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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …