Paterson (2016), dir. Jim Jarmusch

paterson

Over the Hudson River sits Paterson, NJ. Paterson is the very antithesis of NYC: away from the big city bustle, the start-up companies, the booming tourism industry. Across the river sits small-town America, only a bus ride away.

Like the personified Belfast in I Am Belfast (2015), the eponymous Paterson becomes a symbol for the city itself. Divorced from the big city, Paterson feels almost out of time. Paterson works in the service industry, living his life in his blue uniform (or his crosshatched shirt). Parts of the city seem run down, covered in graffiti. He removes himself from social media, not even owning a cellphone, waking up without a blaring iPhone alarm.

When Paterson and his girlfriend Laura go to a movie, they see Island of Lost Souls (1932); they don’t watch movies together on Netflix on Laura’s iPad, Paterson never seems to watch movies. Jarmusch leaves the extract to run on, when any other director’s instinct would be to cut it as soon as possible, as the 1930s lone, exoticised island woman, lives on. In the bar, its patrons don’t watch ESPN; Doc refuses to put a television in. And for the better. Paterson feels like a capsule, perhaps of a way of life that will die out – but it still lives on, even in the young 30-somethings of today. Paterson isn’t a hip, young relatable hipster who goes to Starbucks and grooms his beard; he’s an everyday person.

Like with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), the film highlights a different way of life. The dominant media voices tell us about life in LA, or New York, or San Fran, or Washington DC. But most of America isn’t big cities or big states, it’s little ones, underestimated in voting power, never visited by tourists.

Paterson is the person we always see, but never think about. We see he thinks about us, too. As a bus driver, Paterson overhears conversations on the bus, as he slowly drives through the city. Almost, in a way, as we learnt Travis’ persona as the reflective New York City driver in Taxi Driver (1976). In the small-town life, it becomes easy to bump into the guy from the fight in the bar the other night, or see the old bartender with his wife at the front of the cinema.

Paterson is defined by the city’s characters, who become as friendly and reliable as the regular characters in a sitcom or a soap opera. At points, the film seems to shift between vignettes, where new information is revealed every time. Which isn’t unlike Jarmusch: Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) is essentially a series of vignettes. Hearing two anarchist college students on the bus talking to each other doesn’t feel like padding; it gives the city life.

Love stories intersect: Paterson’s relationship with Laura; the old bartender, Doc, arguing with his wife about what he spends her money on; Marie’s dissolving relationship with her actor boyfriend; the shift manager’s myriad of family problems.

We can sit back as viewers and laugh at the seeming nothingness of their problems, and how ridiculous they seem. But these are all real lives, being lived out right now.

But there is something else which unites the people of Paterson, NJ: creativity.

We hear of the creative minds who have come before in Paterson: William Carlos Williams, the author of Paterson (1946-58); Allen Ginsberg, who once read poetry at the local bar; Lou Costello (but not Abbott), memorialised in a statue; Iggy Pop, who, according to an old newspaper clipping, once performed at the bar during the 70s.

Perhaps these are the forgotten voices, removed from their origins: Ginsberg isn’t defined by Paterson, but by the Beat generation, whilst Costello is defined by 1930s Hollywood more than anything else.

But new voices are still alive in the city: Paterson grabs as many seconds as he can before his shift starts, drafting away at his poetry. Paterson does not spout out verse after verse; he spends time rewriting, rethinking, recomposing. Jarmusch spends his time showing us the process: the film is slow, reflective, meditative. Jarmusch does not merely present the words in spoken monologue, but presents them in handwriting on screen. Though frustrating at first, it leads the viewer to question the words behind the words.

I’ve been a poet. Last year, at the height of my depression, I found writing poetry became my outlet, writing away at something new almost every day of the week. Since then, I’ve gotten better, and much happier, and found other outlets for my writing. I don’t feel like there’s anymore verse left in me. But there’s something very real to see this process play out on screen.

As ever, Jarmusch’s films become a kind of spiritual journey. By the film’s denouement, Paterson is made to question why he actually writes poetry, and he, as with Ginsberg, literally has to kill his darlings (a book on Paterson’s shelf carries the same title). Yet without his poetry, we see an unspoken emptiness within him, only resolved when he can look out to the water – and write.

Along the journey, Paterson becomes joined by other voices which influence his own: the guy in the laundromat, rehearsing his verse as Paterson listens in. As she waits for her mom outside the bus station, a girl recites her verse to Paterson, Water Falls – feeling a spiritual connection between their two styles (and Emily Dickinson). As the tourist from Osaka takes out his copy of Williams’ Paterson, split between Japanese translation and the English original, we learn of how it affects him too. Even Doc’s chess tournaments have a degree of creativity too them.

