Deadpan or Just Dull?

If I had three days to write a story about Paterson, New Jersey, before I saw the film Paterson, I’d have been sure to include the famous waterfall, and definitely something about Paterson poet William Carlos Williams and his easy-to-grasp dictum about poetry: “No ideas but in things.” I’d also make some use of the city’s industrial history and, if  it reasonably fit the story, mentioned Hurricane Carter.

You could say that, since Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson has all these things, I’m something of a screenwriting savant. Or you could say, since I’ve never once set foot in Paterson, his film is about as poetic and authentic as a Wikipedia page. I know I’m supposed to love Jarmusch, the great uncle of independent cinema, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being put on when I watch his films, like their deadpan simplicity and see-through gags are daring me to call “Bullshit!”

Adam Driver

Adam Driver in “Paterson.”

I was so irritated when I left Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004 that I swore I’d never go to a theater to see one of his films again, but the buzz about Paterson lured me back. And it is, after all, about a poet with a day job as a bus driver, whose creative life is not too different from my own.

A Paterson bus driver, named Paterson, goes to work every day and manages to get verses of poems written, sometimes with obvious inspiration, and sometimes just from airy nothing. His girlfriend, more of an unfocused dreamer than he is, both inspires him and provides some counterpoint to his discipline and his measured approach to poetry. His one frivolous habit is taking his dog for a walk every night and tying him outside a bar while he goes inside to drink.

One thing you can say for Paterson the script is that it makes excellent use of the red herring. We’re encouraged to fear that his dog gets stolen, and all along we figure the resolution will have something to do with Paterson yielding to his girlfriend’s insistence that he try to get his poems published. Though the one major setback isn’t completely unexpected, it wasn’t quite what I saw coming either. Although I didn’t like the film much, I concede that the end was sweet. The balloon home to Kansas flies away without him, but he wins because he has a rich creative life, not because his poem gets published.

It’s also one of the few films that shows how difficult writing is, without being tedious, but that’s largely because Ron Padgett’s poems, which Jarmusch used for the script, are so accessible and lovely. One of them, “Love Poem,” Padgett himself reads about nine minutes into this podcast.

“Love Poem” reminds me of something a director I know once said about Joe Swanberg’s films, which landed him his Netflix series Easy: Why does every single character listen to LP’s? You could say that a screenwriter, like a poet, doesn’t just make content out of a world that already exists but creates a world, and if the Swanberg of Drinking Buddies, like the Baumbach and Gerwig of Frances Ha, wants to make a world where everyone’s so cool that vinyl records are the rule and not the exception, then that’s their prerogative.

“Love Poem,” according to Padgett, is a poem he wrote in the 1970s. It begins as an ode to a brand of matchstick, and cleverly turns into a description of his love for his woman. That it still speaks to us via Jarmusch means it’s a quality poem. That Jarmusch has Paterson’s girlfriend gush about the contents of the poem, the shape of the logo on the matchstick box? That could mean we’re witnessing a vision of creativity that’s right at home in a loving relationship, as opposed to the tortured genius who keeps his loved ones out of reach, but it also goes to show the limitations of Jarmusch’s ability to create a world. We’re expected to swallow that two people in 2016 are both taken by an antique-looking matchbook. It’s whimsicality bordering on twee.

It gets worse yet in the bar Paterson takes his dog to every night. Like Jimmy’s Corner on a good night, it’s a white person’s fantasy of a cool black bar: 70s R&B and a 60ish barkeep with a folksy appreciation of local history. Their discussion of who belongs on the “Hall of Fame” wall behind the bar is plain clumsy. That Paterson’s girlfriend wants him to get a cell phone and he refuses, you could see as a reflexive position on the antique world these characters live in, as if Jarmusch knows we’re noticing all the anachronisms and makes Paterson a guy who, like Jarmusch, is consciously holding onto this unique world, but I wasn’t buying it for a second. I wanted more reality, more plot, and higher stakes.

 

 

A Snow Storm of the Mind

I give yesterday’s snow storm in New York City a B-. B for Boring. B for “Best ya got?” B for over-promising and under-delivering by a whole foot.

I would give it a C, but it did have enough bluster to shut the place down, giving most people the day off, and that’s one of a snow storm’s most important jobs. So give it a B, for getting it done but leaving us with the nagging feeling that we probably could have gotten out and done all we were supposed to do yesterday if we had a little pluck, and a Minus for being unpleasantly full of hail charging horizontally.

IMG_2155I love snow days and don’t entirely trust anyone who doesn’t. Time slows down, and lists of things to do get radically re-written on the backs of envelopes, if not completely ignored. I look forward to them like a 9-year-old. The storm that was supposed to come last week, I gave a D. D for disappointing. D for Durham, because that’s what I’m told winter is like in North Carolina, and yesterday’s storm was going to redeem our disappointment.

I know it’s March, and we should take what we can get, but I fear for our local climate, that it’s becoming boringly more mid-Atlantic on account of global warming. (I know, it’s indulgent to talk about this when there are real climate refugees already, but the mind needs to wander.)

We are Yankees, after all, and that’s part of our identity: We endure winters, and a part of that endurance is the suspension of ambition. On snow days inward reflection becomes the norm, and if it’s not making soup or shoveling the path from the door to the street, then whatever you intend to do can probably wait.

It turns out, the National Weather Service had a notion that the snow wouldn’t add up, but kept its prediction of 12 to 20 inches in place, they say, to keep people alert to the dangers of wind and ice, which got pretty serious last night. They didn’t even need that good of a reason, in my book. Snow days are mass mental health days, and we had to have at least one this winter, didn’t we?

Chiron the Conqueror

I wasn’t watching The Oscars during its famous flub last week. I felt it wasn’t my place to cheer for one film over another when I hadn’t paid all of them the respect of actually watching them.

I admit, though, that I was pleased when I heard that Moonlight won Best Picture, and it made all the more sense the next day when I got up and went to a matinée of an old film I’ve loved for twenty years – strangely, a film that was everything Moonlight isn’t.

Moonlight

Moonlight’s screenplay, by director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney based on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is distinct for all the things it doesn’t tell. It’s a cross-generational father figure-redeeming son drama that, if rounded out more, could have been as epic as Gangs of New York. Instead, they kept it small.

Told in three separate time frames, one when the hero is a boy, and next a teenager, and then an adult, it skips all kind of developments, letting you the viewer do the work of figuring out what must have happened in between. Its biggest payoff, when you first meet the adult Chiron, takes a good minute to sink in: “That’s Chiron? That gangly kid? Oh, so this is the kind of story this is.”

The morning after (the Oscars, I mean), with so much essential viewing to catch up on, I opted instead to see Bille August’s 1987 epic Pelle the Conqueror.

With a restored version back in arthouses for its 30th anniversary, Pelle is in that weird period of its life, not quite a classic and yet a bit outdated. I often think Merchant-Ivory and the other great period piece machines of the 80s and 90s – and especially the foreign-language films of this era – benefited from that unique period of video stores. Time after time of traipsing through the aisles one was reminded, “You haven’t seen Manon of the Spring yet, and everybody raves about it.” It gave films of this period an artificially long shelf life, and hence when the video stores closed we were thoroughly sick of them.

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Pelle the Conqueror has a script (by August, Per Olov Enquist, and Bjarne Reuter, based on Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel) that oddly shares a lot with Moonlight, but in a completely different writing world. Though it’s epic, it’s contained to just about a year in time. It’s a vulnerable coming-of-age story, and one weirdly obsessed with boys with their pants down, but the tragedy at the heart of it is Pelle’s realization that his old father is powerless to stop the injustices facing immigrants like them.

Max von Sydow makes the film, and is still a pleasure to watch, but at two and a half hours Pelle tells so many extra narratives your head spins: The rich boy who knocks up the farm girl, the class conscious peasant who suffers an accident, the balloon-headed bastard who joins the circus – and that’s for starters.

So many ways to tell a story. And so many reasons a quality film in the age of streaming will be technically available in perpetiuity and yet get buried by the overwhelming amount of content. Let’s hope that its Academy Awards save Moonlight from that, and it keeps being essential viewing for years.

