Category Archives: Reviews

Paterson

Paterson is remarkable for its director’s ambition to build a story around a character’s interiority.

There is something surprising and satisfying about Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, which chronicles the creative life of an everyman poet.  The film follows its dominant character through a series of routine work days.  He’s a bus driver, using the freedom granted by the predictability of his route to work out lines of poetry that are committed to paper at the end of the day.

Each morning he leaves his small bungalow and his artist wife for the short walk to the bus barn.  Even on his feet he’s a natural observer; and Jarmusch gets out of the way to let us see the modest city that reveals itself every day. Once underway, it’s mostly the driver’s ears that take over, catching the conversations of the children and seniors who depend on his NJ Transit bus. He also absorbs the lives of locals in a neighborhood bar he visits after dinner. It’s part of his routine of taking the couple’s English bulldog for a walk.  (Marvin was played by Nellie, who won the Palm Dog Award at Cannes).

If this all sounds like watching paint dry, you’d be surprised.

The film’s title has at least three meanings. The young driver’s name is Paterson.  The town he lives and works in is also Paterson, in Northern New Jersey.  And the name happens to be the title of William Carlos Williams’ most consequential book of poetry, which sits on Paterson’s desk.

Actor Adam Driver is skillful enough to let us see Paterson’s mind absorb his world. In this story there will be no crashes, no hold ups, or any break in the loving bond between himself and Laura. Instead, Jarmusch focuses on the linear thinking of Driver’s character, a man intent on working out his thoughts. Paterson doesn’t even carry a cell phone, which he perceptively sees as a distraction and “a leash.”

Periodically Jarmusch lets us see the results of Paterson’s verbal invention in his own scrawl. It unobtrusively slips under the film’s images in a corner of the screen. The lines contributed by writer Ron Padgett are very much in the Williams tradition: an economical free-verse style.

Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using action rather than thought as motivating elements.

Here’s the interesting thing. Paterson is remarkable for its willingness to build the film around a character’s interiority.  Films often show us a great deal, but usually starve our interest in understanding a figure’s state of mind. Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using actions rather than thought as motivating elements. Actors may want internal motivations to bring their characters to life. But directors naturally want something interesting to show.

And there’s the rub. Poetry is frequently about passing impressions, layers of revelatory consciousness that are eventually made audible.  As a form, it’s not necessarily fragile, but it is often subtle. A director has to be inventive and confident to put stories on the screen that build out from the inner life of a poet.

                     Burke and Williams

Interestingly, Williams was a friend of Kenneth Burke, perhaps the most influential of all American rhetorical scholars. When he visited Burke’s farm in Andover New Jersey the two men—Williams, a physician and poet of the ordinary, and Burke, the grand theorist of all things symbolic—would sometimes goad each other. Williams might gently mock Burke about his “damned theorizing.” But both thrived in the same realm of words and thought.  Burke was driven by the desire to create a grand theory of everything, as revealed in our symbol-using.  Williams often sought to record what his senses were telling him about about his busy life in the Garden State. That a film would seek to enter this world of verbal action is a reminder of the kind of transformative story an observant filmmaker can tell.

Restricted Revivals

                                 wrongfootforward

Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

A new book that has created ripples this year is David Sax’ The Revenge of Analog (2016).  He discusses the revival of older media forms that have been eclipsed by all things digital.  Your old Pentax 35-millimeter camera is an analog device, as are the once-cherished vinyl records albums taking up space in your basement. In the case of these two forms, you can actually see what the medium was capturing in its mechanical ‘software;’ each frame of film carries a miniature impression of its content, as do the microscopic groves of a record.  A high sheen visible  on its surface means it carries lots of ‘close together’ grove wiggles representing higher sound frequencies.  A Mozart recording will have a brighter sheen than one that gives us a more bass-heavy Brahms.

By contrast, digital forms give us files made up of electronic imprints that are mostly invisible. We now take pictures with our cameras, never giving much thought to the storage media. And many of us get our music from a “cloud,” wherever that is.

Sax wants to make the point that there is a resurgence of analog forms. In the first three chapters of his book he points out the return of what we thought was gone: the modest rise in the number of bands that release their music on vinyl, and the rebirth of film manufacturing for a steadfast group of artists and filmmakers who like the look of images on celluloid.  He also notes that we still depend on the printed page. And for good reason. The book remains a supremely portable medium, though his argument that bookstores are popping up everywhere seems like a stretch.

Older Luddites are clearly not a sign of the rebirth he describes. The “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

I should be the kind of person most receptive to his argument. After all, I’m among those who have lamented the capture of persons by their digital screens. But I’m also in the class of “geezers” he mentions who still prowl the bins of used record stores.  He makes it clear that media-use habits of older adults do not represent the rebirth he sees. Sax wants us to know that the “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

Fun as it is, the book leaves me mostly unconvinced. In the case of film, he misses the best argument for its preservation: that it often looks better. Watch a movie in 4K-digital and it can create a one-dimensional look that others have described as the “soap opera effect.” Colors are bright but not rich. Sets and images often look flat. There’s something about the residual blur of passing light through a celluloid image that makes a projected film so watchable. No wonder directors like Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson still use film technologies that blossomed in 1950s.

Alas, vinyl records have not aged as well.  Many are fine, but among its residual problems, vinyl is a natural collector of dust, with individual particles played back as a small click. Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

Sax gets some things right, and never more so than in an opening quote from the Toronto theorist, Marshall McLuhan.  Some of the media insights from the media sage have not aged well.  But McLuhan was spot-on noting that “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”  Those of us who are interesting in such things avidly teach this lesson. Newer media don’t necessarily eclipse the old; most co-exist, evolve, and sometimes fade.