Had this been a different decade, Paterson would be a different character: the charming, eccentric man, befriended by a young kid, as we go on a heartwarming journey learning the ways of poetry and the morals of life. But Jarmusch was never that kind of sentimental filmmaker.

Lyricism goes to the heart of Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man (1995) lives upon the sounds of Neil Young’s guitar; Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) would not be the same film without Yasmine Hamdan singing in Lebanese; Gimme Danger (2016) would not exist had music not struck a chord with Jarmusch. Poetry and music are not the same thing, but they come from the same place.

Every character in Paterson has their own dream. Laura dreams at night of riding elephants in ancient Persia, whilst trying to live out her creative dreams. She oscillates between fashion designer, interior designer, amateur chef and up-and-coming musician. The house becomes the canvas of her entire personality, enveloped more and more by black and white circles as the film progresses. Everything she touches becomes art: the walls, her dresses, cupcakes, even her dog’s collar. Sometimes, she seems more passionate about Paterson’s poetry than he feels about it himself: striving for Paterson to be a known voice. At times, she is to be laughed at. She fixates on the dream of becoming the next Patti Smith, with no prior experience, after watching a YouTube video. But she still has something: a real dream.

Jarmusch depicts a life of routine. Where Laura seems torn apart by the nothingness of her days, Paterson’s days pass in the space of an ethereal montage, fading between the ever-moving hands on his watch and the sights through the window, as water flows, as it does every second of every day. Every day mirrors each other, as each shot becomes identical: we see Paterson waking up next to Laura, eating his bowl of Cheerios, writing in his notebook, speaking to the shift manager, coming home to his mailbox torn out of the ground every single day.

As the film progresses, the routines begin to dissipate. Paterson sleeps in bed just a little bit longer. He spends just a little bit too long writing in his notebook than usual. We learn what happened to the mailbox. There’s almost a sense of performance to his life: his conversations with Laura can amount to a few words, not to throw anything off, even when he doesn’t like her music.

“I hope you liked the sandwich.”
“What do you think of the curtains?”

Marie’s relationship with Donny lives on performance, not knowing how to find the right way to break up with him. After being described as a “Romeo and Juliet” destructive love story, he shifts into Leonardo DiCaprio mode, straight out of Romeo + Juliet (1996), pointing the gun to his head and threatening to shoot his love – only to fire a blank out of a toy gun. Paterson’s dive to the rescue is also a kind of performance – presenting himself as a macho figure.

But where these words are so hard to say, there’s poetry.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

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C.R.A.Z.Y.‘s DVD cover casts Zac as Ziggy Stardust, yet the film left me with more of a taste to listen to Patsy Cline than David Bowie. As much as it wants to sell itself on its soundtrack, it’s hardly a rock opera with a standout soundtrack.

In a world where Peccadillo Pictures releases a billion trillion queer films, there feels something rote about the film’s narrative. Zac’s father is homophobic, resistant to his son ever being considered a “fag”, obsessed with masculinity and rejecting Zac ever taking on a more motherly role – something he essentially confirms for himself based on small identifiers when he is as young as 7. Later, he kicks Zac out of the house, talking about how disgusting gay sex is, and sends him to a shrink. What’s interesting is a few twists to the cliche: Zac’s mother is defensive, whilst Zac’s father is somewhat nuanced. In one scene, Zac’s parents discuss the possibility their son might be gay, following his sexual encounter with a classmate. Zac’s mother retorts about how she had anal sex many years ago, and not just once. “It’s not the same thing.”

Zac rejects the label, talking to a shrink (who tells him that this was his subliminal way of telling his father that he is gay). But this falls into another cliche trap:

*does something gay*

“I’m not gay”

*compensates by making out with Michelle*

*does something gay*

*compensates by beating up the boy he jerked up with*

*does something gay*

Labelled as a fag, he listens to Bowie, in a scene that seems straight out of Velvet Goldmine (1998). He ends up dating Michelle over several years; a refusal of his gay identity, or an embracement of bisexuality, or rejecting the notion that certain signifiers (even sexual experimentation) denote sexuality.

Yet often it feels like such a generic queer coming of age story, laced with every trope you would expect. There are so many coming out stories out there; I cannot project myself onto Zac with his coming out narrative and crowded household, nor can I project myself onto his nostalgic 1970s influences. I’m left being like “well, his stoner brother has kind of a cute beard”.

Zac is a chameleon of influences, and the mirroring his childhood and his teenagehood and young adulthood quite a lot, most obviously through the unsolved mystery of the father’s broken Patsy Cline record. He listens to records like his father; smokes cigarettes like his brother did when he was a child, adopting a rebellious, masculine image; wears a cross like his mother, not out of faith but out of an anarchistic aesthetic; adopts a haircut like Paul’s because he has a massive crush on him. He practices kung-fu moves like Bruce Lee, and covers his bedroom in posters of Bowie.

But whilst the mirroring of childhood is a strong aspect of the film, the scenes set during his childhood are also the weakest part. Half an hour feels like an eternity, before awkwardly transitioning from his childhood self pissing the bed into a 15 year old Zac. His rejection of Christianity because, contrary to his prayers, he pissed the bed, becomes the formation of his teenage self. This should play as genius comedy, but instead is just incredibly bizarre. Rather than a far less compelling version of Boyhood (2014), the film’s viewpoint should have been teenage Zac, communicating the same information in shorter exposition.

Zac exists within a stylised world, where he can float between the church and a Christmas party in one cut, and dub the choir with Sympathy for the Devil. The stylised world can work, like how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) removes us from the laws of physics, but C.R.A.Z.Y. is unable to find a balance between serious drama, lighter scenes and Zac’s sense of himself as a dreamer with all the power in the world. Where CGI smoke rings fly towards the moon, or a playground fight is played in fast motion, the film screams the mid-00s, not the mid-70s.

The film’s oddest aspect is its exploration of faith. An exploration of sexuality juxtaposed against an exploration of faith and spirituality could be a very interesting one, but what is executed here just seems bizarre. Zac is essentially the Chosen One, which seems appropriate, given that Hayden Christensen is Canadian himself. Born on the same day as Jesus, his mother expects him to use his great powers to save the Jedi Order, or rather, heal those in need in times of pain. He walks through the deserts of Tatooine, feeling a bond with his mother through the force.

Zac rejects religion as an atheist, but makes bets with God to see if he can make the crossing when the light is red, and make the snowstorm when he could easily get hypothermia. This ‘Chosen One’ mythos feels so unnatural, though his mother’s sentiment at times does feel natural. He still respects his mother’s faith, going to Mass every Christmas with them, and gifting her a book about Jerusalem. But when he goes to Jerusalem himself, it feels odder. We’re never given a clear reason as to why he makes this journey, besides curiosity and to please his mom. He ends up in the gay scene, meeting a man who simultaneously looks both suspiciously like Jim Morrison and like the Anglicised image of Jesus, speaking in English. Jesus walks alongside Zac, appearing to him in the desert as he treks into the abyss, without water, in a journey that makes little sense.

How this has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is fucking C.R.A.Z.Y.

The Here After (2015), dir. Magnus Von Horn

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I remember my younger days of “man, Ulrik Munther is fucking hot”.

It would be easy to draw parallels to Mommy (2014): a troubled teenager with a criminal history is let out of prison and back into the hands of a single parent, only to find the world outside is hostile and unaccommodating, leading to a crisis point where the issue of whether he should even be in the outside world is discussed, or forced upon him. The role of the parent is also called into question, with their involvement gradually reaching the point of overbearing and placing too much control on their child (although in other ways too little).

That is about where the similarities end. This is the utopia of Sweden, where students address teachers by their first name, teenagers casually drive their parents around (rather than the other way around), high schools have 300 students, parent/teacher/student discussions are democratic and resist the police at all costs, and guns are casually placed in Ikea bags.

In Mommy, Steve was a highly sympathetic character, although with a sense of aggression. We can also be sympathetic towards John. His aggression is provoked, always aggravated. His fellow students treat him as suspect within a culture of fear, based on a prior sin. But they cannot forgive him, unable to even accept him as the quiet kid in the back of the class. By relying too heavily on this false image, they are able to let John move on when he has already moved on. An interesting question we should consider in our everyday life: where does revenge and suspicion go too far?

Magnus Von Horn focuses a lot of his attention on stationary shots that last an eternity; he also borrows the ‘frame within a frame’ idea that pervades films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Sometimes frustrating, but it’s an interesting technique that helps communicate how static and isolating both John’s household and by extension his own life is.

My impression going into this film anticipated the “troubled kid goes on a school shootout” genre, in the same vain as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Elephant (2003). The film never gives us this. We see John with the rifle, but he never reaches full breaking point. Perhaps for the best.