Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Paterson; or, Life in the Woods; or, Bad Luck Fetty Wap!

Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's new movie after Only Lovers Left Alive, about a bus-driving poet in New Jersey, would seem to bear few similarities with its predecessor. Only Lovers Left Alive told a story of two vampires, lovers,  who are at odds with the 21st century and spend their days reliving their memories. But Paterson is in fact as much of a fantasy as Only Lovers Left Alive, rehashing that film's themes of disconnection from the modern world and fetishisation of the past, and it fails on exactly the same artistic grounds, being mannered, fusty, self-regarding in tone, hollow in its intellectual proposition, and politically vacant or regressive.

If you're paying attention you should have noticed one of the film's big themes before it's pointed out to you - but for the slower viewer, Jarmusch has it underlined in a moment of conversation at the old-timey, TV-free neighbourhood bar that Paterson (Adam Driver) frequents. Namely: Paterson is completely analogue in a digital world. He appears to wake without an alarm clock, serenely checking his wrist watch every morning as he rises on his way to work. He doesn't have a phone, or a TV. We learn that his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) has a phone and a laptop, but Paterson himself stops short of these frivolities. We're told, in the conversation that rams the point home (since Jarmusch now trades in a cinema of the obvious) that the world worked perfectly well before these things.

It's become increasingly voguish to fetishise a pre-digital world, culminating this year with the release of Stranger Things, which dwelt with relish on such deliciously quaint things as rotary phones, and photographs that you used to have to develop in a dark room. Adam Driver even appeared in a film that satirised this mode, Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, in which he played a smarmy hipster who plays board games with his friends and collects vinyl. While the film's observation of Paterson's physical world, and the pleasure it takes in objects and nature, seems sincere, there is something fraudulent about the way it posits its protagonist as somehow embodying a more authentic life by rejecting connection and technology in favour of introspection and objects. This lends the film a musty flavour, as it is set in an artificially constructed world in which nothing comes to jolt Paterson from his technological hermitage.

The film's paean to a pre-digital era is symptomatic of a generally nostalgic bent. Cleaving to his irritating name-dropping shtick from Only Lovers Left Alive (in which such figures as Marlowe and Jack White got a shout-out), Jarmusch gives it up in Paterson for William Carlos Williams, Iggy Pop, Lou Costello, Petrarch, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Dubuffet, and Wallace Stevens. In three particularly cloying scenes, moreover, he finds ways to have children talk about those burningly topical folk heroes Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, Gaetano Bresci and Emily Dickinson. Jarmusch's ploy here is that many of these figures (Williams, Costello, Bresci, Carter, Iggy Pop) are famous inhabitants of the city of Paterson, where the film is set, and the idea seems to be to exalt them as products of their environment, and to tie them into their community. Indeed, Paterson himself was born and raised in Paterson, making him emblematic of the argument that art and ideas have connections to place, to people. But in glorifying the past, Jarmusch makes his film feel socially and politically regressive. He has acknowledged in interviews that the most famous inhabitant of Paterson currently is the singer Fetty Wap, known for his all-conquering hit 'Trap Queen' - but Fetty Wap is too modern and commercial for Jarmusch. You won't see a trace of him in this film, because he represents the exact opposite of the proposition that Jarmusch is making - that the past is better for being more real, honourable, truthful, slow. I'd add furthermore that Jarmusch's fanboying of these male artists and heroes (the sole line about Emily Dickinson is given to a little girl of 10) chimes with his male-centric worldview in which men are the artists and doers.

The machismo of Paterson's outlook extends to its depiction of the couple at its centre. Merrily flunking Bechdel at every turn, the film shows a couple where the man works while the woman stays at home; he is shown to be a great artist, while she is an idiot whose role is to give him support and encouragement. And cook for him. And decorate the house. And be corrected when she gets William Carlos Williams' name wrong. Paterson's one domestic task seems to be walking the dog at night, which he does without his girlfriend, leaving her at home while he goes to a bar. Indeed, while Paterson is always travelling around town, seeing people and working on his poetry, Laura leaves the house twice throughout the film, and is never shown talking to someone who is not her boyfriend. He supports her financially, on his bus driver's salary. The film consistently demeans Laura and laughs at her, such as a scene when she mentions Petrarch in conversation to her boyfriend, and he marvels at her having found out about someone such as Petrarch on the internet; or the scene when she says she liked an old film because it was black and white; or the scene when we learn it's her dream to be a country singer. She is a figure of perfect ridicule, decorating everything she owns in black and white swirls like some sort of mentally imbalanced Tim Burton groupie. Laura's redeeming qualities are her beauty, and the sense that she inspires Paterson to write some of his poetry, and seems somehow to grasp what makes his writing tick: everything she represents is shown through him.

Paterson's regressive stance goes beyond its iffy take on domestic politics: Paterson's unmooredness, his disconnection from the modern world, betrays a retrograde take on contemporary America. It's almost astonishing that in the America we now know beyond any doubt was roiling with tension and toxic divisions, we never hear or see any turbulence, no-one discusses politics of any sort, and no disorder comes to trouble the self-imposed peace of this hermit. Paterson is folded in on himself, writing poems about matches and rain, while the country is about to be overtaken by a political maniac: you could hardly ask for a more shining example of the inward-looking solipsism and apathy of the American white man, willingly shielding himself from any difficulties in his world or his own outlook, and looking to a glorified past for solace and inspiration.

What is sad (!!) about Paterson is that it purports to provide an alternative vision for a better world, and at times it hits its mark. The movie's slowness is best felt in the way the filmmaking takes its cues from the central character, matching his gait and his little darting glances with slow camera pans and quick cut-aways: this slowness feels right, because it is anchored in physical truth, and doesn't comment on itself. This rhythm is fresh, and it is oddly soothing, leading the viewer to relax into the film and feel stimulated by its gentleness and observation: but these sweet successes of the film's first few minutes make its late failures all the more dismaying when the authorial voice takes over from the character to create such an artificial universe in support of a retrograde voice. The backward-looking politics masquerading as a Zen life manual leaves a sour taste.

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