily rotation in the face of Donny’s problems and Everett’s heartbreak, is brought (relatively) low by Marvin’s destructive act as the universe strives to maintain a balance. But, as Everett (William Jackson Harper), offers, seeking to console him, “The Sun still shines every night and sets every evening. Always another day”. “So far” admits Paterson.


Japanese Poet: Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.
Paterson (laughing): I see what you mean.

Jarmusch also observes a quiet synchronicity through humour, such as the repeated response regarding the potential danger of the broken-down bus to its passengers (“Damn, they could have exploded in a fucking fireball”). But his pictures have always been quietly funny (“Sabotage, probably” suggests a child passenger regarding the incident), except when Benigni has been on hand to create an uproar. It goes without saying that Driver is great, the unfeigned flipside to his immodest hipster manipulator in While We’re Young, and Farahani matches him beautifully, both irresistible and impossible as his endlessly-motivated other half. A word too for Barry Shabaka Henley as the most classic of approachable bartenders.


Paterson ends with Monday rolling round again, seven days, its title character having resumed his poetic path as he muses on Swinging on a Star and how “Or would you rather be a fish” was only that line in it that spoke to him “As if the rest of the song didn’t have to be there”. Which reflects Paterson’s acceptance of his own life; that it is what it is, and striving to make it something other won’t help matters. Out of quiet contemplation comes meaning. Paterson is an exponent of art for art’s sake, not for its acceptance by others or his own consequent self-gratification. Which seems to be its Jarmusch’s essential ethos too, albeit one bound by the practicalities of financing (he sees Paterson as cinema in poetic form, although unlike his poet, he writes only one draft of his script, then hones the picture in the editing room). Whether or not Paterson’s is talented – and Jarmusch evidently thinks he is; I’m sure he could have written him as a bad poet if he so wished, although cynics of the form might suggest it would be difficult to tell the difference – it becomes irrelevant when he is his own audience and critic.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.