13/03/2017 § Leave a comment
“A bus driver in Paterson. This is very poetic.” – says a Japanese poet-tourist on a serendipitous encounter with the film’s namesake, Paterson (Adam Driver). It is a line that suitably sums up what Jim Jarmusch’s latest film attempts to map as Paterson drives through and around the city he was born in. The city is a poem, and whoever knows its streets by heart is able to see and hear poetry at every turn.
The film compresses time and space in its weeklong narrative that establishes the routine that Paterson lives by. Like clockwork: he wakes up next to his sleeping wife, Laura, eats a cup of cereal for breakfast, walks along the same route to work, takes his place at the driver’s seat, chats a bit with a colleague before setting off for the day. People get on and off the bus. He goes home to have dinner with Laura. Afterwards, he walks the English bulldog, Marvin, to the pub, leaves the dog at the usual spot and caps off the night with a beer. This routine is not portrayed as dreary at all; in fact, this is the life that inspires Paterson’s poetry. Paterson revels in quotidian pleasures, but not in an overtly romanticized manner.
Paterson reinforces the romantic myth of the solitary writer at the same time that it demystifies it. “A bus driver in Paterson. This is very poetic.” manages to do just that. It appeals to the false assumption that the working class wo/man would not have enough depth to appreciate poetry, the snobbiest of all forms of literature – which reminds me of a news article I came across about an Argentinian janitor, Enrique Ferrari, who writes novels. Ferrari acutely remarks:
‘”I understand that people find it surprising, but I am not a strange creature. There are lots of we laborers who write, paint or play music.”… “It is a peculiarity of capitalists and the bourgeoisie to think that we workers have no culture,” adds the novelist, whose many tattoos include one of Karl Marx on his left arm.’
Unlike Ferrari, the fictional Paterson does not seem to have any Marxist streaks, but he does takes his work seriously, just as he takes his writing seriously. It is to the film’s credit that Paterson is not portrayed as a romantic genius. He labours over his writing every single day, although not in a tortured manner. By incorporating the act of writing in Paterson’s routine, the film succeeds in allowing the creative act to unfold between the time-spaces of labour and leisure. Paterson approaches writing and driving similarly, which works to reconcile the illusory division between labour and culture. Labour produces culture, in the same way that culture produces labour.
This attempt to demystify poetry while also reinforcing its productive value as a kind of human activity runs throughout the films. Almost predictably, Paterson’s favourite author is Williams Carlos Williams – but the couple laugh together when Laura mistakenly says Carlos Williams Carlos. The poet is respected but is not revered. In a crucial, emotionally-charged scene, Paterson states matter-of-factly: “It’s okay. It’s just words.”
Paterson is contrived, yes, but it is knowingly contrived, and it’s curbed at all the right corners. A scene to watch out for is an exchange with a young girl who reads out her poetry to Paterson. “Water Falls. Two words.” (This might be my favourite scene because it’s so earnest. Fun fact: Jarmusch wrote the poem). And then there’s Marvin, the dog, as the film’s adorable villain. There are a few potentially cringe-worthy moments, I suppose, like the time an actor declares dramatically: “Without love…what reason is there for anything?” It’s also a bit hipster that Paterson doesn’t think he needs a smart phone. Most of his encounters are too serendipitous. And of course, some of Paterson’s poetry might not be to everyone’s liking, with some lines bordering on trite. But all this is tempered by the film’s overall refusal of grandeur.
Some thoughts about Laura: It took me a few minutes into the film to appreciate the film’s approach to its female character. I was worried that for all its (imagined) refusal of romanticism, the film might actually fall into the cliché of the mysterious feminine. But Laura is actually her own character whose seemingly eccentric ideas are hers to pursue, and she does so with her own bursts of creative energy. She is in some occasions Paterson’s muse, but most of the time she goes about her own joyful business throughout the day, converting the domestic space into her own space of creativity.
I am struggling to find a sinister ulterior motive behind this film, other than to pay homage to a seemingly deadbeat city that actually offers so much creative energy. Hence the references to figures that the city of Paterson can lay claim to : The Hurricane, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Iggy Pop…and yes, maybe, Paterson.
Paterson is not the most accomplished film of the year, and it doesn’t pretend to be by any measure. But it’s worth watching if you need to remind yourself that there is value in the mundane, and that sometimes what feels like a huge loss can only be countered by returning to the performance of the daily grind. Paterson’s poetry lies in the simple affirmation that life, indeed, goes on.
I end with a line that will only make sense once you get around to watching Paterson: Would you rather be a fish?
17/11/2016 § Leave a comment
I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) that’s more unsettling than the average neo-noir. In the film, Amy Adams plays a wealthy and successful NY-based art dealer who seems to be having some sort of identity crisis prompted by marriage trouble. She receives a manuscript from Edward, her ex-husband/first love played by Jake Gylenhaal, which triggers Susan’s recollections of her old life. Two stories unfold and merge as Susan begins reading the manuscript that Edward has dedicated to her. The manuscript tells the story of a brutal attack on a man, his wife, and teenage daughter on a random road trip somewhere in the middle of Texas.
Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be something along the lines of a suspense thriller, fronted by an upgraded femme-fatale embodied by the character of Amy Adams. I haven’t read the book source for Nocturnal Animals so I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the film in terms of adaptation (although I hear the source is equally gripping). But having seen and liked A Single Man (2010), Ford’s first film, I did expect to see a similar sleekness to the look and treatment of Nocturnal Animals. I don’t take issue with the glossy aesthetics, which I think adds to the characterization of Susan as cold, fake, insincere, and materialistic. I also found the structure of the storytelling quite effective, the story-within-a-story strategy that sets a stark contrast between the artificiality of Susan’s world and the grim ‘realism’ (for lack of a better word) of the book world. But there’s something about the overall narrative that doesn’t feel quite right, which has to do with how the characters unfold through the dialogue created by the double narrative.
Like many contemporary viewers, I have developed a relatively strong stomach for violence depicted onscreen, no thanks to the real violence of the times we live in. Existing literature on film and visual culture have already pointed to the sense of obscene pleasure that can be derived from the very act of looking, foremost being Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze projected on the “phantasy” of the female figure. There are more ways to theorise how and why we enjoy watching violence, but I am inclined to agree with the suggestion that it is because we are able to experience some degree of violence (and even partake in it) from a position of safety. This could be in the actual cinema space intended for collective viewing, or in the comfort of the living room more conducive to individual viewing.
Nocturnal Animals invites the same kind of pleasure in voyeurism in a rather literal manner, as we are made to focus our attention on Susan who becomes more and more disturbed, but also strangely excited, as she continues to read her ex-lover’s book interspersed with memories of young love (the third story, actually). The discomfort of viewing is heightened as the road assault takes place, a chase scene that’s full of suspense because we have absolutely no idea who the villains are, the darkness of the night dramatizing that there is literally no escape. A police car is even shown to tragically speed past just to drive the point that there is absolutely no escape. What makes the assault more horrendous is that it happened out of nowhere, for no logical reason. (The matter-of-fact, middle-of-nowhere scenes reminded me a bit of the terror conveyed in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). The film does not, at any point, provide any explanation as to why this group of men decided to attack the family – a sentiment articulated with so much rage by the character played by Gylenhaal who tries in vain to extract an explanation from the killer. What’s suggested is simple: there is evil out there, and it can come for anyone, anytime. Even, and especially, the nice ones. The only possible explanation behind the senseless attack can be derived from reading the manuscript alongside the ‘real’ story of the film – the attack is comparable to Susan’s “brutal” manner of ending her marriage with Edward.
The violence in Nocturnal Animals cuts across all stories. What’s more, it breaks through the film screen. At par with the scenes of assault, there is a scene not in the ‘book’ story that I found extremely disturbing. Susan is looking at a video of a colleague’s baby on a phone app, when she is startled by a flash of the killer’s face on the phone screen. She drops the phone in terror. This scene is key, perhaps, to understanding what I have personally found to be the unfamiliar yet timely re/presentation of violence in Nocturnal Animals . There is something unnerving about the way the killer leers in the film as though breaking the fourth wall. The male gaze, embodied and acted upon by the killer in the diegesis, is projected not just from the position of viewers (the audience enjoying Susan’s suffering); it is simultaneously projected through and by the screen itself.
One reviewer has described Nocturnal Animals as a film that “knowingly fed the increasingly loud conversation about abusive patriarchy.” This description is linked to the notion of “toxic masculinity” – “the social normalization of misogyny and sexual aggression that can poison masculine identity, not an intrinsic male evil.” I wouldn’t go as far as accusing the film as simply pandering to this conversation that is now in fashion (Anne Hathaway used the term in an interview and has since caught on), as the film does seem to have taken pains in its portrayal of Susan’s character. I do think, however, that the film is more successful in cultivating Edward’s rage than Susan’s crisis. One thing that perplexed me was what I thought to be the excessive rage in the story of the ‘fictional’ manuscript when read alongside the rage Edward might have felt upon the end of his marriage to Susan in the ‘real’ story. The manuscript can thus be read as Edward’s symbolic acid attack on his ex-wife who accused him of being “weak.” It is the same accusation that the killer hurls at the husband in the book which supposedly enabled the assault. It is this male rage against the accusation of weakness that Susan detected so strongly in the scenes of violence in the book, which even prompted her to call her daughter in the ‘real’ story to check on her safety.
As the film explores and enters the conversation of ‘male rage,’ I wonder if in doing so, it also succeeds in laying full blame on Susan in her depiction as someone who deserves it – which is why her humiliation in the final scene rather satisfying.The closing scene is perfectly voyeuristic in the manner of execution: Susan is in the centre of the frame in a darkly lit restaurant scene as constantly checks for Edward to walk through the doors, her gaze becoming more and more defeated in the last minute. She’s a cold-hearted, callous, ambitious woman, ‘just like her mother’ (an accusation that will make sense when you watch it) who preys on the weak man embodied by Edward. And with all the talk of ‘nasty women’ and ‘ pussy grabbing’ that has disturbingly penetrated recent feminist conversations, I wonder if in closing this way, the film is actually more dangerous than helpful in the ongoing discourse around masculinity (which, of course, is a feminist backlash).
In short, I’m wondering if the film actually justifies male rage rather than questions it – and I’m wondering if this is why I felt slightly unsafe walking out of the cinema after watching this film.
11/10/2016 § Leave a comment
Channeling Joan Didion:
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weak- nesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.
It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
Full essay here.
30/08/2016 § Leave a comment
With some shame I thought to myself: This house looks old and tired. This, the two-story house that my mother grew up in, the house that I grew up in. I’ve always liked the charm of its oldness. But it is only now that I thought the house was old and tired. Another coat of paint might not be enough to hide its weariness.
Cash, the 12-year-old labrador, was at his usual garage spot, just outside the door of the house. He looks old and tired as well. Some time after I left home for the second time, I found out that Cash was diagnosed with a bad case of arthritis and he had to get proper treatment. He’s fine now, but he did not make a fuss as he would often do when I came in through the gate on this latest visit. He took one look as he was sprawled lazily on the ground. Normally he would get up to walk towards me for a pat on the head. He and I did not become fast friends when my brothers brought him home. It was only when he got older – middle-aged in dog years – when he and I somehow reached the same temperament. We finally got along. I could finally stand to pet him a little bit because he was old enough not to jump around and smother me every time I was there.
Stepping inside is like entering a space contained by time. There are signs of ageing everywhere. The leather on the sofa’s surface has started to tatter. The old television with a DVD player that has not been used in ages. My grandfather’s shelf of old photographs that has been there since I can remember. The GE electric fans that are probably as old as me. All the little random porcelain figurines and souvenir items lined on shelves are still there. The piano that probably needs re-tuning. My father’s old stereo and the cassette tapes next to it. My mother’s study is brimming with odd things. She claims, defiantly (when I half-joked she might have a hoarding problem) that there’s order in the chaos.
I turn towards the stairs where a portrait of Jesus Christ and a big rosary remains hung on the wall. I don’t find this creepy at all – there are relics of Catholicism at random corners of the house. I remember a time when there were more, actually, like a big statue of the Virgin Mary that my mother’s brother took for his own when my grandmother died. On the second floor landing, the huge painting of the Virgin Mary with her gleaming heart is still there.
I am in my room, its walls still a garish dark shade of pink. I don’t know what possessed me to have the walls painted like that. For a time, my younger brother, L, took over my room, but L soon occupied his older brother’s room when that brother got married. My room is, unsurprisingly, smaller than I remember. It seems much more frozen in time than any other room in the house, its corners dusty and untouched. Old books and magazines remain where I left them. The yellow spines of the Nancy Drew books my mother handed down to me are holding the fort, next to the Sweet Valleys. Nobody else in the house read those things except me growing up; my brothers read The Hardy Boys. The shelf and boxes of books and readings I brought over from college could not fit in my room, they’re stocked on the second floor landing needing sorting.
