Today: July 22, 2024


While the rhetoric of politicians may change, we are still living in an age of austerity. “Austerity” was the word used to convince the poor that they needed to pay for the recklessness of the rich, but the concept of austerity was in the air long before the banks began to fall. Neoliberalism may have been sold to us with talk of inclusion, aspiration, and honest competition but the reality of neoliberalism has always been a gradual tightening of the screws. For decades now, capital has confronted its own lack of profitability by cutting costs and anything that might be viewed as unprofitable dead wood. Everything needs to pay and anything that doesn’t pay must cease to exist.

The global ethic of austerity has long been obvious at local cinemas where every genre and form of film has been forced to make way for the rise of hyper-commercialised film franchises. As rents rise and cinema audiences dwindle, cinema operators are feeling the pressure to ensure that all of their films make as much money as possible. Even if the cinema operators wanted to support smaller films, they would have to spend money to compete with the advertising onslaughts of Hollywood studios and how are you going to generate interest in small, quiet, thoughtful films when Marvel superheroes are demanding our attention from every surface and every screen? With cinemas growing ever-more disinterested in anything that isn’t an advert for other films, art house directors have been forced to get creative in order to continue working.

Some directors – Like Werner Herzog – have turned themselves into media personalities who raise money through media appearances and then produce films that strike a balance between their ‘on brand’ personas and their more personal themes. Other directors – like Steven Soderbergh and Jane Campion – were able to exploit the hype surrounding the so-called ‘golden age of television’ and shifted their attention from feature films to television series. Some directors – like Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke – even abandoned their native cinematic cultures and learned to express themselves in the language and form of other cinematic traditions. Now in his sixty-fourth year, Jim Jarmusch still refuses anything that might resemble compromise but he manages to get his films made by forming clever alliances with more commercial forms.

Jarmusch’s films are unambiguously ‘arty’ and ‘European’ in both their visual beauty and emotional complexity. Frequently light on story to the point of feeling episodic, Jarmusch’s films are built around scenes that evoke turbulent interiorities without ever going so far as to explain what it is that the characters are actually feeling. Like most great arthouse directors, Jarmusch recognises the role of the audience in mentally constructing the films they watch and so he limits his interventions to presenting his audience with images and ideas designed to awaken our sympathies and enflame our imaginations. Jarmusch’s obsession with the disconnected and isolated nature of urban living goes some way towards explaining why it is that he keeps being drawn back to anthology films like Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Mystery Train but it also explains why it is that he is able to work in the shadow of genre.

Commercial genres tend to rely upon a narrow range of stock characters and amongst those stock characters are often isolated figures that have been forced into uncomfortable situations. Sensing the connection between certain genre stories and the films he wanted to make, Jarmusch has made several genre films that focused on the lives of isolated figures such as the assassin in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the cowboy in Dead Man, the spy in The Limits of Control, and the vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive. The clever thing about these dalliances with genre is that aside from being easier to fund, easier to make, and easier to promote, these films also provide newcomers with an easy introduction to the films of Jim Jarmusch: If you’re interested in alienated vampires then Only Lovers Left Alive will teach you how to make sense of a film like Broken Flowers. If you’re interested in psychopathic spies then The Limits of Control will teach you how to make sense of a film like Stranger than Paradise. If you are interested in the lives of musicians like the Stooges or Neil Young then films like Gimme Danger and The Year of the Horse will teach you to watch… well… pretty much anything. In an age when arthouse film struggles to remain discoverable, there is something brilliant about a director who teaches you how to make sense of his own films. This being said, Paterson is Jarmusch’s first non-genre film in a decade and the absence of training wheels or instruction manuals serves only to remind us of quite how beautiful a filmmaker Jarmusch can be when he chooses to present his work purely on its own terms.

The film takes its title from both the name of its protagonist (Adam Driver) and the fact that it is set in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is a normal working-class guy who drives a city bus, comes home to have dinner with his partner, and then heads to a local bar for a drink. For Paterson, every day is the same right down to the words he exchanges with his boss and the way he tells his dog to sit down in front of the bar.

Despite living a life of conspicuous and almost-but-not-quite oppressive repetition, Paterson is an accomplished poet who writes avant-garde love poems in a notebook he carries around in his lunchbox. The interesting thing about these poems is that while Jarmusch represents Paterson’s writing as a series of beautiful set-pieces in which words spring into the air before him, none of Paterson’s poems are easy to comprehend. For example, the first poem he works on is described as a ‘love poem’ but is ostensibly about a box of matches and while the language is elegant and the imagery is strong, it is not in any way obvious how Paterson’s words map onto what we know about his life and relationships.

Paterson’s emotional control stands in wonderful opposition to the way that his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) seems desperate to publicly perform her identities and passions. For example, when we first meet Laura, we are told that she is nursing a secret dream to make cupcakes. Then, the following day, we are told that Laura is nursing another secret dream to be a country singer. At first, Laura comes across as one of those people that talks endlessly about being an artist whilst actually doing nothing except for spending money on equipment, but we soon start to notice that while Laura’s obsessions with cupcakes, cookery, and country music may all be quite shallow, they are all receptacles for a deeper passion for design. Jarmusch handles Laura’s character arc beautifully as he is forever showing us images of her painting random objects but it is only at the very end of the film that you realise that she has actually been quietly — and almost unconsciously — redesigning both her wardrobe and the entire house.

Paterson’s relationship with Laura is as wonderfully enigmatic as his poetry. Laura is endlessly supportive of Paterson’s writing and is forever concerned that something terrible will happen but Paterson treats the onslaught of caring with unending good grace and control. Occasionally a brow wrinkles, and there’s one lovely scene where he chokes down mouthfuls of horrible-looking cheddar and sprout pie rather than offend Laura, but the closest the pair come to an argument is right at the end of the film and Paterson immediately decides to go for a walk rather than share his emotional turmoil.

Paterson’s tendency to keep everything to himself and function as something of an emotional closed-loop means that he is quite popular with the people around him. Just as Laura is free to re-invent herself without fear of challenge, Paterson’s friends and co-workers seem to naturally unburden themselves in his presence. Many of the finest moments in the film come when Paterson is just listening to the people around him as in the case of two men bragging about their sexual conquests on a bus, a little-girl bravely asserting that she is a poet, or two old-friends who are currently in the process of returning to friendship after a failed attempt at romantic involvement. Wrenched from any broader context, these little moments of humanity are quintessential Jarmusch and speak directly to the film’s broader themes of identity and creativity in the face of life’s tendency to grind us down with hollow ritual.

Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.

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WIN Paterson on Blu-ray

PATERSON| UK DVD and Blu-ray release 27th March 2017 Director: