Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Paterson": two-paragraph review

Jim Jarmusch is a director of dramas who hates drama. His latest film, "Paterson," is a quiet exploration of poetic reality infusing prosaic lives. The movie's cast includes Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, Barry Shabaka Henley, Kara Hayward, Masatoshi Nagase, and Method Man (apparently as himself). The movie is recursive and symbolic: for instance, Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey; Paterson writes poetry in his spare time, and one of his favorite poets is William Carlos Williams, who lived in Paterson and once wrote a massive epic poem titled Paterson. See what I mean about recursive? The fusion of the poetic and the prosaic is the movie's fundamental theme; the narrative is structured like a poem, with many gentle repetitions and recurrences in an otherwise ordinary life. The story has few moments of actual tension and conflict, almost as if Jarmusch were aiming to create the world's first drama-free drama. Stolid, stoic Paterson the bus driver is married to beautiful, sunny Laura (Farahani), an artistic soul who dreams of both running her own cupcake bakery and becoming a country-music star. She's supportive of Paterson's poetry, which he jots into a notebook whenever he has a free moment—poetry that is mainly observations of daily life and the little things. Laura's art, when she's designing curtains or cupcake patterns, tends to be either squiggles or circles: the nonlinear and the cyclical, two major tropes in the film. Eager to see her husband's work published, Laura makes Paterson promise to go to a copy shop and get his notebook of poetry copied—a first step to having the poems published "to share with the world." Paterson's routine varies little from day to day, and we cycle through a week that goes from Monday to Monday: he wakes up next to Laura, eats cereal, arrives early at his bus, scribbles parts of a poem, talks with his beleaguered Indian-American foreman, drives the bus, comes home, walks the dog, visits the local bar during his walk, drinks a single beer, then goes home. I'm still not clear on when he eats dinner, but he somehow manages to squeeze dinner in. Laura is generally a good cook, but sometimes she breaks Paterson's harmonious routine when she introduces some new culinary idea that falls flat, like her cheese-and-Brussels-sprouts pie, which Paterson gamely downs while drinking copious amounts of water. But Laura, as a dreamer, seems on occasion to be a prophet: early on, she tells Paterson that she has dreamed of their children, who will be twins. From then on, Paterson encounters pair after pair of twins: another eruption of the poetic into the prosaic.

I should have liked this film more than I did; the narrative structure alone is fascinating in that, the more you think about it, the more complexity it reveals despite being so deceptively simple on the surface. But that aspect of the film possesses an appeal that is only intellectual, the way I find electronica intellectually interesting (because it's so explicitly mathematical) but ultimately dull and sterile. Director Jarmusch gives us only a few grudging drops of drama: Paterson is in the bar when his lovelorn acquaintance Everett (Harper) pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself; Paterson grabs the gun and immobilizes Everett, but the gun turns out to be a Nerf-bullet shooter. On another day, Paterson's bus breaks down, but we don't see how the situation is resolved. Any drama in the film is undercut, either through a kind of irony (foam bullets) or through editing (not showing us the bus-breakdown resolution). The film's biggest tragedy occurs when something terrible happens to Paterson's notebook of poetry, but this is followed by a near-mystical scene in which Paterson, sitting on a bench and staring at a waterfall (itself a recurrent trope), meets a Japanese traveler who gives Paterson a gift that compensates, at least partly, for the notebook tragedy. It's all very beautiful, but despite the deft blending of themes and metaphors, despite the excellent acting by all of the cast (Driver and Farahani have a weird but pleasant chemistry), "Paterson" left me rather empty. Oh, I forgot to mention that, whenever Paterson writes poems in his notebook, we see his words on the screen and hear Paterson reciting his verse in voiceover...and the poetry is plain horrible. This may, in fact, have been the film's biggest turn-off. I don't mind that Paterson's poetry is free, blank verse, but Jesus, where's the eloquence?


Charles said...

Given up on the one-paragraph conceit? Never understood why you felt you had to tie yourself to that, to be honest. Just call them reviews and write however much you want to write.

I found your comment on electronica being "explicitly mathematical" interesting. How is it any more explicitly mathematical than music in general? I wonder if you are thinking of a particular variety of electronica, or a particular artist.