I am here for a visit, and also to sort through what I’ve left. My clothes are in plastic bags in the closet, waiting to be kept or discarded. I need to pick out what I want shipped from my books. I look around and I think of all the pieces of evidence from my childhood, some I am not proud of. There’s still that embarrassing photo of myself next to my bed – it is of me grimacing on the day of my elementary graduation. The ribbon on my collar was undone. What a terrible photo, I thought. I don’t know why I kept it there all those years. Somewhere in my bedside drawer I am pretty sure I wrote a note in anger saying unkind things about my father. There is a box of old letters I should probably discard as well. I don’t know what else I’ve left that I don’t want anybody else to discover once the room is cleaned out properly. Probably some old love poems written by a foolish girl who just wanted time to move faster so she could finally get away from this house, and all the limits its walls imposed.
My bed has been made for my visit. I am tired from my long flight. I am not unhappy to be here, to be honest, but as I look around with familiarity, I know that I am also trying to store everything I can in my memory. It dawned on me that I have really moved out, this time.
There’s comfort in the familiarity of my old bed. But it is only the first night, and I am already missing home.
15/07/2016 § Leave a comment
I tend towards coming of age stories in literature and film, so a film called The Diary of a Teenage Girl was something right up my street. It ticked two things on my interests, actually: 1) coming of age narrative from a female perspective; 2) set in San Francisco, hippie period. It’s like this perverted version of something like The Wonder Years, with a 16-year-old girl who just wants to be loved.
I liked it, yes, but I also feel like it was too self-aware of the genre it was trying to subvert. Does that make sense? I like that it was a good attempt to do something with what by now has become a rather generic quirky manic pixie dream girl sort of character. The first thing that sets it apart is the period of choice, it goes without saying. The 70s free love period also gave it freedom to make sexual awakening the centre of the narrative, or at least the starting point of the narrative. Hmm. No, wait. It was the centre of the narrative, even though it tries to NOT make sex the centre of Little Minnie’s growing up. Did anyone else feel that it was quite predictable with the amping up of sexual escapades? Was it not enough that Minnie was having an affair with her possibly bi-polar mother’s boyfriend? SPOILERS AHEAD IN THE SERIES OF RHETORICAL QUESTIONS. SO STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY. On top of having that controversial affair as the main conflict, did Minnie have to engage in other sexual adventures? Was it necessary that she had to give a blowjob with her blond bombshell of a female best friend in a public toilet with strangers? Was it necessary that she had to fuck the most popular boy in school who said she had too many feelings about sex? Did Minnie and said female best friend actually had to have a threesome with the mother’s boyfriend? Did she had to have an affair with a a drug-dealing lesbian lover in order for her to finally reach rock bottom, prompting her realisation that she only needs herself to be happy? I mean, don’t we have Lena Dunham for that? Granted, Dunham’s Girls is about self-absorbed millenials, so let me take that last question back. My admittedly prudish point is this: was all the sexual escapades leading to about a week of chemsex with (of course!) a drug-addict lesbian lover who wanted to pimp her out for drugs…was all that necessary for Minnie to snap out of her self-objectification? Really? Really???
The more I write these questions, the more I’m wondering if it’s really just the historical context that sets this film apart from, say, something like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (well, ok that’s a completely unfair analogy, but you know what I mean, right?). And was this context enough to say that this film had been able to set itself apart, slightly, in a self-aware manner, from the genre it seems to have been consciously playing into? And what’s with the somewhat stupid sister? And the shrink father figure? AND OF COURSE, BUT OF COURSE, Minnie HAD TO BE a comic book illustrator wannabe, because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense for the film to make use of all those quirky animation sequences…which I quite liked actually. Especially that illustration of a giant Minnie stomping around the city.
I also felt this film did not at all do justice to the mother’s character. I don’t think there was enough depth to her. Wiig was fantastic, though, despite not having enough air time. What did she mean when she said she can’t talk about the affair, ever? Why the hell not? Why not give the mother’s character a bit of credit at the end, by at least allowing her to really lash out at the man who abused her daughter? And what’s with the film skirting that fact that the 16-year-old Minnie was abused by the 35-year-old Monroe?
So I liked it, yes, I found some pleasure in watching this film within its duration…but it did not leave me satisfied, because in as much as I liked how Minnie seemed empowered in the end…it’s as if there were no real consequences, no real engagement with this notion of self-objectification. I don’t know who I wanted to get punished, or whatever, I don’t know what sort of justice I wanted in the end. But maybe that’s also the film’s strength – that it leaves us with some sort of empty tabula rasa, as if Monroe never happened. As if Monroe never got in between mother and daughter. It’s very An Education, in that sense, I suppose…radical, but not too radical?
And that’s just how I’m going to end this rambling review.