Review: Paterson (2016)

The product of a “film-maker” who absolutely believes his own hype.

Everything I had to say about director Jim Jarmusch in my entry about Only Lovers Left Alive is confirmed here, just without vampires. Paterson is the final nail in the (ha) coffin for me with this guy. I still maintain that Jim Jarmusch is not a film maker – he makes things that resemble films, with none of the substance that actually constitutes them. He believes a box of muesli is its packaging, not what’s inside – and so he makes packaging that, for some reason, most critics insist is deeply nourishing muesli. That’s either some bloody dazzling packaging (eg Only Lovers…) or critics swimming in the Kool Aid (eg Paterson).

I understand that, to avoid clichés (presumably), Jarmusch takes things away – but he replaces them with nothing else. And this is “art”? “Film”, even? It’s still just packaging. Jarmusch has an annoying habit of setting things up and then not following through, taking them anywhere, or even referencing them again. I wrote at length about this regarding Only Lovers… as an example of how Jarmusch missed the day they taught Chekhov’s Gun at film school, then copied the notes poorly from a student who mostly ditched class to smoke cigarettes behind the gym and ultimately flunked out. Here, it’s in the small changes from repetition to repetition. A tighter movie – or just, y’know, an actual movie – would build something with these, or tie them together, or pay them off somehow. I’m not even talking about a dramatic twist or turn – I just mean that these threads would be woven together into a pattern (in other words: a movie). Jarmusch either doesn’t understand weaving, or is so enamoured with thread itself – which is fine, but then don’t call it a pattern, a fabric, a tapestry, an item of clothing, or anything else which would warrant wearing, much less buying or selling in a marketplace of woven wearables. I’m first to admit my own expectations of a movie easily block my ability to initially engage with or enjoy it on its own terms – but when i’m told something is a “movie”, I expect it to be a movie, not the sketches than might contribute to making one.

Even the most potentially interesting use of repetition ultimately builds to nothing.

The saddest part is: no one of these threads is without inherent value, appeal, or potential for really worthwhile exploration. A bad filmmaker might handle them poorly; Jarmusch has not handled them at all. Had these elements, subjects or devices been foisted upon him (ie were he merely director, and not writer-director), then his handling would have come with an understandable handicap, which would have made the result at least academically interesting; but Jarmusch alone is responsible for this. As writer and director, he has set all the pieces in motion, and his subsequent ineptitude at handling them is such that one questions his understanding both of the pieces specifically and of motion generally.

The “point” of Paterson (and I’m being generous – while I couldn’t tell you the point of watching this movie, here I refer strictly to the point of the “story”) could have been made in 20 minutes. Instead, we are subjected to an interminable ramble whose idea of conveying routine, repetition and mundanity is to make us live that repetition in real time, achingly drawn-out in what feels less like an audience experience, or even a Brechtian experience, and more like… well, like a lack of an understanding of the difference between the character’s experience and the audience’s. I got the repetition of Paterson’s existence from halfway through its first iteration. Okay, great – now what? Are we supposed to detect sadness there, or (refreshing twist) contentedness in what we, an overcharged filmgoing audience, have been conditioned to expect will boil over into melodrama at some point, but then doesn’t? Are we supposed to see his wife as a manic pixie girl to be laughed at (as in the pie scene), a toxic partner (pressuring Paterson to publish), or as a genuinely compassionate partner (her respectful loss for words at his own loss)? The most potentially interesting use of repetition – the poetry, whose repetitions introduces different inflections and additional lines – ultimately builds to nothing either. Are we to enjoy the sound of the words, or to patiently await as new information unfolds? The film tells us none of these things – not, as many seem to suspect, because it “offers no answers”, but because it doesn’t see them as questions. At best, that’s beautifully naïve (especially for an experienced “film-maker”); at worst, it’s disqualification-level ineptitude. I keep flashing back to Robert McKee in Adaptation screaming, “And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with yr movie?”

Experiencing something with someone is not the same as conveying that experience and, thanks to the non-real-life device of editing, the film manages to do neither. This kind of simultaneously self-absorbed / self-oblivious approach can only be the product of a “film-maker” who absolutely believes his own hype.

It takes a lot to undermine the usually spellbinding power of an Adam Driver performance. Congrats, Jim Jarmusch, you’ve done it again.