Haven't seen this film, and probably won't, but the "loss of the notebook" (however that loss might have come about) reminds me of something that happened to me a long time ago (for some reason your posts lately have been reminding me of stuff). I was hiking along the cliffs in Cornwall, England (outside Boscastle, I believe it was), and I had stopped at one point to sit down and write a poem. I was sitting among tufts of grass not far from the cliff edge when a wind came up, tore the paper out of my hand, and whipped it down over the edge of the cliff. I crawled to the edge and lay there, looking down at the rocks and water below, as my piece of paper swirled about in the eddies of wind. Then I sat back down and contemplated what this might mean. Perhaps nature was telling me to just sit back and enjoy the view, and not worry about putting my thoughts into words. Or perhaps it was telling me that my poetry sucked.

As I was thinking these things, my piece of paper suddenly flew back up over the edge of the cliff and landed a few feet away. I stared at it dumbfounded for a moment before pouncing on it. Now, decades later, I have no idea what that poem was, but I remember that moment like it was yesterday.

Kevin Kim said...


That review was simply too long to be a single paragraph. You might think that the other one-paragraph reviews are too long to be one paragraph, but I would demur: I'm actually showing a great deal of self-restraint, given my prolix tendencies.

That said, the two-paragraph format is tempting because it neatly conforms to the old "book report" structure we all learned in school: first summarize, then give your opinion. Many movie reviews also have this structure, and it's one I'm tempted to return to more often, but I'm trying to keep myself from spending hours and hours on the reviews I write.

re: electronica

The response to this is a blog post in itself. Basically, I'm stealing this notion from my brother Sean, the resident music expert in our family. He once told me about how European composers of what we now call "classical" music were often keenly aware of the math inherent in composition, but this didn't mean that those composers thought and spoke in explicitly mathematical terms. If Pythagoras was right and "all is number," then everything in existence can be described mathematically, so there's no escaping math, at least on an implicit level.

I like to think of it this way: a dog catching a frisbee has an instinctive/intuitive awareness of physics but isn't explicitly pondering equations when it catches a frisbee; by the same token, a genius like Mozart, who really did compose his pieces entirely as first drafts, composed more from an intuitive sense of rightness about melody and harmony than because he was interested in seeing what would happen if he phase-shifted this or that sine wave. Mozart (and, most likely, his contemporaries) wasn't being explicitly mathematical.

Electronica artists, by contrast (and according to Sean), do explicitly tinker with sound waves and think mathematically, using equipment that has plenty of dials and slider switches to make the aforementioned phase shifts and changes in amplitude, etc. These artists, being much less interested in conventional melodies, are all about pulling music toward something abstract—i.e., something mathematical. A great example would be Daft Punk's soundtrack for "Tron Legacy," with all its buzzes, clicks, and whirs Sean would more likely bring up his heroine Björk. I like both Björk and Daft Punk, but only in very small doses. More than that, and the abstraction just becomes annoying to me.

re: your experience at the cliffs

A beautiful moment, that. Maybe Mother Nature didn't know what lesson she wanted to teach you. The loss and recovery of your page could be a sign that she was waffling. A shame you don't remember (or possess?) the poem.

Charles said...

I suppose there is some merit in self-imposed limits, even if they do get a little stretched from time to time.

As far as electronica goes, you (or perhaps Sean?) seem to be using a rather narrow definition of the term. My own brother works heavily in electronica as a musician, and I know that he does not tinker mathematically with his music--he just happens to use electronic instruments to produce the sounds. I wonder if there is a subgenre term for the type of electronica you're referring to. Actually, I'm sure there must be... I just don't know what it is.

And the poem... OK, so I lied a bit. I do still have that poem, although I was more or less telling the truth in that I do not remember it at this moment. Out on the cliffs, I did not have my journal with me and so wrote the poem on that piece of paper. But when I got back to the B&B I transcribed it in my journal, and there it remains (the journal, of course, is back in Korea now). If I remember correctly, the poem wasn't bad (I used to be a fairly decent poet), but it wasn't earth-shattering, either, and it will never live up to the story surrounding it. So I choose to let the poem lie obscured in the mists of the past and carry the story with me instead.

Charles said...

(And, now, nearly two thousand words into a review of the new Beauty and the Beast film and the end still far off, I repent of my snide remark concerning your one- and two-paragraph reviews.)

Kevin Kim said...

I hear you. Reviews are fun to write, but in the end, these are only movies we're talking about, and we've got better things to do. Even when I gleefully write my long reviews, I get antsy as I near completion, simply wanting them to be done.