Sunday 15 January 2017

Jim Jarmusch visits the Passaic Falls, New Jersey - An essay by John Conomos

These are strange days indeed for cinemagoing and cinephilia in general, given the tumultuous changes that are taking place with mainstream and art cinema exhibition and distribution, niche film festivals and the little that is left of repertory cinema possibilities in a massively traumatised neoliberal global city like Sydney (ha!). To add the final insulting blow, what with TCM vanishing from our television sets, where oh where do cinephiles like yours truly seek sustenance? 
Whatever your form of cinephilia maybe – digital, televisual, and the movie theatre – rest assured one needs to take heed of the late John Berger’s recent resonating words “Hold onto everything that is dear to one’s life.” 
And like Robert Aldrich’s Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in the incandescent noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where he approaches the recently threatened Eddie Yeager character (Juano Hernandez), Hammer wants to know if he could beat the offer the harassing thugs made to Yeager, only to be told “ I don’t think you can. They let me breathe.” One needs to be grateful for what cinema – in all of its contexts, mutating shifts, fissures and tensions – both locally and globally it still has to offer. As in the case of the indefatigable Tina Kaufman in her recent uplifting Film Alert post, where she, unbelievably seemingly, covers all possible screenings in this city. her theatre–going cinephilia is a testament to William Blake’s perception that “energy is eternal delight.” 
So contra Martin Scorsese’s recent autopsy report on the state of cinema today – that images are too hollow, too prolific, bereft of any enduring aesthetic, existential and cultural significance, etc, – I have over the years rather seen myself as a cinephile – memory harbinger, along the similar lines as proposed by Ray Bradbury’s science fiction allegory about the diminishing importance of our alphabetic book culture Fahrenheit 451 most memorably adapted for the screen by Francois Truffaut in 1966. And recently evoked by Kent Jones in his latest piece for Film Comment where he argues, as cinema rapidly diverges from its classic audio-visual spectacle, the more likely we will become Bradbury’s and Truffaut’s book people. (1) My own cinephilia is definitely in this particular mode of cultural activity acknowledging that despite our era being one of a multiplying hegemony of images in our televisual communications media, we remain as Maurice Blanchot puts it, "still in the civilisation of the book.” (2)
Adam Driver, Paterson
Something that is clearly evident in Jim Jarmusch’s recent acclaimed Paterson (2016), which was shot during the same year as his non-hagiographic collage documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Gimme Danger, is the characteristic solitary lone character Paterson (Adam Driver) who is a bus driver and an unpublished poet and who lives in a highly routine world of work, shared domestic living with his creative artist-baker wife (Golshfeth Farahani) who wants to learn country and western music and their English bulldog Marvin (named no doubt after Lee Marvin and further evidence of Jarmusch’s tongue–in–cheek secret society of Lee Marvin aficionados like Tom Waits, John Lurie, Neil Young and Nick Cave.
Paterson himself existentially and creatively relies on routine as it allows him to drift in the city of Paterson (New Jersey), making everyday wry observations about his life - world of random encounters, ordinary city folk and their rituals and values. By working in a highly routinized world as a bus driver, Paterson observes everything around him so his poetry (which he daily writes in his black notebook) may one day hopefully be published. It is his wife’s long term wish that Paterson one day will publish his poems. Gradually and reluctantly, Paterson gives in to his wife’s persistent insistence that he should publish them. But before Paterson can do this he leaves his notebook on the sofa upon which Marvin chews the book into confetti-like shreds. 
Jim Jarmusch (r)
It is a simple enough minimalist, long take, experimental non-narrative film that relies on ambience, and the director’s hallmark signature concerns of certain urban settings, a deadpan comic tone, and relatedly a wry, absurd sensibility that is anchored in a consummate genre – hybrid playfulness in popular culture, as much as the cinema –particularly the B movies and independent /underground cinema, - music, art and literature. (A few years ago having been invited to attend the wake of Taylor Mead, actor, poet and playwright, in New York City at the Anthology Film Archives, Jim Jarmusch who was sitting in front of me stood up and gave a brief but moving testament to Mead’s art and life in the Manhattan art scene of the 1960s suggesting the huge importance that this world had for the filmmaker’s own oeuvre.) In one particularly resonant sequence, we see Driver and his wife entering a movie theatre passing by a series of large colourful B movie posters including the movie they are about to see Erle C. Kenton’s black and white 1932 Paramount science fiction /horror/ romance film Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of H G. Wells’ famous novel Island of Dr. Moreau. Charles Laughton plays the insane vivisector who on his private island is involved with unspeakable experiments trying to evolve animals into humans. With this key sequence, we have a vivid instance of cinema-going as time travel back to the last century.
Jim Jarmusch and Golshfeth Farahani at Cannes
Jarmusch’s highly personal cinema consciously avoids being shouted from the rooftops of high culture but is presented to us like letters – gesturally rich in style and theme, genre and context, mood and character - and quite modest in their concern not to underscore everything in the key of significance but, if you will, anti-significance. He reminds Amytaubjin of this in a Film Comment interview with him this year. For Jarmusch, filmmaking is avowedly non-auterist with his insistence that it is a collaboration process that involves everyone. Central to this view of filmmaking, the editing process is for him the most significant creative stage. Editing means, for him, capturing the random moments of life in all of its subtleties, gestures and textural sight and sound qualities. 
Paterson, like his other films, favours a rather flat non-in-depth perspective which for someone like Raul Ruiz is a distinctive non-American quality and is not fully appreciated in Europe. As the exiled Chilean director put it “ In America I like Jim Jarmusch. He’s working in a very anti-American way. In Europe these aspects of his work are not appreciated, and I think that’s very interesting. In Mystery Train (1989), for example, he plays with certain aspects of regularity and symmetry – approaches that are not very American – and Europeans hate the idea that an American can be non-American. But after all, Americans can be humans too!” (3) (It is worthwhile noting that with Ruiz’s first USA feature, the phantasmagorical The Golden Boat (1990), which borrows freely from American police dramas and telenovelos, there are numerous memorable cameos from Jarmusch himself, Barbet Schroeder, Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Annie Sprinkle and music by John Zorn.)
Like Paterson, Jarmusch seeks the lyrical, the poetic, in the everyday quotidian, based on William Carlos Williams’ commitment to “the American grain” by focusing not on ideas as such but on things. This colloquial aesthetic is markedly anti-elitist, non-academic and lowbrow. In poems like “This is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” and many others, Williams is accentuating the texture of the everyday. Hence, we see Paterson jotting down his observations and poems that range across a wide array of subjects including vintage match boxes, the passengers on his bus and their conversations, his romantic longing, etc. In a critical sense, what we observe here is not too far from Francis Ponge’s prose poems that examine in miniature everyday objects. Like Ponge, who was influenced by existentialism and surrealism, Williams was a ‘poet of things’. 
Not only is the protagonist named Paterson, but he lives in the New Jersey city of Paterson, which is remarkably photographed capturing its past industrial, small town architecture of factories, stores, fading billboards, roads and byways. According to Jarmusch, who went to Columbia University and studied literature with David Shapiro, Kenneth Koch, two representative figures of the so-called New York School of Poetry, which included MOMA curator Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry and Ron Padgett (who actually contributed the film’s poems) and others. The director, in a very long period of gestation of note-taking and intuition, eventually decided to make Paterson. It was the subject of the eponymously named very long abstract modernist poem by Williams himself. Other factors contributed to Jarmusch’s decision to make this film: the fact that someone like Allen Ginsberg came from the city and that Robert Smithson, the land artist of entropy, whose most celebrated work The Spiral Jetty.  Smithson was delivered by Willliams, a paediatrician by profession. Smithson’s spiralling land artwork ironically suggests the film’s own circular logic of construction which deploys a very symmetrical span of a week with each day’s activities ritualistically presented as bookends. 
Given Jarmusch’s penchant for dealing with offbeat marginalised characters, unorthodox subjects, social and political themes, it is noteworthy to say how the city of Paterson itself had a rather chequered demographic, social and historical background : from Alexander Hamilton’s vision of Paterson as the first utopian, industrial city to the fact it was a hotbed of anarchism in the 19th century with child labour exploitation, strikes, etc. 
Paterson’s recurring writerly device of handwrittern text that eloquently appears across the film’s images and sounds is, a further reminder to us of Jarmusch’s dedication to locate cinema alongside the other arts especially literature, art and music. In this instance, the filmmaker is also acknowledging how his unpredictable inventive oeuvre is not only rooted in the American avant-garde/experimental cinema of the 50s and 60s, but also in the European avant-garde traditions of the last century. Like the recent two films of Pablo Larrain’s Neruda (2016) and Terence Davies’ portrayal of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive poet, A Quiet Passion, Jarmusch’s absorbing meditative film is concerned with the muses and intricacies of the poet’s life in our world and how cinema itself may reflect upon poetry. 
Finally, inspired by Paterson’s beautiful Passaic Falls over 25 years ago – which itself became the subject of Smithson’s 1968 homage photo-essay Monument to Passaic New Jersey - Jarmusch has Paterson himself sit in two separate occasions - in front of the falls – where he explores his own inner creative and ontological life. In one of these occasions Paterson encounters a Japanese poet who offers him his latest book and they talk about the intuitively sudden ‘a ha’ gestalt moment of writing poetry. These, to my mind, are set virtuosic pieces of filmmaking, performance and place. They subtly and effectively remind us how cinema, in the hands of someone like Jarmusch, can speak to us of the lyrical wonder of being alive.
Notes : 
(1). Kent Jones, “The Marginalisation of Cinema ,” Film Comment, Nov.-Dec. 2016, Vol, 52, Number 6, 2016, pp.54-59.
(2). Blanchot is quoted in “Traces of Cinema”, Jean-Luc Godard Phrases Six Films, New York, Contra Mundum Press, 2016. Trans., and with an introduction by Stuart Kendall.
(3). Ruiz is cited by Ethan Spigland , “ A Conversation with Raul Ruiz, “ Life is A Dream The Films of Raul Ruiz ( Part 1) Dec. 2-22 Film Society Lincoln Centre

Editor's Note: This essay was first published on John's Facebook page. I'm grateful to him for permission to republish it.

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