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’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.


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.