Paterson

Paterson

I haven't been writing long reviews much lately. There are a myriad reasons, none important, but with this movie I feel compelled to.

I'm sure it's unintentional -- the product of oblivious privilege rather than malice -- but this movie doesn't like women very much. Or at least does not respect their contributions to life very much. I'll use a couple of small examples before diving into the largest and most odious one.

In an early scene Adam Driver (as the titular Paterson) is driving his bus around eavesdropping on the conversations of his passengers. Two men tell each other stories about recent encounters with women. The content and tone has a pretty standard, objectifying, light vulgarity. The movie is having a laugh at them, at least a little bit. They both exchange stories, not of having sex with other women, but of meeting women and the opportunity for sex was obviously there, but they were tired from work or had other things to do, so they didn't follow through. At one point a female passenger walks past them to get off the bus, overhears a snippet of their conversation, and rolls her eyes as she exits. Ostensibly, our point of view is with her. These men are pretty ridiculous. It's worth rolling our eyes. But the camera doesn't follow her off the bus. It stays with the men, continuing to listen to their conversation. The interiority of ridiculous men is more important to this film than that of not-ridiculous women.

This happens again later in the film, when Driver is having a beer at the bar he goes to every night. A woman sits down next to him. She begins to talk about her relationship woes. She started dating a man, he got too intense, now he won't leave her alone. It seems as though we're going to get a glimpse into the female side of things. But no. No sooner does she finish her complaint than the boyfriend shows up and she slinks out of the bar to avoid him. Then we get a much longer sequence in which the boyfriend (William Jackson Harper aka Chidi on The Good Place) talks about the intensity and sadness of his love for this woman who does not love him back. Similar to the men on the bus, the movie is lampooning his attitude a little bit. He is being ridiculous. But again his ridiculousness is more important than his girlfriend's not-ridiculousness.

Men, in this film, are causers of action. Women react.

This notion plays out in a more subtle and winding way in the relationship between Adam Driver and his live-in girlfriend (maybe they're married, I can't remember), played by Golshifteh Farahani. They are both creative types. He writes poetry. She does... a lot of things. She paints, she bakes, she at certain points dreams of becoming a country singer.

But there are fairly key differences in the depictions of their creativity that privilege him over her.

Firstly, he works. She does not. He finds and makes time for his very specific creative endeavor (poetry) during and in-between the hours of labor. He does this because he loves poetry -- loves to read it, loves to write it. It gives him an internal pleasure that has nothing to do with exterior validation. She, on the other hand, has a lot of interests and can never seem to decide exactly which one she wants to pursue. Maybe all of them at once. But her love for each of them is frivolous, both via their multitude and via her attitude towards them. She talks excitedly about cupcakes, how much people like her cupcakes, how she should open a cupcake shop, and they will become millionaires selling cupcakes. She does the same with country music. She convinces Driver to buy her a guitar she saw advertised on television, so that she can learn to play guitar and become a famous country singer. Even her painting -- an obsession with monochromatic geometric patterns -- is ostentatious and gratuitous. She paints everything in their house, so that anyone who walks into it cannot help but notice the motif. Her clothing also fits this motif. She's a walking advertisement for herself.

Driver, by contrast, keeps his poems in a modest notebook that only he reads. Most of the time we see him he wears his work uniform. Unassuming, unconcerned with overt displays of self-expression. Her passion is for attention, validation. His passion is for poetry. He loves it even after it's taken away from him, he loves it even if no one besides himself ever sees it, he loves it even if it's ephemeral (Farahani repeatedly asks him to take his notebook down to the store and photocopy it, so that his poems won't risk being lost to time and he always evades the subject). Jarmusch treats his art like real art. We see the inspiration for it -- his work, his relationship, his friends, his daily routines -- and we see the end result of it. Poems, printed on screen in non-diegetic text, read aloud by Driver.

The end result of her dream to be a country star is a ramshackle, awkwardly played version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Her cupcakes do a little better, but again her celebration of them is not in terms of their contribution but their monetary earning. She doesn't tell a story about the look she saw on someone's face as they ate a cupcake. She can't wait to tell him how much money she made by selling them. Then insists that they go out to eat to celebrate her winnings. Again, a frivolous gesture relative to the daily wage he makes that does the work of supporting and providing for their general life. The film never makes any attempt to include her interiority, her motivation. Why does she like country? The only explanation I can find is "because it's unexpected that a woman of middle-eastern descent would." Why does she like baking? The explanation here is an inherent fondness for domesticity (she also makes his sandwich for work every day).

I think if asked about this disparity between Paterson and Laura Jarmusch would claim that he does not see or intend any valuation of one over the other. They are simply two creative people who love each other and have differing approaches to being creative. But the movie's content does not bare that out. The film is not called Paterson And Laura. It does not give equal representational weight to their two perspectives. And his attitude towards her work is not the same as hers towards him. She is effusive in her affection towards his poems. But when she plays the song for him, or asks him for the guitar, or talks about the cupcakes. His response is slow, and measured. It's affectionate, but out of his character's own generosity not because the audience is supposed to see the value of the work itself. Her painting is actually quite charming (better than his poems, certainly), but it's also overwhelming. It's everywhere. Inescapable. Thus his admiration isn't based in respect (the way it is when he runs into a young girl late in the film, who is also a poet, and is so moved by her writing that he repeats a few lines to Laura later that day), but in a patronizing condescension.

His poems about her reflect the same attitude. He can write a long and specific poem about Ohio Blue State matches. About how they look. About how they feel to touch. About the design of their packaging. But when he writes about her, it's only about the bland physicality of her beauty or the possessive anguish he would feel if they broke up. Hair splayed across a pillow while she sleeps. Ripping his heart out and never putting it back. She's not a real person to him. Nor to us, the audience. At least, not without a lot of emotional generosity on our part to forge a connection that Jarmusch hasn't provided.

The only joy I got from this movie came from imagining that it was a different movie. Driver's quiet, reluctant performance invited me to imagine that his attitude -- towards Laura, towards his dog that drags him everywhere and won't behave, towards his passengers and the patrons of the bar -- wasn't based in bemused generosity, but in silent resentment. I started hoping the movie would end with him exploding in rage at this series of micro-aggressions he could no longer stand. I knew it wouldn't. But it would be a more accurate resolution to all these notions lying underneath the film, that Jarmusch doesn't seem to realize are even there.

I've focused on one aspect of the film for this review, but this isn't the only reason I disliked it. There are many others. Romanticized working-class (there's an implication that money is tight for them, but no implication this causes any stress or strife). A twin motif that doesn't go anywhere or say anything. The stilted dialogue that is supposed to offer a humanistic attitude towards people of all classes and races, but alienated me from seeing any of them as plausible humans.

This probably isn't really a half-star movie. But it gave me half-star feelings. While I was watching it and for the last couple of days thinking about it. And sometimes that's worse than a movie that is awful on its own merits.

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