WRITTEN IN CANNES 2016 (02): ON PATERSON. THE LIVES OF MEN BEYOND MEASURE
By Roger Koza
American Honey, Paterson, and Toni Erdmann are three movies about labor; even though the first one attempts a portrait on the banality of American culture; the second one shows a utopian detour from routine; and the third one aims to attack the imperative mandate of efficiency with the noblest weapons we still possess —humor and affection. Andre Arnold, Jim Jarmusch, and Maren Ade accomplish all the goals they set out for in their films and also—going beyond each of their thematic agendas—plunge into the subject of time and its usage, both for labor and leisure.
In Paterson, Jarmusch choses to follow the life of Paterson—a bus driver—during a week. This bus driver lives together with his girlfriend and their dog in a territory which is a hidden turf for American poets —the city of Paterson, New Jersey. That’s where William Carlos Williams was born and it is also the city where Allen Ginsberg grew up. According to the film, Paterson is a city of dispersed poets; in its streets one can find a pre-teenage girl carrying her rhymes in a small notepad, a bus driver who uses his spare time to write every day, and Japanese tourists visiting the city to confirm if in that town—similar to any other in the United States—people indeed uses their idle hours to write.
In any society ruled by notions of productivity and endless accumulation poetry is an untimely, completely anomalous activity. And, contrary to what Alejandro Jodoroswsky thinks, a poet is not he who unleashes—in a ridiculous way, most of the times—his most primitive passions once he understands the world is meaningless at its chore and life ought to be lived fully precisely because of its banality and lack of consequence. Most people are forced into labor, but that activity does not offer them a full existential justification.
Just as he had already suggested in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, for Jarmusch poetry is a spiritual activity to be practiced in solitude, a literary tradition that works with words and signs. Ghost Dog spoke of a poetry of war; and, in it, the members of the Wu-Tang Clan represented a peripheral area, the ridges where Cervantes may well have been a prehistoric partner in dissent. Be it so or not, the word is experience. And, as such, the essence of the poetic form lies in slitting words open in order to recombine them and describe the world in a different way.
Paterson, the bus driver, realizes—without openly saying it—his writing depends specifically on questioning and defamiliarizing his own senses of sight and hearing. Here, more than in other occasions, Jarmusch’s characteristic slow dissolves are impregnated with a meaning that goes far beyond mere stylistic obsession —juxtaposing shots becomes the perfect visual translation for the act of slitting words open. Words are cracked and taken apart from other words in order to merge them with yet other words and give them new meanings which allow for the cinematic experience to be liberated into the sounds of language. What we see in the reiterative fades on street shots, the Paterson River, and other visions of the protagonist in relation to the outer world, is that they constitute linguistic declinations and have a direct effect on the modes of seeing. It doesn’t really matter if Jarmusch is aware of it or not; what can’t be proved wrong is that such association—a likely hypothesis in face of his filmic material—is relevant.
One of Paterson’s reiterative activities is that, as he drives, he likes listening to his passengers’ conversations and watches them sporadically through the rear-view mirror. None of these conversations are alike, and some are more relevant than others; but that peculiar way of listening is a discipline for the poet’s ear and trains him in the various usages of language. And, above the audio focusing on the conversations, Jarmusch sets into motion a second aural layer —not the reproduction of the protagonist’s focus of attention but of his world. And whoever pays the right amount of attention will realize there is a selective sound work implying a regular bus trip and this is also mixed with the musical layers of Squarl’s beautiful soundtrack. The equalization and mixing of the direct sound and the music is simply prodigious. And this perceptual intensification is repeated again, to a lesser degree, at Paterson’s lunch breaks when he goes to the city river; that’s where he eats, writes, and beholds. The complicity established between the character’s perceptions and the filmic staging during those moments is simply exceptional. What happens within the frame of the shot is also happening outside of it and, thus, the dividing line between screen and life becomes a bit blurry. And, thus, the dissolves are established between that what is being represented and he or she who watches its representation. The image becomes embodied.
When we listen to some of the lines written by Paterson (poems which actually belong to the poet Ron Padgett, who has nothing to do with Paterson, the city), one of them asserts that through knowledge we inherit a tridimensional notion of experience: width, length, and profundity determine spatial relations; but a fourth dimension is also announced —the one related to time. There are numerous instances in the filmic staging where spatial dimensions are indexed. However, the fourth dimension is the one which becomes key. All throughout the film Paterson’s watch is an icon. This fourth dimension determines, on the one hand, the whole narrative organization. And through a convenient, and rather peculiar, linear plot, the succession of days takes us to the other great theme in the film —the issue around the composition of time, which is repetition. Inevitably, days repeat one after the other; waking up at 6.15 AM, kissing or cuddling with the woman you love, having breakfast, driving away in the bus, driving, resting, writing poetry, having dinner, taking the dog out for a walk, paying a visit to a bar every night, and returning home. Repetition is an unavoidable form of the concatenation of facts and actions that ensures certain regularity and predictability in experience, but circumstances may intercede and change the course of events —in repetition there may also exist difference. The main evidence of this interruption of concatenated events is the bus’s electric malfunction, and it can also be observed in the cruel fate of Paterson’s potential book with his hand-written notes. His writing dispenses with a computer, and this will be a decisive factor, for reasons to be seen. The idea is to point out, and to stress, that the logics of repetition will always be undermined by random events because they stop mechanical time’s accumulation and elicit a detour that modifies time experience. This detour is what the poet is interested in; this detour, moreover, must be produced, invoked, conjured. This is also the virtue of every filmmaker —permanently seeking for a detour from the script. We will also return to this point soon.
Paterson’s greatest problem has to do—and painfully so—with its feminine character and, to a lesser extent, with the engaging—but too human—function performed by Marvin, the dog of the house. There’s a gag involving Marvin which is quite funny if considered independently, but rather incoherent and disruptive within the general system of the film. The human-like character of the pet is crowned with a direct intervention of the beautiful quadruped on the poet’s texts; a clunky example of what is known in literature as Deus ex machina. The script imposes itself here, and wears out cinema’s constitutive experience —films must confront and explore the ambiguity of reality. The script is a form of determination that, in a way, nullifies the emergence of poetry. What happens with beautiful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani? The young woman is charming and her witty role can’t be underestimated. The couple she is part of, together with Adam Driver, is almost perfect. But something is out of tune here and it can be felt by their symbolic asymmetry. She exists in Paterson. The striking and gradual affectation of the character, her losing of tone, is what explains the substitution of the protagonist’s kindness with an affected tone bordering on the unbearable. This is a dramatic modality that diminishes the general elegance of the film and, to a certain extent, shames the sensibility displayed in all of its compositional levels. This is somewhat damaging to the film in general, but in no way wounds it at its heart.
Incidentally, what is at the heart of this movie? There is a passing statement which, to a degree, may be taken as mere nostalgic rhetoric, when in reality it’s pivotal for the film and for Jarmusch. A Saturday night, the poet and his woman decide to go to the movies. They choose a theater where old black-and-white films are shown —and they watch Island of Lost Souls. There, Paterson merrily expresses that “It’s good to be in the Twentieth Century.” This declaration wholly encompasses the dispute between two cultures—that of zombies and that of readers—in Only Lovers Left Alive, but within the context of an aristocracy suitable for vampires. Here, the sensibility is different —it could be defined as a tepidly popular sensibility. Indeed, this is Jarmusch’s more proletarian film, since its characters are neither eccentric nor bohemian, but mere common individuals without any features of geniality. The access to a poetical existence, therefore, is not the privilege of a specific class, nor is it to have an excessive temperament. In Paterson, poetry is a path available for anyone. The point here is to indicate an embryonic disposition which everyone can achieve, but is not due to a daily politics of permanent dispersion. That the main character refuses to have an iPod and a smart phone entails an inescapable meaning; inciting to permanent communication is also promoting constant dispersion, which infringes upon the action required for poetic sensibility. What does the poetic work entail? What is its initial condition? To dispose of attention over one’s surroundings to know how to see and hear—in the ordinary, and in the merely functional—those discreet and enchanted elements of things, men, and animals, those expressions that differ from the assigned place and herald a possible relationship free of all that is visible in this world. The 20th Century also is the century of analogical images, as well as of the printed word. In this change within the paradigm of images, and within the circulation of words, the poetic experience is compromised. Jarmusch’s bus driver is a ghost from another century. He fell on Earth at the wrong time.
After the show I met the usual colleagues and many of them were displeased with the movie, or half satisfied in the best case. I think that, for most of us who go to film festivals and travel from airport to airport—wrongly thinking that this state of exception is the norm—the life of a bus driver is the most similar thing to the lives of men in the Fiji Islands.
And filmmakers must see the lives of such men as an even more alien experience; because, for them, a worker or a wage-earner, is simply incommensurable within their horizon. For filmmakers, the relationship with ordinary lives is practically null. That’s why for an artist like Jarmusch to notice a bus driver’s sensibility is truly an act of transgression. It so happens that when the filmmakers’ elite devotes time to ordinary men, they put on a mantle and think they have the right to speak in the name of the silent majority crushed by the injustices of the world. That’s where despicable films such as City of God—and other monstrosities of that kind—come from.
Let’s say it like this, Jarmusch’s greatest transgression is filming—in a poetic tone—the sensitive interaction of a bus driver with the chaotic matter of the world. More than representing a sensibility, Jarmusch wants to understand it. It so happens that cinema represents the possibility, both for the filmmaker and the spectator, to try to understand and feel the world from various centers of perception. The most beautiful thing about Paterson is, in itself, the fact of borrowing a bus driver’s eyes.
I will come back on the magnificent film by Maren Ade further ahead, and also on the undervalued film American Honey, which obviously has problems but it also features moments that deserve recognition. But labor—and its correlative inversion, leisure—being present in some films at Cannes is a good omen. Not everything is about the spectacle.
*English version by Tiosha Bojórquez
Roger Koza / Copyleft 2016