 

An Unabridged Hamlet

Seeing Hamlet when you’re pushing 50 is different than when you’re in your 20s or 30s, and not just because the whole damn play is arguably about mortality, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

You can tell that every scene in Nuance Theatre’s unabridged Hamlet, which is up for one more weekend through this Saturday, has been worked on and worked on, and I suppose that’s the point of this production: to cover all the “B” scenes that usually get cut by smaller company productions.

There are solid performances all over the place, though they miss one another at times. Since they bring differing styles they rarely seem like they’re reacting to what happened in the previous scene. Each one is rather a clean slate with a well-executed dramatic moment. Consequently the gears aren’t always engaged. If there’s any flaw in the show overall, it’s in the wider direction. The yarn being spun by the playwright rarely feels suspenseful.

Kudos, nonetheless, to this small company for doing the whole play. Scenes I’d previously found filler or “mere set up,” such as Polonius’ advice to his daughter Ophelia in Act One, felt very real this time. $25 for the whole classic, just a block from Times Square.

hamlet

Young love, deadly as it can be, gets eclipsed by its elders’ problems in Hamlet.

When you’re young you read the Hamlet-Horatio or Hamlet-Ophelia scenes carefully, and regard the scenes between the prince and his elders as just that: reasoned limitations that the powers-that-be are placing on your hero’s freedom. Step-dad saying you can’t go to Lebanon for spring break.

As you age – I could say “mature,” but let’s be real – you start seeing Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his step-dad Claudius, and even clownish old Polonius, as real people with real problems. (Jurgen Jones, who plays Claudius, is a friend of mine; he is at once regal and completely Jurgen.) They are the sun and moon of this show, and arguably of the play itself.

 

 

 

Budweiser’s American Creation Myth

The must-see film this week is the Budweiser commercial from the Superbowl, which was as shrewd and political as it was feel-good and universal. Trumpistas are trying to boycott it, but good luck with that one. That’s like boycotting Christmas cookies because the Pope is soft on Muslims. (It is in fact goofy that Superbowl ads are the arena for our national psyche, but that’s where we are.)

A day and a half after the Superbowl kickoff on Sunday, this ad had almost 27 million views on Youtube, though fifteen or so of them were me.

It starts in a “present” time in the 1800s when two men with German accents, one obviously an experienced capitalist and one a handsome young buck, stand next to one another in a taproom. “You’re not from around here,” the older man observes, and off we go to a thirty-plus second montage that tells his epic journey:

A storm-tossed ship crosses the Atlantic. The young stud is already sketching something obsessive and entrepreneurial.

The ship hits a wave: He hits his head. Gets stitches over his eye. Gets asked (in German) why he is moving to America and answers that he wants to brew beer. The first weird note is that he answers a German question in English, but who cares? It’s as gorgeous as Pelle the Conqueror so far.

Fifteen seconds in, he is told “Welcome to America” by the official stamping his document, immediately followed by a menacing, Know Nothing thug saying, “You’re not wanted here…Go back home.” This is obviously the offending interaction to some, and wow what a bold statement. I like Gaga (more than I like her actual songs), but this is the most political statement of the year. “First kick I took was when I hit the ground,” Springsteen sings in “Born in the USA,” and here it’s “First person who told me to go back home was when I walked off the boat.” Say what you want about the Trumpistas calling for a boycott, but they read this ad correctly. Hold that thought, though.

Fast-forward to a Mississippi riverboat. He’s going upstream with a black companion, still doodling in his sketchbook. Wow! This is where the grad students start rolling out the word “problematic,” but give Anheuser-Busch credit for going deep in the American mind, linking their creation myth to Huckleberry Finn and the mythic fraternity between black and white.

At half-way through the 60-second spot, the riverboat catches fire and he has to jump overboard, and he trudges through tall reeds on a rainy winter day. Talk about reversals! This Budweiser ad is more suspenseful than most independent films.

There’s mud everywhere. “Welcome to Saint Louis, son,” says a perfect stranger, with a picturesque Clydesdale horse in the background.

Back to the present: “Beer for my friend, please,” says the capitalist, and now the narrative slows down. The strapping lad thanks him and shows him what he’s been sketching, and they introduce themselves: “Eberhard Anheuser.” “Adolphus Busch.” End of story/beginning of story. “When nothing stops your dream,” the text reads.

These are men of few words, but when they do speak they’re in a bar buying beers for each other. Though it’s a little odd that Busch was sketching the actual bottle of Bud, label and all, and not an industrial brewing breakthrough – and though I personally would love to taste whatever they were drinking before the inception of Budweiser – by this time you’re more than hooked.

It’s worth noting that of the five interactions young Adolphus Busch has on his journey to America (six if you count the negro he’s obviously cordial with), only one is a nativist. The horse doctor who stitches his eye, the immigration official, and the first person he meets in Saint Louis all welcome him, and the first person he sips a beer with is a fellow immigrant waiting to help him  make his dream come true.

As in most creation myths, this is a guy who answered the call. While associating itself with beards and artisanal entrepreneurs – things the macro-brews have been struggling against – Budweiser is also taking sides against what feels like a temporary flare-up of anti-immigrant feeling. (It certainly feels more temporary than it did on Saturday.) What’s more American than buying a Bud for a fresh-off-the-boat stranger?

Panique

It’s 1947 in a suburban village outside of Paris, and a lonely Jewish photographer named Monsieur Hire (shortened from Hirovitch) patiently endures the gossip and pettiness around him, not seeming to mind his pariah status too much. It’s more a matter of broken-heartedness about his ruined marriage than grief over any recent mass deportation that might have happened, but that implication is certainly in the air too.

Mr. Hire starts taking a special interest in a younger woman who’s recently out of jail, but when a 40-some-year-old neighbor turns up dead in a vacant lot with her purse missing, guess who gets blamed for it?

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That’s Panique, directed by Julien Duvivier, who’s better known for Pépé le Moko, co-written by the Belgian screenwriter Charles Spaak, based on the novel by Georges Simenon.

It’s tempting to compare it to M, or to see some contemporary parallel to literal panic in it, and I’m sure that’s what most critics are seeing when they come across this re-discovered work. As a hunk of nostalgia, though – and who doesn’t want to walk through an old village before Parisian sprawl overhelmed it, and while a carnival is in town no less – it sticks in your craw because it damns the villagers themselves. One of the great themes of post-war literature, the passive wickedness of the upright citizen, was already being written about.

It also clocks in at a spartan 91 minutes, one of the things that makes the scripts of this period so elegant, and still so pleasurable to watch.

You can see the twist at the end coming a kilometer away, and yet that’s beside the point. Duvivier seems to have returned to France after a World War II period spent in Hollywood, with a bit of pith for the simple villagers. He wasn’t humming “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” that’s for sure.

Toni Erdmann

The movie theater was packed at a matinée of a two and a half-plus hour German comedy. Had me in stitches the whole time.

“Stitches”? The whole time? I enjoyed it the whole time, but one of the many charms of Maren Ade’s script for Toni Erdmann was its sad, bittersweet tone, even when it went completely madcap. Then again, even when she’s being screwball the metaphorical content is on point, even poetic.

toni-erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller  in “Toni Erdmann.”

Ade teaches screenwriting at a university in Berlin, and her scripts are always writerly – her feature Everyone Else at the 2009 New York Film Festival arguably more so than this one. The success of Toni Erdmann shows that a dose of humor makes the medicine of a dense script with a subtle sense of conflict and resolution to go down smoother.

It only takes a few scenes to establish that its lead character Winfried, an old, divorced music teacher, will go to any length for a joke, including cheap disguises and ludicrously fake identities. A scene with his ex-wife and her family, and the obvious fondness they have for him, shows what a harmless goon he is. That goes a long way in helping us forgive him as he crosses line after line with his daughter.

Winfried’s daughter Ines is a power-yuppie worming her way into the elite levels of European capital, and Winfried crashes her corporate-centered social calendar among oil speculators in Bucharest by using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann. If most dreamy-eyed screenwriting students are writing stories about sons and daughters hitting an impermeable wall in their fathers, their teacher (in Berlin, anyway) has written a masterpiece that turns the journey around: A father is trying to enter his stone-cold daughter’s world.

The script also achieves something most writing students would get a rap on the knuckles for, but Ade does it so seamlessly no one minds: It starts out as Winfried’s story, but after he appears to leave Bucharest for the first time, Ines steps in as the main character. Elegantly done.

It has one of the most perverse sex scenes I’ve ever laughed through, and a very memorable birthday party gone wrong. At the end of her nerves emotionally, her doorbell blaring, Ines has to answer it naked, and decides to turn her birthday party into a nakedness-required affair. One after another her colleagues arrive and get sent away, with a few exceptions, and you figure you can see where the gag is going. But that’s just the start of it!

It’s probably going to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, so it will be around.

Fairytale of New York

This Christmas Day Shane MacGowan turns 59. I wonder if he realized thirty years ago while he was writing the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (co-written with Jeb Finer) that the saddest Christmas song ever would be his most widely-listened-to:

That woman singing with him is Kirsty MacColl, may she rest in peace. Her father Ewen MacColl was a Scottish Communist and folk-singer. The story goes, he wrote his most popular song for his young mistress Patty Seeger while he was still living with Kirsty’s mother. It’s had many versions, including a super one by Engelbert Humperdinck, but Roberta Flack “owns” it:

Not a bad song for the yule log either. Merry Christmas.

Tree of the Wooden Clogs

Seeing The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli Zoccoli) in a cinema this week was a neorealist sacrament.

Ermanno Olmi wrote and directed it, in 1978, using both actors and non-actors, in the Bergamo dialect. I saw it with a friend from Milan, which is less than an hour away from the setting, and he swears he had to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue.

Killing an animal onscreen is a kind of rite of passage for documentary filmmakers doing rural subjects. Brother’s Keeper did it. Most recently I saw it in a heart-breaking film called Peter and the Farm. In both of those, the killing goes to show the meanness in the life of the main character. The implication is, of course he might be capable of euthanizing his brother, or becoming a charmingly angry alcoholic, as Peter does, if animal-killing is a common endeavor around him.

I first saw The Tree of the Wooden Clogs in the mid 90s (which means more time has passed since then than had passed from the making of the film till I had first seen it, but I digress: Time!) and the main things I’d remembered about it were the sad shots of the peasants taking the lion’s share of their grain to their landlord, and the central metaphor, and that gruesome scene of a pig being butchered. And mud, mud everywhere.

Life is mean, but it was meaner in the late 1800s. I don’t know if this was the first neorealist period piece, but it’s the best example of sweet, simple, languid story-telling in a period setting. The only other Ermanno Olmi film generally available here is Il Posto from 1961, in the Criterion Collection, but you don’t even have to see that to see Olmi’s sympathies: his sadness for the passing of ways of life, his skepticism about modernity, his appreciation for working people and their complicated family lives, and and his sympathy for both superstitious Catholicism and socialism.

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The Tree of Wooden Clogs draws on a wider palette of narrative units than most films. You learn something about a character and have no idea whether that element will ever resurface, but the palette is the thematic message in a film like this: Life is unfair.

Olmi blesses his story with a fantastic opening scene, every bit as expressive as The Godfather‘s: Batisti is struggling to make ends meet, and has a baby on the way, so he asks the parish priest for leave to not send his oldest son Minek, who’s still around 10, to school, since he can use him around the farm. The priest insists, Minek is gifted and should be in school, and Batisti and his wife have to suck it up.

Already you see it all: The power of the church, complicated by the “progressive” influence of the priest’s message about education, and the utter vulnerability of the peasants. That Batisti never wanted to send Minek on the six kilometer daily walk to school in the first place makes the complications that arise from the eponymous wooden clogs only that much sadder, but we don’t see this take shape till a good 90 minutes into a three hour film. It’s monumental.

John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

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Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.